The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

by Alan Sillitoe
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778

In a reform school for delinquent youths, Smith, the streetwise son of working-class parents from Nottingham, is chosen to train and compete for a coveted long-distance running award. He is selected, he states, because of his build (he is long and skinny) and because his constant running from the police...

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In a reform school for delinquent youths, Smith, the streetwise son of working-class parents from Nottingham, is chosen to train and compete for a coveted long-distance running award. He is selected, he states, because of his build (he is long and skinny) and because his constant running from the police has made him an appropriate candidate.

Arising before dawn for a five-mile practice run through the countryside, Smith experiences a freedom of thought that allows him to confirm his philosophy of life and his perceptions of society.

Through self-revelation, Smith learns about himself: He evaluates his life on the street and in Borstal, weighs his options, and decides on the meaning of an “honest life.” Running affords him this opportunity: “It makes me think so good that I learn even better than when I’m on my bed at night.” His conclusions are strong: He is, and will always be, an “Out-law,” pursued by society’s “In-laws,” who are forever looking to inform the authorities about his unlawful actions.

Smith draws definitive lines in this societal war. He is dedicated to the life of an “Out-law”; for Smith, life according to the laws and values of society is not a worthwhile existence. Along with this confirmation is Smith’s decision that, despite his abilities, he will lose the race. As winner of the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long-Distance Cross Country Running (All England), he would merely be the vehicle through which the Borstal governor would achieve glory and recognition.

Smith considers the attention to his well-being an act of hypocrisy by the governor, whose only intent is to mark the progress of the one he has chosen to win the much-desired award. In fact, Smith feels that he is spoken to as though he were the governor’s prize racehorse, which only strengthens his resolve: “I’ll lose that race, because I’m not a race horse at all. . . . I’m a human being and I’ve got . . . bloody life inside me.”

It is this sense of aliveness that Smith appreciates and vows to uphold, rather than become what he considers “dead from the toe nails up,” like any “In-law.” Moreover, his idea of a valuable, honest life simply does not conform to that of society. Honesty is not, Smith relates, “a cosy six pounds a week job.” Rather, it is being true to oneself and one’s principles. It is dishonest, Smith has learned, to live life comfortably, without concern. It is dishonest to win a race that symbolizes the type of honesty Smith rejects.

As he ends his morning course, Smith recounts the events that led him to Borstal. Out on a winter night with a friend, he espies a bakery with its window opened barely enough to allow them entry. They steal a money box, the contents of which they decide to hide outside Smith’s house in a drainage pipe and spend leisurely. Within a few days, a police officer arrives to inquire about the stolen money but is deterred by lack of proof of Smith’s guilt. After many days of accusation, Smith is certain that the police officer is about to abandon his investigation. One rainy day, however, during yet another interrogation, money starts to fall out of the drainpipe. Smith is arrested and sent to Borstal in Essex.

As the day of the race arrives, Smith remains committed to his plan to sabotage the win, despite the governor’s hint that on his release from Borstal Smith might receive assistance in making his living as a runner. The race begins, and Smith easily takes the lead. As his thoughts overtake him, he is motivated by the memory of his father’s death (from a painful cancer, at home, without medical intervention) to stand firm in his principles. Despite an annoyance in his left arm that causes some discomfort, Smith nears the finish line favored to win.

At this point, he slows his pace down almost to a halt, enabling the runner behind him to overtake his lead. As the crowd cries for him to run the last hundred yards to win, Smith completes the course in second place.

In the aftermath of the race, his privileges removed, Smith is relegated to perform chores of the most menial nature, a response that he predicted would follow his act of defiance. In this manner, Smith endures his final six months in Borstal, all the while planning his next lawless act. The story ends on a note of further resistance: Smith entrusts the account of his Borstal experience to a neighborhood friend, who will seek its publication on Smith’s next arrest.

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