The Runner is an introspective book, focusing on one person's journey toward maturity as he struggles with the conflicting ideas and ideals that make up his world. The novel is also a study in shared humanity: Through the character of Samuel "Bullet" Tillerman, Voigt explores the question of whether a person can remain an entity unto himself or, if by virtue of being born, must become a part of humanity. Bullet is a senior in high school who is determined to be in complete control of his own life. He will not allow himself to become "boxed in" by the stern demands of his dictatorial father or the unvoiced needs of his repressed mother.
Bullet disdains involvement in the social problems of his school, resists the entanglements that his friends would impose upon him, and mocks the efforts of his coach to make him a team player. Bullet's difference from his peers does not bother him because he is well aware that freedom is costly.
The only passion that Bullet allows himself is running. In keeping with his individuality, however, Bullet has chosen cross-country running as his sport because he cannot bear to run on a track, between the lines. He imposes running habits on himself that mirror the unrelenting discipline that directs the rest of his life. He runs to get better and to improve, and during races, he competes against only himself. The conflict for Bullet is that although he is stubbornly defiant (alternately shouting "No one can make me run" and "No one can keep me from running"), he finds himself unable to maintain his aloofness.
Voigt examines the pain of growing up as Bullet struggles to remain independent even as he is forced to acknowledge, by his caring for others around him, that he can never be totally free. The reader watches as he flails within the box he has created, struggling to remain safe from new ideas and feelings, even as his box begins to splinter. Not all will agree with Bullet's ultimate decision to leave home, but one is heartened that the decision is reached through new self-awareness and greater acceptance of himself. Voigt effectively banishes the specter of the misanthrope—the antisocial person—and gives the reader renewed hope through this unlikely hero.