The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

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"The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner"
Collection first edition
AuthorAlan Sillitoe
CountryUnited Kingdom
Genre(s)Social realism
Published inThe Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (collection)
PublisherW. H. Allen Ltd
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Publication date1959

"The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" is a short story by Alan Sillitoe, published in 1959 as part of a short story collection of the same name. The work focuses on Smith, a poor Nottingham teenager from a dismal home in a working class area, who has bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime. The boy turns to long-distance running as a method of both emotional and physical escape from his situation. The story was adapted for a 1962 film of the same title.


When he is caught by the police for robbing a bakery, Smith is sentenced to be confined in Ruxton Towers in Essex, a borstal (young offenders institution) for delinquent youths. Taken there in handcuffs and detained in bleak and highly restrictive circumstances, he seeks solace in long-distance running, attracting the notice of the school's authorities for his physical prowess. Smith is offered a light workload for his last six months at Ruxton Towers if he wins in an important cross-country competition against a prestigious public school. For Ruxton Towers to win the cross-country race would be a major public relations boost for the borstal administrators.

However, when the day of the race arrives Smith throws victory away: after speeding ahead of the other runners he deliberately stops a few metres short of the finishing line, though well ahead and easily able to win. He lets the other runners pass him and cross the finishing line, thereby losing the race in a defiant gesture aimed against his Ruxton Towers administrators. In deliberately losing the race, Smith demonstrates his free spirit and independence. The response of the borstal authorities to Smith's action is heavy-handed: Smith resigns himself to the drudgery of manual labour he is returned to. However, looking back on his actions, he has no regrets.

Literary analysis[edit]

The "runner" as a metaphor[edit]

Long-distance running gives the character an ability to freely escape from society without the pressures of a team, which may be found in other athletic stories.[1] Additionally, Sillitoe gave running a political perspective that changed the vision of a literary runner. Sillitoe's character Smith uses running as a way to mentally reflect, allowing Smith to give clarity to his political insights and share them with the reader.[2] Through running, Smith begins to understand and become aware of the class divisions in Britain.[1][2]

During the time period that Sillitoe wrote "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" the idea of the runner was changing dramatically. Helen Small states, “…the weight of literary attention seems to be focused on a ‘pre-professional era’—either written at that time or looking back at it for inspiration”.[2]

The 'angry young men' and Sillitoe[edit]

Author Alan Sillitoe is considered to be a member of the 'angry young men' movement by critics and colleagues (though Sillitoe himself disliked this label). This term was associated with writers who created main characters that were "belligerent and opinionated", such as Smith. "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" suggests a revolution to combat class issues of the time. Smith says “in the end the governor is going to be doomed while blokes like me will take the pickings of his roasted bones and dance like maniacs around his Borstal’s ruins”.[3]

It is suggested that Sillitoe was never simply an “angry young man” but someone who would continue to be bitter despite youth, due to his deep hatred for the British class system. While it was suggested at the time that Sillitoe created a character to express extreme views, as time passed it has become clear that Sillitoe and Smith’s views were not very different.[3][4]

References in culture[edit]


  • The British heavy metal group Iron Maiden adapted the short story into the song of the same name on their Somewhere in Time album.
  • British Oi! and punk band the Angelic Upstarts included a song of the same name on their Reason Why? album.
  • Scottish indie group Belle and Sebastian adapted the title for the song "Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner," a B-side on their 2001 single "Jonathan David" which also appears on the critically acclaimed compilation Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.
  • American band Ruxton Towers takes its name from the reformatory school in the film.
  • Grindcore band Agoraphobic Nosebleed parodied the title with "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Drug Runner" from their album Agorapocalypse.
  • Leeds anarchist pop band Chumbawamba samples audio from the film heavily in the song Alright Now on the unreleased album Jesus H. Christ.
  • The American post-hardcore band Fugazi adapted the title for the song "Long Distance Runner" from their album "Red Medicine."
  • The Psychobilly band the Meteors reference the title in the name of the song "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Killer" on their "These Evil Things" album.
  • Canadian rapper Buck 65 references the title in the song "Blood of a Young Wolf" with the lyrics "Lonely like the tight rope walker, hitchhiker, long distance runner."
  • Charlottesville, Virginia (US) band September '67 performed "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" for Lilith Fair 1997
  • Hardcore punk band This Routine is Hell entitled a song on their 2012 EP "Repent. Repeat." "The Loneliness Of the Long Distance Runner".
  • British rock band Foals included the title of the book in their song The Runner, a lead single from their 2019 album "Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost - Part 2".


  • Series 2 of the BBC sitcom Dad's Army included an episode titled 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker', the title being a play on words between the book and the Dad's Army character Private Walker.


On 9 January 2009, impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich referred to the story: "Let me simply say, I feel like the old Alan Sillitoe short story 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner'... and that's what this is, by the way, a long-distance run."[5]


Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc., mentions in his book iWoz about how much he thinks like Smith and was influenced by Sillitoe's story.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b Hutchings, William. “The Work of Play: Anger and the Expropriated Athletes of Alan Sillitoe and David Storey.” Modern Fiction Studies 33.1(1987): 35–47. EbscoHOST.
  2. ^ a b c Small, Helen. "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner in Browning, Sillitoe and Murakami." Essays in Criticism 60.2 (2010): 129–147. EbscoHOST.
  3. ^ a b Penner, AR (1969). "Human Dignity and Social Anarchy: Sillitoe's 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner'". Contemporary Literature. 10.2: 253–265 – via EbscoHOST.
  4. ^ Hughson, John (2005). "The 'Loneliness' of the Angry Young Sportsman". Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. 35.2: 41–48 – via EbscoHOST.
  5. ^ Montopoli, Brian (9 January 2009). "The Loneliness Of The Impeached Governor". CBS News.