The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

"The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner"
Collection first edition
Author Alan Sillitoe
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Social realism
Published in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (collection)
Publisher W. H. Allen Ltd
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Publication date 1959

"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 an emotional and a physical escape from his situation. The story was adapted for a 1962 film of the same title, with Sillitoe writing the screenplay and Tony Richardson directing. The part of Smith (now called Colin) was played by Tom Courtenay.


When he is caught by the police for robbing a bakery, Smith is sentenced to be confined in Ruxton Towers in Essex, a borstal (prison school) 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. Long-distance running offers Smith a welcome distraction from the brutal drudgery of the borstal regime and he 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 establishment, and Smith has an obvious incentive to co-operate.

However, when the day of the race arrives Smith throws victory away: after speeding ahead of the other runners he deliberately stops running a few metres short of the finishing line, even though he is well ahead and could easily win. Seconds tick by as Smith stands there, in full view of the amazed race spectators who shout at him to finish the race. However, he deliberately 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, and the repressive forces that they represent. 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. With the prospect of a light workload gone, Smith resigns himself to the drudgery of the soul-destroying manual labour he is forced to do. However, looking back on his actions he has no regrets. This helps show independence in his life as he breaks away from the thoughts of the borstal.

Historical context[edit]

The welfare state[edit]

The creation of the welfare state after the Second World War gave the working class full employment and improved living standards.[1] The Labour Party was in power during Sillitoe's work on "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner".[2] The Second World War had destroyed many of the most populated and industrialised centres of Britain and in the fifteen years following the war 300,000 homes were built a year by the government.[3] In the UK home ownership became a right in the 1950s rather than a luxury.[4] This was due to the housing projects. The state sought to maintain gender roles and they did so by mass marketing material commodities and making them available to the working class population.[4] The post-war period allowed for the working class to work hard while leading a life of consumption that was unknown in pre-war Britain.[4] This widespread availability of consumption and material wealth had the Labour party concerned that it would lose votes in future elections.[4] Due to this factor the Labour party continued to want to maintain a division of labour in Britain.[4]

The working class found themselves in higher living standards in the 1950s but without any more power. Many of the working class jobs were automated and standardised.[5] Factory jobs give the working class no room for freedom and continued to keep the political power in the hands of the upper classes.[5] The welfare state continued to maintain social class order in Britain. Many of the families who moved into the new homes built by the state were forced to move there. These families began to have to pay higher taxes and use extra money for expensive transportation to their jobs.[4] The working class had no say in the government activity and actions. The writers in the 'angry young men' movement were angry because although living standards for the poor had increased drastically, the power was still in the hands of the elite.[4]

Criminal activity[edit]

Criminal activity was common in working class demographics. The working class poor used crime to gain power.[6] The police force were an enemy to the working class in Britain.[7] They used oppression against criminals to continue to hold power and enforce the divisions of class.[6] The police officers are used to enforce social norms that the working class continued to defy in Britain.[8] Social conditions produced by the welfare state made the criminal a victim of the division of labour in Britain.[6] Characters like Sillitoe's Smith were born into a working class culture that accepted and produced a criminal activity.[6] The welfare state brought down the poverty rate this led the working class to often commit crimes out of choice rather than necessity.[2] Characters like Smith chose to commit crimes to make a statement against the societal norms in Britain during the post-war period.

Class issues[edit]

Class issues in Britain were affected by many different factors from 1950 on. Britain was directly affected by the Second World War and in the 1950s, it faced reformation not only of its physical identity, its class identity. Houses were condemned and lacking in number.[4] To meet housing needs, the “two up, two down” home was used. These houses could be built in bulk, attached or separate. This style of house, according to Roderick Lawrence, influenced changes in the daily rituals of those who lived in them.[4] This type of housing focused on "independent spatial dimensions".[4] This directly impacted and strengthened the idea of the nuclear family, which was essential to the working class structure because of the gender roles this outlined (Kalliney 97).[4]

The welfare state was essential for creating a mass consumption economy in post-war Britain. Not only did the state provide homes for working-class families, but it also designed the way in which the homes should be utilised, what should furnish them and how they would be paid for.[4] Class was directly affected by ones ability to access resources from the welfare state.[4] Being a working class person did not mean being deprived, but meant working and becoming a consumer of goods and material excess.[4] This created a problem because those considered to be members of the working class were unaware of whether or not the state was attempting to assist them or trying to control them.[4]

Changes in the work place and at home challenged the roles of men and women and caused tension in terms of gender roles.[1] More complex and undefined gender roles became apparent during the 1950s in both the home and in the work place.[1] In the past, the dynamic of the working class was defined by the idea of the male breadwinner and the working class mother.[1] According to Kalliney, this led to the need for men to justify their masculinity, which can be seen in the character of Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe's first book Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.[4] Arthur's anger is what emphasises his masculinity and therefore his political standing. This also affects his ability to complete the physical work required of the working class.[4] In the same way, maternity defined the working class woman.[1] Beginning in the First World War, this idea was challenged when female labour took over, blurring the lines between work and masculinity.[1] A study of the 'angry young men' movement looks at the voice of masculinity as one of aggression and misogyny. Lynne Segal says this is a “reaction to the loss or dislocation of class identity and an attempt to replace that class identity with a more assertive, if acerbic masculinity”.[1]

In "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner", Smith's mother represents the disloyalty towards what the working class stood for.[1] She is described as being extremely materialistic; spending the pension money she receives from her husband's death on new clothing and house furnishings.[1]

The 'angry young men' and Sillitoe[edit]

Alan Sillitoe is considered to be a member of the 'angry young men' movement by critics and colleagues.[2] Others in the group included Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Keith Waterhouse and John Braine. This term was associated with writers who created main characters that were "belligerent and opinionated".[9] Sillitoe’s main character Smith in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" is an example of this character type. He has class loyalty, which is the product of both “the sense of belonging and suffocation”.[9] When there is mention of escape by Smith, it is not up the class ladder, but temporarily in the form of vacation.[9] Unlike many of the other well-known authors of the time, Sillitoe was born and brought up in the working class where writing acted as his personal escape from reality.[9] Also, like most of the other members of the movement, in his writing, Sillitoe reinforced traditional gender roles.[10]

In response to this categorisation, Sillitoe once regarded this connection by commenting on a pretend book called “Hurry on Jim by Kingsley Wain that started by someone with eighteen pints and fifteen whiskies in him falling downstairs on this way to the top”.[2] 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 class. The "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" was only the beginning of his “revolutionary philosophy” that became clear in his other works.[2] "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”.[2] 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 are not very different.[2]

It is suggested that due to the way in which Smith’s character in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and Seaton in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" express sheer anger at the post-war changes in culture in Britain, that Sillitoe be put at the “end of the continuum” that is the 'angry young men' movement.[9]

Literary themes[edit]

The "runner" as a metaphor[edit]

Literature about running has changed over the course of history. The short story ""The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"" by Alan Sillitoe gave this genre a political perspective that changed the vision of a literary "runner".[11] Sillitoe's character Smith uses running as a way to mentally reflect. Running gives him pleasure through reflection, which helps him take the athleticism out of the sport (Small 136). The action of running allows Smith to give clarity to his political insights.[11] The training of long-distance running gives Smith the ability to share his political insights with his readers. Sillitoe uses running as a metaphor for living and the tension that comes from living in the working class society of Britain. Running is used as a metaphor in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" for a way to run away from society but also as an activity that allows the narrator to reflect on the society he is living in.[12]

Sillitoe uses running in his story as a means of isolation. Running is a solitary action and therefore allows Smith to begin to understand and become aware of the class divisions in Britain.[11] Smith, the narrator of the story, is also a writer and he is an allegoric version of Sillitoe and the isolation that all authors suffer from.[11] Smith is a solitary runner who gets political clarity through running and isolation, just as an author writes alone and thinks alone. The long distance runner and the writer are both individualistic and isolated so that they are able to produce their commodities.[11] The metaphor used to compare both the author and the runner is similar to the author losing his purity when he publishes a work just as Smith loses his purity when he enters the race.[11]

During the time period that Sillitoe wrote "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" the idea of the runner was changing dramatically.[11] The purity of running was taken away when Smith entered the race because the race dehumanised him.[5] The race made Smith a commodity for nationalisation that he was uncomfortable with. When the sport of running became professional it lost its sense of purity and became a commodity.[11] Sillitoe rejects the commoditisation of running in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (Small 142). This is why Smith chooses to forfeit the race. 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”.[11] The professional runner becomes commercialised and loses the clarity of thought that comes with running for pure passion and pleasure. Sillitoe was an author who believed in the unadulterated sport of running.

Running is also used as a metaphor by Sillitoe to give Smith the ability to escape from the reality of his class level in society.[5] The use of this sport gives Smith the ability to escape from his life as a member of the working class poor. Sillitoe has used running to give his character a chance to reflect upon his social status and also to escape from the reality that the poor in Britain are faced with.[5] 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.[5]

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."
  • 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".


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."[13]


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 c d e f g h i Brooke, Stephen. "Gender and Working Class Identity in Britain during the 1950s." Journal of Social History 34.4 (2001): 773–795. EbscoHOST.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Penner, R & Sillitoe, Alan. "Human Dignity and Social Anarchy: Sillitoe's 'The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner'". Contemporary Literature 10.2 (1969): 253–265. EbscoHOST.
  3. ^ Kalliney. Cities of Affluence:," p. 106.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Kalliney, Peter J. "Cities of Affluence: Masculinity, Class and The Angry Young Men." ModernFiction Studies 47.1 (2001): 92–117. EbscoHOST.
  5. ^ a b c d e f 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.
  6. ^ a b c d Daniels, Anthony. “Lessons of the Long-Distance Runner.” The New Criterion (2008): 23–28. EbscoHOST.
  7. ^ Daniels,“Lessons of the Long-Distance Runner," pp. 25-26.
  8. ^ Hutchings, "The Work of Play," p. 44.
  9. ^ a b c d e Hughson, John. "The 'Loneliness' of the Angry Young Sportsman." Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 35.2 (2005): 41–48. EbscoHOST.
  10. ^ Bentley, Nick. "'New Elizabethans': The Representation of Youth Subcultures in 1950s British Fiction." Literature & History 19.1 (2012): 16–33. EbscoHOST.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i Small, Helen. "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner in Browning, Sillitoe and Murakami." Essays in Criticism 60.2 (2010): 129–147. EbscoHOST.
  12. ^ Leonardi, Susan J."The Long-Distance Runner (The Loneliness, Loveliness, Nunliness of)" Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13.1(1994): 57–85. EbscoHOST.
  13. ^ Montopoli, Brian (January 9, 2009). "The Loneliness Of The Impeached Governor". CBS News.