On I went, out of the wood, passing the man leading without knowing I was going to do so. Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, curnchslap-crunchslap, across the middle of a broad field again, rhythmically running in my greyhound effortless fashion, knowing I had won the race though it wasn't half over, won it if I wanted it, could go on for ten or fifteen or twenty miles if I had to and drop dead at the finish of it, which would be the same, in the end, as living an honest life like the governor wanted me to. -Alan Sillitoe, "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe

After years of being aware of this story, I finally got to read it.  (Translation: after years of being too lazy to order an imported book from amazon.co.uk or go to the library, I finally found a copy online that I could read on my kindle.)

I liked it.  I really liked it.  You should read it, too.  It's short; it won't take you long.  Don't be lazy like me about getting it.

It's not a running book, per se.  It's not Born to Run, it's not What I Talk about when I Talk about Running.  Instead it's a short story about a young, blue collar kid in the 1950s.  He's poor and sees no way out of his neighborhood, so he and a friend turn to petty theft.  When he's caught and sentenced to time in Borstal (British juvie), the prison authorities notice his talent at cross-country running.  The book then shows his struggle as he balances his love of running and the freedom he feels while doing it against his contempt for being used as a racing pawn by the prison authorities.  Despite knowing that it will cost him a potential early release, he stops a few meters before the finish of the big race and allows another to win - one of the only expressions of his free will he is capable of within the system and the ultimate act of defiance.

Yes, I just ruined the plot for you.  But it's not the plot of the story that makes it worth reading; it's the vivid description of the narrator's life and his helplessness and the glory of running.  I don't care that I'm not an elite or even very good for that matter; reading this story, I felt how running is something personal that we as individuals do for us, for our own reasons, for our own benefit alone.

Might I also recommend the Belle and Sebastian song "Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner"?  Yes, I have a soft spot for those twee Glasgowegians.  I also have a soft spot for my former governor, Rod Blagojevich (you can tell I'm an Illinoisan: I can spell his name without looking it up).  He cited the Sillitoe story as an analogy to his impeachment.  One thing you've got to give the dude credit for: he runs and he's well versed in running.  And literature.  Sadly he's also corrupt, but it's Illinois, you know?


  1. Read the book a couple of months ago. Loved it. :) Also love your review. :)

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, it sounds great! i just finished What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and honestly, i really didn't like it. the author was so arrogant and the narration was so boring. not what i wanted in a book about running. i need to pick up Born to Run, i've heard good things about it.

  3. You know, I actually haven't read What I Talk About... yet. I bought it recently, but I've been kind of afraid I wouldn't like it for exactly the reasons you mentioned!

    You should try Born to Run, though. On one hand, I'm mixed on the barefoot running trend/movement. On the other hand, it's impossible not to be inspired by the book.

  4. What I thought was most fascinating in the What I talk about.. book is how the writer was so routine-bound and methodical. Even the running, it didn't seem like it was a passion, it was what he did. It is such a different approach from my life and who I am.

    It actually made me wonder if it's cultural or if the translation had something to do with it.

  5. I'd like to read the book; I saw the movie in jr. high & liked it (long before I was a runner). Haven't read Born to Run or any other running books. In a way, I like running, but not necessarily reading about it, writing about it, or tweeting about it.

    I'll have to read "Loneliness" & see the movie & see what I think of it as a runner.
    --Dave B (@BuckyKatt)

  6. Hey, Dave! Nice of you to drop by my running blog to say that you don't like reading about running, eh? ;)

    I haven't seen the movie, but I should probably check it out as I liked the book (obvs). I go back and forth about reading/writing/tweeting about running. I like the accountability involved in writing about it, and often I like reading about it, too. Just not all the time. And I'm certainly not going to pick up a book or read a blog just because it's about running unless it's also interesting. I want to be able to turn it off now and then. That's why I keep my blog absolutely all about running - you know what you're getting into if you read it.

    And don't get me started on twitter. Let's just say that November 8 will be a very happy day in my twitter feed when I'm no longer getting everyone's every dailymile update and my friends can go back to being interesting, multi-dimensional people.