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What is “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”?

Posted on 04 October 2012

 

The New York Times recently published a short essay by veteran running icons Amby Burfoot and George Hirsch, “The Honorable Clan of the Long-Distance Runner,” that considered today’s marathon runner in the wake of fabricated times (yes, that means you Rep. Paul Ryan) and the 26.2-mile race’s continued popularity.

“There are no shortcuts to marathon success,” they write. “When we began running marathons {in the early 60s}, Alan Sillitoe’s novella ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ was the phrase most often used to describe our pastime. How things have changed. The New York City Marathon on Nov. 4 has attracted 48,000 entrants. Yet we marathoners remain in most ways a small tribe. Only 0.5 percent of the United States population has run a marathon.”

Most marathon runners probably have used that expression at one time or other– “loneliness of the long distance runner”– but it’s safe to assume that only a fraction of them have either read the short story that came out in 1959, or seen the film adaptation that appeared three years later.

The story centers on a poor rebellious British teenager named Colin Smith who is sent off to a prison school for delinquent youth after the police caught him robbing a bakery. Colin soon impresses the burly phys-ed instructor and by-the-book school officials with his natural running abilities. In fact, he’s guaranteed an early release from the work camp if he wins an important cross-country competition against a prestigious public school.

In this video clip from the movie, school officials allow Colin the opportunity to run in the nearby woods for the very first time all by himself. The unexpected freedom from the school’s strict discipline and heavy-handed rules is intoxicating and celebratory for the young runner, as you will see beginning around the 1:20 mark. At times, it looks like he’s doing some kind of awkward nature dance with his windmilling arms rather than running.

Shot 50 years ago, this film– and this forest scene in particular –is a marvelous way to show how truly exhilarating running can be, not on a treadmill, circular track, or crowded bike/running path, but in the quiet cathedral of nature. Here,”loneliness” should not be viewed as some kind of character defect but  embraced as a temporary gift, a brief period of soul-cleansing solitude to be savored. It’s a mental/emotional state that trail runners know– and replenish with pleasing regularity.

When the day of the big race arrives, Colin is headed to victory, but then stops just short of the finish line, intentionally allowing the other runners to pass him and cross the finishing line. He loses or rather throws the race as a defiant act against the stern authority figures at the detention center. For not winning and being such a free spirit, the school officials punish him by withdrawing his early release date. Yet, Colin seems regret-free; in his own way he earned the ultimate victory by being true to himself. –Bill Katovsky

 

 

 

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