After 20 years of being a long-distance runner I have eventually got around to reading “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Sillitoe. I was surprised to find that it was a short story not a novel, was about cross-country rather than distance running (the race is only 5 miles) and is not about loneliness. I didn’t think much of it, but that may be because I don’t think enough. There seems to be more written about the story than there are words in the story itself. Here is a short extract from Wikipedia.
‘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. 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. 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. 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.
During the time period that Sillitoe wrote “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” the idea of the runner was changing dramatically. The purity of running was taken away when Smith entered the race because the race dehumanised him. 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. Sillitoe rejects the commoditisation of running in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. 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”. 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.’
Wow I’m glad I’m not a professional runner who has been dehumanised and commoditised, although I do think there are some worrying developments in our sport driven by clever marketing people. I certainly experience the pure passion and pleasure that comes from running. Perhaps that is because I don’t own any running technology and until recently thought Strava was a Greek pastry.
I think a lot of runners get a great deal of clarity from long distance running, but I would not describe it as a lonely sport. Yes, there are long runs alone, but there is also the camaraderie of races, clubs, training groups etc. In the UK the long Sunday run is often done in isolation, but in South Africa, where many runners are preparing for Comrades, the Sunday run is a social, early morning affair followed by brunch at a cafe (they start very early). And nowadays there is all the friendly banter on social media. It is only a lonely sport if you want it to be.