Distance runners hear it lots and not just in these days of virtual races. We are seen training, solo, in the grey light of dawn or in bad weather. Non-runners spot us out there, all by ourselves. Why, they ask, are we stoically grimacing through a challenging workout, alone? They conclude that we must be lone wolves. Loners. That we’re lonely.
Only we’re not. We choose to be out there and despite appearances to the contrary, we’re happy. In busy, crowded and sometimes stressful lives, we may be decompressing, richly enjoying some personal space, a bit of me time. Absorbed in our run and mentally and emotionally connected with our surroundings, we may even be getting high in the process. This isn’t loneliness.
We’re alone then, but not lonely. Still, the loneliness label sticks. Much of it is due the influence of a single short story,The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. This famous tale, its title a household phrase, has tagged runners with being lonely ever since.
A landmark work in western literature, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runneris more centrally about anger at class distinction and poverty in 1950s England. Its protagonist and narrator, seventeen year-old Colin Smith, seeks working class revenge on the ruling elite. Running is only peripheral to these main themes. Yet, it’s also the greatest running story of all time.
Every runner with a literary bent eventually crosses paths with this gritty tale of social realism and class warfare. I first read it while at university. A cross country runner then and fiercely competitive, I couldn’t relate to the anti-hero Smith who, in the story’s climax, throws the biggest race of his life. I’d also never felt lonely while running.
It’s author, Alan Sillitoe, wasn’t expressing Smith’s loneliness, but rather the aloneness he feels and seems to need, when he runs. Beginning them in the darkness at dawn, Smith’s workouts are a time for deep thought. This personal time allows him to process and resolve the issues in his life and arrive at some pretty tough conclusions. Being alone is mandatory for this type of thinking. Sillitoe presumes only a person who is alone could achieve this.
Yet Smith is not lonely. He loves his solo training. Its sense of freedom is intoxicating for him; its rugged effort exhilarating. Though a fictional character, Smith’s descriptions of running are authentic. Sillitoe magically captured the allure of running.
Aspirational runners looking for a feel good tale of athletic accomplishment will be disappointed, even jolted by the story’s harsh message. Yet for a famously dark and negative story, its celebration of running’s joy is unbeatable.
Each morning training run, Smith says, leaves him feeling ‘happy’ (likely a touch of runner’s high) and helps him cope with his harsh life. His training is both a physical and emotional escape from it and a positive lifestyle choice. Seeing others out drinking, he declares, “Running’s fifty times better than boozing.”
Sillitoe’s narrations of these early morning outings are nothing short of the finest descriptions I’ve read about what it feels like to be running. Training alone on a frosty winter morning “when even the birds haven’t the heart to whistle” Colin, begins by feeling small and vulnerable “like the first person on earth.” He’s also cold all over, but knows that:
… in half an hour I’m going to be warm, that by the time I get to the main road and am turning onto the wheat-field footpath by the bus stop I’m going to feel as hot as a pot-bellied stove and happy … .
What Canadian runner hasn’t enjoyed the cozy sensation of gradual warming during a chilly run? Smith then describes that out-of-body experience when a run is going so smoothly he enters another level of consciousness:
I go my rounds in a dream, turning at a lane or footpath corners without knowing I’m turning, leaping brooks without knowing they’re there … .
Each run, he realizes, is like life itself, with its share of ups and downs, its challenges and rewards, its variety:
… the long-distance run of an early morning makes me think that every run like this is a life – a little life, I know – but a life as full of misery and happiness and things happening … .
So, no. No loneliness here. None at all. Let’s be conclusive about this. We can put the idea to bed for all time: We runners are not lonely. Let’s be happy that the writer who started the whole idea also left us with some of the most evocative descriptions of the joy of solo running:
It’s a treat being a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself … . Sometimes I think that I’ve never been so free as during that couple of hours when I’m trotting up the path out of the gates and turning by that bare-faced, big-bellied oak tree at the lane end.
No one ever said it better.
Byron Jenkins is the author of Jogging Through the Graveyard: Running for My Life After 60.