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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance

Runner in Browning, Sillitoe, and


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Every marathoner runs alone. Breath, heartbeat, the strike

of feet on the road, the sweat-soaked shirt, the aching
legs – it’s all private. To run the marathon is a wholly
personal decision. Only the runner can summon the will
to complete it, and the satisfaction of finishing will be
each runner’s alone.
Yet every marathoner runs with many others – some-
times tens of thousands. They share the road, the
purpose, the struggle, and the satisfaction. Together they
make up a race, a field, and a community.1

THE EXEMPLARY LITERARY CASE of the long-distance

runner’s dual status – at once solitary struggler and representa-
tive of an imagined community – is Robert Browning’s ‘Pheidip-
pides’ (1879). ‘All runners should read “Pheidippides”’,
Kathrine Switzer and Roger Robinson urge in 26.2: Marathon
Stories, not least because it has some claim to have inspired
the modern revival of the marathon race. Reading the poem in
1894 led the French philologist Michel Bréal to write to the
planning committee for the revived Olympic Games in Athens
proposing a ‘“race from Marathon” with a prize to commemor-
ate “the heroic messenger”’.2 More legend and misrecollected
history than fact,3 Pheidippides’ story, as retold by Browning,
nevertheless played a modest part in the history of Greek twen-
tieth century nationalism (the victory of Spiridon Louis in the

Essays in Criticism Vol. 60 No. 2

# The Author [2010]. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
doi: 10.1093/escrit/cgp023

first Olympic marathon is still celebrated in Greece), and a major
part in the history of long-distance running’s twentieth century
transformation from a pursuit of very rare individuals to a
globally popular sport and lucrative industry.
In the course of that history, literary writing about running
has also changed. Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-
Distance Runner (1959) gave the genre its definitive title. It
also articulated a political vision of the runner much less

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obviously idealistic than Browning’s. In these two works
(perhaps the most potent evocations of running in English) the
long-distance runner became the vehicle for two strikingly
opposed kinds of political romanticism: for Browning, a
beleaguered but defiant nationalism; for Sillitoe, an equally
beleaguered and defiant class antagonism. With hindsight,
1959 may have been almost the last moment when such
an account of the loneliness of the long-distance runner could
be fully plausible. As revised in Haruki Murakami’s What
I Talk about when I Talk about Running (2008), the
runner’s loneliness has a personal rather than political cast,
participating as he or she does in a globalised running culture
where the individual’s ability to run at length and at speed
may no longer mark him or her out as exceptional at all.
The civic context of the long-distance runner comes first for
Browning. His poem opens with Pheidippides’ address to the
archons of Athens on his return from Sparta: ‘First I salute this
soil of the blessed, river and rock!’4 Pheidippides has run, not
(like most modern long-distance runners) in pursuit of
personal fitness or to test his own powers of endurance, but as
the emissary of his city, charged by its magistrates with taking
to Sparta the news that the Persian army threatens the city,
and bringing back its response.

Your command I obeyed,

Ran and raced: like stubble, some field which a fire runs
Was the space between city and city: two days, two nights
did I burn
Over the hills, under the dales, down pits and up peaks.
(ll. 13-16)
The sorry reward for this fortitude, he reports, was Spartan pre-
varication: ‘Nowise precipitate judgment – too weighty the issue
at stake!’ (l. 35). Pheidippides scented every low motive (‘envy,
mistrust, / Malice [. . .] gratified hate’, ll. 26-7), and his civic
pride was enflamed. To hear the name of Athens so abused

sent a blaze through my blood; off, off and away was

I back,

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– Not one word to waste, one look to lose on the false and
the vile!
Yet ‘O Gods of my land!’ I cried, as each hillock and plain,
Wood and stream, I knew, I named, rushing past them
‘Have ye kept faith, proved mindful of honours we paid you
Vain was the filleted victim, the fulsome libation! Too rash
Love in its choice, paid you so largely service so slack!

‘Oak and olive and bay, – I bid you cease to enwreathe

Brows made bold by your leaf! Fade at the Persian’s foot,
You that, our patrons were pledged, should never adorn a
Rather I hail thee, Parnes, – trust to thy wild waste tract!
Treeless, herbless, lifeless mountain! What matter if slacked
My speed may hardly be, for homage to crag and to cave
No deity deigns to drape with verdure? at least I can
Fear in thee no fraud from the blind, no lie from the mute!’
(ll. 42-56)

Even when goaded by outrage to ‘blaze’ his way back again

through the rugged hills that separate Sparta from Athens,
running is, for Pheidippides, a spiritual experience – a kind of
proto-Heideggerian communion with the gods of place,
immanent in hillock, plain, wood, and stream.5 Barren though
parts of the terrain are, he locates virtue in the landscape’s plain-
ness. The ‘wild waste tract’ of Parnes is preferable to a ‘waste’ of
words on the false Spartans. Athenians, he implies, will do better
to trust to their own native strength and honour than rely upon
the assistance of such false friends. Browning’s compactions of
syntax are characteristically ambiguous at points here, but
lines 47-51 seem to be addressed not just to the Spartans,
whose observance of the forms of religious ceremony has led
them to delay answering an urgent request, but also to his
fellow Athenians, who have been only superficially lavish in
their tributes to the gods. Pheidippides alone has truly kept the
faith, and his political and religious exceptionalism is enacted

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as exceptional athletic prowess: his compatriots’ service may
be ‘slack’, but ‘slacked’ his own speed will ‘hardly be’; the
Spartans may be slow to respond, but he will only run the
faster back to Athens – ‘off, off and away . . .’.
Pheidippides runs, as all long-distance racers would ideally
run, in a ‘blaze’ of speed, without apparent strain. Much of
the pleasure of reading this poem, perhaps especially for a
runner, stems from its dramatic exploitation of metre to evoke
the rhythms of long-distance running. In Browning’s flexible six-
stressed lines (paying homage to Greek hexameters), one hears
not simply the rapid pounding of a runner’s feet, but the irregu-
larity of the cross-country runner’s stride as it accommodates
unevennesses in the terrain:

Gúlly and gáp I clámbered and cléared till, súdden, a bár

Jútted, a stóppage of stóne agáinst me, blócking the wáy.
(ll. 58-9)

Here Pheidippides encounters the obstacle placed in his path by

the god Pan, whom he shortly discovers concealed in a cool
cleft of the stone. Even before this point Pheidippides has
run easily, covering the miles with no regard for legs or
lungs: ‘No care for my limbs! – there’s lightning in all and
some, – ’ (l. 23); ‘What matter if slacked / My speed may
hardly be [. . .] at least I can breathe’ (ll. 53-5). When he
encounters Pan, the runner’s eye drawn admiringly to ‘the
goat-thighs grand’ (l. 69), the god’s promise of victory to
Athens and a reward for Pheidippides himself brings super-
natural ease to the remainder of his race.
I ran no longer, but flew.
Parnes to Athens – earth no more, the air was my road . . .
(ll. 85-6)

In the course of the whole poem he runs (assuming Wikipe-

dia’s estimate of the distance from Athens to Sparta and back
to be correct) 240 kilometres (150 miles) in four days, then
fights in the battle of Marathon, then promptly runs the 40 kilo-

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metres (26 miles) from Marathon to Athens.6 Legend does not
record how long a break Pheidippides enjoys between the end
of the Spartan expedition and the start of the battle, but presum-
ably not more than a day, and quite possibly less (the armies
appear to have stood in stalemate for several days after the
landing of the Persians).7 By any reckoning it is a punishing
feat of endurance. Add in the heat of the day, the rudimentary
footwear (if any), and the heavy waterskins (assuming he has
the good sense to carry water), and the only wonder for the
dogged realist would be that he makes it back to Athens at all.
We are, indeed, in the realm of divinely assisted running.
J. W. Cunliffe pointed out as long ago as 1909 that, in Hero-
dotus, Pheidippides meets Pan on Mount Parthenium, not on
‘Parnes ridge’, which is significantly ‘out of the way, as a
glance at the map will show’: ‘no runner who knew his
business, whether amateur or professional, would have left the
straight road from Eleusis to Athens, close by the coast, to
stray ten miles off into the hills’.8 Cunliffe found an explanation
in a colleague’s suggestion that Browning deliberately played
around with the geography of Greece in order to secure the
link between the individual runner’s expenditure of energy and
the hoped-for renewal of the Athenian civic spirit:

Parnes is in Attica, while Parthenium is in Arcadia. [John

McNaughton] writes that Browning ‘must have an Attic
hill at all costs, when what he wants to say is that it is the
spirit of her own mountains, her own autochthonous
vigor, which is going to save Athens. He consciously sacri-
fices, in a small and obvious point, literal accuracy to the
larger truth.9
Deviation from historical accuracy, then, in the form of devi-
ation from the expected running route, serves a political
Pheidippides, in short, is the exemplary Hellenic citizen, true
servant of Pan and of the Attic state, accurate prophet of Persia’s
doom and Athenian victory. He may also have served more con-
temporary political purposes for Browning and his first readers,
either as a reflection on Greek efforts in the 1870s and 1880s to

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extract a larger state out of territories controlled by the Ottoman
empire,10 or – allegorically – as an expression of English nation-
alist anger at Russia’s advances on the Balkan states in 1878
when Browning was writing, or preparing to write, ‘Pheidip-
pides’.11 Whichever political frame the poem is read through,
Pheidippides remains in all these readings the first and best
example of the civic athlete. His dying words are not ‘I did it’
but ‘We conquer!’ (Browning’s nicely robust translation of the
Greek text from Lucian which provides his epigraph12).
And yet the disappearance of Pheidippides’s personal motiv-
ation within the political motives of a history of the state is
never complete. On the contrary, one of the reasons why ‘Phei-
dippides’ is a discomfiting as well as an exhilarating poem is that
one is never sure whether one is reading a heroic episode from a
nationalist myth or a much more narrowly pointed drama of
psychology and physiology under extreme pressure. As a diplo-
matic emissary, Pheidippides leaves much to be desired. His
appeal for assistance from Sparta is startlingly tactless:

shall Athens sink,

Drop into dust and die – the flower of Hellas utterly die,
Die, with the wide world spitting at Sparta, the stupid, the
Answer me quick . . .
(ll. 19-22)

No wonder that the Spartans are slow to respond. And if his

descriptions of his own body are nicely exact accounts of a
trained athlete quivering with nervous energy, they also
suggest the boastfulness of a young man who knows he is
without competitors in the field, demanding his audience’s
admiration for the ‘lightning’ in his limbs, their ‘fretting as fire
frets, an inch from dry wood’ (ll. 23, 29). His sense of his own
special loyalty as a worshipper of Pan is similarly free from
modesty, and when he delivers the god’s promise to the
archons of Athens the wording is as egocentric as it is

Here am I back. Praise Pan, we stand no more on the razor’s

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Pan for Athens, Pan for me! I too have a guerdon rare!
(ll. 87-8)

Under questioning from the general Militiades, Pheidippides

explains that the god has promised him ‘a worthy reward [. . .]
release / From the racer’s toil, no vulgar reward in praise or in
pelf!’ (that is, booty, with a suggestion of stolen goods; ll.
95-6). Pheidippides interprets this as a promise that he shall
‘Marry a certain maid’, on whom he has had his eye, and that
their children shall in years to come ‘creep / Close to [his]
knees’ to hear the story of how the god, ‘awful yet kind’,
rewarded their father (ll. 101-3).
At this point the poem suddenly shifts from monologue to
third-person narrative, and Browning’s ‘dramatic idyl’ (defined
by Arthur Symons as a ‘short poe[m] of passionate action, pre-
senting in the most graphic and concentrated way a single
episode or tragic crisis’13) starts to sound more like a morality
tale in the ‘be careful what you wish for’ vein. The final lines
of the poem are spoken by an unnamed historian:

Unforeseeing one! Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:

So, when Persia was dust, all cried ‘To Akropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
“Athens is saved, thank Pan,” go shout!’ He flung down his
Ran like fire once more: and the space ’twixt the
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs
Till in he broke: ‘Rejoice, we conquer!’ Like wine through
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died – the bliss!
(ll. 105-12)

For the speaker, as for Lucian (Browning’s primary source here),

Pheidippides is to be envied. ‘Whom the gods love die young’, as
the Homeric hymn put it. Pheidippides, ‘the noble strong man /
Who could race like a God’, has his reward not in a wife,

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children, celebrity, but in the fact that he will ‘never decline’
(ll. 115-18). He has ended ‘gloriously [. . .] in the shout for his
meed’ (ll. 120-1). Broadly, the poem supports the nationalist
thrust of the original, yet irony lies heavily on this ending.
Browning twists Lucian’s narrative so that the last word is not
the shout of civic victory ‘Joy/Rejoice’, but the personal
demand for an ill-understood ‘meed’ or reward.14 In the
process he shifts the accent of the long-distance runner’s story
away from the renewal of the health and security of the civic
state to the private desires of the runner – seen at the last as
young, ardent, touchingly naive, not unreservedly to be admired.
If Pheidippides remains the great (though ambiguous) literary
exemplar of running as an expression of civic virtue, his modern
and now much better-known counterpart is Alan Sillitoe’s Colin
Smith: the borstal inmate doing time for robbery who is picked
out to represent his Essex institution at the big sports day but
who defiantly stops short of the finish, rather than give the
borstal governor the victory he so badly wants. To Smith’s
way of thinking, a victory for the governor is a victory for the
whole system he represents. His refusal to deliver is a hugely
counter-suggestible, counter-intuitive gesture.
For Smith, thinking is one of the pleasures of running. Not a
quick thinker by nature, so he tells us (or he would never have
been caught for stealing a baker’s cashbox), he finds ideas
coming to him with unexpected clarity when he is out doing his
five-mile round of the fields and woods of a winter morning:15

as soon as I take that first flying leap out into the frosty grass
of an early morning when even birds haven’t the heart to
whistle, I get to thinking, and that’s what I like. I go my
rounds in a dream, turning at lane or footpath corners
without knowing I’m turning, leaping brooks without
knowing they’re there, and shouting good morning to the
early cow-milker without seeing him. It’s a treat being
a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself with
not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to
do or that there’s a shop to break and enter a bit back
from the next street.16

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The principal result of this unconscious mental processing while
running is political awareness. Smith’s purpose in recording his
story an unstated length of time after the events described is to
pass on to his readers the clarity of insight into class that long-
distance training has brought him. There are ‘In-law blokes’
like the governor and everyone else born on the right side of
the system, and ‘Out-law blokes’ like himself and ‘a few
million others’ (p. 10). The ‘honesty’ that the governor would
like to cultivate in Smith – whom he imagines turning pro-
fessional athlete, and putting a life of crime behind him –
would not be honesty in Smith’s eyes but a lie and a betrayal
of his class roots. Honesty would mean admitting the basic hos-
tility between haves and have nots: if he had ‘the whip hand’ he
would take all the ‘cops, governors, posh whores, penpushers,
army officers, Members of Parliament [. . .] stick them up
against a wall and let them have it, like they’d have done with
blokes like us years ago, that is, if they’d ever known what it
means to be honest’ (p. 15).
This frank class hostility alarmed the British censors when
they read Sillitoe’s expanded script for the 1962 film version,
directed by Tony Richardson. Audrey Field, the censor who
dealt with the script and the earlier Saturday Night and
Sunday Morning (directed by Karel Reisz, 1960), labelled Lone-
liness ‘disappoint[ing]’, ‘blatant and very trying communist
propaganda’, complaining that Colin Smith had all the
makings of ‘a good hero of the British Soviets’. Like many
early viewers of the film (which dispenses with interior
monologue after its opening shots, relying on Tom Courtenay’s
‘lean, hungry, aware’ face to convey Smith’s rationale17), Field
was baffled by the ending. ‘It is true party line stuff. I can never
see myself what the objection is to an honest to goodness prize,
openly and honestly competed for and judged.’18
Rattled though several early reviewers were by the perceived
‘communism’ of Loneliness (as also by the free swearing,
and – in the film version – the borstal staff’s brutality to a boy
who attempts to escape), their anxieties seem politically
irrational, as well as deaf to the language of both story and
film. Did Field realise that in complaining of a want of

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‘honesty’ she was echoing the critical term in Colin Smith’s
description of middle-class complacency? Smith’s anger is
emotionally potent because it is so self-defeatingly cut off from
any possibility of collective action of the kind the censors
feared. Smith is a loner. Even his partner in crime, Mike, fails
to qualify as a friend: ‘he’s the sort that don’t say a word for
weeks on end – sits plugged in front of the telly, or reads . . . or
just sleeps – when suddenly BIFF – half kills somebody for
almost nothing at all’ (p. 25). Re-enacting his habitual social iso-
lation through the physical and emotional loneliness of a long-
distance runner, Smith feels by turns exhilarated – ‘I’m the first
man ever to be dropped into the world’ (p. 11) – and abandoned:

it’s sometimes when I stand there [at the start of a morning

run] feeling like the last man in the world that I don’t feel so
good. I feel like the last man in the world because I think
that all those three hundred sleepers behind me are dead.
(p. 9)

Or is it Smith himself who is dead?

I often feel frozen stiff at first. I can’t feel my hands or feet or

flesh at all, like I’m a ghost who wouldn’t know the earth
was under him if he didn’t see it now and again through
the mist. (p. 11)

An isolation as deeply felt and defiantly clung to as Smith’s

cannot be the basis for a coherent class politics. Smith asks
himself, at one point, whether all the boys ‘in the running
business’ are ‘on to the same lark’: are they forgetting that
they are running because they are too busy thinking and
coming to an understanding of their ‘Out-law’ position? Though
he tells us elsewhere that what goes on in other people’s heads is
always a mystery, he quickly decides ‘for a fact that they aren’t’
(p. 42). His political consciousness remains his alone. His story
will be not about collective rebellion but about a private refusal
to play the game. ‘[T]he only time I’ll hit that [finish]-line’, Smith
assures us, ‘will be when I’m dead and a comfortable coffin’s
been got ready on the other side’ (p. 52), at which point not

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crossing the finish line looks at once a very powerful gesture
and an entirely empty one.
The real climax of this story, Bruce Robbins suggests, is not
the ‘dramatic gesture of disaffection’ at the end, which we
know of well in advance, but the revelation of Smith’s father’s
painful death from stomach cancer, refusing to be taken to the
hospital or to accept pain relief from the doctor. For Smith,
this rejection of well-meaning interference from others is a
kind of heroism, and when his own guts feel the strain of the
race he identifies physically with his father:

something’s happening inside the shell-case of my guts that

bothers me and I don’t know why or what to blame it on, a
grinding near my ticker as though a bag of rusty screws is
loose inside me . . .
It’s not till now that I know what guts [my dad] had . . .
By God I’ll stick this out like my dad stuck out his pain
and kicked them doctors down the stairs . . . (pp. 47,
50, 51)

As Robbins puts it, ‘there has been a major displacement of

anger, both in the father and in the son, away from its real
causes inside (and outside) the family and onto the representa-
tives of the state, even in their arguably most innocuous form
of doctors bearing painkillers’.19
Smith’s long-distance running has, for all these reasons,
nothing of the divine ease of Pheidippides’ running. Where
Browning’s hero, inspired by Pan, ‘ran no longer but flew’, Silli-
toe’s invokes the same commonplace (sprinting as flight) and
regrounds it in brute physiology, with an ironic excess of
realist effect in its choice of metaphor and simile: ‘down the
drive I went, carrying a heart blocked up like Boulder Dam
across my arteries, the nail-bag clamped down tighter and
tighter as though in a woodwork vice, yet with my feet like
birdwings and arms like talons ready to fly’ (p. 50). Goaded
by resentment and the determination to be ‘honest’, he sees his
own body as kind of battlefield for the class war (the Second
World War, not long over and recalled by the ‘shell-case’,
stands as a recurrent warning in the story that men like Smith

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are never more than cannon fodder for other men’s victories).
But if running is physically painful in Loneliness, its rhythms
are seductively strong and easy: ‘Trot-trot-trot. Puff-puff-puff.
Slap-slap-slap go my feet on the hard soil. Swish-swish-swish
as my arms and side catch the bare branches of a bush’
(p. 12). Smith says very little about the experience of writing
(‘It’s a good job I can only think of these things as fast as I
can write with this stub of pencil’, p. 18), but Sillitoe has more
than once described the composition of Loneliness as a rare
experience of absolute fluency. In his autobiography, he remem-
bers writing the story as like sitting ‘in a field of energy, the
rhythmical narration of a runner coming from hardly to be
guessed where – except possibly from the beats of the printing
presses’ in the ground floor printworks beneath his Alicante
apartment.20 His voice commentary for the British Film Insti-
tute’s 2009 reissue of Richardson’s film expands on the
memory: ‘The story seemed to be dictated. I wasn’t thinking,
I was simply writing, the pen racing over the paper’. Obliged
to break off half-way through, in order to return to England,
he completed it ten days later in Brighton: ‘I finished it in a
couple of days. And . . . again, it was dictated. I simply don’t
remember thinking. And when I typed it I hardly altered it’. In
the story and in its supporting narratives of origin the
language of running leaks into the language of writing:
Smith’s sense of pushing a pencil mimics pushing his body
into speed; Sillitoe’s ‘pen rac[es]’.
As Sillitoe explicitly acknowledges, The Loneliness of the
Long-Distance Runner is a kind of allegory for the writer’s iso-
lation and necessary self-reliance:
The theme of the story [is] really [. . .] about a writer, but
you can’t write about a writer so I put my hero into a
borstal and all around him the borstal attitudes were the
attitudes of society and what they expected of him, and
what they expected and hoped that he would believe. But
he fought against it. He knew, he realised, that the only
value is to keep your own integrity. It was really an
extended essay on the integrity of a person in prison, in

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borstal, or if you like the integrity of a writer.21

At this point, Sillitoe’s class-positioning as a writer sounds

suddenly very like – almost too like – Smith’s class-positioning.
It is not that the story can’t, as Sillitoe intimates, function as a
powerful allegory for the necessary individualism of writing: in
the end, most writers, most of the time, sit alone in a room with
a blank page or screen, just as most long-distance runners, most
of the time, train alone, and the process will be more or less
painful depending on fitness, temperament, circumstance, and
inscrutable other factors. But if the metaphor is emotionally per-
suasive here, that may be partly because it has, like Smith’s heroic
self-reliance, elements of incoherence as well as romantic
idealism. The oddest moment in Sillitoe’s story (not present in
the film version) comes in the final lines, when Smith suddenly
expresses his hopes for the publication of this work:

I’m going to give this story to a pal of mine and tell him that
if I do get captured again by the coppers he can try and get it
put into a book or something, because I’d like to see the
governor’s face when he reads it, if he does, which I don’t
suppose he will [. . .] And if I don’t get caught the bloke
I give this story to will never give me away; he’s lived in
our terrace for as long as I can remember, and he’s my
pal. That I do know. (p. 54)

Suddenly Smith the loner has a friend, an ideal audience (the

very governor he has so determinedly defied), and some fairly
respectable aspirations for publication. The purity of the
writer’s isolation necessarily ends at the point where he seeks
publication, just as the purity of the long-distance runner’s lone-
liness stops at the point where he enters a race.
Does the perceived loneliness of the long-distance runner
involve a peculiar and now historically somewhat remote politi-
cal romanticisation? Read alongside each other, Browning and
Sillitoe offer two sharply contrasting interpretations of the
tension involved in holding together the dual conceptions of
the runner described by Switzer and Robinson – his or her indi-

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vidualism, and his or her ability (and willingness) to be seen to
run on behalf of larger social and political aspirations. That
the runner might also thereby function as a figure for the con-
dition of the writer is Sillitoe’s particular insight, not present
in Browning. It rests on a vision of the working-class writer as
both the spokesman for his class and an exile from it –
isolated and artistically self-determining. It rests also on a
romantic understanding of the runner which was, in 1959,
on the verge of changing, though it has never quite disappeared:
the runner as possessor of exceptional talent, an outsider to the
group he (always ‘he’) represents, stretching the capabilities of
his body in ways the rest of the group never attempt, and
experiencing extremes of pleasure and pain in the daily
familiarisation of his body to a landscape.
The datedness which now seems to attach to both Browning’s
and Sillitoe’s political interpretations of the long-distance runner
has much to do with the dramatic alteration in the popular status
of running. Smith’s physical sensation of going ‘[o]ff like the
wind along the cobbled footpath and rutted lane [. . .]
Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, crunchslap-crunchslap,
across the middle of a broad field’ (pp. 42-4) is no longer (at
best) a distant school memory for most readers. For a substantial
number of those who read Sillitoe and Browning today running
is a regular activity. The democratisation of running makes it dif-
ficult if not impossible to conceive of the runner either as the last
hope of an imperilled nation-state or as the true voice of an unac-
knowledged class war. This may be why, in the rich history of
writing about running pieced together in Roger Robinson’s
Running in Literature,22 the weight of literary attention turns
out to be so heavily towards the ‘pre-professional era’ – either
written at that time, or looking back to it for inspiration.23
An apt recent example of the no longer so exceptional status
of the long-distance runner, and the adjustments therefore
required in drawing an analogy with the writer, can be found
in a recent series of diary-like essays by the Japanese novelist
and translator Haruki Murakami, What I Talk about When I
Talk about Running:

Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual

goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to

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beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel
he’s accomplished what he set out to do, and if he can’t,
then he’ll feel he hasn’t. Even if he doesn’t break the time
he’d hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction
at having done his very best – and, possibly, having
made some significant discovery about himself in the
process – then that in itself is an accomplishment, a
positive feeling he can carry over to the next race.
The same can be said about my profession. In the nov-
elist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such
thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies
sold, awards won, and critics’ praise serve as outward stan-
dards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them
really matter. What’s crucial is whether your writing
attains the standards you’ve set for yourself.24

The category of ‘most ordinary runners’ was not one available to

Browning or Sillitoe (Colin Smith would probably have refused
to put on his running shoes if it had been). Murakami’s strong
sense of belonging to a writing ‘profession’, helping his publisher
promote his work, taking part in public readings, lecturing to
students, and so forth, however he may profess to despise the
rewards of that profession, has a close counterpart in his mem-
bership of a global running community. He may train alone,
but his calendar is dominated by race fixtures (Tokyo,
New York, Boston, Marathon) and he has a particular
(although for a runner entirely familiar) vocabulary of preferred
running gear, shoes, routes, training programmes.
In this hugely self-involved book something has been lost, in
literary terms, along with the runner’s exceptionalism.
Murakami is not wrong in his speculations about what motivates
‘most ordinary runners’, but his sentiments about running, as
about writing, lapse repeatedly into cliché: ‘done his very best’,
‘no such thing as winning or losing’, what matters is ‘the stan-
dards you’ve set for yourself’. Neither Browning nor Sillitoe
seems to have been much of a runner,25 but ‘Pheidippides’ and
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner both know what
Murakami’s diary of his running life neglects: that literature

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may get closer to running when it evokes its rhythms, its
physical environment, its unconscious or barely conscious motiv-
ations, than when it takes as its subject the democratised but also
commercialised world of advocacy for running as self-help.
There is a form of loneliness, nonetheless, in What I Talk
about when I Talk about Running – and it’s where
Murakami is at his sharpest: in the sense of fighting one’s own
inevitable decline from whatever peak of athletic ability one
has achieved in earlier life. The competition with others is delib-
erately disavowed here in favour of the competition with oneself
over ‘times’ and ‘standards’, in which the real and (for
Murakami) deeply threatening opponent is not a better runner
but old age: ‘I’d really rather not talk about this – I’d much
prefer to hide it away in the back of the closet – but the last
time I ran a full marathon it was awful. [. . .] my legs suddenly
stopped following orders’ (p. 52). This is loneliness recast as
the purely personal battle of a man with his body and his will
to go on ‘Til I Die’ (Murakami’s penultimate chapter title). It
is of existential and emotional interest, but it is strikingly
without the kind of political and dramatic dimensions which
were critical to the most significant English literary writing
about running before 1960. If the runner is to possess again
the kind of symbolic weight he possessed, for Browning, as the
representative of a civic and nationalist spirit, or for Sillitoe, as
a model of the self-determining working-class writer, it may
be that our poets and novelists now need to start thinking
harder about the political ground – global, but imperfectly
democratic – on which the runner now treads.

Pembroke College
Kathrine Switzer and Roger Robinson, 26.2: Marathon Stories
(Toronto, 2006), p. 100.
Ibid., p. 27.
See J. W. Cunliffe, ‘Browning and the Marathon Race’, PMLA
24 (1909), 154-63.
‘Pheidippides’, in Dramatic Idyls, First Series (1879; corrected
edn. 1895), in The Complete Works of Robert Browning, with

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Variant Readings and Annotations, vol. xiv, ed. John C. Berkey,
Michael Bright, David Ewbank, and Paul D. L. Turner (Athens,
Ohio, 2003), pp. 224-9, and notes (pp. 433-47).
Heidegger thought of places as ‘com[ing] into existence
through human activity and language, they are intersections of
the mortal and the metaphysical’. See John Kerrigan, ‘Earth
Writing: Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson’, E in C, 48
(1998), 144-68: 145.
,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pheidippides., accessed 22
Apr. 2009.
See J. F. Lazenby, The Defence of Greece 490-479 BC
(Warminster, 1993), pp. 58-9. Browning repeats the claim
found in Herodotus and in Plutarch that Pheidippides arrives
in Sparta the day after he leaves Athens. Histories, vi. 106, in
Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley, 4
vols., Loeb Classical Library (1922), iii. 259. Plutarch, ‘On the
Malice of Herodotus’, trans. Lionel Pearson, in Plutarch’s
Moralia, 15 vols., Loeb Classical Library (1965), xi. 55.
Cunliffe, ‘Browning and the Marathon Race’, p. 159, quoted in
Browning, Complete Works, xiv. 444.
Ibid., p. 159.
See Robert Shannan Peckham, ‘Map Mania: Nationalism and
the Politics of Place in Greece, 1870-1922’, Political Geography,
19/1 (2000), 77-95; R. Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, 2nd
edn. (1992; Cambridge, 2002), ch. 3. The year 1878 was one of
crisis for Greece. Russia, after a crushing victory over the
Ottoman empire, proposed the formation of a ‘Big Bulgaria’,
embracing ‘territories long coveted by Greek nationalists’. At
the Congress of Berlin in the summer of 1878, the Ottoman
empire agreed to cede Thessaly and part of Epirius to Greece.
Great Britain took control of the predominantly Greek-
populated island of Cyprus. See Clogg, Concise History,
pp. 65-7.
Queen Victoria to Disraeli: ‘There is not a moment to be lost
or the whole of our policy of centuries, of our honour as a great
European Power, will have received an irreparable blow! . . . Oh,
if the Queen were a man, she would like to go and give those
Russians, whose word one cannot believe, such a beating! We

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shall never be friends again till we have it out’. Quoted in
L. S. Stavrianos, The Balkans since 1453 (1958; repr., with a
new introduction by Traian Stoianovich, 2000), p. 408. On
the mirror of Victorian concerns in their writing about ancient
Greece, see Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian
Britain (1981).
Dramatic Idyls, p. 443 n.
Quoted in Dramatic Idyls, p. 437.
‘A Slip of the Tongue in Greeting’, p. 3, in Lucian, with an
English translation by K. Kilburn, 8 vols., Loeb Classical
Library (1959), vi. 177.
How far Smith goes on his early morning runs is a puzzle. We
are told variously that he is out for two hours, for one hour, and
that he is in training on a five-mile circuit – on what seems to be
the same course every day.
Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
(1959; repr. 2007), p. 11.
‘Lean, hungry, aware’ is Sillitoe’s description, in his contri-
bution to Robert Murphy’s voice commentary for The Loneli-
ness of the Long-Distance Runner, dir. Tony Richardson
(Bryanston: Woodfall Film Productions, 1962); restored and
reissued as a DVD (British Film Institute, 2009).
Quoted by Robert Murphy as part of the voice commentary
for The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.
Bruce Robbins, Upward Mobility and the Common Good:
Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State (Princeton, NJ,
2007), pp. 184-5.
Alan Sillitoe, Life without Armour: An Autobiography (1995;
repr. 2004), p. 244.
Voice commentary for The Loneliness of the Long-Distance
Roger Robinson, Running in Literature (Halcottsville, NY,
See ibid., esp. ch. 17, on ‘Running Novels’.
Haruki Murakami, What I Talk about When I Talk about
Running (2008), pp. 9-10.
John Maynard, Browning’s Youth (Cambridge, Mass., 1977),
makes only a general reference to a ‘recreation area’ and to
exercise being part of the curriculum at the Revd Thomas
Ready’s school, and to his having been tutored in dancing,

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fencing and boxing between the ages of 14 and 16: see
pp. 249-50, 253-4. But see Elizabeth Barrett to Robert
Browning (24 May 1846), reporting that he has been seen
cutting a furious pace as a walker in London; to which
Browning replied (25 May 1846): ‘As for my walking fast that
is exactly my use & wont . . . I am famous for it [. . .] When
I have anything to occupy my mind, I all but run’. The Brownings’
Correspondence, vol. xii: January 1846–May 1846, ed. Philip
Kelley and Scott Lewis (Winfield, Kan., 1994), pp. 354, 357.
Sillitoe records briefly trying to get fit by ‘running up and
down the beach every evening, but after a couple of half-mile
jogs my chest seemed full of rusty nails’. The wording directly
echoes Smith’s account of racing, but discomfort seems to
have set in rather faster: Life without Armour, p. 124.