The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

January 8, 2009

When I was in film school we were bombarded with movies. Everything from Nanook of the North to Klute to the baby carriage careening down the steps in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin. We watched documentaries by the brothers Maysles featuring Big and Little Edie, Mick Jagger and Bulgarian artist Christo who wrapped a 24 1/2 mile long white nylon fence over the California hills and into the Pacific Ocean. We studied John Wayne in The Searchers and for the first time I “got” why he was considered one of America’s greatest Western action figures. We deconstructed Apocalypse Now, discussed the violent hooligans who raced through Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and couldn’t stop talking about the long camera takes in Citizen Kane.

But of all the films I watched at school, there is one that still haunts me, that continues to echo through the crevice in my heart on certain black and white days when the only company I keep is my own.

The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, based on a book of the same name by writer Alan Sillitoe, was filmmed in 1962 in the gritty and grimy world of the British Working class. The film was directed by Tony Richardson and stars a young Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith, a rebellious teenager sent to reform school for robbing a bakery. Michael Redgrave plays the privileged Governor of the school who cares less about Colin’s re-entry into society and more about his talent as a long-distance runner who can win a prestigious title for the school.

My professor said the film was part of the “Kitchen Sink School” of British filmmaking which focused on “social realism” by presenting realistic portraits of working class British life. He explained that the term “Kitchen Sink” was coined because every film had a scene set in a kitchen where inevitably there would be an overflowing, dish-filled sink somewhere in the frame.

I was taken by the term and the idea behind it. A kitchen sink is such a catch-all for everything you want off the counter of your kitchen or the counter of your life. A place where a pile of black and stark white British films can sit stacked and draining after a good scrubbing by film critics, professors and grad students.

So why does this film linger when others have faded to black? Is it the gaunt, haunted face of Colin running over the wild and windy woodlands of Claygate, Surrey or is it the lovely stream of allteration of words like “loneliness” and “long” strung together by the letter “L?”

nike-air-pegasus1I am not a runner but I am envious of anyone who can run a mile or a marathon. My body was not designed to be squeezed into a track suit, a pair of Nike Air Pegasus running shoes and a sports bra so tight that my breasts become permanently smashed into one giant boob. My lungs were not created for taking big breaths of air; I have asthma, I wheeze and gasp like a Grouper fish whenever my legs attempt to break into a trot let alone a full-on run.

I am not a runner, but I am fascinated by anyone who is.

Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith

Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith

I would like, just for one hour, to know what it feels like to be Colin Smith: brown hair short and plastered to his skull, chin thrust forward, his white face an ugly mask of an athlete straining with every cell of his body to win the big race. Arms flung forward and back, hands cramped into fists and legs barely touching ground, he sprints down a trail while bare, leafless trees stand solemnly watching his lonely run.

And as Colin races towards the finish line hoping to prove himself worthy to the headmaster, his family and his mates, he is overtaken with jump-cut images from his past that set him wondering if pleasing the crowd is a win or a loss.

And that’s when Colin becomes universal. And I realize that whether we can run or walk, swim or sink, we often push ourselves to go faster, be better, smarter, richer, noticed, accepted and applauded for winning whatever race we have chosen to run. In our lonely rush to reach the finish line we end up running towards the future without even being aware of the present. So busy with going to something we forget where we are right now and miss the extraordinary beauty of daily moments – a baby’s tiny fist wrapping itself around the end of an index finger, the time just before dawn when the sky is hazy and azure blue and the morning star shines down for anyone who is up and awake to see it, or the split second you take that first bite of the best chocolate mousse you’ve ever tasted at the tiny bistro in Paris’s 13th arrondisement.

In our race, we lose the moments and the more moments we lose, the emptier our lives become.

We can learn a thing or two from The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner for as Colin nears the end of the race he suddenly stops, letting another slower runner get by him to win. Colin has decided that the only person worth pleasing is himself and although he is no longer the Governor’s pet and has lost all his special privileges at school, he has found a peace within himself and on his own terms.

Maybe next time we find ourselves sprinting through our lives, we may want to slow down or even stop and consider what we get versus what we are giving up, because ultimately we are all long distance runners and it’s up to us whether or not we want to stay in the race.


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