Myth : The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
Article by: Kevin Tiller
Ever since distance running became popular in the 1970s, and certainly during the years preceeding the "running boom", long distance runners have received a bad press. The impression given is that all runners were thin and wiry looking, foregoing friends, family and probably work, just to spend their hours flogging themselves around and around the neighbourhood track or dodging traffic wearing grey sweats. Your typical "loner" in fact.
In the 1970s, this impression was crystallised by an author who wrote a book of short stories. His name was Alan Sillitoe, and one of those stories was titled "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner". Ever since then the impression has stuck, whether it is warranted or not.
When I started running, in the early 1980s, I was living in England. I started running one November. I can't remember my reason for starting, other than a vague interest in getting out in the fresh air and trying to get fit and stay healthy. As you may be aware; England in November is very fresh. It's also very dark after about 4pm. I ran every night and never saw another runner. I ran religiously for a long time, but would never dare call myself a "runner". I seemed to have endured so much rain, wind and sleet in the dark, all by myself, that, yes, I could identify with the Loneliness of the long-distance runner.
It was only a long time after that I saw a magazine in newsagents that was just about running. Intrigued, I bought a copy, and entered a strange new world. I found that there were shops which only sold running shoes and running kit. I must (surely) have been aware of the concept of races - not just those on an athletic track, but road races like the big marathons and the City to Surf and the like. However, it had never occurred to me to go along to a race, let alone run in one. However, I eventually became committed enough to upgrade from my football trainers to a pair of real running shoes and went to the local running store.
The salespeople were all runners ! It was the first time I had been to a shop where the staff were more interested in talking to you about your running than in selling you something. I liked the ambience so much that I would go there just to browse and chat with the staff. Eventually, I became seduced enough by the idea that I might, just might, actually be turning into a runner myself. The proof came when I entered a local race, 10 kilometres.
Once you go along to a race, the myth of the scrawny under-fed over-trained loner is squashed for good. I found that in my first race in England, but you need only go along to the City to Surf, held in Sydney every year, to see for yourself. If you don't live near Sydney, there are races all over the country, all over of the world, every weekend. You'll find that there are short runners, plump runners, tall ones, men, women and children. You might point out that they are a normal cross-section of the population. Of course, you'd be right.
The atmosphere at a race, especially a big race, is more like a holiday than a focussed sporting event. You see, its just like a community coming together for a celebration. I am sure that I could offer to give you a dollar for every lonely person you could find at a runnning race, and I wouldn't be paying out much money. Its not many sports that allow people dressed as pink elephants line up in the same race at the same time as our country's Olympic representatives.
As an aside, it occurred to me that "long distance" is in itself an extremely ambiguous term. To a mile runner, the 5km or 10km is "long distance". To the 10km runner, a marathon is long distance. And of course, Australia has more than its fair share of really long-distance runners. Gary Parsons, would be a prime example of that. He has just run over 17,000km around Australia, and is still going even as you read this !
In fact, being in Australia and being a runner, is such a great combination. We don't have the seemingly never-ending darkness of a European or North American winters. The weather is positively perfect for our sport. Sure, it feels cold in the winter, but its not many regions of our country that have snow.
Although we have a relatively small population, there are races nationwide every weekend. We have the same network of specialist running stores and magazines. There are many Australian running clubs that have, literally, hundreds of members. You might have heard of, or seen the members of, the Sydney Striders, come sweeping down Sydney's streets and beaches. If you are in Canberra, you will have heard about the ACT Cross Country Club. Finding out about these groups is easy - just go to your local running store - or just click on the many pages on the internet.
Two things are for certain : Anyone can become a distance runner and there is certainly no need to be lonely about it.
"It's a treat, being a long-distance runner .... " (Alan Sillitoe)
Oh well, he got that part right at least ...