The Loneliness of the Lockdown Runner: Reimagining Sillitoe During Covid

Words: James Walker
Thursday 25 February 2021
reading time: min, words

On the event of Sir Tom Courtenay's 84th birthday, Dawn of the Unread's James Walker has re-written The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in the time of COVID. His take on Alan Sillitoe's classic work, re-titled as The Loneliness of the Lockdown Runner, is being launched on Twitter today at 5pm...


I daren’t leave me house at the house at the moment. Not because of COVID, but because our streets are full of lockdown runners, or, more specifically, lumbering overweight middle-aged men who see furlough as an opportunity to finally lose a few pounds. Or have they suddenly taken up running because it’s better than being stuck in the house with the kids watching Joe Wicks?  

Amid a pandemic that requires us to keep a reasonable distance from each other and to be hyper conscious of our hygiene, joggers seem to think now is the time to come panting and spluttering past like a back firing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Worst still, you can’t even tell them to back off as they’re tethered to their headphones.  

It is at this point I should confess that I’m an overweight middle-aged man and I’m probably just a bit jealous. Or annoyed. I like to stroll and saunter my way through the city. Looking up at buildings and counting discarded face masks on the street, not having to suddenly move to one side because someone is having a midlife crisis and an affair with their fitbit.      

All of this got me thinking about Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. In this, seventeen-year-old Colin Smith is sent to Borstal - a juvenile detention center for robbery. The governor notices he is a talented runner and puts him forward for a national long-distance running competition. Smith is athletic because "running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police". If he wins the race, he’ll have a cushy time for the remainder of his sentence as the governor will be able to gloat his victory was down to his management. But it will also vindicate the very system and society that has locked him up. It is a superb story of defiance and belligerence, casting Colin Smith as one of the greatest literary anti-hero’s of all time.  

In For it was Saturday Night, one of the comics in the Dawn of the Unread series, I brought Colin Smith back from the dead to fight against the closure of libraries. But due to rigor mortis, he was so slow he didn’t get very far. Now I’m adapting the story once more, but this time for the COVID generation in The Loneliness of the Lockdown Runner.  

This will be published on Twitter as a series of tweets at 5pm each evening, starting on Thursday 25 Feb. This is to mark the 84th birthday of Sir Tom Courtenay, who played Colin Smith in the British New Wave film of 1962. Sir Tom also played the role of Billy Fisher in Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1963), the story of an office clerk who escape the boredom of his humdrum existence through elaborate daydreams. Both of these books (and films) had a profound impact on me in my youth, so I wanted to do something to celebrate this great actor who helped me feel less alone during my adolescence.        

The story will incorporate text from the original story, but address issues raised by lockdown. Now our homes have become mini-prisons and the governor making the rules is the Tory party. During the summer of 2020, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings proved to be equally as duplicitous as the governor in Sillitoe’s story, which lends itself for some fun social commentary by tweaking an odd word in the original text:

“For when the governor talked to me of being honest, he didn't know what the word meant, or he wouldn't have had me locked up indoors while he went trotting along in sunshine to Bernard Castle.”  

I’ve decided to reimagine the story on Twitter because, like Lockdown, Twitter is a medium of constraint. Similarly, the story can be told in short, sharp bursts, replicating the slow-paced trot of lockdown running. I like the idea of the form reflecting the content.   

Follow @Lockdown_Runner published each day on Twitter at 5pm for the next week

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