In this short story Sillitoe uses long distance running as a metaphor for an emotional and physical escape from society. The main character, Colin Smith, was caught by the Police for robbing a bakery and sentenced to Borstal (prison school) in Essex. His talent for running attracts the notice of the borstal's authorities and they offer him the prospect of a light workload for the remaining 6 months of his sentence if he can win a cross-c country race against a well known public school.
In the race, Smith easily outpaces the other runners and leads the race until the final meters of the race, at which point he stops and allows the other runners to overtake him, to the great anger of the Borstal authorities.
In revenge Smith receives a regime of hard, manual labour for the remaining time he has to serve, but Smith harbours no regret at all. The system could take away his freedom but nobody can force him to run, that is his alone.
The book was adapted into a film by Sillitoe and directed by Tony Richardson in 1962. Tom Courtenay starred as Smith and won the BAFTA for Best Newcomer and the Mar del Plata International Film Festival Award for Best Actor.
It was a master-stroke to turn this short-story into a feature length film as, when it was first proposed as a film Tony Richardson estimated that the film's running time would have been around 17 minutes long. Sillitoe worked hard and the screenplay by expanding it into a film lasting an hour and twenty minutes.
During the time Sillitoe write the book, attitudes to sport, especially running was changing from the old concept of amateur sport in which athletes competed for the pure glory of excelling in the sport rather than monetary gain.
While conducting research for a planned book on aspects of performance art, I re-read the short story and found pertinent commentaries on the state of mind attained by runners during long distance races. I had experienced these same feeling myself whilst competing in hill races and ultra marathons. The pat-pat-pat cadence of his footsteps being very familiar to me as a way for a runner to monitor their condition during long races.
Short clips and commentaries on the film version can be found here, and here on YouTube.
Link to book on Amazon.co.uk.