A rebellious youth, sentenced to a boy's reformatory for robbing a bakery, rises through the ranks of the institution through his prowess as a long distance runner. During his solitary runs, reveries of his life and times before his incarceration lead him to re-evaluate his privileged status as the Governor's prize runner.
Nottinghamian Colin Smith is a sullen young man from a working class family. He, along with his friend Mike, commit petty crimes, Colin in an effort to escape his unhappy family life. He has a difficult relationship with his mother, especially in that she seemed more interested in the insurance money from his father's death than with his father as a man and husband. That fact is further highlighted by her taking up with another man immediately following Mr. Smith's death. Colin also distrusts authority. He is sent to Ruxton Towers Reformatory after he is caught stealing money from a bakery. His stay there is initially a difficult one until its Governor notices that Colin has a natural ability in long distance running, which Colin states was all in an effort to run away from the police who were often chasing him. The Governor believes running may be Colin's salvation to a better life, both at Ruxton Towers and after his release. The Governor wants to cultivate Colin's running ability so that he will race for the school in the inaugural track meet against a public school, winning which will show the world the Governor being able to turn these boys into functioning members of society. Colin does take up the challenge as running offers him a sense of freedom. Colin may use his running to demonstrate what he considers his ultimate act of freedom.
A juvenile offender at a tough reform school impresses its governor with his running ability and is encouraged to compete in an upcoming race, but faces ridicule from his peers.
- "The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner" begins with Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) running, alone, along a bleak country road somewhere in rural England. In a brief voiceover, Colin tells us that running is the way his family has always coped with the world's troubles, but that in the end, the runner is always alone and cut off from spectators, left to deal with life on his own.
Next, we see Colin in handcuffs with a group of other similarly encumbered young men. They are being taken to Ruxton Towers, what we would today term a medium security prison for young juvenile offenders. It is overseen by "The Governor" (Michael Redgrave), who believes that the hard work and discipline imposed on his charges will ultimately make them useful members of society. Colin, sullen and rebellious, immediately catches his eye as a test of his beliefs.
An important part of The Governor's rehabilitation program is athletics, and he soon notices that Colin is a talented runner, able to easily outrun Ruxton's reigning long distance runner. As The Governor was once a runner himself, he is especially keen on Colin's abilities because for the first time, his charges have been invited to compete in a five-mile marathon against a nearby public school, Ranley, and its privileged students from upper class families. The Governor sees the invitation as an important way to demonstrate the success of his rehabilitation program.
As the Governor takes Colin under his wing, offering him outdoor gardening work and eventually the freedom of practice runs outside Ruxton's barbed wire fences, we learn in a series of flashbacks how Colin came to be incarcerated. We see his difficult, economically strained family life in a lower-class workers' complex in industrial Nottingham. Without a job, Colin indulges in petty crimes in the company of his best friend, Mike (James Bolam). Meanwhile, at home, his father's long years of toil in a local factory have resulted in a terminal illness for which his father refuses treatment. Colin is angered by the callousness of his mother (Avis Bunnage), who he knows already has a "fancy man", and who Colin finds has neglected to give his father an herbal concoction for pain and, as Colin believes, brings about his father's death..
Colin rebels by refusing a job offered to him at his father's factory and watches with disdain as his mother spends the five hundred pounds in insurance money the company pays her on clothes, a television and new furniture. When his mother's lover moves into the house, and after an argument when his mother tells him to leave, Colin and his best friend Mike (James Bolam) take to the streets. Colin uses his portion of the insurance money to treat Mike and two girls they meet to an outing in Skegness, a nearby coastal resort, where Colin falls in love with his date, Audrey (Topsy Jane), and confesses to her that she is the first woman he's ever slept with. She eventually extracts a half-hearted promise from Colin that he might look for work, implying his feelings for her are such that marriage is a possibility.
But one night, while prowling the streets of Nottingham with Mike, the two spot an open window at the back of a building. It's a bakery, with nothing much to steal but the cashbox, which contains about seventy pounds. Mike is all for another outing to Skegness with the girls, but Colin is more cautious and hides the money in a drainpipe outside his house. Soon, the police come calling, accusing Colin of the robbery. He tells the surly detective he has no knowledge of the crime. The detective produces a search warrant on a subsequent visit, but can find nothing. Finally, frustrated and angry, he returns to say he'll be watching Colin. As the two stand at Colin's front door in the rain, the torrent of water pouring down the drainpipe dislodges the money, which washes out around Colin's feet.
This backstory is interspersed in flashbacks with Colin's present-time experiences at Ruxton Towers, where he must contend with the jealousy of his fellow inmates over the favoritism shown to him by The Governor, especially when The Governor decides not to discipline Colin, as he does the others, over a dining hall riot because of Ruxton's bad food. Colin also witnesses the kind of treatment given to his fellows who are not so fortunate - beatings, bread-and-water diets, demeaning work in the machine shop or the kitchen.
Finally, the day of the marathon against Ranley arrives, and Colin quickly sizes up who the school's best runner is (played by a very young James Fox) and who he must beat. With a proud Governor looking on, the starting gun is fired. Colin soon overtakes Ranley's star runner and has a comfortable lead with a sure win; but a series of jarring images run through his mind, jumpcut flashes of his life at home and his mother's neglect, his father's dead body, stern lectures from detectives, police, The Governor, the hopelessness of any future life with Audrey. Just yards from the finish line, he stops running and remains in place, despite the calls, howls, protests from the Ruxton Towers crowd, and especially The Governor. In closeup, we see Colin look directly at The Governor as a rebellious sneer plays on his face. The expression remains there as the Ranley runner passes him and crosses the finish line to victory. The Governor's anger is evident.
At the end of the film, Colin is back in the machine shop, punished and now ignored by The Governor. But he seems calm, even content, because in the end, he refused to buckle under to authority and has settled into the loneliness of the title.