The story is about a teenage juvenile delinquent who is confined to a reform school in Essex, where he concentrates his energy on long-distance running. He’s offered an incentive for winning a race against the arch-rival school, but he intentionally loses instead, as a defiant demonstration of free will.
This passage is near the beginning of the book:
So as soon as I tell myself I’m the first man ever to be dropped into the world, and as soon as I take that first flying leap out into the frosty grass of an early morning when even birds haven’t the heart to whistle, I get to thinking, and that’s what I like. I go my rounds in a dream, turning at lane or footpath corners without knowing I’m turning, leaping brooks without knowing they’re there, and shouting good morning to the early cow-milker without seeing him. It’s a treat, being a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do or that there’s a shop to break and enter a bit back from the next street.
I’d never heard of the Angry Young Men, a tag for several celebrated dissenting writers of the 1950s, including Sillitoe. Every decade has its angry young men, after all. I’ve paid more attention to the angry young women writers of subsequent generations. The anger is exhausting.
Also surprising to me was the number of songs inspired by the book, including, in 1986, Iron Maiden’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” Of course, there’s a screen adaptation of the story as well, currently up on YouTube, possibly in violation of copyright, so I won’t link.