“10 Lonely Seconds” in Chariots of Fire

The opening scene from Chariots of Fire (1981)
Warner Bros.

There is much to say about Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson’s soaring 1981 biopic about two British runners who compete in the 1924 Olympics: much about class and social order, about overcoming both religious prejudice and Anglo-Saxon snobbery, about stuffy British parlors and antiquated politics. It’s a last hurrah for what Britain was or could have been, at once a vestige of imperialism and a glimpse into our eerie era of Brexit. 

But much of this—much of one’s experience of the film—is dominated by its music.  

Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’d recognize Greek composer Vangelis’ score—the gliding synthesizers, the percussion, the plangent piano. For many, Chariots of Fire can be sized down to that opening scene: a group of young men, all dressed in white, running barefoot down a beach. Without the music, these opening moments would be ineffective and cold, and—although the scene has been parodied numerous times—the score is the film’s thumping, beating heart. 

The film opens in a church at the funeral of one of the Olympic runners in 1978, as a stately gentleman and aged athlete reminisces that, now, “There are just two of us;” cradled in nostalgia, he describes how they all had “hope in [their] hearts, and wings on [their] heels.” As the scene crossfades to the beach, we initially hear just a thrumming, percussive sound, mimicking the patter of footsteps on sand. French horns punctuate the percussion, majestically bellowing; they evoke nobility, a military march. There are several intricate allusions within Vangelis’ score—a martial tone calls to mind the mythology of the original marathoner, who ran 40 kilometers to announce a Greek victory over an invading army of Persians, before collapsing and dying from exhaustion. To that end, Vangelis’ music at times resembles a romantic dirge. 

The runners move as if performing an athletic ballet, and we settle in slow motion—or in suspension, rather—on several faces. Some, like Harold Abrahams’ (Ben Cross), are stern and focused, while others, such as Eric Liddell’s (Ian Charleson), are rocked back in ecstasy. Few film scores have captured so intently the sensation of running, especially of running with others—not necessarily what it always is (the pain, the effort), but rather that fleeting moment of euphoria that it promises. That tension—between the lyrical joy of the race, and the locomotive exertion of running—creates the crux of Vangelis’ score and of the film.     

Liddell, the beloved Scottish athlete and Christian missionary, represents the soul of the movie. Meanwhile, Harold Abrahams, the brilliant Jewish Cambridge student and one of the fastest men in Britain, must battle sneering anti-semitism from his fellow students and headmasters, his arrogance can be off-putting. After losing a race against Liddell, Abrahams sits in the bleachers, while his girlfriend tries to comfort him. “It’s just a race,” she says, as he replays in his mind—violently, brutally—the moment at the finish line where he steals a look at Liddell, thus costing him a crucial second. Vangelis’ music plays like the soundtrack of a horror film; careening and spooky, the synthesizers seem to mock Abrahams. 

It is a perfect depiction of the looping, obsessive nature of shame and regret. 

I very much want to be Liddell, but I know that I am, at heart, Abrahams, who at one point laments, “I am forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I’m chasing,” and who reflects on those “10 lonely seconds” of a race that “justify my whole existence.”

For many years, almost on a nightly basis, I’d wake up from a recurring dream. The dream would follow me into my morning shower, onto the metro, and up and down the stairs of my apartment building. I would go to sleep at night anticipating this dream and, sure enough, it would come. There was nothing supernatural or spectacular about it—there were no monsters to speak of, nor superpowers. 

But in my sleep, and in those interstitial moments of brushing my teeth, or folding the laundry, I would always be running. Fast. I wouldn’t be merely jogging, but sprinting, up and down and up and down the same high school track. 

I was 14 the first time I put on a pair of running sneakers. Before that, I had dabbled in gymnastics, ballet, and swimming, though those activities bored me. But I was constantly in motion, and I possess a distinct memory of other kids mocking me as I’d scamper in the hallways between classes, my huge backpack and violin case thudding behind me. Demonstrating zero talent for anything involving a ball, stick, or basic team spirit, I decided to sign up for track and field. 

I was woefully unprepared those first few days, breaking out in a sweat after a mile jog around the track. Hill sprints were terrifying; even beyond the physical pain itself, the existential dread of that most Sisyphean of exercises haunted me. But I grew to love it: the anticipation in the moments before a race began; the taste of blood and metal in the last moments of a sprint. 

After that first year of track, I enthusiastically signed up for cross country. I convinced myself, against all evidence, that I was naturally inclined to run longer and longer distances; cross country, I thought, was not just a test of stamina, but of character. If sprinters received all the glory, long-distance runners were the shadowy heroes, combating crushing exhaustion on isolated backwoods trails.  

Not long after my 15th birthday, I stopped eating—secretly at first, and then more brazenly. My coach, who was kind but oblivious, joked that my weight loss would make me faster. It played into the myth of the starving runner as martyr, floating on a higher moral plane. I would wake up early on practice days, eat half of a Luna bar, and then show up on the field, my stomach empty and roaring as I’d push myself to the umpteenth mile.  

Gradually, my performance on race days became conspicuously disastrous. I would heave, my lungs hot and burning and crackling, as I’d force myself up those menacing hills. While a 5K was once effortless, I now seemingly couldn’t get through the final half. During what would become my last race of the season, I managed to sprint through the last leg; as I crossed the finish line, I could no longer walk. For the next few months, I tended to my shin splints and wore a boot for the stress fracture in my foot. 

I would spend several months in the hospital to treat my anorexia; I was forbidden to walk outside. Everything was monitored—from the 6 a.m. showers with translucent curtains, to the timed and measured, hourly bathroom visits, to the daily weigh-ins. In the beginning, bottles of vanilla Ensure were poured into measuring cups, since solid food was deemed too risky. I remember shivering under layers of clothing and blankets next to the radiator, my fingernails blue, and I would close my eyes. Under the blaring hospital lights, with the TV down the hallway chattering incessantly, with the sound of the feeding tube beeping in the room next door, on the other side of the wing next to the sole, double-paned window, across from the observation room with its padded walls, I would sit in that chair, eyes shut tight. There would be screaming, and wailing, and doctors admonishing patients, but it wouldn’t matter, as long as I kept my eyes closed. And in that state, I would be outside, back in those woods. And I would be running.   

In the film, Eric Liddell’s sister desperately wants him to quit running so that he will fulfill his true calling as a missionary in China. Yet the possibility of competing in the Olympics beckons, and so he takes her for a walk in the Scottish Highlands, where he goes for his daily run. “I believe that God made me for a purpose. For China,” he explains to her. “But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” 

Whenever Liddell runs, those in the bleachers wait for the second when he tilts his head back towards the final lap. In one pivotal scene, Abrahams watches, mesmerized and envious, as Liddell is pushed by another runner and stumbles off to the side in the beginning of a race. It seems as if it’s game over for him—there is simply no way he could catch up. And then Vangelis’ music starts, first as a tremolo, and then building louder and louder: “Get up and finish the race,” Liddell’s trainer mutters to himself. As if by a miracle, Liddell leaps up; as the camera focuses on his legs pumping furiously, we watch breathlessly as he moves to the front of the line and, finally, head rocked back, he breaks through to first place. He immediately collapses, gasping and croaking, but even then, we feel his pleasure. 

And so I come back to my realization that I never was—maybe never will be—Liddell. Running was not always about feeling good; it was about proving myself. As Abrahams says in the minutes before the Olympic game that will forever seal his fate: “I’m afraid of losing, but now I’m too frightened to win.” 

On what would end up being the last day I attended high school, I went to my final track and field practice. By then I had gained weight in the months following my hospital stays, and somehow—through some form of grace, through some gentle reprieve—I began to eat again. That day, I ate a real lunch, I attended my afternoon classes, and I took the bus to the track. At first, my coaches let me sit on the sidelines. Traumatized from the ordeals of the past year, I was terrified of stepping back out into my lane—frightened of the pain, of the fear of coming in last. I was frightened and unsure of my new body, and of the shape it had taken. 

Eventually, my coaches insisted that I come out and run sprints with the rest of the team. After arguing back and forth, I laced up my sneakers, and without stretching or warming up, simply barreled onto the track. In the seconds before the whistle blew, there was calm—just the sound of my beating heart, the sound of my own breath, the sounds of my body working and being alive. And then I started to fly. I ran faster than I ever had in my life. The pain I was so afraid of never arrived; it was exhilarating. 

I ran the same 200 meters again and again, sprinting past my teammates. The coach pulled out a timer and for the first time in a year, I beamed as I heard him whisper, deadpan: “She’s fast.” (Another teammate chortled out of frame, “I don’t get it. Catherine used to be so slow!”) If I could replay Vangelis in that moment, it wouldn’t be the Vangelis of electronic fame, nor his drum-beat undertones. It would be his simple piano—full and clear. 

I found high school, and that rhythm of daily living, to be unbearable, and so I never went back after that. But I did outlive those dark days, and though I do not run as much anymore—I long ago lost any competitive edge—in my dream, running fast, I now feel something like pleasure.