Arriving at Spencer Street train station reminds Charlie of the times he and his father would watch steam trains, which he thought of as hissing monsters. Now he is excited to climb aboard the beastly train. In the carriage, Charlie notices the well-dressed passenger across from him has clean white shoes with running spikes. Charlie confirms they are in the same race and starts talking about his training routine. The boy says anyone who knows anything about running knows you don’t train sprints for a mile race. Charlie asks Mr. Redmond what sort of running he used to do, and Redmond admits he learned to run because he was chased by a bully at school. The boy taunts Charlie and Redmond, asking whether they brought a rabbit with them. The ticket collector arrives before Redmond goes off on the boy. When the train reaches Ballarat, the boy says he’s grateful to have met them, because he knows there’s one less racer to worry about.
Off the train, Charlie remembers his wad of cash and makes sure he still has it by clutching his pocket. Charlie and Mr. Redmond head to Mrs. Pickwick’s lodging house and settle in their room. Redmond gives Charlie a pair of black leather running spikes and says a bunch of people chipped in to buy them for him. Charlie puts them on and the two go out. Charlie observes that the streets of Ballarat seem to have more room to move; people smile and the air is clean. At the running track, they walk a lap. Redmond tells Charlie to stay on the inside lane. If he needs to go wide to pass others, he should do it on the straightaways, and keep to the inside track on the bends. Redmond tells Charlie he only has to run four laps, assuring him he could do four laps in his sleep.
Back at the lodging house, Mrs. Pickwick serves Redmond and Charlie rabbit stew, saying she assumes they must not be used to it as city dwellers. Redmond winks to Charlie. As she has been studying palm reading, Pickwick reads Charlie’s palm. She apologizes for his loss, and says she knows it must have been a rough few months. He asks about the race and she says she can see a pair of black running shoes and a pair of white. But she loses the image and says she can’t say anymore—the spirits have said as much as they’re willing to say. Charlie can’t think of who the white shoes would belong to. That night, Charlie sleeps with his new shoes in his bed, under the blankets. In the morning, after serving a light breakfast, Pickwick tells Charlie she dreamt about his black running shoes and says she’ll be watching the race.
At the racing oval, Charlie sees the betting tent and wonders aloud what the odds against him are. Redmond tells him the odds won’t be in until the first heats. Redmond says to forget the odds and that it’s the first heat he should think about—he needs to place in the top three to advance. While stretching, the boy from the train walks up in white spikes and calls Charlie rabbit boy. Redmond says to ignore him and tells Charlie to put on his new shoes. They are far lighter than his father’s boots. Charlie comments that Redmond has no idea what he has planned. Just before the first heat, Charlie removes his shoes and gets behind the starting line barefoot. Redmond shouts, but Charlie ignores him. During the race, Charlie calculates it so that he comes in third, acknowledging that he doesn’t want to be first.
Redmond is pleased Charlie is advancing, but he wants to know why he removed his shoes. As people taunt him from a distance, Charlie admits to Redmond that he learned from working for Squizzy Taylor that you never show your strength before a fight; he purposely ran barefoot to give his odds a boost. Charlie gives Redmond the twenty-three pounds and says to bet it before the final heat. Redmond says gambling tears apart families and he should give it to his mother. But Charlie insists on his plan. Redmond capitulates, saying he hopes Charlie knows what he’s doing. Charlie continues running barefoot until the final heat, at which point he is matched against the boy from the train. With tears in his eyes, Redmond wishes Charlie good luck and kisses his cheek, saying he is proud. The envelope from Alice falls from Charlie’s coat. He opens it to read her message: “Run like the wind, Love Alice.”
In the final race, Charlie finds the fourteen larger boys are blocking the inside track and won’t let him in. Redmond shouts for him to get inside. He manages to find a space, then settles into the pace during lap two. In lap three, he makes his move, overtaking three runners before returning to the inside track. He spots the train boy’s maroon singlet up in second place. In the final lap, he waits until the final straight to bolt ahead and come up parallel with the maroon singlet. At the last moment, Charlie sees his father, Ma, Jack, Alice, and Norman cheering him on. His legs find the strength to sprint and lunge across the line. He realizes he won when Redmond runs celebrating toward him. While walking a victory lap together, Redmond tells Charlie his betting odds were fifty to one, meaning that with the prize money he has earned twelve hundred pounds. He is lifted into the air and award the trophy. He is the youngest person in history to win the Ballarat mile.
On the train home, the boy with the maroon singlet and white shoes congratulates Charlie and invites him to join his training club. Charlie thanks him but says he has a trainer already. Redmond asks Charlie what he’ll do with the money, and Charlie asks for his help in putting his plan into action. At the gates, Charlie gives Redmond the silver cup and says he should have it for everything he’s done for Charlie and his family. He also wants Redmond to take whatever he needs from the winnings, including enough to buy Mrs. Redmond a new set of teeth. They hug, then Charlie goes inside to tell his mother he won. They fall into each other’s arms.
Two weeks later, on a Saturday morning, Charlie meets outside Porter’s Wood Yard with Ma, Jack, the Redmonds, Alice and her father, and the Heaths. No one except Mr. Redmond and Charlie know why they are gathered. With ceremony, Charlie reveals a new sign: The Heath and Feehan Timber Company. He tosses a set of keys to Norman. They tour the yard, then go to Ma’s for refreshments—beer, lemonade, and cakes and pastries. Everyone crams into the front room and dances to the gramophone. Charlie and Alice pair up and dance from a distance, but soon they are holding each other close. Charlie feels wetness on his cheek and realizes she is crying. She says she’s never seen her father dance before.
They dance and sing until the only guests left are Mr. and Mrs. Redmond. Redmond is drinking beer from the Ballarat cup. Charlie goes to the door. As he opens it, Ma asks where he’s going. He says running. She asks where. He looks at his father’s boots and smiles. Who knows, he says, who knows.
The themes of poverty and ambition arise during the train ride to the Ballarat. Charlie’s poverty is highlighted by the well-dressed running club member who takes a seat across from him and complains that a ticket mix up meant he wasn’t traveling in the first-class carriage. Charlie speaks to the boy with sincerity, seeing only their common ambition as competitive runners; he naively asks if the boy also trains by catching rabbits, not realizing that rabbit catching is a poor person’s means of acquiring food. But the boy mocks the idea that Charlie could be a decent runner, saying he is happy to know there’s at least one runner he won’t have to worry about.
The boy from the train’s white running shoes return to Charlie in his dreams that night, as he sees his black running spikes in competition. However, Charlie doesn’t remember to whom the white spikes belong. The ambitious dream is reinforced by Pickwick’s own dream: in the morning, she informs Charlie that she also dreamt of black running shoes.
During the race, Charlie’s cunning ambition leads him to take two big risks by purposefully raising the odds against him and then betting all of his Squizzy Taylor earnings on himself. To appear as a less-serious competitor, Charlie removes his shoes and runs the first heat barefoot. He also calculates it so that he comes in third, doing just well enough to qualify for the next heat. By exploiting the betting managers’ prejudices against him as a small, poorly dressed boy, Charlie is able to manipulate the odds against him so that his bet will pay off by fifty times.
After Charlie succeeds, he uses his winnings from the race to buy a timber yard that will keep him and Norman employed in honest work for life. The timber yard is symbolic: Charlie’s ambition to begin running started because he wanted to escape the cold he associated with poverty; that ability to run fast led him eventually to secure a lasting source of not only money but firewood.
The novel ends with the image of everyone who matters to Charlie celebrating together. They have food, warmth, and music; they are happy and safe. Charlie’s experience working with Squizzy Taylor threatened his moral character: he easily could have continued working for the crime boss, growing more enmeshed in the violent masculine identity he began to develop. But Charlie’s decision to channel his cunning, ambition, and natural talent as a runner away from a life of crime allows him to heal the rifts in his life and secure a bright future. Charlie is not limited by the poverty and grief that followed his father’s death.