Category Archives: History

“The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop” by Bill Jones

I’m a big believer in the idea that single moments in time can change the whole course of someone’s life. In my own case, it was a fateful decision in 1996 to stop eating Pickled Onion Monster Munch, an act that made me (and my breath) immeasurably more popular with the opposite sex.

For John Tarrant, the subject of this book, it was his teenage decision in 1950 to accept £1 for fighting in a local boxing match, unaware of the consequences. That seemingly simple act would result in him being branded a ‘professional sportsman’ and banned from all amateur sport for life, based on the strict codes of the time. When Tarrant tried to join Salford Harriers running club a few years later, having realised he was a terrible boxer but a talented runner, he was suddenly confronted with the full force of an establishment that refused to let him in. Given that most road races were run under amateur rules, he was effectively banned from participating in any running event. Just imagine. No London Marathon. No Great North Run. Even the Didcot 5 would be off-limits.

The Ghost Runner is the story of what happens when a relentlessly pig-headed man faces up to an unforgivably uncompromising and out-of-touch bureaucracy. Prevented from competing legitimately in marathons and other distance events, John Tarrant began ‘ghosting’ at races, turning up on a motorcycle in disguise at the last minute , then leaping off and joining the pack. Stewards would try and catch this man without a racing number, but he could always outrun them. The press loved him, and the moniker of ‘ghost runner’ stuck.

Tarrant is a difficult man to like. He behaved abominably to his long-suffering wife, virtually abandoning her and their young son in the pursuit of high mileage (he reached over 5000 miles a year eventually). He then literally abandoned them both for a couple of years later in life, when he emigrated to South Africa to pursue his dream of winning the Comrades ultramarathon. He was also lazy in relation to anything that wasn’t running and absolutely fixated to the point of madness on the Great Matter of his professional status, which he spent decades trying to overturn. On many occasions in the book he sounds like the dinner party guest from hell, and you wonder why anyone wanted to spend time in his company.

And yet despite the above, he was an easy man to admire. Born just before the Second World War, he was evacuated to a children’s home for seven years during the war, where he was brutalised by staff and spent most days in a state of misery. His mother died while he was there, and when his dad finally collected him in 1947, it was with a new wife in tow. His difficult personality therefore had understandable roots. His later passion for running is jaw-dropping in its intensity, and he would eventually set world records at the 40-mile and 100-mile distances. What is even more incredible is that he set those records on a track, which meant he had the mental control and stamina to spend up to 12 hours running in circles (400 laps!).

Tarrant’s story is a fascinating one, especially his time in apartheid-era South Africa, an experience which forced him – for once – to look critically at the world that was going on around him. However, I am sad to say that the part of the book I related to the most was the description of his bowel problems. Tarrant was a consistent sufferer of the ‘runner’s trots’ or ’gingerbread man’, which meant he was often forced to dive off into the bushes during races, sometimes forfeiting the lead in the process. I’ll freely admit it’s happened to me too, usually during a hard interval session. I once terrified the staff and patrons of the Spread Eagle pub by running straight into their bogs at 5:30 minute-mile pace in full lycra and sunglasses. I probably terrified their cleaners afterwards too.

The tragedy in Tarrant’s case is that his gastro-intestinal problems were probably caused by repeated exposure to asbestos during one of his many industrial jobs. His early death from cancer at the age of 42 was almost certainly caused by this. For my part, I can only blame the childhood diet of Monster Munch. Just say no, kids.

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“The Perfect Mile: The Race to Break the Four Minute Mile” by Neal Bascomb

Spoiler Alert! At some point in this book, Roger Bannister becomes the first man to break the four minute mile! I know, I know. Some of you will have thrown away this review in disgust with me already. As for the rest of you, I hope you’re not too annoyed that I’ve given away this vital plot point. The genius of this book is that, despite knowing how events will play out, it is still a riveting page-turner. As it happens, the events on 6 May 1954 are only a part of the full story.

Indeed, the book isn’t really about Bannister. This is a book about global rivalry, human eccentricity, and superhuman feats of time management.

Bascomb looks at the three pre-eminent milers of their day: Bannister, Australian John Landy, and American Wes Santee. Each of these men was licking his wounds after disappointment at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and set out to break the seemingly impossible target of a sub-4 mile, the record for which had been stuck at 4:01.4 since 1945.

Quite frankly, you wonder how on earth Bannister did it, while simultaneously practicing as a junior doctor AND conducting pioneering sports science research in the lab. The book records how Bannister would jump on the Tube during his lunch break, head to the Paddington track, complete an interval session with chain-smoking Chris Chataway (who would beat Bannister to BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1954) and Chris “founder of Sweatshop and London marathon” Brasher, then head back to the hospital, shower and eat – all within his lunch hour. You can only assume that (a) he ran those intervals with his eyeballs on stalks, and (b) the sandwich queue at Pret-a-Manger wasn’t as bad in those days.

The sections about Bannister are interesting enough in their own right, but how many of us know who was the second person to break the four minute mile? I won’t spoil the story by saying whether it was Landy or Santee, but both are fascinating characters, worthy of wider recognition. Landy was a seemingly middle-of-the-road runner in 1952, but was utterly transformed by training during the Olympics with the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek, who won golds in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon, all while grimacing like he’d been forced to eat a rotten brussel sprout. Santee was an outstanding college runner, who would face the challenge of having to do military service while preparing to take on the mile, as well as dealing with the bureaucrats from the American Amateur Athletics Association, who kept on finding inventive ways to undermine a runner who seemed to be getting too big for his plimsolls.

Bannister’s record is not the ending of the book, and comes just two-thirds of the way through. The real drama came in the weeks and months that followed, leading to a ‘mile of the century’ between the men who had now done the seemingly impossible. The ‘perfect mile’ of the title is not the one that happened at Iffley Road on 6 May 1954, but the showdown the following August in Vancouver. For those of us that don’t know how that race unfolded, the race report here is genuinely thrilling, and keeps you guessing the winner until the very last yards.

Overall, this is one of the best running books I have ever read. It even inspired me to (literally) run a mile afterwards, a distance few of us race these days, to see how it felt. I would have been more than a lap behind Bannister. And he probably didn’t throw up afterwards.

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“The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final” by Richard Moore

Seoul 1988 was ‘my’ Olympics. Born in 1980, I was too young to appreciate the LA Olympics in 1984, but I got caught up in the buzz of Seoul. I even remember trying to persuade my parents to buy me a toy of the official mascot, Hodori the tiger (I failed).

The crowning event of that Olympics was always going to be the 100m final, with the two great rivals Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson going head to head to settle once and for all who was the best in the world. Lewis had dominated the 100m for years, but in the year leading up to the Olympics, Johnson had completely owned the event, taking Lewis’ world title in 1987 and setting new world records on the way to the summer of 1988.

The outcome and fallout from the 1988 final is well known, but Richard Moore’s pacy account shows how little most of us know about what took place. Moore has interviewed all 8 of the men who ran in that race. What makes the book particularly gripping is how open Ben Johnson is about his career and use of illegal drugs, and the entire underworld operation required to run a successful doping programme.

Johnson is frank about what he did, and comes across mostly sympathetically as the figurehead for practices that were widespread in athletics at the time. 6 of the finalists in 1988 were subsequently found guilty of, or implicated in, doping offences. There are fascinating hints of a conspiracy at work. For one thing, you learn from this book that Johnson should never have been caught. Steroids improve performance by allowing the athlete to recover much more quickly from intense sessions and train twice as hard. Unlike EPO, as favoured by Lance Armstrong, steroids don’t actually help in the race itself, so steroid users typically stop taking them weeks before they race, so that they can flush them out of their system to avoid detection. Johnson is therefore convinced that his drink was spiked by the Lewis team, and there is certainly a mysterious character in Johnson’s dressing room whose presence is difficult to explain.

Lewis himself is the most elusive character in the book, and Moore struggles to track him down. The book reminds you what a formidable athlete he was in his prime, winning gold in four different Olympic events, including the long jump. However, there are strong hints that Lewis himself used performance enhancing drugs, and at least two known cases where he was found positive for an unnamed substance, but was subsequently let off with a warning. The reader’s view of Lewis is inevitably prejudiced by the fact that he was clearly unpleasantly arrogant at the time, although Moore highlights the devastating loss of his father and persistent press rumours about his sexuality as mitigating factors for Lewis’ aloofness.

Ultimately we are left to judge whether Johnson is right to say to Lewis “I beat you fair and square. You only beat me in the doping room”. However, the incidental details in the book include some hilarious nuggets for future pub quizzes:

Linford Christie is far, far grumpier than I remember from the ‘tunnel vision’ hero of my childhood. He was also already a grandad at the age of 36, which might have something to do with it.

Carl Lewis actually felt his true calling lay outside athletics, and thought his eventual success would come in acting or singing. His attempts to break into the music industry in the 1980s are on YouTube – you owe it to yourself to watch his hit song ‘Break it Up’.

Ben Johnson was a prodigious drinker. 24 hours before the heats (48 hours before the final) Johnson went out on a date with a 400m runner and was knocking back champagne. Even more astonishingly, immediately after his victory in the final, Johnson had 8 – yes, eight! – beers.

To me, that’s the key message of the book. However much we know he is a dirty, dirty cheat who did not deserve his medal, we can still respect a man who values the importance of a post-race pint.

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