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.