You don’t need to be around high achievers for very long to realise that it isn’t talent alone which separates them from the rest of us; it is mostly obsession. They are obsessives. If it hadn’t been running or jumping or throwing, it would have been something else – stamp collecting, train-spotting, serial-killing, et al.
John Tarrant was an obsessive about running; an obsessive to the point of exclusion, of family, friends, colleagues; and the sort of mutual interaction that you and I might enjoy – a visit to the pub, a restaurant, the theatre, cinema, television, a concert, the ballet; whatever makes life more enjoyable, even more comprehensible.
Tarrant quietly became one of the best long distance runners in Britain in the 1950s. But the ‘amateur’ authorities prevented him from competing, because when he tried to join a club, he made the mistake of declaring a paltry £17 (about $40 at the time) that he had earned in teenage boxing bouts. After much anger and frustration, and repeated attempts to get the ban overturned, Tarrant hit back in the only way open to him.
Since he couldn’t be prevented from running on the highway, he started gate-crashing road races, competing without a number. A canny newspaperman, learning of his exclusion for being a ‘pro’ christened him the Ghost Runner; and a legend was born.
Tarrant was eventually reinstated, but when he sought selection for the 1960 Olympic Games – finishing second in one of the qualifying races (first brought automatic selection) – he was told that his reinstatement was only for domestic races. He took up the mantle of the Ghost Runner again, in order to run abroad. It is testimony to the good sense of long distance runners everywhere that he was accepted, supported and championed by the vast majority of his peers wherever he went.
He turned to ultra running as he got older, and broke world records for 40 and 100 miles. While staying in South Africa, and rejected by the national federation and its officers, as he had once been by the Brits, he saw some sort of equation between the system of apartheid and his own exclusion. He began entering, and winning, non-white races; helping, according to black and ‘coloured’ officials, to chip away at the bastion of apartheid, which would eventually fall some 20 years later.
The occasional stomach problems he had had throughout his career got worse in South Africa, but a succession of doctors there and back in the UK could find nothing wrong – until it was too late. John Tarrant died of cancer, aged 42.
I have written elsewhere about the Ghost Runner (link), most recently in 2008, when I signalled that a new book was closing in on the presses. I’m glad to report that not only has The Ghost Runner; The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop been published; but that it is a finely written and engrossing read.
Former Granada TV documentary maker, Bill Jones first heard of Tarrant years ago, when he was making a programme about Salford Harriers. Repeated references by club members to their former colleague got then kept Jones intrigued until early retirement three years ago gave him the opportunity to indulge in a bit of obsessing himself. The book, with some lovely, descriptive passages counterpointing the blunt, hard (to believe) reality of Tarrant’s tragic life, is the result.
This sort of book is just as much a labour of love as Tarrant’s running was to him. I only wish that Jones had indulged his capacity for lyric, descriptive writing a little more. That is not a criticism, more a recognition that the wastelands that Tarrant inhabited didn’t permit it. And, in the end, the story is the thing.
Thirty years ago, Tarrant himself gave us his own, naïve, self-penned portrait in a book with the same title. Bill Jones has embellished that rough sketch; and in doing so has given John Tarrant the testament he deserves.
Go and buy it.