When I wrote recently about former Olympic marathon champ, Naoko Takahashi retiring to the jogging ranks, a correspondent, referring to her by her nickname of Q-chan or little ghost, wrote back to say, “she’s really become a ghost runner now”. That reminded me of a man, who was known as exactly that, The Ghost Runner.
John Tarrant’s tragic story defies belief nowadays. But his name and legend are still invoked by older runners in the UK and, occasionally elsewhere, to remind youngsters of the crass stupidity of the old amateur rules.
In the late 1950s, Tarrant, who was born and raised in the north-west of England, not far from Manchester, realised that his early attempts at a sporting career in the boxing ring were not going to come to anything, except some bad beatings. So he increased the mileage on the roadwork that he was already doing for boxing, and saw that he could become a good distance runner.
Acting on a recommendation from a friend, he sent off a membership form to a local athletics club. A simple, straightforward man until his early death, Tarrant never thought to conceal his earnings from the fairground boxing booths, approximately seventeen pounds sterling, maybe $40 back in the late fifties. He was amazed to find his form returned and rejected, since he was considered a “professional sportsman”.
Those seventeen paltry pounds were going to blight Tarrant’s life and running career. But he wasn’t going to go quietly. With the aid of running peers and local then national journalists, Tarrant applied to have the nonsense overturned, all the time training hard while holding down an exhaustive labouring job in a stone quarry.
Refused entry to a series of races around the north and midlands of England, he realised there was nothing to prevent him running on the highway at the same time as a road race. So, in order to avoid the more draconian officials – and there were a lot of them – he would mingle with the crowd at the start of road races, and throw off his disguise of overcoat and flat hat, and simply join in.
Alerted to this ploy, which regularly resulted in a top ‘finish’ or even a ‘winning’ performance – of course he couldn’t cross the finish line – an enterprising national journalist nicknamed Tarrant, The Ghost Runner. His story was taken up widely by the national media, and he was eventually granted an amnesty.
But it was only when he finished second, officially this time in the AAA Marathon Championships in 1960, that he realised that his amnesty was only domestic. That performance should have assured him a place on the British team for the Olympic Games in Rome. But the Olympic mandarins, led by billionnaire fascist Avery Brundage, were having none of it. Tarrant’s Olympic dream was shattered again.
Donning the Ghost Runner guise anew, he turned to ultra-distance running, 24 hour races, seven-day races. He was welcomed to New York for ultra track events by Ted Corbett and his colleagues; and he ran the South African ‘ultras,’ the Comrades’ Marathon, and the Two-Oceans race, as a means of competing abroad. Seeing some sort of equation between his ostracism and apartheid, in 1970 he became the first ‘white’ to compete in an otherwise all ‘black’ and ‘coloured’ race, the Stanger to Durban 50 Miles, which he won. He was victorious in many other distance races, mainly in the UK. He also set world track bests for 40 and 100 miles.
On a personal note, I met Tarrant numerous times, since he had moved to the English Midlands, near to where I was taking my first junior strides in athletics. I recall running a 4×3 mile road relay in his home town of Hereford. Tarrant ran all four legs of the relay, and beat several teams. Then he ran home. It was all training, he said, for his ultras.
In the early 70s, he started to suffer from acute stomach ailments, but continued to train and race through them, until massive weight loss finally forced him to seek medical help. Initially diagnosed as ulcers, when the stomach cancer was finally discovered it was too late.
Even then, Ron Bentley, another ultra world record ‘great’ told me that when he visited the dying man in hospital, Tarrant was refusing to take pain-killers, believing he could face it down, just like everything else in his hard life. As they say, they don’t make ‘em like that any more.
John Tarrant died in 1975 at the age of 42.
But his memory lives on.