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A Ghost Story 8/18/23


You may not be able to tell from my present circumstances, but I won the lottery once a long time ago. Really. Well, not THE lottery, but A lottery. My boss, Stan, had told me and my friend that he was hoping to run the New York Marathon that year and wanted to know if we wanted to run it too. We were young and apparently not thinking clearly, so… Would we like to run 26 miles just for the fun of it? Of course, we would! The only catch, he informed us, was that there wasn’t nearly enough space on the road for all of the applicants, so you had to enter a lottery and hope you were one of the chosen few. That sounded kind of exciting, and if we weren’t picked, we’d still be rewarded by not having to run 26 miles. It seemed like we couldn’t lose.


That spring, against all odds, all three of us separately received notice that we had been chosen as entrants for the race being run that November, about five months away. None of us had ever run anything nearly as long as a marathon before, and my buddy Gooch and I realized that we would probably need to put in a few miles before then. Throughout that summer we both ran pretty regularly so that we’d be prepared for the big day but, almost inevitably, a few weeks before the race Stan, the guy completely responsible for getting us involved in the first place, let us know that he was pulling out. He just hadn’t had time to do any running and knew he wasn’t going to be in shape for a marathon. But Stan’s friend, who would be running, would still be allowing us to crash in his hotel room in mid-town Manhattan the night before the race.


That left Gooch and me to work out our plans for getting to the big city and back, which really shouldn’t have been too difficult. We needed to be at the hosting hotel in mid-town by a certain time Saturday night to pick up our race packets and numbers for the race the next morning, and I had offered to drive. Gooch would come over to my place and we’d leave early that morning, giving us plenty of time in case of bad traffic or other unexpected delays. When that Saturday morning came, Gooch was a no-show, and I’m still not sure why I was surprised. He was a good-hearted guy from Abbeville, Louisiana, with a goofy cajun accent that was nowhere near as thick as his goofy cajun head. He was nice, and a lot of fun to be around, but he was a completely unreliable goofball, and I knew that. EVERYONE knew that.


This was the olden days before cell phones, so I spent hours that morning trying to track him down, but he was nowhere to be found. I shouldn’t have waited a single extra minute for him, but he was my friend. Kind of a crappy friend, but a friend, and I was not looking forward to running that whole race alone. By the time I finally threw in the towel and decided to go by myself I knew I’d be cutting it close, and sitting in the traffic waiting to go through the Holland Tunnel into the city I knew there was no chance I’d be able to collect my race number before the deadline.


This is already close to the longest introduction ever written, so I’ll skip ahead and just tell you that I ran that race anyway, without being officially registered and without a number, and as far as I knew I was the first person to ever do such a thing. I couldn’t imagine that something so unheard-of to me could actually not be unheard-of at all, and I certainly didn’t realize that someone else had famously done something very similar more than 30 years earlier for very different reasons. I also didn’t know there was a name for what I was doing – ghost running. What I did know is there was no way I was going through all that preparation, cost, and everything I’d gone through that weekend without running in the race.

I didn’t set any records that day. I finished an hour and 45 minutes behind the winner, and I have no idea how many of the over 22,000 other runners I finished ahead of. In fact, there’s no record that I even ran at all, although I think Mrs. Ednold can attest to the condition I was in when I finally made it back home. The only thing I got for my troubles was a strenuous tour of the big city, some very sore muscles, and a way of introducing, many years later, the story of that other guy who was the real Ghost Runner. Hopefully his story will inspire anyone out there currently preparing themselves for an upcoming endurance race.

Lamorbey

John Tarrant’s life was as improbable and sad as anything Charles Dickens ever wrote. Brothers John and Victor Tarrant spent their early years in Tooting, south London, and when the war began their mother, Edna, had already been sick with TB for years, and was getting worse. When their father, Jack, was called to military duty in 1940 it was decided the boys, 6 and 8 at the time, would enter Lamorbey Children’s Home in the eastern suburb of Sidcup.

Through the popularity of his books, Dickens is credited with spurring reforms to protect children from the ills of poverty and abuse, but John’s childhood experience wasn’t much different than that of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. Lamorbey was a hellish place, and the brothers did their best to look after each other during their time there. Their parents were able to visit the boys a few times after they entered the Home, but after Edna died in the spring of 1942, they received no further visits from their father. After years of abuse at the hands of staff and students alike, the boys were anxious to get back to the family life they’d known before the war, but even when the war ended and most other children had been retrieved by their parents, nobody came for John and Victor.

John carrying Victor at Lamorbey

The only bright spots during those years were the day during the summer of 1946, at the annual sports day, when John won the half-mile race, beating his playground nemesis in the process, and the day he did it again the following year. Each time it happened, nobody was more surprised than John and Victor, but what John lacked in physical ability he seemed to be able to make up for in mental toughness. When given the opportunity to compete in a fair contest, he simply refused to let the bullies beat him.


Finally, in 1947, their father did come to collect them. He had remarried and had wanted to wait until he and his new wife had a baby and were settled in Derbyshire before adding the two older boys to the mix. They would be living in the completely unfamiliar northern town of Buxton in the Peak District with their new half-brother, David, and their new stepmother who had no interest in raising the older boys.


Bored half to death with his life as a plumber’s apprentice in the small town far from any form of other entertainment, in 1950 John began training as a boxer. Over a period of less than two years he fought 8 times, winning five of them, before concluding that he would never amount to anything as a boxer. In 1952 he took up running and began devoting all of his spare time to his new hobby.

In fact, within a relatively short amount of time, running wasn’t what could even be called a hobby for John Tarrant. It was an obsession. It was an addiction that he just couldn’t shake, even after he was married and had a son to raise. If he’d seen a psychologist I’m sure they would have linked his apparent masochism to his childhood and his need to feel in control of some part of his life. There was also the fact that it was the one thing he seemed to be pretty good at. Whatever it was that attracted him to it, he was hooked. Despite his addiction, and his schoolboy success, John was not a natural runner. Throughout his career well-intentioned friends and peers would try to correct his gawky stride, to no effect. He was tall and gangly and there was nothing graceful about the way he would make his way down the road, or around the track. But it worked for him, and he usually left more elegant runners in his wake.

John and wife Edie

By the beginning of 1953 John Tarrant was ready to take the step of joining a running club so he would have coaches and training partners, and to do this he would need to register as an amateur athlete with the Derbyshire Amateur Athletic Association. He agonized over whether or not to report the £17 he had won in prize money during his short boxing career, but after consulting a few trusted friends decided that honesty would be the best course of action. His application was rejected due to his earnings as a boxer, but the DAAA let him know that if he could show proof that the Amateur Boxing Association considered him an amateur then they would consider that sufficient proof and his application could be approved.


The problem with this was that John had never been a member of the ABA either. His fights had just been local, unofficial, barely-organized events put on by a local Buxton resident trying to make a few bob while providing a much-needed diversion for the townfolk. So how could John have his amateur standing “reinstated” when he’d never been registered in the first place?


Frequent letters to both amateur associations continued for four long, frustrating years, but the authorities were unyielding. If he had taken prize money, he was not an amateur. And if he was not an amateur, he could not run competitively. Period. The leaders of the AAA were invariably upper-class Oxbridge graduates who felt that competition was a reward in itself, and no true gentleman would ever accept payment for the privilege of competing. Or at least that’s the excuse they used to keep their working class, mostly northern, countrymen from being able to afford to participate.


Though it would be hard to imagine two men with less similar backgrounds and personalities, regular readers of this blog will remember that Jack Kerouac was having a very similar experience at almost exactly the same time. Coincidence? Jack faced years of rejection from publishers and editors who were holding onto old ideas of what a novel should be, while John faced rejection from leaders of the athletic establishment holding onto old ideas of what an athlete should be. The years from 1952 to 1956 drove Jack mad, and came close to doing the same to John. The post-war cultural and societal forces that would eventually spell the end of A.C. Gilbert’s toy empire were taking shape, but it was a frustratingly slow evolution for those in the vanguard. Another ten years and neither Jack nor John would have created the fuss they made in 1956, but at the time the generations ahead of them weren’t ready to yield just yet.


By 1956 John had quit his job as a plumber and got on at the local stone quarry, where he would often run the three miles to work and then take a long, ten-mile detour on the way home, often with a backpack full of rocks just to make things interesting. At about the same time John had taken up running four years earlier, little brother Victor had left home to do his national service as a cook with the Royal Air Force, and he liked it so much he’d stayed on as a chef at the base in Hereford, near the Welsh border.

John had kept Victor abreast of his difficulties finding a way to run competitively, and in the summer of ’56 the two, along with John’s new wife Edie, conspired on a plan to make the authorities change their minds: Instead of waiting for permission that looked like it might never be granted, John would run in the races without permission. When he performed well, people would learn why he wasn’t a registered runner, a wave of support would bring his case to public attention, and the bureaucrats responsible for banning him would be shamed into changing their minds. They weren’t sure it would work, but rationally pleading their case for four years had gotten them nowhere, and it was the best idea they could come up with.

They chose two races that summer that would serve as John’s first two road races against real competition, and they had it all planned out. John would ride on the back of Victor’s motorcycle to a place near the starting line, then hop back on at the end of the race and be gone before they got caught. It sounded easy enough, but even though the first race in Macclesfield was only a dozen miles from Buxton, they managed to get lost on the way there and missed the race. A few weeks later they were late for the start of a race in Leeds, leaving John still waiting for his racing debut.


Even though John had never run more than 12 miles at any one time, the Liverpool Marathon was only a few days away and, desperate to get his career started, the brothers decided to try a third time. This time John took the train, so as not to be late, and nobody paid much attention to the guy with no number until about the eleven-mile mark, when he could restrain himself no more. Running on the built-up adrenaline of four years of frustration, he pulled away from the pack and suddenly he was having to dodge the race stewards trying to stop him from completing the race. As the race went on and he maintained his lead, crowd support for the unknown runner grew. To those along the course asking who he was, he would reply only “Tarrant of Buxton”.


This was Tarrant’s first race though, and he hadn’t the slightest idea about pacing and tactics, and on a hot mid-August afternoon he was denied any refreshment at the water stations along the route. By mile 19 he was seriously dehydrated and fading fast. After 24 miles he could go no further, and an ambulance had to take him the rest of the way. It had been a disastrous day. All of the planning and training had been for nothing. Except…


The Liverpool Echo newspaper had gone to press at 5:00pm, and when it had, Tarrant had still been in the lead. “Refuses to Quit”, read the headline, and by the time he arrived back at the train station for his ride home, every journalist in town wanted to hear his story. Two days later the London Daily Express ran a full story on the “Ghost Runner” and the sad tale of his fight for amateur status was printed for everyone in Britain to see. The race he hadn’t even finished had accomplished exactly what he, Edie, and Victor had hoped it would, and the vast majority of those who heard his story were sympathetic to his cause.


By the next April, John was in even better shape when he and Victor made the trip to Doncaster for the start of the Doncaster to Sheffield Marathon. The authorities were also better prepared for him. Each of the stewards had been given a copy of Tarrant’s photograph with strict instructions not to allow him near the starting line. Parked a few blocks away, John changed into his running outfit in the front seat of Victor’s Mini, which could not have been an easy task for the 6’2” runner. Then he donned an overcoat and flat cap for the walk to the starting line, where he did his best to remain inconspicuous until the gun went off. When it did, he threw off his coat and hat and took off for the safety of the lead pack with stewards in hot pursuit. Of course, they were in no shape to catch him, and once surrounded by other runners who were almost unanimously sympathetic to the statement he was making, he was safe.

John (right)

Though again at the front through 20 miles, John faded badly and finished 11th. He continued racing through the summer of 1957 and, though he wasn’t winning, he was gradually building up support. The newspapers loved him because they were guaranteed a good story when he appeared, and the race organizers realized that their crowds were larger whenever there were rumors that he might make a surprise appearance. Just as importantly, support from his peers also grew, and a few even took up his cause by writing letters of support to whomever they thought might be able to help.


By this time John had switched jobs several times in an effort to find a work schedule around which he could put in 12-15 miles a day on the road, and now he found the best job yet. He worked 40 hours a week stripping asbestos off worn brake plates so they could be relined. The factory was a few miles out of town so he could run to work in the morning with his backpack full of rocks, get in another 5 miles or so at lunchtime, and run back home with his rocks at the end of the day. By February, 1958, interest in his case was great enough that he was interviewed for a television show by a sympathetic journalist, which helped increase his support even more, and not long after he received a letter notifying him that he had been reinstated by the Amateur Athletic Association. He could now compete in any AAA events as an amateur of full status.


Tarrant took full advantage of his new eligibility and raced more frequently than ever. He even won a few of the less prestigious events around the north of England. He was putting in more miles and training harder than ever with the ultimate goal of representing Great Britain in the marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In the summer of 1959 Victor drove up from Hereford for a weekend with the family and stopped by John’s factory to drive him home on Friday afternoon and couldn’t believe the conditions John had been working in all this time. He’d had no idea the filth and grime John had put up with each day just to have time to run.

Victor went home and put in a good word for his brother at his RAF base and got John a job as the caretaker. They needed someone to mow the lawns and sweep the floors, and other things well within John’s abilities. And they really weren’t looking for anyone with any skills, anyway; they were looking for a ringer for their distance running team. Territorial Army units from all over the country competed each year for the TA Championship, and Victor had secured the job for John on the condition that he join the Territorial Army. John wasn’t the military type, but was willing to agree to just about anything to get a job where he wasn’t expected to do much more than run all day.


Not long after John moved his young family to Hereford, a distance-walking fad had emerged after one Royal Marine had set a new world record by marching 110 miles in just over 36 hours. Soon, people all over the country were taking turns beating that record, and by the time John took his turn a week later a few hours had already been shaved off the record before John walked to Cardiff and back in just over 30 hours to set a new record. Of course, someone else broke the record within a few days, but for a short time John Tarrant had been a world record holder.


Reinvigorated, he started the new decade off by winning races all over Britain.

The winner of the AAA Marathon in July was traditionally awarded a spot on the Olympic team, and that was Tarrant’s focus throughout the first half of 1960. He looked to be on track for a realistic shot at the goal he had been aiming at for years. That was, until May, when he received a letter of clarification from the AAA, informing him that, though they had reinstated him to run in Britain, the International Association did not accept reinstated athletes for international competition, and there was no chance that he would ever represent his country in an international race. It took a while, but Tarrant slowly realized that his domestic reinstatement had only been a way to get him off the front pages and make him shut up and go away. The guys in the suits didn’t count on him continuing to run, and win, and publicly state his intentions to make the Olympic team.


The reason the head of the AAA, an old man named Jack Crump, was so certain the IAAF would never allow Tarrant to run is that two of the most influential members of that body were British friends of his. The president was Lord Burghley, who was an old Olympic 400m hurdles champion. Remember Chariots of Fire? Where the guy runs the 367 meters around the Cambridge quad at midnight in the 43.6 seconds it took the college clock to toll 12 o’clock? Sure you do! Anyway, the film fictionalized it, but Burghley was the first to accomplish that feat in 1927.


The other British member of the board was none other than the man who (wrongly) was seen running around the quad in the movie: Harold Abrahams, the hero of the movie and winner of the 100 meters at the 1924 Olympics. Both Abrahams and Burghley always stood by the idea that anyone who had ever accepted a penny for their exertions was not gentleman enough to represent his country, and were both vehemently anti-Tarrant. Chariots of Bullshit, if you ask me. I can’t wait for Tarrant’s movie to come out and tell the real story of those two villains.


The whole class structure of the old English amateur system was crazy. At least in this country we put people on our team so they can win us medals before we treat them like crap. Later, we can steal those medals (Jim Thorpe) or pretend they aren’t as good as us (Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, etc., etc.) but we want to win, so we let them participate first. The British preferred losing to even allowing their supposed inferiors on the team. That’s just stupid. Or maybe it’s just more intellectually honest. I don’t know.

Predictably, John was crushed at hearing of this newest restriction, but figured his best shot was to win the AAA Marathon that July, at least putting Crump and the rest of them in the embarrassing position of having to choose the runner-up for the Olympic team. Leading up to the race he won a marathon on the Isle of Wight, then won the British Games 20 mile race in London. When July arrived, however, Tarrant couldn’t quite do what he needed to. After leading for 19 miles he was passed by the eventual winner and finished two minutes back. His personal-best time had not been enough. A few weeks later he went back to Liverpool where his career had begun, this time winning the marathon in record time. But it was too little, too late to have any bearing on his Olympic dreams. In fact, at 28, it looked like all doors had closed on John’s chances of somehow making his mark on the running world, and he could take little comfort from the fact that the three runners Great Britain sent to Rome all wilted in the 100 degree heat of the Olympic marathon, running considerably slower than Tarrant's best and finishing 16th, 25th and 29th.


For the next few years John alternated between anger and bitterness, having periodic success on the roads but no consistent dominance. Then in 1965 he decided that marathons just weren’t long enough for him, and he began training for and entering longer events, such as the annual 54-mile London to Brighton race. His success still wasn’t consistent, but one thing was: During the races he would have to stop, sometimes several times, to relieve himself. He had often dealt with stomach pains and an occasional bout of diarrhea, but they had become more and more frequent and intense and he was often forced to withdraw mid-race due to his affliction. The few doctors he spoke to didn’t seem too concerned, and occasionally he’d get in a good run with no sign of the mysterious physical malady. One such race was in November of 1966, when he set a world record for the 40-mile run in horrendously cold, wet, and windy conditions. Only three other runners even finished the race. So bad were the conditions that everyone else dropped out along the way.


It was around this time that Tarrant decided that he would need to leave his native country to achieve the success that was denied him at home. Even though it had been made clear to him many times that his ban applied to all races run on foreign soil, he had made enough foreign contacts over the years to be tempted by opportunities to run outside of England. He wrote to the organizers of a race in Poughkeepsie, New York and asked if he could run in their Thanksgiving Day 50-mile race, and received a reply that he was welcome to enter the race. But this was a week before the race and John didn’t have a spare penny to his name. How would he possibly get to New York and back?

Tarrant wasn’t aware that a wealthy local businessman had been following his career all along. Unbeknownst to John, this man had been pleading his case at the highest levels, including the Prime Minister, with no more luck than John had ever had. Just three days before Thanksgiving this man, Ned Waring, learned of John’s desire to run in New York and his inability to pay his way, and sent him enough money for a plane ticket and any other expenses the trip would require, no strings attached.


When his flight landed in New York, John called the race organizers and only then found out that Poughkeepsie was actually ninety miles outside the big city, and the people in Poughkeepsie had already received notice from London that not only was Tarrant ineligible to run, but anyone who ran with him would also lose their amateur status. Hearing of this and not knowing what the ultimate outcome would be, John caught a cab to Grand Central Station and got on the first train to Poughkeepsie, arriving just a few hours before the early morning start of the race.

Voluntarily running as a ghost so as not to endanger the status of his competitors, John ran well but faded toward the end, probably due to the fact that he hadn’t slept in 30 hours, and finished in second place. After a short nap he retraced his path back to JFK Airport and went home. Though he hadn’t won, and though he had had to run as a ghost, Tarrant described the sympathetic reception he had received as “the greatest thing in athletics to happen to me”.

Son Roger, Edie, John

Having left home and run on a different continent without serious repercussions from the authorities, John then set his sights on the world’s premier ultra-distance race, the Comrades race in South Africa. Still basically destitute himself, Tarrant relied on the willingness of Ned Waring to organize a fund-raising campaign to raise the £400 for a round-trip ticket to Durban, South Africa the next spring, though race officials informed him that he was not welcome to race there, given his status. While Ned kept track of the donations as they came in, John put himself through months of the most grueling training imaginable.

On the final day of May, 1968, John Tarrant, having traveled over 6,000 miles to do so, was standing at the starting line of the Comrades with several other ghost runners. Since only whites could officially participate in the race, there was a whole country full of ghosts, and many ran with him that day. He finished fourth out of over 600 runners, but was not officially recognized as having even been in the race. The next year, unable to raise the full amount, John took £200 from Ned Waring to purchase a one-way ticket, planning to find a job in South Africa and earn the money for a return ticket at some point.

That race saw the return of his “stomach troubles”, and Tarrant struggled to a 28th place finish. His biggest stroke of luck was that soon after, he secured a position driving a forklift on the Durban docks, complete with room and board at the nearby hostel.

Between shifts on the forklift Tarrant had just enough time to eat, sleep, and get in 150 training miles a week in preparation for his next challenge: After borrowing another £300 for expenses, he flew home to England to compete in the Walton-on-Thames 100 mile race, where he and 16 other runners would attempt to break the world record for that distance. In a time of 12 hours 31 minutes, he did just that, and for the second time John Tarrant was a world record holder. Within hours of finishing he left Edie, Roger and Victor again to return to South Africa to work and pay off his debt.


By now Tarrant was a familiar figure to anyone in South Africa involved in running, and to many who weren’t. This included a young Indian immigrant named Rajendra Chetty, a journalist intrigued by John Tarrant’s story. Chetty also happened to be organizing a non-racial running organization that would allow anyone to join their races, and was recruiting prominent non-black runners to participate. Though many claimed to be sympathetic, only Tarrant promised to run in the new organization’s Goldtop Marathon coming up in September of 1970.

John with the first Goldtop trophy

Chetty couldn’t believe his luck, and when race day came and Tarrant was the only white entrant, the black South Africans were curious about the Englishman who was willing to run side-by-side with them. As one journalist put it, “You’ve no idea the excitement this was causing. Who was this new champion the whites didn’t like? How, from such a quagmire, had such a noble human being arrived in our midst?” Since most of his competition hadn’t even trained for the 50-mile race, John won easily, and that same journalist said “He was so reluctant and shy, and rather than give a victory speech, he quietly congratulated all the other runners. We’d got our hero.”


John went back to England after that race, but returned the next year to lose the Comrades for a fourth time, but win the Goldtop for a second. A few weeks later, alone in his hostel room, Tarrant suffered an internal hemorrhage and began coughing up blood. The diagnosis was a stomach ulcer, but still none of the doctors seemed too concerned, and a few weeks later Tarrant was back in England, this time for good. He suffered a more massive hemorrhage six months later, but for almost two more years he experienced sporadic success as his health continued to decline. It wasn’t until November of 1973 that his stomach was removed after doctors found the cancer that had been there all along.


Though he did complete a final 10-mile charity run to raise money for the hospital where he underwent surgery, John Tarrant was never able to fully recover, and died in January of 1975 at the age of 42. Fittingly, that same year, thanks largely to him, the Comrades race was, for the first time, fully integrated, welcoming women as well as black runners. The man who had been prohibited from running had helped secure that privilege for others and helped produce one of the first cracks in the wall of apartheid; a crack that others continue to chip away at today, though apartheid is no longer official government policy.

Ghost Runner dedication. Roger is second from right.

John Tarrant was basically abandoned by his parents, then endured several years at a boarding school in conditions that even Dickens would have had a hard time believing. Then his one real post-school dream was stolen by organized pinheads and, finally, the guy who least deserved a visit from the big C was taken down by cancer. Victor always believed it had something to do with John’s time working with asbestos, but whether or not that’s true it’s amazing what John accomplished and sad to think how good he might have been if he’d ever been completely healthy.

At one low point in John Tarrant’s career, he told a reporter “People here look right through me. It’s as though I don’t exist. It’s no joke, I can tell you.” Yet even as a ghost John Tarrant accomplished more than Abrahams, Burghley, Crump, and all the rest of those losers ever did, which is why he has a street in Hereford named for him and why, about ten years ago, a campaign was started to erect a Ghost Runner statue. They love their Ghost Runner in Hereford, and the statue was unveiled in 2018, with John's son Roger in attendance. It’s in honor of Tarrant, but I was a ghost runner once too and I like to think it honors anyone who's ever been that guy without a number.


Some highlights of John Tarrant's career


Cardiff Stadium Run (40 miles) 1966 World Record 4h 3m 28s

Walton-On-Thames (100 miles) 1969 World Record 12h 31m 10s

Isle of Man (39 miles) Winner 1965-67; Course record 4h 11m 26s

Exeter to Plymouth (44 miles) Winner 1965-67; Course record 4h 44m 35s

Liverpool to Blackpool (48 miles) Winner 1965 and 67. Course record 4h 55m 56s

London to Brighton (52 miles) Winner 1967

Isle of Wight Marathon Winner 1960-62. Course record 2h 26m 44s

Liverpool Marathon Winner 1960. Course record

Salford Harriers 10 mile. Winner 1958-66. Course record.


For the whole story, read Bill Jones' book The Ghost Runner



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