796: The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones

by Gerard


796.42092: Jones, Bill. The Ghost Runner: The Epic Journey of the Man They Couldn’t Stop. New York: Pegasus Books, 2012. 264 pp. ISBN 978-1-6059-8413-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 790: Recreational and performing arts
  • 796: Athletic and outdoor sports and games
  • 796.4: Weightlifting, track and field, and gymnastics
  • 796.42: Track and field (running)
  • +092: Biography

He was a ghost—no number, no official listing, no limitations. John Tarrant snuck to the starting lines of hundreds of races in the 1950s and 1960s and jetted away once the starter’s pistol sounded. Race officials were always stymied when he passed; without a bib number, they didn’t know how to mark his time. His British countrymen revered him as a man who dared to stand up to the system. Even when he moved to South Africa to run against apartheid, he was still persona non grata. His past dogged him wherever he went, and no organization authorized or recognized his amazing ability on the track . Bill Jones’s The Ghost Runner is a fascinating look into the life of a man whose teenage mistakes caused a lifetime of pain and prejudice.

John Tarrant (1932-1975) lived to run. He only had one speed—full throttle. If not for a brief interlude with boxing in his late teens, he would have been one of the greatest runners in the world. He only boxed in 8 matches and earned £17 in his entire career. This seventeen pounds were the costliest of his life. Because of his professional “earnings” as a boxer, he could never get recognized as a amateur athlete, a status that was absolutely necessary to register for races and the Olympics. This seventeen pounds were the basis for a lifetime ban from amateur races. Even though Tarrant’s raw talent in running led him to eventually hold the 40-mile and 100-mile world records, he could not compete to represent his country in any amateur competition.

Tarrant’s story is both sad and monomaniacal. Bill Jones’s narrative continually harps on the organizing bodies of the day for their stubbornness. While Tarrant’s ban was lifted briefly for domestic races in the late 1950s, when he went to South Africa to train for ultra-marathons, he was subsequently banned from racing there as well. After a while, the officials stopped caring about his sneaking onto the course, but his results were never officially recognized.

The other side of this was Tarrant’s somewhat negligent treatment of his family. He moved from one low-paying job to another, each time quitting in order to schedule more training time. If he wasn’t sleeping or working, he was running, once logging 570 miles in a single month. Now, I’m a bit of a runner and this monthly distance is utterly inconceivable. His move to South Africa was without his family and they had to fend for themselves the entire time he was gone. While I can appreciate his dedication to his field, his interactions with other people could sometimes be very disheartening.

All in all, this was a very good book. Jones’s writing is fluid and exciting for the most part. He does repeat himself a bit about the seventeen pounds, but I think it drives home the point all the more. If the BAAB had just offered a bit of lenience, then Tarrant’s life would have turned out much differently indeed. A thoughtful and enjoyable book.