HE IS the ultimate unsung sporting hero. The Ghost Runner, a man they couldn’t stop.
The chances are you’ve never heard of John Tarrant, yet his story is one of the most moving, engrossing, and ultimately tragic, tales in the history of athletics.
As a listless, bored teenager in post-war Buxton, Tarrant had taken up amateur boxing and been paid £17 expenses for a handful of bloodily disastrous fights. By the age of 19, he’d had enough and instead taken to the Derbyshire fells in an attempt to succeed as a runner.
He applied to join a running club, naively declaring his boxing expenses. The result was an instantaneous lifetime ban from all domestic and international competition. According to the draconian codes of the day, Tarrant had competed for money and hence there could be no way back for him.
But for Tarrant there was always a way, and in 1956 he found it. On a hot August day in Liverpool, he jumped from the crowd into a field of high-profile international marathon runners.
He led for more than 20 miles, and then disappeared. The following day, every national newspaper carried the story, with the Daily Express coining the nickname which would become his abiding alter ego: The Ghost Runner.
For the next two years, Tarrant gatecrashed races all over the UK, always running without a number, often arriving at races in disguise on the back of his brother’s motorcycle, pursued by stewards clutching his photograph.
The true story of John Tarrant is told in a new book The Ghost Runner - The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop, and was one its author, Bill Jones, felt compelled to tell.
“In the run-up to the Olympics and with major stars such as Rafael Nadal and Carlos Tevez, John Tarrant’s story is a reminder of a time when people did things for different reasons. The background of grotesque money in sport makes Tarrant’s all the more poignant,” he explained.
“When men like Tarrant ran, they did it around hard manual jobs and were not allowed to take a single penny from it.
At his peak, Tarrant was running 5,000 miles a year, and he did it knowing nothing would be coming back in his direction, and the only way he could do it was to live in real poverty.”
Thwarted by the nightmare of his ban, Tarrant ran at ever-longer distances, setting the world record at 40 miles and then 100 miles.
He fled to the USA and then South Africa, where he ran as the only white in all-black road races - “a ghost in a nation of ghosts” - before cancer finally claimed him in 1975. He was aged just 42, and he died unfulfilled and largely unknown.
Tarrant’s time spent living Buxton is a fundamental part of his life story; it was to a council house on Grove Lane that the national press tracked him down after his high-profile appearance in Liverpool, turning him into a sporting hero overnight.
“Buxton is such an important part of this story as it is where all the key things happened for Tarrant,” explained Bill.
“He was a post-war, Buxton adolescent teenager with nothing to do, with a strange stepmother and a strange landscape.
“Like any other teenager he was a restless, slightly lost young man with an awful lot of energy, and he took up boxing.
“He fought half a dozen times in the town hall, and after that it is in Buxton that he met George Bailey, a former Olympic runner in his 40s, who inspired John, but fatefully suggests he declares his boxing expenses.”
Bill, who spent three years researching the book, added: “I have the most amazing admiration for Tarrant, and think he is one of the great aspirational, inspiring characters I’ve ever come across.
“But he was a pretty selfish, self-motivated, driven, single-minded character, as I think a lot of great sportsmen are.
“Did my opinion of him change? Over time he became a bigger, more sustained character than I realised and the courage of the guy was off the scale, but he’s a hard man to like. In the end, though, I don’t think that matters.”
• The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop by Bill Jones (Mainstream, £12.99) is available at www.mainstreampublishing.com.