Monday, March 25, 2013

The Ghost Runner, by Bill Jones

There are runners, and there are people obsessed with running, and then there are the runners who go way beyond what any other runner can and will do.  I am not sure I have ever read of anyone as committed to running as John Tarrant, and who gave up so much for the sport.  In The Ghost Runner: The Epic Journey of the Man They Couldn't Stop, Bill Jones tells Tarrant's story, a tragic tale of a guy whose way to short life had way too much frustration and loss for one runner to bear.

Well, maybe that's overstating the case.  But read The Ghost Runner and you'll see what I'm talking about.  After being sent away to a grim boarding school during WW2, and losing his mother shortly after the war, the teenage Tarrant took up, among other things, boxing.  He had decent athleticism and enjoyed modest success.  In less than two year, "he'd fought just eight times, pocketing a grand total of seventeen pounds."  His "informal recompense fell way short of the costs Tarrant was incurring" traveling by bus to a nearby town to train.  "It was pocket money and nothing more. . . . John's boxing had already cost him far more than he'd ever earned from it."

Later, as John began running, he revealed that "professional" boxing career when asked whether he had ever competed professionally in athletics.  Honest to a fault, Tarrant dutifully revealed his compensation.  Thus began a decades-long battle against amateur athletic officials.  A world-class runner, Tarrant dreamed of the Olympics.  He ran in races around England, but, prohibited from entering due to his "professional" status, he arrived in disguise, throwing off his coat and hat and jumping into the fray just as the race began.  Race officials tried to chase him down, but Tarrant was too fast (and in at least one case, Tarrant's brother Victor aggressively drove officials away, nearly running them down with his motorcycle).
No number for the ghost runner, and no official recognition, even when he won.

Determined to win, thinking that, even when race officials and results refuse to acknowledge his presence, they can't ignore him if he crosses the line first, Tarrant trained constantly.  He ran to work, ran at lunch, ran after work, ran monster runs on the weekends.  He eventually began to enter longer races, setting world records in the 40 mile and 100 mile distances.  The Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa became his obsession, leading to him living there for months at a time in order to train and enter the race.

British authorities eventually gave him status to race officially in the U.K., but international racing was out.  He ghost ran Comrades, a race in New York, and countless races in England and South Africa.  His faithful wife was a running widow, allowing him room to train continually, use their limited money and time to travel to races, and even to live abroad to pursue his dream of winning Comrades.  (I feel bad leaving for the day to run a race; I can't imagine leaving for a year.)

His life was marked by frustration.  His battle with the amateur athletics authorities went on and on.  Some of his fellow runners and friends said he talked of nothing else, and talked about it a lot.  He would have loved nothing more than to run for his country in international races, but he never could, officially.  He battled stomach problems that crippled him, knocking him out of several races (yet he would win races and set course records sometimes, in spite of his having to take breaks to drop his pants in the bushes beside the course!).  And after four attempts, he never did win Comrades.

Yet the man did love to run.  His drive and commitment simply to run are inspiring.  I would love to run like Tarrant: In the hilly countryside around his home, "there were days when he never even felt tired, when he felt he could run forever, never happier than when climbing steeply, . . . his thoughts a whir of self-imposed times and challenges, the landscape a succession of gateposts, junctions, and landmarks which he reached faster, and with less effort, every time he wrenched on his pumps and braved the hilly air."

Jones captures Tarrant's joy and frustration in The Ghost Runner.  He doesn't dwell on conclusions about Tarrant's treatment by athletic officials; the reader can clearly see that Tarrant's cause was just, his treatment was deplorable, and times quickly changed.  Tarrant died in 1975 at the tragically young age of 42.  With a few short years, the farce of amateurism had ended.  What a shame that Tarrant did not live to see it.  On many levels, Jones inspires awe and admiration for a great runner and a great man.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Toughest in Texas 20 mile race report

I've said it before and I'll say it again: residents of Waco are lucky to have Cameron Park right there in the city.  The park boasts miles and miles of trails, making it a playground for trail runners, mountain bikers, hikers, horseback riders, as well as casual walkers and nature lovers.  The trails are well-maintained single track, and the views from the bluff are terrific.  So I was delighted to return today for the Toughest in Texas Trail Runs.  I ran the 50K there 2 years ago; today the 20 mile race was more than enough for me.

The TNT Trail Runs, hosted by Waco native and Houston-based running coach Tim Neckar (, feature the best of the Cameron Park trails.  Tim puts on a great race, with well-supported aid stations and a clearly marked route.  Tim offers the 50K, 20 mile, 10 mile, and 5 mile distances, so trail runners at any level can enjoy the race.

My brother Mark and I started out together on the 20 mile race at 7:30.  The rather small field of 20 milers took off, with a couple of guys bolting out at the start.  We thought surely they'd falter, but they actually finished well.  The order of finishers, at least for the leaders, seems to have been the same as the order of starters.

I ran with Mark for 3 or four miles, to the first aid station.  But after that he began to put some separation between us.  I was reminded that he is much stronger on the uphills.  He took off ahead of me and ended up finishing over half an hour before me.  I guess there's no shame in losing to my faster, fitter, slimmer, younger brother.  (I still have him beat on the road marathon P.R., though!)

Not the actual snake I saw. Photo credit:
Once Mark left me, I ran alone.  A few of the 10 mile runners passed me near the end of the first lap, I passed a couple of 50K walkers early in the second lap, and I saw several other random bikers and hikers.  One other companion on the trail was a copperhead snake (as best I could tell).  He was planted in the middle of the trail.  I figured he would scurry away, but he just sat there looking at me.  I got a very long branch and poked it, again thinking he would flee.  I finally picked it up with the stick and set it beside the trail, then hurried past.  He wasn't too interest in me, thankfully.

After the second trudge up Jacob's Ladder, I finally finished in 4:36, good enough for 5th male overall.  That was about 20 minutes slower than my first 2 laps in 2011.  Today I was quite happy to be done, not heading out for the third lap.  The burgers and beans hit the spot, and there's nothing better than a cold Dr Pepper after 20 miles on the trail on a warm day.

Once again, many thanks to Tim for putting this race together.  Race or not, the trails at Cameron Park are worth a visit.  Here's a video a mountain biker took which shows a bit of the flavor of the trails. (Posted on YouTube by Jim Olmsted.  Thanks, Jim.)