Loved, hated, misunderstood, a victim of old-fashioned thinking, a victim of bureaucracy, but mostly a victim of his own mind. John Tarrant, the Ghost Runner, fought a battle he couldn’t win, or could he?
As a young boxer John Tarrant fought in a couple of unofficial matches. As a compensation he received 17 pounds for his expenses. Those 17 pounds would ruin the rest of his life, as the British athletic federation regarded him as a professional athlete, a shameless thing in those days when real sportsmen were amateurs, and only amateurs were allowed to compete.
The Ghost Runner, written by Bill Jones, tells the tragic story of Tarrrant’s crusade against the injustice done to him by the men in white collars and suits that banned him for life, and forced him to run his races without a bib number.
It becomes his sole mission in life. Understandable, based on Tarrant’s younger years, in which he loses his mother, and he and his brother Victor are placed in Lamorbey Children’s Home, because their father has to serve in the war.
In Lamorbey John Tarrant, the older of the two, is bullied often. Not just by other kids, but also by the staff, that rules the children’s home with iron discipline and a masochistic idea of pedagogy: ‘Any tear-streaked child who’d wet his bed would be caned, deprived of breakfast and ordered to stand with the yellow-stained sheet over his head. Passing boys were given dispensation to punch the bed-wetter.’
In search of recognition
No wonder Tarrant’s quest became one of recognition. One in search of appreciation. In the loneliness of running, he finds his peace and power. A power he wants to demonstrate in races. Races he is not allowed to join, so he decides to run them as a ghost runner.
Race organizers hate him for it and try to drag him off the streets, the public loves him and embraces him, fellow runners choose his side, but that’s not enough for Tarrant. He wants more and becomes more and more obsessed.
The love and recognition he is so after, he is unable to give back to the people who love him most; his wife Eddie, his son Roger and his brother Victor. For his second attempt to win the Comrades ultra marathon, for example, he only has the money for a one way plane ticket to South Africa. For Tarrant that’s not a problem, and he easily leaves behind his wife and son, unknowing when he will have the money to return home.
It’s the same obsession Kilian Jornet displayed in Above the Clouds. No risk, no price is too big to reach the ultimate goal. As if they are the only people that matter, not their loved ones.
It’s probably the reason Tarrant never had friends in his life. Or in the words of his former TA team mate Ken Flowers: “Only one thing mattered to John Tarrant, and that was John Tarrant.”
Running first, love later
At the same time, maybe that’s why Tarrant and Jornet excel at what they do, because their sport is the number one love in their life, and everything and everybody else doesn’t really matter. Not even their wives.
In Tarrant’s case, he writes lots of love letters to Eddie, who has resigned herself to a life of poverty, as her husband isn’t interested in working, never holds a job for a long time and spends all his spare time on running. However, showing his love, by placing her first, he never does.
It’s not the only time we get to know John Tarrant as an unpleasant person, simply because he lives according to the idea; if you are not in favor of me, you’re against me. In the words of colleague runner Bernard Gomersall: “He was a proper pain in the neck, to be honest.”
He was for himself, for race officials, and for South-African politicians, as Tarrant was the first white athlete to race in a race with blacks. Seeing them being outcasted from sport events reminded him of his own fight, so he joined theirs.
The South-African story, is the most beautiful story in the book. Yes, Tarrant runs for Tarrant, but by doing so he supports the fight against racial injustice.
It took me almost 2 months to read the book. I generally read a book in 2 weeks. While reading this, I finished Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander (funny and makes you think) and Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (okay). I preferred to pick up those books, instead of The Ghost Runner. I think that says enough.
The story of John Tarrant is interesting, but it could be told in 200 pages instead of 350. The book is full of repetition. At some point as a reader you know he got paid 17 pounds as a boxer. That doesn’t have to be in every chapter. Besides that, the book only gets up steam around page 200. If I didn’t promise you to review it, I probably would have put it aside around page 100.
Slow and wiry
For a big part that has to do with how the story is told; chronologically. It doesn’t work in this book. Yes, you get an understanding why John Tarrant is the way he is, but it makes the book slow and wiry to read. In Born to Run, for example, Christopher McDougall, uses a race to keep you glued to the book, and alternates that with more informative chapters. That could have worked in The Ghost Runner as well.
But Bill Jones decided to tell Tarrant’s story from birth to death. It makes the book as slow as Tarrant was as fast as an ultra runner. World record breaking fast.