In 1959, Alan Sillitoe published ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, the story of a young convinct who purposefully loses a race simply to irritate the establishment. The moral is that running is a solitary sport and alien to fame and fortune.
1959 was also the heyday of another runner, this time in real life. John Tarrant was world record holder at 40 miles and 100 miles (set over 160 and 400 laps of the track respectively). But he was most famous as the ‘ghost runner’, who would leap barriers to run races from which he had been banned.
Farrant’s exclusion dated from two years when he fought as a low-ranking boxer, accepting a total of £17 (£500 in today’s money). He was first excluded from domestic races, then following a media campaign and partial reinstatement, from representing Great Britain. Contrary to Sillitoe’s book, the moral of this tale is that solitary though running might often be, it is also a human, social activity. Being denied the chance to compete on equal terms caused Farrant’s life to revolve around bitter resentment.
It did so in another age, one of taciturn men and downtrodden wives. Farrant has a succession of labouring jobs – including chipping off the asbestos from train brake pads –, and the runners in question are hard men who ‘would shove you in a ditch as soon as look at you’. His father’s hobby was breeding rats, and for his part John’s holidays were spent at Butlins (where, aged 27, he won the knobbly-knees contest). All this clashed with the athletics establishment of Roger Bannister and Harold Abrahams (see ‘Chariots of Fire’), a.k.a. the ‘blazerati’. Amateurism was the watchword, gentlemanly values the veneer beneath which the dirty work of privilege was done.
So there’s clearly a story about class here. But there are also things to be said about individualism, and about bodies: in both of these areas, John Farrant comes across as less of a hero. First, he was a difficult man, abandoning his wife and child to live in South Africa, irritating many with his story of iniquity, and hurling expletives at youngsters who overtook him. Second, he pushed himself too hard, eventually dying of stomach cancer aged only 42, having ‘trained’ even in hospital by running on the spot inside a locked bathroom. The unanswerable question is how much of this attitude was caused by resentment at his ban, and how much was innate. John Farrant should cross our mind whenever we romanticize the loneliness of the long distance runner.