Book Review: The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones

Reviewed by Tom O’Grady

The Ghost Runner by Bill Jones is a biography of John Tarrant, a talented long-distance runner. Tarrant's story underscores the lonely plight of the distance runner. Early in life Tarrant had a brief, but failed, career as a boxer. During this stint Tarrant accepted a £17 prize payment that would end up haunting him for the remainder of his life. Accepting money as a boxer meant that Tarrant was no longer considered an amateur in the mind of amateur athletic governing bodies. This meant that despite Tarrant's success in distance running he could never represent his country in athletics.

Tarrant was born in 1932 to a family of meager means and the backdrop of his childhood would be the rising tension in Europe before the start of World War II and then the war itself. Tarrant's mother tragically dies during his childhood and both Tarrant and his brother are forced to suffer through a stint in a children's home. These early chapters help the reader understand how Tarrant's life was shaped and what led to his self-centered and singled-minded nature as an athlete.

As a young man Tarrant takes to running and realizes that he is particularly good at long distances. Unfortunately, due to Tarrant's "boxing career" he is banned from officially competing in sanctioned races. This does not deter Tarrant from entering competitions unattached. Today John would be known as a bandit. During his time Tarrant was labeled as a "Ghost Runner." Most of Tarrant's 20's and early 30's end up being consumed by his plight to represent the United Kingdom. Although the Ghost Runner was able to win over the hearts of many the athletic organizations that controlled Tarrant's destiny never relented.

Tarrant ended up turning his attention to the Comrades Ultramarathon and running the event as a ghost runner three times. Tarrant's position as an outsider allows him to see the wrongs of apartheid in South African during the time. Because of this Tarrant ends up training and running along with Black South African and Indian runners.

Tarrant's life was never short of difficulties. During his mid 30's, just as life and sport seem to be going in a positive direction, Tarrant begins to experience strange stomach issues during the middle of his ultramarathon efforts. Sadly, Tarrant ends up dying at the young age of 42 due to a battle with stomach cancer (signs of which were likely first experienced during the digestive issues faced during his running career). This is an almost tragic ending for a man who faced so much hardship in life, had little in the form of material needs, and could never seem to get the type of recognition for his running accomplishments that was desired.

They say that behind the life of every great man is a great woman. This was certainly true of John Tarrant. Tarrant's wife shoed endless love and support for his single-minded pursuit of running. In addition to the support of a loving wife, Tarrant's brother is another strong ally who always provides support and guidance. Although they are not main characters in Tarrant's story the Ghost Runner benefits as a book by the stories told of the elderly runners that Bill Jones was able to interview while doing research on Tarrant's life story.

The Ghost Runner not only reveals the largely forgotten story of John Tarrant but also serves as a reminder about how the amateur model of sports frequently operated as a hypocritical quagmire in the past. This model often exploited the poor and working-class athletes while shielding a privileged class of sportsmen. Aspects of this old model have continued to permeate through to today as seen by recent struggles of NCAA athletes to be compensated for use of their image.


Tom O’Grady is an elite runner, coach,
writer and college professor with a joint appointment at NYSDOH/UAlbany School of Public Health. In addition to writing diverse articles for the Pace Setter and other running journals, he is the Pace Setter’s official book reviewer.

Click on his picture to read all that he has written for The Pace Setter – and it is a lot!

Thank you Tom!




Loading Conversation

Partner Clubs

Partner clubs offer group runs and local races to the Capital Region running community

Create Account

Log In Your Account