In the English city of Hereford, a group of runners meet on a Monday night to train. It’s an inclusive bunch, the youngest participant is 5 years old, the oldest currently, 70. Some members have been running for years, others are new. Established club runners run alongside those still building up to join an athletics club. There are people who are working their way back from injury or illness, and those with longer term or permanent impairments.
Collectively, they are the Hereford Ghost Runners, and they celebrate their ten-year anniversary this year. But who was the eponymous Ghost Runner, and why does the memory linger in Hereford?
John Tarrant, the man dubbed “the ghost runner” has gone down in history as one of the greatest runners never to compete, at least officially…
Born 1932, John and younger brother Victor spent their early years in London. With their father away on active service during the war, their mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1942 saw the boys sent to a children’s home in Kent. In 1947 their father collected them, moving the family first to Buxton and then to Hereford. While still in Buxton John, a physically strong young man with a passion for sport, tried his hand on the local Derbyshire boxing competition circuit for a season aged 18. He won a total of £17 but didn’t much enjoy boxing. Through the training though he discovered a talent and a passion for distance running and set his sights on running for England’s national team, and ultimately at the Olympic Games.
To compete at the highest level meant joining a club so John sent off his application and joining fee. Several weeks later he received both back through the post, along with a note from the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA), the governing body of athletics in England at the time informing him that, having accepted money as a boxer, he was considered a professional athlete and therefore fell outside the AAAs strict amateur code. Tarrant was banned for life from all AAA competitions. As the only way to compete on the world stage was by qualifying for the national team, which meant racing at AAA sanctioned championships, his path to success was blocked before it had begun.
Rather than turn away from competitive running, the brothers hatched a plan to get John into official races without going through the registration process, allowing him to compete, and crucially, to be seen. John would arrive at race meetings in a long mackintosh. Mingling through the crowd near the start line he looked to be just a spectator come to watch the race. At the last minute he would throw off the coat, revealing his running kit beneath and join the race. On courses where the starting line was difficult to get to – officials got wise to the tactics and were instructed to look out for and prevent him joining the race – Vic would take John a little way down the course on the back of his motorbike so that he could leap off the pillion seat and join the race, evading officials. Coached by his brother Vic, John was a talented runner. Throughout the 1950s he won many of the races he gate-crashed, drawing the attention of the press who dubbed the man with no official race number The Ghost Runner.
In 1958, unable it seemed to prevent the Ghost Runner from running, the AAAs rescind part of Tarrant’s life ban and granted him permission to race at domestic level. Throughout the late 1950s and 60s John won numerous domestic titles at distances between 6 and 100 miles, setting multiple national records in the process, however he was still deemed ineligible for selection to the national team. John died of stomach cancer in 1975, aged just 42. His dreams of national selection and a chance at the Olympics unrealized.
Younger brother Vic who had coached and supported John stayed on in Hereford coaching other athletes, mostly children. Nikki Tyler, the driving force behind Hereford Ghost Runners training group, recalls a chance meeting she and a fellow athlete had on the track with Vic.
We’d moved from Cheltenham Harriers, and were running around the track in Hereford wondering whether to join when a voice asked, “do you girls need a coach?” We both said yes. “Will you turn up in the rain?” “Yes!” And that was it. Vic coached me everyday for 15 years after that.
By this stage Vic was in his 70s and recovering from a quadruple heart bypass, the prospect of going back to coaching large groups of children was too much, but for Nikki; “he was brilliant. He was a coach not just in athletics but in wellbeing. If I was injured he’d come up to my house with a basket of fruit or vitamin pills or a heat lamp. He’d been as good an athlete as his brother, but as the younger brother had always put John first. He always put everyone else first and he really cared about you as an athlete, which is what made him such a good coach”.
Gradually, through working with Vic, Nikki heard the stories of his brother the Ghost Runner. As Vic got too old to coach, Nikki set up the Hereford Ghost Runners training group. The group’s philosophy, that running is for everyone, no matter what, speaks to Nikki’s drive to ensure that no one is excluded from the sport. It also reflects changes in athletics since John’s time, the strict amateur code having ebbed away and athletics being a sport for everyone today. Hereford Ghost Runners embodies this, supporting all members, no matter their running goals.
In 2019, a sculpture designed by children from a local children’s home – an echo of John and Vic’s childhood – was unveiled in Hereford to commemorate John and his world records. It stands as a lasting physical representation of the brothers’ determination to see John be allowed to compete and succeed, no matter what.
England Athletics Chief Executive Chris Jones, who unveiled the sculpture reflected on John’s talent:
Vic Tarrant died on 25th March 2019 but the legacy of the Ghost Runner, and his brother and main supporter, lives on in Hereford through the Ghost Runners.