The loneliness of distance runners has been overdone of late. The winner is alone, but that is not because of anything antisocial in his nature. He prefers to run in a pack, and generally does so before he decides, say, at about 20 miles, that camaraderie is camaraderie, but it is time somebody stepped out and won this race—namely me.
That very thought struck John Tarrant the Sunday before last in the annual London-to-Brighton marathon, but it occurred to him a little bit earlier than is customary. It was at about 10½ miles out, to be as exact as things are likely to get in a marathon. Tarrant concluded the pace was dragging and that if the rest of the boys wanted the pleasure of his company they would have to get going. He bounded away from the tightly knit lead group of 11, and the race suddenly was a game of fox and hounds, with Tarrant the fox. He built up a lead of 600 yards over the next two miles and, except for a brief period midway when Roger Alcorn of New Zealand struggled to within 50 yards, Tarrant held it until close to the end, where he turned on the juice and won by three minutes, a margin of about half a mile.
Tarrant's time was five hours, 41 minutes and 50 seconds, which is dawdling by marathon standards, but then, like Tarrant himself, who is considered a professional and is therefore not eligible for the few international honors that accrue to distance men, this was no ordinary marathon. It was a double marathon, 52 miles, 876 yards—and that is exacting, if not exact. Tarrant strayed off the course toward the end, adding 200 painful yards to his ordeal. He ran each of his 52 miles in about 6:12, and, if the thought tires you, consider how fast he would have had to go in order to keep up with Jackie Mekler, who was 16 minutes faster when he won the race in 1960.
What kind of man can set himself in motion, jolt mile after mile over hilly pavement, bound happily down a Channel-side boulevard to the finish and then say, as though he had rehearsed the line for the last 30 miles, "All's well that ends well"? Angry, that is the word for John Tarrant. He is 35, an Army barracks caretaker from Lancashire, with a face that is a haunted collection of bones and hollows. He is called The Ghost, not because of his flat ears, sunken eyes and sucked-in cheeks, but because for six years of his road-running life he was forced to sneak into races, unwanted and unidentified. As a teen-ager, Tarrant was banned from amateur competition for accepting ¬£17 in prize money after a semiprofessional boxing match. The British AAA lifted the ban in 1958, but the International AAF refuses to follow suit. For the last nine years Tarrant has been running superdistance races in England under his own name and winning them—Brighton was his sixth major victory this year. He seems determined, as one observer put it, to spook his way by this punishing method back into the good graces of international sport.
October 15, 1967
"It is absolutely diabolical," he said after the race in the deep, flowing voice of an orator who has obviously made his speech many times before, "that in an age when shamateurism is rife I should be denied the right to represent my country because of a few quid earned when I was a 17-year-old boy."
Whatever Tarrant's reasons for wanting to compete over so torturous a distance, there were 60 others who found the challenge irresistible enough to appear at 6 a.m. in a dark, narrow alley that poked its way into a sinister-looking collection of deserted warehouses and small office buildings behind Westminster Abbey in central London. Unheralded and unwatched by an unappreciative London press, they stood indignantly before formidable double doors, which at 6:30 still remained obdurately locked. After a prolonged and fearful din the doors were unbolted by a crabbed custodian, who was almost swept into a swimming pool by the runners rushing to check in, strip down, tape up, dress and maybe pray a bit before jogging the 600 yards to the start underneath the Big Ben tower.
At 7 o'clock Big Ben's thunderous notes seemed more than usually sepulchral as the 61 loped off in a southerly direction across Westminster Bridge through London's early chill. They had come not just from Great Britain but from all over the world for this race, first run in 1899, that superdistance runners consider the superdaddy of them all. In the pack, aside from Tarrant and Alcorn, were Robin Stamper, a tanned 29-year-old South African Airways pilot, now headquartered in Australia, who had island-hopped from Perth for 37 hours before reaching London 31 hours ahead of race time, and two Americans, Sid Smith and Al Meehan. Smith, wispy-haired and 49 years old, is a cost accountant for General Dynamics who lives in Woodbridge, N.J. He had come with his wife, Gwen, to take his shot at the event. The 26-year-old Meehan, an Air Force enlisted man, was flying home early the next morning to be discharged after 18 months in England. Another entrant was Manny Kuhn, also of South Africa, who was notable for the fact that he had won a 54-mile race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg with a killing 150-yard dash that brought him home in front by slightly less than one fat second.
Kuhn's experience may have helped gray his hair, but signs of premature aging are-the occupational lot of those who race over such astonishing distances. Since superdistance men require a stamina that is almost unearthly, they train in an unearthly way, logging up to 160 miles a week with a 40- to 50-mile workout thrown in at regular intervals. "I've tried the shorter races," said runnerup Alcorn before his latest run, "but I'm better at this. That's why I do it. The hardest part is mental. You should always wait about six months between races to get yourself up for the next one. That gives you plenty of time to forget what the last race was like, all the pain and agony of the last 10 miles."
The pink, freckle-faced Meehan, who comes from Stamford, Conn., looked positively eager to get on with his agony. "It's a helluva way to spend your last day in service," he said. "But these superdistance races fascinate me. They're such a challenge." Meehan met his challenge and finished 30th.
Accountant Smith, who emigrated from Manchester, England, bore the expression of a man who has been through all this before. He has. He arrived in London at 11 p.m. the night before last year's race and sat up all night in drafty, cavernous Victoria Station. He dropped out exhausted after 20 miles. Now he was edgy. Only a few days before he had bruised a nerve in his right foot.
"Everyone starts these long races too fast," he said. "I think I can hold a 7:30-per-mile pace and finish in the top dozen." He could have, but he did not. Stopping frequently to massage the damaged foot, he was able to hold the scheduled pace for 25 miles, then had to fall out once again.
There were the inevitable misadventures that went beyond sheer fatigue. Alcorn's bid to win was thwarted by a right knee. Kuhn, running strongly after 36 miles, stumbled on the cement curbing, then tumbled heavily against a steel pipe and was out of the race with a badly bruised shoulder. Stamper, who had injured his right hip six days earlier, was forced at 40 miles to lie in the grass to ease the pain. He stopped twice more and finally tottered in ninth.
Tarrant's desire to win was so great that he would have run right through lame knees, bruised hips and even road signs to get to Brighton first. As his energetic voice rolled on, stating his frustrating case against the IAAF, the other runners looked at each other and smiled. Who needed arguments? Most of them were happy just to have finished.