Gate-crashers and Ghost Runners

John Tarrant - the Ghost Runner
John Tarrant c. 1957. (copyright unknown)1957

Today, running is one of the most inclusive of sports. Athletics clubs are open to all, and mass races such as the London marathon offer anyone with the bottle the chance to test themselves in one of the world’s great sport events. But running hasn’t always been so democratic. Victorian hang-ups about women and professionals (the latter a thinly veiled euphemism for working-class athletes) lingered well into the twentieth century. Women were barred from long-distance races for decades, and anyone who had ever accepted payment for participating in any sport was banned for life. This left the way open for a clique of self-funding male athletes to dominate the sport for years.

As the twentieth century wore on however, social attitudes were changing, and running’s draconian rules began to look old fashioned and unfair. But any change was resisted by the privileged elite of former athletes who controlled the sport. Frustrations built, and some excluded runners, feeling like they had exhausted all routes to participation, decided to take direct action.

The Interlopers

Two key figures in this struggle were John Tarrant and Kathrine Switzer. Tarrant was a tough and talented, working-class runner from Derbyshire. He was refused entry to official races in the 1950s because as an 18 year old boxer he had received £17 in expenses, inadvertently stigmatising himself as a ‘professional’ for life. Switzer was an aspiring American marathoner who was barred from the 1967 Boston Marathon simply because she was a woman. Both decided to fight their exclusion in a similar way. They would gate-crash a race incognito, simultaneously achieving a sporting ambition and drawing attention to their plight.

Tarrant became a regular sight at road races in England, running without a number, hiding in the crowds at the start so as not to draw attention. Once the race was underway he was too fast for the officials to stop, and with the crowds roaring him on, he became more famous than many of his officially sanctioned rivals. In fact, so popular was he that race organisers started asking him to gate-crash their races, advertising the presence of the fabled ‘Ghost Runner’ in advance to boost crowd numbers!

Switzer entered the Boston Marathon as ‘K. Switzer’ dressed in an inconspicuous grey tracksuit. Although she couldn’t rely on her speed to escape angry officials she did have the advantage of being accompanied by her burly, hammer-throwing boyfriend, Thomas Miller. When one of the race’s organisers leapt onto the course to physically eject her, Miller brushed him aside. Switzer ran on to complete the race that was supposedly ‘too tough’ for women.

The Court of Public Opinion

The media played an important role in both stories. Tarrant was an exceptional athlete whose David versus Goliath story was mana from heaven to the newspapers. He built up a powerful group of supporters, including many fellow runners, and eventually the pressure told – he was cleared to compete nationally. Unfortunately his international ban remained, barring him from the Olympics, his greatest goal. However, he went on to win many official races and broke two world records at ultra-distance before his tragically early death at just 42.

Switzer wasn’t the only female runner to gate-crash the 1967 Boston Marathon. She wasn’t even the fastest (that was Bobbi Gibb, 3 hours 27 mins). Her good fortune was that the incident when the race official tried to grab her was caught on camera. The picture created a media sensation and generated the sympathy and support that eventually led to the opening up of the Boston Marathon to female runners in 1972. Switzer went on to win the New York Marathon in 1974.

Thankfully for runners today, the old barriers have been broken down. The accessibility and diversity of mass participation running have become some of the sport’s most attractive features. Trailblazers like Tarrant and Switzer played a small but important role in helping this happen.


This article was originally published in Running magazine, September 2016.

You can read the full story of John Tarrant in Bill Jones’ excellent book: The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man they Couldn’t Stop.


From Jailbirds to Presidents: The Extraordinary Rise of Running for Fun

Today, running is part of the fabric of everyday life. Yet only fifty years ago the sight of someone running down the pavement without a very good reason could cause a minor scandal. Pavements, after all, were for going about your business or for dignified promenading. Jogging seemed as inappropriate and inconsiderate as cycling on a busy pavement might seem today. It also seemed inexplicable. One jogger in 1960s New Zealand was jailed overnight by local police because they could think of no legal reason for a grown man to be running down the road after dark!

So how did we get from there to here? How has running on the public roads gone from being an activity practised by a few eccentrics to the mainstream, highly popular sport of today?

Preparing the ground

As with many cultural changes during the second half of the 20th century the emergence of running as a mass participation sport began in America. During the 1950s and 1960s the country was experiencing an economic boom. This prepared the ground for the growth of running in two ways. First, young people became wealthier and were more likely to stay in education longer, giving them the space and funds to develop their own separate cultural identity. This new ‘youth consciousness’ challenged many existing conventions and placed great value on youth and appearances, and had a profound effect on American culture over the coming years. Secondly, more affluent, luxurious lifestyles were linked to rapidly increasing rates of illnesses relating to obesity and inactivity, causing great public concern.

All this generated a receptive environment for the promoters of healthy living. Anything that could keep you young (i.e. slim and toned) on the outside and healthy on the inside found a willing audience. Fitness entrepreneurs pushed all manner of regimes, from the short-lived ‘Dance of Socrates’, which involved slow motion jogging with a ‘completely limp’ upper body and rolling head (in the privacy of your own home, thankfully) to activities that remain popular today, such as aerobics.

Bill Bowerman goes jogging

At around this time Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon track coach and future founder of Nike visited New Zealand to meet fellow coach Arthur Lydiard to discuss training techniques. Whilst he was there he was invited to attend one of Lydiard’s jogging groups which, Lydiard explained, were like normal training sessions, but stripped of their competitive element and attended by non-athletes, many of whom were recovering from heart attacks. Bowerman joined in, and was shocked to find he couldn’t keep up with even the slowest group. A 74 year old man graciously slowed down to keep the 52 year old Bowerman company as he slogged to the finish.

Bowerman was an instant convert. Modified, low intensity training sessions could transform the health of even elderly heart attack victims. As soon as he returned to the US he began setting up jogging groups at his university and writing his million selling book, Jogging, which brought the concepts to a wider audience and is widely credited with sparking the running boom.

Respectable at last

By the mid-1970s, as a result of the work of evangelists such as Bowerman and the success of American long-distance runners such as Steve Prefontaine, jogging had become a fashionable pastime and an everyday sight in cities across the US. Soon after, the rest of the western world followed suit. Mass races sprang up, tapping into competitive motivations and providing grass-roots runners with access to prestigious events in a way unparalleled in any other sport.

Such was the transformation in the status of running that even President Nixon was keen to have a go. He entered a 10k race in 1979, but was unable to finish and needed medical attention. For his opponents this was seized on as evidence of his lack of the ‘right stuff’ for the highest office. Once worrying evidence of a subversive streak, running had become a symbol of presidential qualities. In just two decades the transformation in the cultural status of running had been complete.


This article was originally published in Running magazine, August 2016.


The Enduring Appeal of Endurance

Celebrity endurance challenges certainly seem to be in vogue at the moment. Recently, Eddie Izzard’s marathon challenge across South Africa for Sport Relief has been compulsive viewing. There’s something fascinating about watching a familiar face putting mind and body through the wringer. Perhaps as runners we find it particularly easy to empathise with Eddie’s struggles, doubts and blisters – and his exhausted elation at the tape. But this fascination isn’t new. We’ve been enjoying watching people running themselves to exhaustion for centuries.

The first detailed accounts appear in the 17th century. Samuel Pepys described the excitement around ‘footman races’ in 1660s London, with aristocrats pitting their footmen against each other to see who could run the furthest. Footmen were servants who ran ahead of a coach to clear the way or prepare lodgings before their employer’s arrival. They must have been extremely fit young men, and were often chosen for their athletic physiques, good looks and height. Betting on whose man could keep running at coach pace for the longest was an exciting diversion for the idle rich, and a great spectacle for those they passed along the way.

Anything but Pedestrian

By the later 18th and 19th centuries endurance running and walking, known collectively as ‘pedestrianism’, had become popular throughout British society. Such was the interest it was possible for talented athletes from all walks of life to make a living – even a fortune – as professional runners. Because their incomes normally came from winning wagers, it could be an advantage for runners to look much less capable athletes than they really were. This created the opportunity for some far from stereotypical athletes to make a name in the sport. For example, people were all too happy to bet against Mary Motulullen, a frail looking Irish woman in her sixties, or Emma Freeman, a girl of just eight years old, when they arrived in a new town and announced their latest challenge. But appearances can be deceptive. Mary ran over 90 miles to win one wager, and little Emma covered an incredible 40 miles to help feed her family.

The most famous pedestrian of all though, was Captain Robert Barclay. A Scottish landowner of ‘ancient family’ whose feat of walking a mile in each of 1,000 consecutive hours to win an astronomical bet of 1,000 guineas (about twenty years income for a labourer) had the national enthralled. Barclay’s incredible physical and mental strength appeared to confirm the natural superiority of the ruling class, and fed a craze for endurance sports amongst the privileged during the early 19th century.

The Shifting Meaning of Endurance

However, as the century wore on endurance began to lose its social cache. Perhaps ‘enduring’ was too closely associated with the drudgery of the factories that were springing up across the land. The wealthy turned their attentions to shorter distances and the sanitised world of the athletics track. Endurance running was left to the workers of the growing industrial cities, where runners with awe-inspiring names like North Star, the Gateshead Clipper and Young England still drew enormous crowds.

An indication of just how social attitudes had changed around endurance comes from the treatment of William Gale, a Welshman who smashed Captain Barclay’s record by completing 1,500 miles in 1,000 hours in 1877. If Gale had hoped for a similar reception to Barclay he would be disappointed. He was described as having the ‘determination of a dog’ and as an ‘over-worked horse’. One article dismissively states: ‘of what particular benefit it may be to the world at large it is utterly impossible to imagine’.

Thankfully things have moved on. Endurance sports once again capture the imagination, inspire and enthral us. And in terms of ‘benefits to the world’ the millions raised by Eddie Izzard for Sport Relief make a neat retort!


This article was originally published in Running magazine, July 2016.

A Brief Social History of Running – Part 1

Mud, Sweat and Cheers: The Rural Roots of RunningPhotographer: Derek Voller

Although they are likely to have had an informal presence in rural communities for centuries before, the earliest reliable evidence of running races in England is as part of rustic festivals, beginning in the sixteenth century. These ranged from tiny local contests to famous and prestigious events such as Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olimpicks, a hugely popular multi-discipline event held annually over two days starting in around 1612. Hated by the puritans who saw the games as pagan in origin and beloved of their libertarian supporters (including the king) the Olimpicks drew large crowds of spectators from across the social spectrum – a rare gathering of everyone from farm labourers to royalty. Similar, though smaller scale, rural sports days were the mainstay of competitive running well into the nineteenth century and significantly later in some parts of the country, with cash prizes and opportunities to gamble on outcomes drawing runners and spectators in large numbers. With the odd ‘eccentric’ exception, rural sports events during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a completely working-class phenomenon, offering an opportunity for local fame and modest fortune to talented runners, as well as opportunities for betting and excitement to their often unruly spectators.

Rural sports seem to have been relatively egalitarian and inclusive compared to the athletics meetings that superseded them in Victorian times. Both men and women competed, and there is even evidence of age group races, allowing children and veterans (over 35s) of both genders a chance to compete in their own contests. Races took place on ‘saints’ days, church festivals, local feast days, at horse races, market days, weddings and cricket matches’. Research by Peter Radford has unearthed 20 different annual women’s races in villages in the county of Kent alone throughout the eighteenth century. The biggest of these was the Running Lands Race, held at Old Wives Lees, which required qualification via victories at less prestigious races and specially arranged heats. The prize money could be significant; up to £10 for the winner (the same amount as for its counterpart men’s race) at a time when a servant girl would only earn £2 plus lodgings annually. Because winners were often excluded from competing at the same race twice talented men and women would travel around the county looking for opportunities to compete at different races and earn as much money as possible. We do not know all of the distances competed over, but some were recorded as long sprints of between 200m-400m.

In the early part of the nineteenth century opportunities for working-class runners to earn (or at least supplement) their living through the sport peaked. Race purses could be generous, and the money staked on races by gamblers could be huge. Talented runners would ply their trade itinerantly, sometimes running in disguise when people became wise to their ability and thus unwilling to bet against them. As tourism and ease of travel increased through the advent of the railways, villages in rural regions such as the Lake District that had a pre-existing running tradition (rooted in the ‘guides’ races’ in which mountain guides would compete to advertise their prowess to potential patrons) began organising annual events and keeping written records of their victors (e.g. the races at Lothersdale, inaugurated in 1847 and Grasmere, 1868). At this time even relatively modest races could attract thousands of spectators, with some contests watched by football sized crowds.

Throughout this period many local running traditions were established, each with their own idiosyncratic rules, and no formal over-arching organisation or record keeping. Some races were held over specific distances, but many were simply ‘out and back’ races to a local landmark or circuits around local streets or fields; everyday places of work and life temporarily transformed into a kind of theatre of drama and excitement, free to anyone who cared to watch. Some incorporated treasure hunt style elements, chasing and catching, or overcoming obstacles. Physical contact, including barging and tripping appear to have been acceptable in many races. Cheering and jeering from noisy and often inebriated crowds, as well as occasional physical interventions in races by spectators (and stray dogs) were par for the course. Runners (both men and women) sometimes participated in states of undress that would have been shocking to society’s more ‘civilized’ elements, but delighted running’s more earthy crowds. Early running contests were vital, raw and rowdy; closely associated with seasonal and religious festivities at which workers could ‘cut loose’ after months of toil in the villages and fields. German scholar, Henning Eichberg, argues that in these early forms, running was part of a European ‘culture of laughter’ that acted as a kind of social safety valve by providing an opportunity for the common people to get together and let off steam by poking fun at their privileged ‘betters’ without fear of reprisal (rather like at carnival in other contexts). In this light the naked runners could be understood to have been cocking a snook at their easily offended, puritan masters. In their rural context, running races were part of the rhythm and ritual of the agricultural year, woven into the fabric of social life.

Money was an important part of running before the mid-nineteenth century in the same way it is to horse racing today. It was central both as an inducement to participate (often in the form of valuable prizes rather than cash) and, more perniciously, in the form of wagers and gambling. Huge amounts could be staked on the outcome of a single contest – by spectators and the runners themselves – so the temptation to cheat or throw races often proved irresistible. This generated doubts about the authenticity of races that made rural running vulnerable to those who, during Victorian times, wanted to centralise and regularise running, eventually leading to traditional rural running contests all but dying out in most parts of England.

Interesting further reading:

Gotaas, T. 2009. Running: A Global History. Reaktion Books.

Askwith, R. 2004. Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession. Aurum Press Ltd.