The selfishness of the long distance runner

I worry sometimes that my ‘focus’ when it comes to running is actually sheer, unadulterated selfishness.

I am incredibly lucky that my wife is so supportive, but it nags at me sometimes that she might get a touch frustrated by being woken before dawn day after day as I stumble across the bedroom on my way out for another pre-breakfast run. I worry that she might not appreciate the huge piles of festering kit or the rows of muddied shoes that decorate our home. My wife is hugely tolerant of the many ‘nights out’ that we have cut short so that I can get home in time to get a good night’s sleep before my Sunday morning long run, but for how long? Friend similarly may be getting tired of me being tired, or not wanting to drink until ‘after the next big race’. And how about work? Do my colleagues mind that I spend so many lunchtimes out getting in a quick run or stretching in the kitchen area?

But I like to think that this selfishness might simply be another face of dedication, which as we know is a crucial part of every athletes armoury. And three brilliant books I have read recently confirm this view, both to my horror and satisfaction.

The Ghost Runner

I must admit that when it was published I was not all that interested in reading The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop I’m not sure why, but having picked it up a few times and read the notes on the back and having read a few early reviews, it didn’t immediately appeal.

Then a few weeks ago, whilst at the Brighton marathon expo, I heard Ron Hill talk about one of the times he ran against Tarrant in a marathon. Tarrant’s brother and lifelong supporter, who was alongside on his motorbike as Tarrant ran at the head of the field, with Hill tucked in behind him, told Tarrant that he shouldn’t do all the bloody work! I suddenly realised that John Tarrant was an important figure in British endurance running and I should read this book. I bought it from a bookshop close to my office the next day.

I should have read The Ghost Runner sooner. Having always had a slight anti-authoritarian streak (just ask me about my run-ins with TV Licensing recently!) I really felt for Tarrant and his battle to be allowed to run for his country – something that he was banned from doing, thanks to taking a paltry sum in expenses as a teenage boxer.

The book is rather light on details of how Tarrant trained, but what it is not light on is the trials that he faced at the hands of the immovable AAA. It is also full of the impact of Tarrant’s single mindedness when it came to running on those around him: his ever-supportive brother, his long suffering wife, his exasperated employers – the list goes on.

Running On Empty

Having finished The Ghost Runner, my next book was one of my wife’s suggestions: Running On Empty Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America which is the autobiography of an amazing man called Marshall Ulrich.

Ulrich’s story is very different from Tarrants, because as someone still running now in a period of tolerance on the part of those who run athletics and an ultra-runner, Ulrich doesn’t seem to have had to deal with the insanity of shamateurism and the pompousness of stubborn athletics officials.

But Ulrich and Tarrant do share a couple of things – they are both ultra distance runners (Tarrant had a long love affair with the Comrades ultra marathon in South Africa, a love that sadly the organisers did not reciprocate) and Ulrich confesses in his book that he is as ‘focused‘ as Tarrant was.

In one very moving part of the book, Marshall describes how, having found running as a way of dealing with his first wife’s long, slow decline as cancer took hold, he left to go out for a run even as she begged him to stay with her in her distress.

And it doesn’t end there. Ulrich has had failed relationships after the loss of his first wife that he attributes to his running. He acknowledges that family life has suffered. He even planned his epic, record breaking run across America against the wishes of his third wife and you get the feeling that he was always going to do the run, whether she approved or not.

Keep On Running

Having finished Ulrich’s book, I thought that something a little less intense would be in order. I found myself browsing the sports section of a huge book shop in central London and found Keep On Running: The Highs & Lows of a Marathon Addict by Phil Hewitt. The notes on the back promised a “light hearted account of [Hewitt’s] adventures on the road”… but despite Hewitt being what I would call an unremarkable marathon runner – with a personal best of 3hrs 20mins – the same theme emerges.

Because Hewitt is obviously a less extreme character than Tarrant or Ulrich and his targets are less extreme in their nature and duration, there is not the same requirement for compromise on the part of those close to him. But Phil still has to acknowledge that at least his wife, with a young family to deal with, has had to put up with a lot – losing her evenings with him after the children are asleep while he goes out for runs in the dark, traipsing around the London marathon course in the pouring rain whilst pregnant and with a two-year-old and, I suspect, dealing with all the extra washing of running kit that training for a marathon entails (though I might be wrong there).

So what, I hear you ask?

Well, it strikes me that we runners can be a selfish bunch, as these three books demonstrate. I am not saying for one minute that this is a bad thing, because I believe that it is better to be a selfish runner and have all the positive qualities that come with that, rather than a selfish boozer or a selfish gambler.

But these books have reminded me that life is about balance and I believe that every so often it is worth lifting one’s head and considering for a moment whether, in the pursuit of a new PB or a new distance, one is not sacrificing too much. Maybe once in a while, us runners should take our loved one out for dinner, or go away for the weekend and leave the trainers behind or maybe read a book… there are three about running all of which I can highly recommend!

All three of the books are great reads in their own rights.

The Ghost Runner is brilliantly well researched and is written by a writer, so the prose flows and the book was a real page turner for me, filled with uplifting moments, tragedy, inspiration and the odd word of warning.

Running On Empty, written as it is by Ulrich, is perhaps a little rougher, but no less wonderful for that. In this book, the reader gets a warts-and-all insight into what it takes to achieve feats of endurance that would seem utterly impossible had they not been done! A great book for anyone wondering what lies beyond the marathon.

And Keep On Running does deliver what it promises on the cover – a ‘beautiful description of one man’s passion for the open road’ according to Jo Pavey. The book is funny, inspiring, honest and moving. As a runner myself I really connected with Hewitt’s story and only wish I could have described my journey so far with such eloquence.





The Ghost Runner: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop by Bill Jones is published by Mainstream Publishing priced £12.99
Running On Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss and a record-Setting Run Across America by Marshall Ulrich is published by Avery and priced £11.99
Keep On Running: The Highs & Lows of a Marathon Addict by Phil Hewitt is out now and published by Summersdale priced £8.99


  1. I am going to reply to my own review on behalf of a friend who took the time to write to me after reading this piece. My friend – we’ll call her SP – really made me think about the books and my reaction to them. She is happy for me to share her thoughts, which I think really add to the piece, so here goes:

    “Hi Simon, First let me say, I really enjoy reading you blogs reviews etc. As you know, I’m not much of a runner but I enjoy what you write. Unfortunately, I have a little bone to pick…I have enjoyed reading your blogs, reviews etc. but I must admit that this one grated a bit.

    (1) Why is it that the books you’ve reviewed were only about men, surely there are some amazing female marathon/ultra runners?

    (2) I was very upset to read that a man had left his dying wife in distress to go for a run. (I’m not saying you would do this!!!) This is appalling. I can’t say that I completely understand the dedication or determination it takes to achieve what these runners have achieved but I think they are making poor excuses for their behaviour with others. You mentioned that occasionally the ‘focused’ runner should take their wife out for dinner etc. I agree that the man/woman married/committed to this person knowing full well about their dedication to their sport HOWEVER that sports person also made a commitment to their partner.

    Additionally, if they decide to have children, they are committing not only to their partner but also their children. It is a two way street. I admire anyone that can dedicate themselves to a sport and achieve amazing things, but treating people badly (their partner and children) shouldn’t be part of the deal. Having said this, I will NEVER admire Marshall Ulrich.

    … My mother died of cancer a long time ago and the thought of my dad leaving her in her time of need is terrible. I also have a friend married to an ex professional ironman and they have a young baby. Her husband is constantly going away for days on end to train/race etc without discussing it with her. She finds life very hard at times.

    … I’d be interested to know what you think of my thoughts.

  2. SP, very interesting and justified points raised.

    As a wife, marathon runner and daughter to a Pancreatic Cancer patient I felt I’d share my further thoughts.

    I’m no Simon, but I do love to chase down a PB – even if they are double what Simon’s are 🙂

    Making running or any endurance sport training a key priority is often what identifies you. You get known for it pretty quickly and folks either buy into it or not. You lose old friends and gain new ones in the process.

    When I met my now husband he was the XBOX junkie, I was the girl that ran a 10k race every 8 weeks. Sunday race days and all the training sessions around this grated on him. In the early days of our relationship I started to skip sessions, gain weight and more and more time on the clock. It was a car crash.

    I then got a bit selfish again. I was losing something I was proud of and it made me angry that I was doing this since someone else came into my life. I gave him the option of ‘out’.

    Three years later we’re 5 months married, hopeful one day we’ll have a family and I’ve smashed out PBs this year that I’ve worked bloomin’ hard for.

    You see, my husband wanted ‘in’. I showed him what he was signing up for and he accepted that. I think he’s even dared to say a few times that he’s proud of me, heaven forbid.

    My Mum had to go into hospital 3 days before the London Marathon. It was a little bit touch and go, my parents live 120 miles out of London. Did she want me home? Did she heck! She wanted me focusing on my taper and the race she knows I’ve longed to run for years and years.

    So sometimes I think it’s about how the apparent selfishness is communicated. It’s about giving people the choice to sign up to something or not, showing them how it is and working together on all the fantastic bits around training.

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