As a kid who wore Doc Martins to high school gym class and refused participation on principle, it was my firm belief that “sports aren’t punk.” But had I known then what I know now about the athletic prowess of one of my heroes, Joe Strummer, I might have been a little more motivated to try and compete with the great man’s ability. A champion runner during his lonely years at boarding school, Strummer never lost the runner’s bug, supposedly finishing two marathons, and possibly a third, while with The Clash. Let’s begin with that “possibly,” shall we? First, watch the clip above from the documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten.
For context, know that before the release of 1982’s Combat Rock, the band’s manager Bernie Rhodes suggested that Strummer disappear to Austin for a while to stir up some controversy and increase ticket sales. Strummer instead went to Paris without telling anyone—turning a hoax A.W.O.L. story into a real one. He tells it above, casually tossing out, “and I ran the Paris Marathon, too,” a burying of the lede Grantland’s Michael Bertin compares to Buzz Aldrin mentioning his moonwalk between a bass fishing story and his wife’s casserole. People train for months, years, for marathons; Strummer, it seems strolled onto the course with his girlfriend of the time, Gaby Salter, and “allegedly”—alleges this Wikipedia entry—finished in an astonishing 3 hours, 20 minutes. Later, asked by a reporter to describe his regimen before the race, he said, “Drink 10 pints of beer the night before the race. Ya got that? And don’t run a single step at least four weeks before the race.”
Everything about this story seems suspect, including the fact that in the supposed photograph of Strummer and Salter post-race (above)—both in running gear but looking as fresh as if they’d just strolled out of the hotel patisserie—neither one wears a bib number … “something,” Bertin points out, “that a race participant should have.” What’s more, Strummer was “capable of rewriting history to make himself look better,” which may explain his cagey reluctance to elaborate. Bertin offers many more reasons to think the story a fabrication, yet there is at least one highly credible fact to support it: The London Marathon, which Strummer most decidedly did run (see him below, race bib and all), finishing with a most respectable time of 4:13 without any prior training at all. Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer quotes Gaby Salter saying “He hadn’t trained. He just bought some shorts and said, ‘Let’s run a marathon.’” Salter petered out halfway through. Later in the book, Antony Genn, Strummer’s collaborator in the Mescaleros, recounts the hard-drinking Strummer saying of his marathon experience, “I didn’t fuckin’ train. Not once. Just turned up and did it.’”
While this seems patently impossible, perhaps it’s true after all that the frontman of the The Clash, who weathered the rise and fall of punk better than any of his contemporaries, had such natural physical endurance he could casually toss off a marathon in-between drunks and packs of smokes. Real runners will surely scoff, but if Joe Strummer ever did train, no one ever saw him do it. If he were alive now, he’d be 62 years old and probably still making records and knocking ’em back. Maybe he’d even breeze through the New York Marathon on his way to the studio. And if we asked him for his secret, he’d probably tell us something like he told that reporter who asked about Paris: “’Do not try this at home.’ I mean, it works for me and Hunter Thompson, but it might not work for others.” Yeah, ya think?