Did the Clash's Joe Strummer Actually Run the Paris Marathon?

On the eve of the release of Combat Rock, the 1982 album that would become the Clash’s biggest commercial success, tickets for shows the band had booked in England were not selling well. Manager Bernie Rhodes suggested to front man Joe Strummer that he disappear. It was a publicity stunt. Rhodes told him to go to Austin, Texas, and hang out with his friend Joe Ely.

Strummer thought otherwise. He’d go away, as Rhodes suggested, but not to Texas. Instead Strummer hopped a boat to Paris. There’s a scene in the documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten where he recounts the episode. “I thought it would be a good joke if I never phoned Bernie at all,” Strummer recalls. “He was going to be thinking … Oh, where has Joe gone? … And I ran the Paris Marathon, too. And eventually they hired a private detective to find me.”

Wait, what? It’s like watching an interview with Buzz Aldrin and him casually saying, “I had a really great summer in 1969, I remember that’s when I caught my first 5-pound bass. I was the second man to set foot on the moon, and Marion — that’s my wife — she made just the most fantastic casserole for this really lovely cookout we went to at the Gundersons up the street.”

Talk about burying the lede. Strummer just up and disappears and, while he’s playing Ambrose Bierce, runs the Paris Marathon? And he just drops that tidbit into the recounting of history in the most nonchalant way?

After Strummer says he ran the Paris Marathon, the camera pans over a photograph (seen at the top of the article). It’s of Strummer and Gaby Salter, his girlfriend at the time, presumably after the race. They are both in workout gear — T-shirts and gym shorts. What’s odd, though, is that neither is wearing a bib number, something that a race participant should have. How else to match a runner to his or her time?

In Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash, author Pat Gilbert recounts the search for Strummer with a good bit of detail. Strummer’s fake turned real disappearance stunt worked in generating some media attention, but it exacerbated the ticket sales problem. Once fans heard that Stummer was indeed unaccounted for, it was completely reasonable to infer he might not turn up in time for the shows. Nobody was going to buy tickets to not see the Clash.

One of those shows was for the Lochem Festival in Holland, scheduled for May 20. The promoter, Frank Zanhorn, was freaking out, thinking he was going to take a bath. Then a Dutch journalist, unaware that anything was even amiss, happened to casually mention to Zanhorn that he had seen Strummer at a bar in Paris the week before. Zanhorn immediately got Kosmo Vinyl involved. Vinyl is a person, not a type of space polymer. He had a very real association with the band with very nebulous responsibilities. One band bio describes him as the Clash’s “art director.”

Vinyl tracked down Salter’s brother, who somehow came up with the number of a girl who knew where Strummer could be found in Paris. Vinyl called that girl. She “freaked out” (quotes here are Gilbert’s) and refused to say where Strummer was. So Vinyl contacted a promoter he knew in Paris, who, in turn, got in touch with “a detective friend” who had a reverse phone book, giving them the girl’s address. Within hours Vinyl was standing in front of the girl, who told him to be at certain café at a certain time that evening.

Vinyl showed up as told, and in walked Strummer. Maybe. Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer has it reversed, where Vinyl walks in to find Strummer already having a drink at the bar. The important bit is there was a detective somewhere in the chain, although not “hired,” and it was Vinyl who did the bulk of the work in finding Strummer. Is that putting a really fine point on it? Probably. But collectively the two statements in the context of each other both feel embellished; it’s truthiness more than truthfulness.

Moreover, it’s not like Strummer wasn’t capable of rewriting history to make himself look better. In Future Is Unwritten, he later describes drummer Topper Headon’s dismissal from the band by saying, “While I was playing hooky everybody had a row, and Topper just decided that he obviously didn’t think I was ever coming back. And he decided to cut out.” That’s pretty much a lie. And a self-serving one. Headon was fired and it was Strummer himself who, at a band meeting, told Headon he was being given the sack.

In an interview by Steppin’ Out years later, when Strummer was asked about Paris and his training regimen, he responded, “You really shouldn’t ask me about my training, regime, you know.” Pressed, he relented and divulged the following: “Okay, you want it, here it is: 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 … But make sure you put a warning in this article, ‘Do not try this at home.’ I mean, it works for me and Hunter Thompson, but it might not work for others. I can only tell you what I do.”

OK, maybe he’s taking the piss out of the reporter, but you don’t not train, then drink 10 beers the previous night, then get up and run 26.2 miles. Not without vomiting and failing to run the 26.2 miles, you don’t. I can prove it.

Try this: If you’re not in shape at all, go out tonight and drink 10 beers. Then get up tomorrow and try to run 10 miles. Just 10. Not even the full 26.2, because there are people who put in upward of 300 miles over several weeks specifically to get into the physical shape to run the full marathon distance, and even they get to Mile 20 on race day and think, “Eh, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.”

Now, just reading that, your reaction is “not a chance,” right? Marathons are hard. You know how hard? The first person ever to run one died when he finished.

Shouldn’t Salter be able to put this all to rest? She was there. She was in the picture with Strummer taken just after the race. This is Salter’s version of the story from Redemption Song: “We ran the French Marathon. Both of us. I came last in the race.”

That actually doesn’t help much. First, ask anybody who has indeed run a marathon — started it and finished it — and they will know exactly which race they ran. You don’t suffer that much and forget the name. It’s like childbirth (from what I gather at least). There is no “French Marathon.” That’d be like running in NYC and saying, “I ran the American Marathon.” If you actually ran the Paris Marathon, that’s what you would call it.

Also, in the picture in question, Strummer is wearing something around his neck. It doesn’t look like much (it’s just on a string, not any kind of ornate ribbon) but could be a finisher’s medal. Salter doesn’t have one. If the picture was taken immediately after the race and they both ran it, wouldn’t she have one as well?

Moreover, if she finished last, she’d be the easiest name to find in the list of finishers (or as easy as the winner — one is at the beginning, the other is at the end). But the Paris Marathon doesn’t have a “Gaby Salter” in its official results for 1982. Nor does it have a “Joe Strummer” (nor a “John Mellor,” Strummer’s real name).

That makes sense, though. No bib number. No official entry. So neither would be in the official results. Which leaves us where we started. Although it is remarkable for three declarative and completely unambiguous statements made by Salter, the longest of which is six words, to be so unhelpful.

Richard Schroeder took the photo in question, the one in Future Is Unwritten. He was hanging out with Strummer in Paris at the time and is someone I’d never seen asked about it, but, in an e-mail exchange, he was able to largely put the issue to rest.

“What you don’t understand is that, for Joe, [this] was kind of a normal thing. Something like two days before it, he saw an article in a newspaper and it was like, ‘Cool, let’s do it.’ And they did not register and they did it. Gaby quit after a few miles but Joe finished it. I was there at the start and I was there, waiting for him, at the arrival. And believe me or not, even if I was not running alongside with him, I’m sure he did it. You should have seen his face at the arrival! And the days after … He couldn’t even walk!”

Context gives Schroeder’s confirmation epistemic weight, as Strummer is said to have also participated in the London Marathon in 1981 and 1983. But in 1981, he again had no bib number. For 1983 he was sponsored by The Sun (!) and there are pictures that see him sporting a bib number, looking like an actual participant.

Even though his running in 1983 seems certain, the London Marathon itself was little help in being able to confirm his participation or times. They don’t have archived results from before 2003 (and I’ve combed the Internet, joining runner’s forums trying to find complete results magazines from ’81 and ’83, so if you have them, feel free to dig them out and pass them along). And from a marathoning perspective, what you did in 1983 doesn’t have much to do with what you might have done a year earlier. Having run three marathons over a four-year period, I can say that with some confidence. Having run one in a given year wouldn’t have helped at all if I hadn’t trained. And this comes back to the point made earlier: Marathons are really, really hard.

It’s an urban myth among joggers: A friend of an ex-girlfriend knows a coworker who has a colleague who, save for maybe like a 10K two weeks out, doesn’t train at all, then runs a marathon, usually finishing somewhere just north of four hours. It’s mind-blowing that Joe Strummer of the Clash is the guy who makes that urban myth not a myth. And does so right down to the time (Schroeder recalled that Strummer’s finishing time was somewhere about four hours). It’s even more mind-blowing when you consider the copious amount of dope that Strummer purportedly smoked, not to mention the likely hangover.

If there is any remaining strangeness to Schroeder’s confirmation, it’s his hesitancy to delve into much detail beyond a couple of sentences. “It’s [Gaby Salter's] story and I’m uncomfortable telling it without her permission,” he wrote. But Salter’s story, it turns out, is the one that most stretches credulity. Remember she said, “I came in last,” but according to Schroeder she dropped out after a few miles. Technically a DNF would be “last” behind any people that actually finished, so she’s not being dishonest, strictly speaking (or depending on how you want to parse “came in”). Then there is also the comment that Strummer couldn’t walk for days after the race. The marathon was on May 16, but by May 18, after being tracked down by Vinyl, Strummer was back in London. Unless Schroeder traveled with him (or knew that a week of being sore was just pretty standard for any marathoner), he’d know about “day” not “days.”

At some point you have to shave with Occam’s Razor. Human memory is faulty. That a detail or two doesn’t completely square three decades later makes complete sense. Strummer ran the race. Salter didn’t. Schroeder took a picture of them after. They don’t have bib numbers and they aren’t in the official results because they didn’t officially register. They just turned up to participate.

The Clash played the Lochem show on May 20. It’s a mess, even worse than the US Festival show. There were a variety of things causing internal tension within the Clash, but there was also this (again from Redemption Song): “On the way to the festival [the band] had already spent an hour or so in [Amsterdam's] coffee shops, sampling the finest hash and weed … Before heading to the festival site [Headon] had scored heroin and coke. Prior to the show, as Joe checked out his appearance in the dressing room mirror, Topper removed it and laid it down flat, dumping a load of cocaine onto it, which he vacuumed up into his nostrils.”

Lochem is historically notable because it marks the end of the Clash as the Clash. Because of his heroin use, Topper would get fired from the band the following weekend, making that his last show. Topper actually sounds fine at Lochem. It’s Mick Jones who was all over the place — out of tune and out of time. “Police and Thieves” is particularly awful as it sounds like he’s trying out some new chord changes for his own amusement.

Strummer doesn’t sound too on top of his game either, though. He was probably still sore.

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