The Power of One: Exclusive Interview With Toby Tanser

There are stories out there about you as a runner in New York City winning races while wearing costumes. Is this true?

Yeah I actually stopped running in 1999 when I came to New York. So when I started again, it was actually for fun. I had this fun feeling that running was not a production; running is supposed to be a stress reliever and for enjoyment. I liked that about New York; they have races like the Rat Race down on Wall Street. And they have the Pajama Run and all these kind of weird events. I think it’s good, because especially in a big American city, life can be very stressful. So it’s great to have a sport with a lighter side to it.

Photo courtesy of Toby Tanser.

What’s been your favorite costume that you’ve worn in a race?

I think my favorite costume was the race where I dressed up like a dog. I had this huge, balloon-sized head. It was massive. It was a really heavy costume. I was running in the race and what happened is that the woman who was brought in for the race, an elite Russian, had been a friend of mine. I was talking to her at the start. So I actually ended up starting near the front of the field even though I was planning to jog with my friends who were also dressed up like dogs. At the first hill, a famous New York coach came next to me and hit me on the head. It hurt. And he said, “Idiots like you should be at the back of the field. This is where real runners belong.” So I ran the whole way in front of him just on purpose and that was fun, because the guy was so determined to try and get in front of me. I mean it was a ridiculous costume. The size of the head was half the size of me. That has to definitely be a highlight.

Did you beat him?

Yep. I beat him by a long way.

You just had the opportunity to meet Prince Harry at a race for wounded veterans that you were directing. Describe that experience.

That was absolutely an amazing moment for me. I was absolutely humbled, because I’ve never really been a royalist. I’ve been ambivalent about the royal family. I was born in Britain. But my grandmother, who’s Icelandic, was very fond of the British royal family. I always thought it was odd. I wondered why she felt so passionate about the royal family. So when Prince Harry came, I thought it would be interesting to actually meet one. I was bowled over by his humility, his compassion, and just what a really nice guy he was — how he took time to talk to the soldiers. He was a really, really interesting person. I was so happy that he came to New York and ran the race. As the race director, it’s your dream to get someone like that to come. When he came, he said, “I don’t want much publicity.” So we didn’t do anything big with PR like interviews. It was so nice to see that he was just interested to see what was going on and to hang out with athletes. It was a very compelling thing. It was also nice, because he does a lot of work in Africa, too. So I’m hoping there’s going to be some follow through where are two charities can do things together.

You said you stopped running competitively in 1999. Where do you see your future as a runner?

The funny thing was is that when I was a young boy, I ran pretty well. I got to the national level. I was told that I had talent. I believe the same thing about the Kenyans. There are some people who have genes that help them very much with running. I remember one day I was with my school coach. And there was a kid’s race of two miles and an adult race of 10K. And he said, “You should run the kid’s race, because you are going to win it.” I said, “No, I want to run the long one, because I want to keep running.” The teacher didn’t really get that. He was like, “You won’t get a medal for the school.” But running for me has never been about the position. I’m not really interested in running competitively. When I became a Master recently, I didn’t do any Masters races. That really doesn’t interest me. I run for a purpose and that is for my own sanity. Competing is really kind of a social thing, really. Running for me is like brushing my teeth. It’s as natural as that. It makes me feel good and so I will continue to do it. As far as my running goes, I’m going to run this December from the Indian Ocean to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is about 40 miles a day of running with that huge climb at the end of it. The reason for that is 10 years ago, I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro by running up it. I wanted to see the Millennium when it was over by sipping a beer while the sun went down in 1999 to 2000. Unfortunately, I went with a woman who wasn’t very interested, so instead, we went to the African coast and I was attacked. [In 1999 Tanser was mugged and beaten in Tanzania.] This year, a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you have a climb up Kilimanjaro as a fundraising trip?” And I thought, “Well forget the climb part. Why not run up it as I was originally planning to do.” And then I thought, “Why not start at the African coast where I was attacked?” And that’s how I got this idea to run from the sea to the stars. You start at sea level and finish at the stars, because Kilimanjaro is the world’s highest freestanding mountain. And the idea is that when I reach the peak, we will break ground for the children’s hospital. I’m actually not an ultra runner. I don’t like long distances. For this, I’ve started training for it. I’m trying to add miles so I can actually cover the distance.

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Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, has just been released.

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