The race of life

September 10, 2021

The Great North Run finally celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. And so does North East Times. But enough about us. This is a piece about the Great North Run. It is not about Sir Brendan Foster. And that’s the way he likes it. But, of course, the Great North Run exists because of him. And like Sir Brendan, the Great North Run needs no introduction. And that is arguably its finest accolade. Because the Great North Run has changed lives over four decades, raising an astonishing £1.3 billion for virtually every charity conceivable – and conceived – since 1981, and encouraging hundreds of thousands of people, no matter what their running ability, to get out and exercise and take part. The world’s biggest half marathon and the UK’s largest mass participation event secured its millionth finisher five years ago and the Mini Great North Run, around the Quayside on the Saturday before the main race, is now the world’s largest children’s running event. The route of the 13.1-mile course was changed this year at the request of medics, who had been planning a COVID-19-safe race for months, and the demands on the Metro. With a promise to return to the traditional route from Newcastle to South Shields next year, Sir Brendan looks back on the last 40 years, with Great Run Company chief executive Paul Foster, looking forward to the next 40 and beyond.

“Never mind 40 years,” the familiar voice and face of the Great North Run says on our video call.

“We didn’t even know if we would have a second one.”

The first starting gun of the Great North Run actually went off in Auckland, New Zealand.

While training for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 with Dave Moorcroft, Big Bren, as he was known, was signed up for the Round The Bays race with 10,000 other runners.

“Dave and I had never seen anything like it,” he recalls.

“I said to him, as we were lining up with all these people of all sorts of shapes and sizes and different outfits all round us, that this could really work back home, with the idea of making the run from the city to the coast.

“There were thousands lining the streets, and runners joining in halfway through and kids on skateboards – don’t put that, we’ll have kids on skateboards joining in after the Olympics! – it was just a fantastic day.

“Running hadn’t really taken off in the UK, but it was very popular in New Zealand, and I just felt it would work here.

“After I retired, I called four guys from Gateshead Harriers, and we got to work on it. But we only ever planned one.”

Little did his fellow runners know what they were letting themselves in for when Sir Brendan showed them photographs of the Auckland race in their meeting at the Five Bridges Hotel.

“We all got together, John Caine, Dave Roberts, Max Coleby, Johnny Trainor and me – and it was right, ‘you do the start, you do the course in the middle, you do the finish, you do the promotion,’ and it went from there.

“We mapped the course out, driving a car on the tripmeter to measure it. The first year wasn’t a half marathon, it was more than that, and then we decided on a half marathon, a proper distance.

“Some people said we should make it a marathon, but we resisted that for two reasons: people are more likely to run a half marathon and if you keep going at South Shields, you’ll end up in the sea!

“We were all runners, and it was like an evangelical thing. We loved running and wanted other people to run too.

“It was a simple calling. From runners to runners – come together and run, and an unbelievable 12,000 answered that call.”

As he is happy to do to this day, Sir Brendan looked after promotion, sponsors and the media, Caine was appointed race director and tasked with finding a route, Roberts managed the start, Coleby had to map and measure the route while overseeing the medical aspect of the event, and the late Trainor arranged the finish.

And drawing on comparisons with the A1, known as the Great North Road, they named it the Great North Run.

“It was the first run with 12,000 people,” says Sir Brendan. “We didn’t know what to expect.

“The BBC backed us from the start and Mike Neville was a big voice in the North East back then.

“The entries were sent to the BBC offices and on the first day, they couldn’t open the front door for all the envelopes and had to enter through the back.

“And there was no live coverage back then, either.

“The race was basically just covered on the local news bulletin, so getting the live coverage from the BBC was huge.

“That was a game-changer in terms of the positive publicity for the whole of the North East, and for runners. Don’t forget, running really wasn’t that popular when we started.

“I remember the editor of The Journal, Phil Crawley, said before the first race that he wanted to capture this image of the runners coming over the Tyne Bridge and he went to great lengths to get the shot from the tower.

“And remember, the Tyne Bridge had never been closed to traffic before, apart from for the king.

“It is such an iconic building, the Tyne Bridge. That image of the runners with the Red Arrows flying over never ceases to amaze me.

“It was our first run, and nobody knew what it would be like, what would happen.

“The biggest race in the country until that point only had 1300 runners, so we didn’t know what it was like to organise an event like that.

“But it went well. Everyone was happy, the atmosphere was amazing, and I was then asked the question at the end of the
run, ‘are you going to do it again?’

And my answer was simple: ‘I’ve got no choice in the matter’.”

The winner was Elswick Harrier Mike McLeod in 63 minutes, with Sir Brendan finishing 20th in the 10,665 finishers.

As he does so often on the call, Sir Brendan chuckles at the memory of the participation of the man who finished 490th – Kevin Keegan.

Then a Southampton player and England captain, and soon to become a Geordie legend, Keegan had been persuaded to take part by Sir Brendan to run for the Charlie Bear Scanner Fund.

The future Newcastle player and manager wore a combined red and white/black and white shirt and paid 50p to the charity for every athlete who beat him over the coast road finishing line.

“Kevin was the first ever celebrity runner,” says Sir Brendan proudly – even more so when I point out it may have planted a seed in the former County Durham miner son’s mind to return to the North East.

“He was a good runner and I told him to come up and of course he was absolutely fantastic with everyone,” says Sir Brendan.

However, for all the positivity, it seemed, for a while, that another event may not happen.

“We got a letter from the British Amateur Athletic Board saying we weren’t going to get permission for a second race because professional sportsmen weren’t allowed to compete in amateur athletics events,” says Sir Brendan.

“So, I told them, ‘right – you come and tell everyone they can’t do it, because I’m not!’’

“I rang them up and said, ‘if you want to cancel the race, I’ll arrange a rostrum and a loud hailer, and you can tell all 12,000 people they’re not running’,” he recalls.

“They said, ‘we’re not doing that’.”

The governing body sent an official to the race and Sir Brendan had one line drawn at the start for elite athletes and club runners and another for the rest – technically making it two separate races and removing the evil threat of ‘contamination’ under their rules.

Keegan was the first of the celebrities, and world-class, Olympic-winning athletes have just kept on coming and running and running. Sir Mo Farah has won the race six times; his love for the course, the day and the people is patently obvious. One of Sir Brendan’s highlights is the 2013 race featuring Olympic and world gold medallists Farah, Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebreselassie.

Ethiopian Bekele won narrowly ahead of Farah in a race that took his breath away.

“Seeing those three wonderful athletes running through our streets was one of the few times I have been emotional in commentary,” says Sir Brendan.

“If not the only time, just watching those three as a runner who used to run over the Tyne Bridge.

“From day one, we have always attracted the elite athletes. They all know about the Great North Run and these big athletes want to be in it, which is
a fantastic honour for us, but we are a global event.

“Our race is broadcast across the world – millions watch it in Africa. “Last year, we were going to be running on the same day as the Boston Marathon and we made contact with their chief executive on a Teams call or whatever, and I started to make the introduction for the Great North Run.

“‘Let me stop you there,’” he said.

“‘You don’t need to tell us anything about the Great North Run’”, he said, “which is testimony to how far we’ve come.

And hitting the one millionth finisher was an incredibly proud day for the business.

“There’s no way we could have anticipated reaching that milestone in the early years.”

The transformation of South Shields and the area around Sandhaven beach on race day over the years has helped secure its importance for charities and organisations, which line the tents in the villages.

The Great Run Company have grown too, now providing a national series of events which has attracted an additional four million-plus participants and this autumn events are going ahead in Manchester, Bristol, Portsmouth and of course Newcastle.

Sir Brendan adds: “As well as the millions of adults that have taken part in our events, we are especially proud of our younger runners.

“We added the Junior Great North Run in 1986, combined it with the Mini Great North Run in 2004, and it is now the world’s largest children’s running event.

“Over the years, 185,000 competitors have taken part.

“This celebration of young people running is something we’re really passionate about. We believe in the power of running – the true legacy of the Great North Run will be to inspire the generations who follow.”

Last year, organisers were preparing to celebrate another important milestone, the 40th Great North Run – but then the pandemic put an end to the party before it had even begun.

Paul Foster, chief executive of the Great Run Company, explains: “Our series ground to a halt.

“The lives of our customers, alongside those of the entire nation, changed around us.

“We had to re-evaluate our approach and adapt to their needs within the constraints we were all experiencing.

“Physical events were not possible, but in these exceptionally strange times we felt we had a part to play in helping people through.

“It became clear that running was a lifeline for many of our customers in lockdown, providing routine and headspace, helping them manage anxiety and stress and of course, keeping them fit.

“We created Great Run Solo, a series of virtual running events, providing runners with the structure and motivation to get out and stay active, while still maintaining a feeling of participation and celebrating their achievement with a medal.”

In the seven months from launch to the end of December 2020, more than 85,000 people had taken part.

Paul continues: “It’s been a really tough 18 months for everyone, The Great Run Company included, but we’re so happy to be back doing what we love, working with our event partners and suppliers to provide our customers with an incredible Great Run experience.”