A jog on the Tyne will do just fine

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Bren­dan Foster has a unique dis­tinc­tion in Bri­tish life. The for­mer Olympic ath­lete turned tele­vi­sion com­men­ta­tor was the first per­son in this coun­try to recog­nise that two seem­ingly in­tractable no­tions could happily co­ex­ist. Yes, it was he who came up with the no­tion that the words “fun” and “run” could be shoe­horned into the same sen­tence. Then he staged an event to prove it. To­mor­row, set­ting off from the heart of New­cas­tle, 56,000 peo­ple will take part in the 33rd run­ning of his idea. And most of those com­plet­ing the Bupa Great North Run will re­gard it as about as much fun as could be had on a Sun­day morn­ing.

“The at­mos­phere on the bridge be­fore the start is in­cred­i­ble,” says Foster. “Ev­ery­one’s ex­cited, ner­vous, very chatty. Just be­fore they set off, we play Abide With Me on the loud­speak­ers. Which makes loads of the run­ners weep, grown men crying their eyes out. It’s spe­cial.”

Foster’s epiphany, his re­al­i­sa­tion that run­ning could be for ev­ery­one rather than just the elite few, came about when he was in New Zealand, train­ing ahead of the 1980 Olympics. He was in­vited, with his col­league David Moor­croft, to have a go in a mass par­tic­i­pa­tion event in Auck­land.

“It was fan­tas­tic,” he re­calls. “I’d never seen any­thing like it. Ten thou­sand peo­ple run­ning through the city, what a great idea. The big­gest event in Eng­land at the time was the National Cross Coun­try Cham­pi­onship with 1,300 run­ners. When we got to the fin­ish line, I said to Dave: ‘You know, we should do some­thing like this back home.’”

Foster was al­ready a pi­o­neer of pub­lic runs. At the Gateshead ath­let­ics sta­dium in 1978 he had staged the first big open event held in Bri­tain, 1,000 am­a­teurs gal­lop­ing around the track. It was at that event that the term “fun run” was coined. But his new idea was on a dif­fer­ent scale, in­volv­ing the very ar­chi­tec­ture of his home town. In 1981, he per­suaded New­cas­tle City Coun­cil to shut the roads one Septem­ber Sun­day and al­low any­one who fan­cied it to run from the banks of the Tyne along a 13-mile course out to the sea.

“We made it a half marathon dis­tance be­cause if you go much fur­ther you end up half way to Nor­way,” he says.

Un­be­known to Foster, Chris Brasher had been struck by the same idea and staged the first Lon­don Marathon in April 1981, in which 6,000 peo­ple ran for 26 miles through the cap­i­tal. But the ini­tial Great North Run at­tracted twice that num­ber and es­tab­lished it­self as the big­gest mass-par­tic­i­pa­tion sport­ing event in the coun­try, a ti­tle it has not re­lin­quished in the 32 years since.

“To be hon­est we had no idea if any­one was go­ing to turn up at all,” he says of that first event. “But they did. And it’s just grown. When we reached 40,000 en­trants a few years back, some­one said that’s it, we can’t get any big­ger. But we have.” Next year, the run will reach a sig­nif­i­cant land­mark.

“We will be­come the first sport­ing event in the world to have had a mil­lion par­tic­i­pants cross the fin­ish line. Sec­ond to reach that num­ber will be New York, then Lon­don. So we’re at the front of a pres­ti­gious field. Which is not some­thing you can of­ten say about New­cas­tle.”

One thing is for sure, they will all be bet­ter pre­pared than many of the par­tic­i­pants in the first run.

In the of­fice of Foster’s com­pany, Nova In­ter­na­tional, there is a framed photo of that race in 1981. Look closely and run­ners ap­pear to be shod in plim­solls and football boots, some are in or­di­nary street shoes. Even the event’s sport­ing celebrity run­ner that day turned up to take part wholly ille­quipped. Kevin Kee­gan was Eng­land cap­tain at the time and he ar­rived in a pair of football train­ers.

“He got to about eight miles, and his feet were cut to rib­bons,” re­calls Foster, who ran him­self that day and fin­ished 13th (his now BBC com­men­tary col­league and fel­low for­mer Olympian, Steve Cram, was eighth). “So he took his shoes off and threw them into the crowd. He ran on for a bit in bare feet, then he re­alised that was not the best idea. So then he shouted out: ‘Any­one got any train­ers?’ This kid gave him his. That was typ­i­cal, re­ally. We didn’t know what we were do­ing. None of us did. It had never been done be­fore.”

But it was clearly an idea wait­ing to hap­pen. In that first race, only 11 per cent of the en­trants were fe­male. Which in it­self was some­thing of a break­through: Foster re­calls that when he first joined Gateshead Har­ri­ers Ath­letic Club in the mid­Sev­en­ties, women were banned from mem­ber­ship. Now he has given his com­pany the goal that when the sec­ond mil­lion par­tic­i­pants in Nova events cross the fin­ish line, half of them will be women.

That fig­ure will be reached much sooner than the first. His com­pany now stages dozens of mass­par­tic­i­pa­tion hap­pen­ings across the coun­try, from Birm­ing­ham to Bris­tol, Manch­ester to Mill­wall, from the Great North Swim across Win­der­mere to the Great South Run around Portsmouth har­bour. More than 200,000 peo­ple a year take part in Nova-or­gan­ised runs, swims and bike rides, thrilled by the chance to par­tic­i­pate in the com­pany of like minds. In­deed, it is plau­si­ble to sug­gest that, among the many ini­tia­tives to get the na­tion to get off its sofa, it is Foster who has come up with the most suc­cess­ful.

“Has Nova solved the na­tion’s health cri­sis?” he says. “No. But what we have done is en­cour­age peo­ple to take ex­er­cise. You hear about the govern­ment telling peo­ple to get ac­tive. But the only govern­ment I ever heard of that man­aged to get peo­ple ac­tive was in China, where one state made it com­pul­sory that if you wanted a per­mit to work, you had to demon­strate you were do­ing three ses­sions of train­ing a week. Gen­er­ally, if the govern­ment says do some­thing, you put two fin­gers up. I think we’ve proved that one of the best ways to get peo­ple ac­tive is of­fer a big event to aim for. If you’ve got an exam, you do some home­work. If you’re in an event, you train. A bike ride, a swim, a run, it’s the in­cen­tive of the big oc­ca­sion that gets you out there.”

Plus, there is the op­por­tu­nity to run in the same field as the finest ath­letes in the world. To­mor­row, at the front of the Great North Run, will be Haile Ge­brse­lassie, Ke­nenisa Bekele and Mo Farah, the two great­est dis­tance run­ners of all time and the Bri­tish Olympic and world cham­pion. In no other sport­ing event can an or­di­nary plod­der com­pete with the very best. You can’t play football against Steven Ger­rard, re­turn a serve from Andy Mur­ray or face a ball bowled by Jimmy An­der­son. But you can run be­hind Mo. Then af­ter­wards you can com­pare your time and be as­ton­ished at how quickly he com­pletes the course.

“At St James’s Park just up the road from where the start is here, 56,000 turn up to sit and watch when New­cas­tle United play,” says Foster. “At the Great North Run there will be 56,000 be­ing part of the ac­tion, tread­ing in the foot­steps of their heroes, do­ing the same as them. The cam­eras will be point­ing at them. In­stead of be­ing on the out­side look­ing in, they are the ac­tion: that’s the thrill of mass par­tic­i­pa­tion. Some­one tweeted the other day, which made me laugh: ‘Great North Run 2013, the great­est line up in his­tory: Ge­brse­lassie, Farah, Bekele and me.’ That sums it up.”

In it to­gether: the Great North Run, above, is the brain­child of Bren­dan Foster, be­low left. Al­most a mil­lion com­peti­tors have taken part

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