A jog on the Tyne will do just fine
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