Steve Cram inhales deeply over coffee on a cool Wednesday afternoon, we’ve just spent nearly half-an-hour discussing the sometimes tortuous logistics of trying to organise a running weekend in Sunderland which will see 4,000 pounding the streets of the city.
Given the chaos that befell the Sheffield Half Marathon last weekend – when the event was cancelled at literally the last minute because of a water shortage – this is no mean feat.
The May 4 running event, which will see a 10k and half marathon unwind across the city, is months in the planning and years in the imagining. For Cram, a proud advocate of the city, it is something of a labour of love for an area that he feels passionately is too often “misunderstood”.
But it is not the running event that is causing him headaches at the moment. Instead it is the fortunes of Gus Poyet’s men that are giving this fervent Sunderland supporter reason to worry for the weeks ahead. “I was there last Monday (against West Ham). I don’t know,” he sighs.
“Hey, we’ve been there before. At the turn of the year I couldn’t see us going down but I wouldn’t say that now. Getting relegated would be bad but we’ll be back – if we do get relegated.
“That football club is so much a part of the community. It inevitably has an effect on the city when the football club isn’t doing well. Sport is cruel at times. The problem in Premier League football is that the difference between success and failure is so close. In other sports like mine you can have a bad season or a bad year and gather yourself and say, ‘Next year, I’ve got the Commonwealth Games or the World Champs’. In football you’re relegated and that brings problems of its own.”
The desperate fight against the drop comes, ironically, against the backdrop of attempts to rebrand a city that Cram admits is sometimes too backward about coming forward.
The half marathon and 10k were the idea of Sunderland City Council, and Cram was only too happy to step up to deliver an event which, now in its fourth year, is proudly representing the area.
“Any event comes with its headaches but I think it’s important that a city like Sunderland does have events going on,” he said.
“I’m Chancellor of the university and I know what that job is like – we have to almost punch a bit harder to encourage people to come to the university. You’re sometimes fighting a perception – you say to people that it’s on the coast and they say ‘Really?’ Then they come and see it’s not what they think it is.
“Like anywhere it’s got its nice parts and what have you, but it needs to develop its profile regionally and nationally, and events like this can do that.” This year’s course is remodelled, with the marathon suspended for a year.
There are big and impressive plans for the years to come – including expanding the elite portion and possibly extending the weekend – but for the next edition the focus is on delivering a solid, enjoyable race that will help to build the local and national profile.
It is something the North East athletics community should get behind, for this is not just a Sunderland event. Its success adds another major feather to the cap of the region. “It actually came out of some of the discussions we’d had for the World Cup bid in England,” he said. “The city is trying to go through the changes that Newcastle has been through in the past, and it’s important that events happen there and things are going on. They have the air shows, now we have a running event.
“Our event is a local, regional event but we do eventually want people to come in from outside the area for it. Now we know it’s never going to be the Great North Run or anything like that, but it’s a good running event that Sunderland can be proud of.” Most of all, this is an event put on with runners at the very heart of it. The half marathon course has been constructed with a view on offering PB potential, as well as showing off the riverside, sea front and Sunderland’s parks.
There are big plans ahead for the event, which will incorporate a lot of the renovation work currently unfolding in the centre of the city. For the time being, the idea is to put an event that build its reputation.
Organisationally, it has taken a lot of graft to get to this point. Even the route is a moving feast, with the organisers jumping through hoops to get to this point.
“We’ve put the marathon on hold for this year – we’ve opted for a faster, more runner-friendly route,” he said.
“We’re feeling our way through it a little bit. We learned a lot from last year and there is a lot happening in Sunderland at the moment. We’ve got some really big plans for it so this year we’re looking for a good, friendly event. We’re in a holding pattern really. But the important thing for us is making sure it’s runner-friendly. We want to make the whole day from an athlete’s point of view as easy and well-organised as possible. We want them to know they’re the most important part of the day.”
Online registration for the event closes at midnight on April 23. Go to <a href = 'www.sunderlandcity10k.com'>www.sunderlandcity10k.com</a> for more details.