The Agenda: What is the future of the Great North Run?

Brendan Foster tells Mark Douglas about the future of the Great North Run as it gets set to make history next year with its millionth competitor

Newsflash for sports fans across the region: Brendan Foster has won another race for the North East.

Next year, the Great North Run will etch its name into athletics history when the millionth finisher crosses the line in South Shields. They will be the first of the world’s major road races to manage it, leaving illustrious competition in the form of the marathons of London, Chicago, Boston and New York in their wake.

It is quite some achievement and if ever a landmark summed up the “run-for-all” ethos of this gloriously celebratory race it is this one. For while this year’s event comes with the justified tag-line of the “Greatest Half Marathon in History”, it is the tens of thousands of joggers who provide the platform for Mo Farah, Hailie Gebreselassie, Tirunesh Dibaba et al to flaunt their world-class talent.

There is always a special atmosphere in the air in the lead up to Great North Run weekend, but in 2014 it will turn into a million man (and woman) party. At the behest of the IAAF, plans are already afoot to celebrate next year’s landmark in spectacular fashion.

Foster is understandably proud that the race that began in 1981 has reached such a milestone. To have done it while retaining a feel for the North East roots of the race is even more pleasing.

It is typical of the organisers that they chose The Journal to announce the landmark.

While it will captivate the crowds in Addis Ababa and make front page news across the globe, this remains a North East event – and one that is proud of its roots.

Brendan Foster founded Nova
Brendan Foster founded Nova
 

“Next year the Great North Run becomes the first ever IAAF event to have a million finishers,” Foster said.

“Next year someone will finish it and be the millionth person to cross the finish line in South Shields. We’ll be the first in the world to do it – New York will be the second.

“It’s quite illustrious company: it’s us, New York, Boston, Chicago and London. We didn’t enter that race – we just had an idea – but we’ve now analysed and the IAAF are looking at it now. They’re looking forward to celebrating it with us.

“There’s never been an event anywhere where Newcastle has come ahead of New York, Chicago, Tokyo and Boston. We’re very proud of that and we’re planning a major event to celebrate that.

“The IAAF will come across and pass the baton to us for the million club. After they’re done with us they’ll be off to New York to present the baton to New York. It’s a major, major thing for us.”

When the final bit of bunting is taken down in South Shields, the run-in to 2014’s celebration will kick off.

Plans will be revealed along the way but be sure of one thing: this will be a celebration of all things North East. The region’s relationship with road running is a long and illustrious one and Foster pulls out a quote by the great Sir Chris Chataway, doyen of long and middle-distance running.

A late convert to mass participation road running he ran the 2010 event in under two hours – at the age of 80 it must be added – and summed up the extraordinary achievement of the Great North Run in his foreward to a book brought out to commemorate the 25th year of the race.

He wrote: “Once mass participation running took off it was inevitable that every world-class city would have a race. There was nothing inevitable about a world-class half marathon in Newcastle.”

With apologies to the great Sir Chris, this year the Great North Run organisers intend to disprove that notion.

What he was referring to was the hard work that has gone into continually refreshing and renewing the Great North Run to give it its unique status. But the enthusiasm for fun running was already deeply engrained in the city: so much so that it can rightly claim to have held the UK’s first ever fun run.

Foster says: “What we found out recently, courtesy of The Journal, was the story about the first ever fun run. We didn’t know about that. If you Google the running boom it talks about the Sunday Times Fun Runs.

“Then we realised that by the time they held their first one in 1978 we’d had two in Gateshead. Stan Long, my coach, was a big mover behind it.

“When people ask ‘Why the North East? Why Newcastle?’ for the Great North Run they all think it’s me but that’s not entirely true. We were already doing it.”

What is not as widely known is that at the first Fun Run Long had prepared a long speech for the runners on the do’s and don’ts of running - only for the competitors to set off when he told them “When I say go, you go”. They thought the second ‘go’ was their signal.

Indeed, anyone finishing that first Gateshead run in over 20 minutes found the gates of the stadium locked as there was an athletics meeting on at the same time.

Nowadays the North East plays host to a world-class event. Still, Foster christens it the Great Inconvenient Run with a chuckle.

Getting Government ministers and even some of the Fleet Street athletics correspondents to attend is virtually impossible but, to be honest, they don’t know what they’re missing.

The quality of the men’s and women’s fields is absolutely breathtaking. Mo Farah is the headline act for floating athletics fans, but he faces a huge challenge in the shape of Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie.

For the women, Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba go head-to-head in a meeting of two of the best ever.

“It’s a national event held in the North East,” Foster reflects. “It’s the same number of people running it from the North East as there was in the first one – it’s the other 40,000 or so from elsewhere that are represented. That’s fantastic.

“It’s huge in places like Yorkshire as well. There’s probably more people running it from Leeds than are doing anything else in Leeds next weekend.

“If you look at the entries, they’re quite interesting where they come from. There’s loads from Harrogate, Leeds, Darlington, Durham and further south.

“The Singapore Times, the Ethopian Herald: it’s a national event that’s happening in the North East but because of the front end of it, it goes around the world.”

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