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We Spoke to Brendan Foster About the Great North Run’s 40th Anniversary

Brendan Foster Great North Run
August 2021
Reading time 5 minutes

After a year of postponement leaving participants, businesses and charities running on empty, the Great North Run is back – celebrating its 40th anniversary year

Living North’s Laura Fitzsimmons speaks exclusively to Brendan Foster as he reflects on the half marathon’s 40th year and how, despite a controversial re-route, this year is proving to be one of the most significant yet.
Great North Run

It’s been a momentous summer of sport – we’ve watched on as spectators slowly started to fill up stadiums again. But this year’s Great North Run (which will see around 57,000 runners taking part) will give a certain nod to normality – not only for sport, but for Britain too.

The stage was set for the 40th Great North Run in September 2020. But, like most mass events, the pandemic drew the world’s largest half marathon to a halt. Runners were left disappointed as the event was forced to press pause for the first time in its history – but the impact the postponement had on the region’s businesses and charities was arguably the most damaging aspect. With so many charities relying on the Great North Run every year, a large dent was left in respect of their fundraising – usually, around £21 million is raised for charities from the run. This year, as the Great North Run receives the green light (albeit with significant re-route), the event is arguably one of the most pivotal yet for charities, runners, and the region as a whole. 

On 28th June 1981, the North East welcomed the unfamiliar and extraordinary sight of 12,000 runners taking on the route between Newcastle and South Shields. Brendan Foster reflects on the first ever Great North Run, and despite the event seeing more than five times the amount of runners every year in recent times, the event was breaking records for British sport from the get-go. ‘It’s been Britain’s biggest mass participation sporting event since day one,’ Brendan says. ‘It also became the first event in the world to reach one million finishers. So from the very beginning, it’s always been the biggest, and has seen more and more people get into running and wanting to take part.’

‘When the event actually happens, and the BBC send pictures across the country of the thousands of people running and taking part – I think that will tell us that we’re on our way back’
Great North Run

Celebrations were held in South Shields to celebrate the 40th birthday back in June, with Brendan running alongside a select group of people to retrace the steps towards the iconic seafront finish line. ‘Obviously, due to the timing and the pandemic, we could only arrange for around 40 people to take part – so we invited people to write in to say why they should be involved and we picked them out. We ran along the seafront and we all had replica T-shirts from the first Great North Run that we’d managed to knock together, which was special too.

‘I ran with them along the stretch and I was right in the middle at the back. But just before the finish line, they suddenly all started slowing down and opening out (they must have agreed to it before we started) and they let me come through and cross the line first. So that was the first time I’ve crossed the line first in 40 years, which was amazing. They were lovely people and there was a lot of emotions – a lot of people explaining their stories. One of the participants who has run every single race was saying his ashes will be scattered at the finish line, and there was even a lady who works at Sandringham who came up to do the run with her daughter, and she brought a box of biscuits from the Queen in Sandringham! So there’s so many stories – everyone has one – and so much passion too.’

Alistair Dickson is one of those few people who have run every step of the way since the first Great North Run. After hearing the news that Brendan Foster would be organising an all-new half marathon event in the North East back in 1981, and having never run before, Alistair felt inspired to take up running – and he’s yet to break his stride. ‘I have quite vivid memories of the first ever event back in 1981 – I look back and can’t believe it was 40 years ago really,’ he says. ‘I just remember there being nothing like the run at all, as we’d never experienced anything on this scale, especially in the North East. Obviously, at the front were your serious club runners, but for me at the back, the sight of thousands upon thousands of people turning out to watch, whether it was family, friends or just spectators, was just incredible.’

The revenue generated by the run each year is considerable for the region, with businesses across the North East – and particularly those in hospitality – experiencing a significant benefit. But aside from the runners who travel from far and wide, a huge impact is made by the tens of thousands of spectators cheering from the sidelines – and Alistair praises the supporters for creating an unbeatable atmosphere each year. ‘I think the most powerful thing I’ve taken from the event, year after year, is the last mile of the run – you know you’ve done it at that point. The atmosphere almost pushes you along that last stretch in South Shields, and the older I get, the more I cry – every time. It’s the emotion you feel seeing everyone cheering each other on, and the amount of money that is raised and lives that are changed is phenomenal – but just as important has to be the amount of people that turn up on the day to support on the sidelines.’

For the first time ever this year, the Great North Run won’t end at its usual finish line in South Shields. Organisers have adapted the route to start and finish in Newcastle as a result of the pandemic, and runners will cross over the Tyne Bridge twice and start their run in staggered waves to handle the volume of participants. The reaction to the re-route has been widespread and mixed, with South Shields taking a particular hit from the decision, but organisers and health experts have emphasised that the change is a necessary step in order for the event to go ahead and run smoothly. ‘It means we can contain people and police them more carefully,’ Brendan says. ‘It’s so much easier to have only one centre that needs gearing up, as opposed to three – the start, the finish and the journey in-between – that makes for three massive areas to control. So the health experts told us that the best way to deal with that was by controlling and containing one centre.’

Great North Run

Despite the run not reaching its iconic finish line this year, Brendan reinforces that the re-route does not take away the heart and purpose of the event, and it’s hoped the run will finish along the South Shields seafront once again in 2022. ‘The route is simply the pandemic route – and it does still start as normal near the Town Moor. Of course we were sad that the traditional route wasn’t possible – and we did receive a bit of negative feedback from the route change – but at the end of the day, the Great North Run will happen and the charities will be able to raise the money that is so much needed after the year they’ve had. We’ve been told that entries to charity places have exceeded expectations and spaces are extremely full.

‘The economic impact the Great North Run has on the region is estimated to be £31 million – obviously last year that figure was zero. The charity income normally stands around £21 million and last year we held the Virtual Great North Run which ended up raising around £2 million. So when you look at the difference – that is the most important thing to come from this. And when you think about smaller charities who will really feel the difference, this is extremely significant.’

A film has also been in the works for more than a year and a half now, commemorating the event over the course of its 40-year run, as well as an appreciation for its host region. Initially premiering at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema from the Wednesday before the event and over the course of the Great North Run weekend, the film will feature interviews and music from the region’s local heroes and other recognisable faces – including Sting, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Nail, Ant and Dec and Alan Shearer. ‘It’s written by Horrible Histories author Terry Deary – and it’s very impressive. Sting talks about how the region is home, and Ant and Dec laugh about the early years of the Great North Run and what it means to be from Newcastle – so it’s a very powerful film.’

Brendan acknowledges that this year’s event will act as a pivotal stepping stone, not only for sport and mass participation events, but for the country as a whole as we emerge from the restraints and restrictions of the pandemic. ‘When the event actually happens, and the BBC send pictures across the country of the thousands of people running and taking part – I think that will tell us that we’re on our way back. This year’s event will be a huge signal to a return to normality after the awful time that we’ve all had – and as always, it shows Britain at its best.’

The organisers of the event have been working tirelessly to ensure that the spirit of the run remains this year – and despite the complex re-route plans and a running schedule different to previous years, the Great Run Company are determined to keep as much of what makes the Great North Run, great, as they can. Brendan is keen to extend his thanks to everyone who has helped overcome what has been a turbulent year for the event. ‘The Great North Run takes a lot of skill to organise and our team have done a fantastic job during this awful period – so my message to them is thank you. To all our participants who have stuck with us and come back – good luck in fundraising and in your own runs, and I’d like to say a big Great North Run thank you for making the Great North Run what it is. It’s not about the organisation or the elite athletes, nor the Red Arrows, or the Tyne Bridge – it’s about the individual and ordinary people who are doing such extraordinary things.’

Alistair is also keen to offer up a good luck message to any runners this year, as well as the thousands of people who help to make the atmosphere of the Great North Run a truly special and iconic feat for the region. ‘To anyone running, and especially to those who spectate and cheer on, come out again and let’s make this a special year. And to anyone who has never done it and is considering it – watch it on TV and be inspired, hopefully by people like myself who take part and had never run before. If you’re a runner, it’s a given that you’ll get a good time and keep up with your fellow club runners. But if you’re not a runner, it’s an exceptional achievement. On the day, everyone becomes special – that includes the people on the sidelines who offer the Jelly Babies and water (and in some cases free beer – who I’m hoping to bump into this year!).’

The Great North Run will take place on 12th September 2021.

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