Exploring the legacy of a British running icon and founder of the Great North Run, Nicole Wood sits down with Sir Brendan Foster CBE to discuss his childhood, his impressive career and his passion for sport…
The North East has produced many notable figures who have left a lasting impact on the world, but few have had as profound an influence on both sports and community as Sir Brendan Foster CBE.
A former long-distance runner, athletics commentator, road race organiser, and founder of The Great Run Company, Foster’s journey from a young boy enamoured with the world of sports, to a visionary leader who transformed running events into powerful communal experiences, is a testament to his passion, determination, and the desire to bring people together.
With 2023’s Great North Run around the corner, it’s an honour to sit down with the legend himself who helped bring this iconic event to life.
Inspirations and Influences
Growing up in the North East, sport was an inseparable part of Sir Brendan’s life. While football might have held sway over the local landscape, his affinity for athletics soon took centre stage. Reflecting on his formative years, Sir Brendan shares: “As a kid growing up in Hebburn, sport was everything,” he recalls. “At the time, football was king, and like most young boys on Tyneside, I grew up wanting to play centre forward for Newcastle United.”
The region’s rich sports culture immersed Foster in the world of athletics from a young age. From school teams to local clubs and even the shipyards, sports and competition were woven into the fabric of the community.
Foster’s own journey into the world of athletics began with a curiosity about running. Joining the Jarrow and Hebburn Athletics Club followed by the Gateshead Harriers, he embarked on a path that would lead him to the pinnacle of international competition. It was a single moment, watching Ethiopian superstar Abebe Bikila’s historic race, that ignited Foster’s passion for running and set his dream of competing at the Olympics.
“I can vividly remember, as a 12-year-old, watching the Ethiopian superstar, Abebe Bikila in the 1960 Rome Olympics. He became the first Sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal, a feat made all the more remarkable as he took on then marathon course barefoot. From that point on I was hooked and my dream was to make it to the Olympics,” he recalls. Guided by the coaching of Stan Long, a welder by day and a lover of running, Foster’s talent blossomed.
“I was very lucky as a schoolboy to meet Stan Long. His approach to coaching was simple but profound. He used to say to us, ‘Just go out and enjoy it’,” Foster reminisces. Long’s philosophy shaped Foster’s perspective on running, instilling in him a love for the sport that transcended any external pressures. This lesson is one that became a guiding principle in both his athletic and entrepreneurial endeavours.
An Athlete is Born
Sir Brendan’s athletic career took him to remarkable heights. Representing his country on the international stage during an era when amateurism was the norm, Foster’s accomplishments were a testament to his dedication and love for the sport.
“All athletes in those days were amateurs, it was a very different landscape, so even though I was off competing in international competitions, I still had to come back to my day job as a teacher. Representing my country at the Olympics in Montreal 1976 was a very proud moment,” he shares. This pride was further amplified when he returned home as the sole medalist for Britain in those games.
Another highlight he recalls, was his earlier gold medal win at the European Championships. Foster’s achievements resonated deeply, not only with himself but with the nation he represented. “I won a gold medal at the European Championships in Rome in 1974. When I came home, in my new role at Gateshead Council, we were launching the Gateshead Games.
I marked the opening of the new Gateshead Stadium track by promising I would run a world record in the 3,000m, which luckily I did, in a time of 7.35.1, or I would never have lived it down. Breaking that record in front of a home crowd was a brilliant feeling and one I’ll never forget,” he smiles.
Transitioning from his professional athletics career, Foster faced a new chapter as he entered the world of business and event organisation. Drawing inspiration from his experiences in New Zealand, where he participated in a fun run called ‘Round the Bays,’ Foster recognised an opportunity to introduce a similar concept to the UK. The result was the birth of the iconic Great North Run in 1981.
Introducing: The Great North Run
“As I’ve mentioned, there was a very different attitude to running in those days, there was no pressure, because it wasn’t my day job, I could afford to take risks and try things out. I did it for the love of it. I think that’s the main lesson I carried into business.
When we started the Great North Run, we were just a bunch of guys who loved running and wanted to get more people running. We were happy to take risks because nothing like that had been done before, so really, we had nothing to lose. If it didn’t work out, we’d do something else. Luckily it didn’t turn out that way. Honestly, that first year we had no idea how many people would sign up, but the people of the region really embraced it and in June of 1981 we had over 12,000 runners line up for the very first Great North Run,” he reflects.
“Things have changed a bit since then, at the first event only about 11 percent of the field were women, now it’s pretty much an equal split. There are a few more runners on the start line too, this year there are 60,000 people signed up. In 2016 we hit an important milestone in the history of the Great North Run and that was celebrating one million finishers in our landmark event,” he continues.
The Great North Run wasn’t just a race; it was a catalyst for unity, a celebration of community, and a platform to inspire. Foster’s vision, along with the dedication of his team, turned the event into an annual diary date for the region, bringing people from all walks of life together.
“The Great North Run was just the beginning.” Foster explains. The event’s success laid the foundation for a national series of events under The Great Run Company, each event celebrating the unique character and spirit of its host city.
“We’ve grown into a national series of events with over four million participants each celebrating their own journey, as well as the joy of collective participation in their own cities. Each event has its own unique character and atmosphere.
I’m really proud we give so many people the opportunity to come together and celebrate everything that makes their city great in such a positive way. Civic pride is a powerful thing and it brings people together. We also deliver an incredible open water swimming event in the Lake District, which has been going for more than a decade.
This year we’re launching a brand-new event in the Lake District, 13 Valleys. It’s an epic ultra-marathon with four challenging distances and indescribable views. We’ve dipped our toe in the world of Ultra Running with Ultra London and Ultra North but this is a new venture for us and we’re really excited to be putting together such a unique proposition in such a special location,” he explains with a smile of pride beaming across his face.
The Great Run Company
For over four decades, The Great Run Company has been at the forefront of inspiring active lifestyles through the magic of mass participation events. Bolstered by the triumphs of the Great North Run, which welcomes participants travelling from every postcode in the UK to take part, a staggering £35 million of positive economic impact is felt in the North East.
The Great Run Company’s influence has radiated across the nation with a series of events, held between May and October in six UK locations, offering participants thrilling challenges and exhilarating moments.
However, the company’s impact isn’t limited to the realm of athleticism – it extends to the heart of philanthropy and community. Facilitating an impressive £30 million in charity fundraising, The Great Run Company’s events become platforms for inspiring personal narratives and purpose-driven challenges.
The company remains unwavering in its dedication to supporting charity partners, offering participants unparalleled opportunities to amplify their fundraising efforts. Beyond the finish lines and personal records, The Great Run Company crafts a tapestry of collective inspiration, determination, and shared experiences.
Through every stride taken, every goal achieved, and every cause supported, the company champions the ideals of unity and wellbeing. As they continue to set the pace for mass participation events, The Great Run Company’s legacy remains an indomitable force that propels individuals and communities toward a brighter, healthier future.
Not All Plain Sailing
Like any journey in life, we spend some time discussing the challenges and triumphs along the way: “There have been many challenges to overcome, hurdles to climb and success to celebrate. The pandemic had a huge impact on sports and events. The 40th Great North Run had to be postponed, and even when it finally took place, it required adjustments to ensure safety.
Yet, the spirit of resilience prevailed, and the event continued to symbolise the unity and determination that characterise the North East,” Sir Brendan added.
“Last year, very sadly, Queen Elizabeth II passed away just days before the event. An event of such national magnitude obviously had an impact on our planning but I’m glad we were able to go ahead. The thousands of runners taking part raised millions in charitable donations, which we believed was a fitting tribute to the Queen, who lived her life in the service of our country and its people.
I’m always extremely proud of what we achieve at the Great North Run, proud of our team, of the runners and of the region. It’s a real opportunity to showcase the best of the North East to a global audience – it doesn’t get much better than that,” he adds.
When it comes to paving the way for aspiring athletes, Sir Brendan isn’t short of advice. From the passion and enthusiasm expressed in our chat so far, I’m not surprised that enjoyment is at the forefront of what he has to share: “Just get out there and enjoy it, running is great fun and a very sociable sport.
I have lifelong friends that I’ve made through running and that’s probably the most important thing the sport has given me. Success is great and will come if you stick in, but you have to enjoy it first and foremost.” His words resonate deeply and encapsulate a philosophy that extends beyond athletics into every aspect of life – a philosophy that fuelled his journey from a young boy dreaming of running to an enduring legacy that continues to unite communities.
Staying active remains a cornerstone of Foster’s life, demonstrating the enduring impact of his athletic roots. “Staying active is a really important part of my life, even more so as I get older. I’ve always tried to stay fit and healthy and although I might not run as much as I used to, I walk every day. When you live in the countryside like I do, walking up and down those hills keeps you fit,” he says.
His ongoing dedication to fitness mirrors his lifelong commitment to both physical and mental wellbeing and even in his personal life is something that spurs him on.
A Local Hero
With a sense of accomplishment, Foster reflects on one of his most poignant journeys – an epic walk along the Camino de Santiago with a close friend who was raising money for the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) hospital in Newcastle after being successfully treated for cancer 20 years previously. It’s a reflection of the man himself – someone who not only thrives on personal achievements but also cherishes the opportunity to make a positive impact on others’ lives.
As my chat with Sir Brendan Foster CBE comes to a close, I’m in awe of the inspiring tales I’ve been told. It’s evident that his legacy extends far beyond the record he set on the track or the events he orchestrated. His legacy is a testament to the power of passion, the strength of community, and the enduring impact of a single individual’s vision. In the North East and beyond, Foster’s name stands as a symbol of unity, inspiration, and the boundless possibilities that emerge when one follows their heart and embraces the journey ahead.