17 Jun 2013 | tagged in: Bupa Great North 10K

You had twenty minutes and that was it. A mixed bag of 600 runners in Gateshead in 1977 - without knowing it at the time - were to be the first over the line in a sporting revolution known as ‘fun running’ in the UK.

Inspired by what he had witnessed in sunnier climes, Brendan Foster was introducing the North East of England to the world of mass participation running for the very first time. He said: “I had seen it in California and seen it in New Zealand with their Round the Bays Race, where recreational running started in Aukland.

“We noticed what was happening around the world and this was our offering, but it wasn’t very well organised.” Remembering the race day itself, he said: “There was an athletics meeting going on inside the stadium at the same time and we thought two miles should take 20 minutes or so, but some people took longer and we had to stop them before they could cross the finish line.

“Anyone who didn’t finish in 1977 is very welcome to come back and finish it off this time.”

Since the story came to light on Thursday 6 June, three people have come forward as proud members of this trail blazing group from the 1970s. After reading about the discovery of an old newspaper cutting, memories of that fresh autumn morning with local lads and lasses have flooded back.

Youngest of the three unsuspecting pioneers Authur Andrews, 63, is from Whitley Bay and remembers thinking “Why am I doing this?!” A thought that must have passed through thousands of fun runners’ heads since. He said: “I did it with a few friends and got caught up in the atmosphere and in the end enjoyed it, especially when it was over!”

The oldest member of the trio, Derek Lunn, a 75-year-old from Washington smiled and recalled the time he brought his two biggest supporters along for some extra motivation from the stands.

He said: “I remember coming down with my son and daughter. I was concerned about leaving them on their own in the stadium because I didn’t realise we were going out of the stadium, and in the end my daughter said ‘go for it!’ I was probably one of the last out the stadium, but coming back and seeing Brendan with his big broad grin, clarifying your name then writing it on the certificate was phenomenal.”

The third man to come forward and take his place on this exclusive podium, Mel Patterson paints a picture that’s not too dissimilar from what you would find at a Bupa Great Run event today. The 66-year-old who, like Arthur, is also form Whitely Bay said: “I remember it was quite an occasion and there were a lot of children on the day, it was a typical family event.”

In an intriguing twist, the old Sunday Times cutting that Foster found with help from his wife and daughter has brought to light a misquote in the annals of running history.  The 65-year-old said: “Ours was the first run in Great Britain. A year later the Sunday Times organised one that became very popular that went on from 1978 and into the 1980s.

“Even if you look at the history books, the country’s running boom is said to have started in 1978, but it really did start the year before our race.”

Respected authors like Mark Perryman and John Bryant as well as various references online, refer to the 1978 Sunday Times National Fun Run as the beginning of the ‘fun run’ in Great Britain.

It was in fact The Sunday Times reporter Norman Harris who was so inspired by the event he reported on in Gateshead a year earlier, that went back to London to set up the aforementioned National Fun Run in Hyde Park, attracting 12,000 people.

After hearing this news, original ‘fun runner’ Mel Patterson said: “It’s tremendous to be involved in the first ever fun run, but I think the credit must go to Brendan – he conceived this and then went on the develop the Great North Run which is quite an achievement.”

After another Gateshead Fun Run, Foster went on to launch the Great North Run half marathon in 1981 which is now attracting global athletics stars and over 50,000 fun runners from around the world each year.

The creator of Great Run and Chairman of Nova International recalls how his Olympic medal and Commonwealth Games gold gave him the urge to do some good and encourage others to get into sport. Foster said: “Running was getting popular and we wanted something for ordinary people.

“I was working for Gateshead Council then and I had organised events encouraging people to take part in sport and me and Stan Long would host jog along sessions in the stadium.”

Taken from the original race report from Norman Harris published in 1977, the closing gambit looks to the future. It reads: “Hopefully, everyone will be able to finish in style, with a lap of the track… The date is Saturday, November 26, 1978, the time 11.30am. More T-shirts are already being assembled.”

Fast forward to Sunday 23 June 2013 and millions of T-shirts later, the Bupa Great North 10k is giving every runner the chance to feel like a star when they end the run at the finish line inside Gateshead International Stadium. With support from Arthur, Mel and Derek in the stands, as well as the climax of the European Athletics Team Championships happening in the afternoon – it will be the ‘fun runners’ in the North East of England crossing the finish line first once again. 

Let it be known, the ‘fun run’ was born in 1977 on the banks of the River Tyne.

Written by Andrew Donaghy

Share this Story