FOR many people taking on the Simplyhealth Great North Run, it is a personal challenge – testing themselves against the half marathon distance.

But for the likes of Alan Wyllie, the world's biggest half marathon forms a part of a weekend of socialising, with like-minded runners who he has met over the last four decades of running.

The Simplyhealth Great North Run is much more than a half marathon, it is an iconic slice of North-East culture which has thousands coming back every year. For Scotsman Alan, this will be his last, ending more than 30 years of making the pilgrimage to South Tyneside each year with a group of friends who he has met at various running events around the world.

One of those friends is Bob Moorhead, a fellow runner he met on the start line at the New York Marathon, who he managed to convince to take on the Great North Run a year later. Three decades on and the pair are still good friends and meet up every year on the weekend of the event.

Alan explained: “This will be my 30th Great North Run, and this is my last one running. It's my association with my friends from Ireland and England that makes it special, and the crowds of course.

“Initially I started doing the Great North Run every year with a club called Giffnock North in Glasgow, and I used to organise the accommodation and sort things out for everyone else.

“In 1985 I watched a programme about the New York Marathon and I signed up for it after that – a year later, I met this guy called Bob Moorhead and we just hit it off straight away.

“I started telling him about the Great North Run, so he started coming over in 1988 with some friends from Limerick, and he's now done 22 of them.

“He's 70 years of age, he drives a Harley Davidson motorbike, he's got a bakery and he's a drummer in a band. He's quite a character.

“We started meeting up, I brought friends down from Scotland, I've got friends in Newcastle and we go to the Marsden Rattler at the end of the run every year.

I've done about 85 half marathons in my life, and 74 around the world.

“We'll go out with a bang and enjoy it.

“One of my friends Ian Mitchell has done all 36 Great North Runs and he'll be with me over the weekend. He plans to get to 40 so I'll come down and see him finish it.

“I'll find it difficult not to do the run anymore. It won't be the same, coming down and not doing it. It has become part of the routine.”

Much is said about the loneliness of the long-distance runner, but that is not the case for Alan, as the start line of an event is a place where thousands of strangers stand together with the same common goal.

“You meet complete strangers. Before the start of the run you start striking up conversations with each other. You meet a new bunch of friends and I find that inspirational.

“I love the Great North Run. I still enjoy the route, you have the bands and the music, and people cheering you around, it's a no brainer – it's a great event.

“In 2001, I was one of the first 200 over the line and that was my favourite one. I'd been training for a marathon, and I had been running 70 miles a week, I motored through the whole run.

“It is one of my favourite runs. My wife has done two GNRs and she's not even a runner.

“It inspires people. It's very humbling.”

The Simplyhealth Great North Run takes place on Sunday, 10 September and is broadcast live on BBC One from 9.30am until 1.30pm, with highlights on BBC Two at 6pm. For more information, visit greatrun.org/north