Celebrating International Women’s Day with incredible female achievements

International Women’s Day is celebrated globally, and has a specific mission to elevate women and push for equality.  As a running series that prides itself on being a fully inclusive celebration of running, that sounds good to us at the Great Run! 

And so to commemorate #IWD2024, we want to shine a spotlight on some of the greatest female achievements and moments from across the Great Run’s history.  Ready?  Let’s go! 

The 80s and 90s 

1300 women runners took part in the very first Great North Run, making up 11% of the total field and considered a real achievement at the time.  Today, we have parity on the start line, with an even split of men & women on our start lines! 

Karen Goldhawk was the first of those 1300 women to cross the finish line back in 1981, with a time of 1:17:36.  Over time, as coaching and equipment has improved and the Great North Run has attracted a global audience, times have gotten faster and finishes even more exciting, with the current Great North Run women’s record set by Brigid Kosgei of Kenya in 2019 at 1:04:28. 

The 80s was a great decade for women at the Great North Run, with wins from running legends including Norway’s Grete Waitz, Portugal’s Rosa Mota and Australia’s Lisa Martin.  And by the 1990s, the Great North Run was well in its stride, with a hat trick of victories for homegrown talent – and World Championships gold medallist – Liz McColgan.  Liz took her winning form to the Great Scottish Run (1992) and Great South Run (1995 & 1997) also, claiming National records to boot. 

The noughties and beyond  

Paula Radcliffe exploded onto the Great North scene with a 1:07:07 win in 2000: the fastest (and probably the most exhilarating) female Great North Run we’d ever seen at that point.  In 2004, Radcliffe returned to victory, stunning fans with her performance and beating some of the best runners in the world by almost two minutes.  Her final time – 1:05:40 – was the fastest female half marathon in the world at the time (although didn’t qualify for official records because of the course elevation – boo!).  Paula also added the Great South Run 2008 title with a storming performance from start to finish in a new British Record time (51:11).  

Another running legend, Sonia O’Sullivan, tasted success on Great Run start lines across the land, winning the Great North Run in 1998 & 2002, Great South Run in 2002 & 2003, and Great Manchester Run in 2004. 

Since 2013, Kenyan runners have led the women’s Great North Run race, reflecting the Great North Run’s position as the half marathon of choice for the world’s premier athletes.  In 2021, the 40th anniversary of the Great North Run, Kenya’s Hellen Obiri crossed the line first, with Scotland’s Eilish McColgan coming in a breathtaking six seconds later. 

Speaking of Eilish McColgan, the superstar has followed in her mother’s footsteps with a trio of Great South Run victories (2018, 2019, 2021) including a British Women’s 10 mile record in her most recent victory (50:43), and the 2021 Great Manchester Run title in a new European Women’s 10km record time (30:52). Eilish also went onto smash Paula Radcliffe’s longstanding British 10K record on the road by two seconds (30:19) at the 2022 Great Manchester Run. 

Wheelchair greats 

The women’s wheelchair races have seen their share of action over the years with legends including Tanni Grey-Thompson (8 Great North Run titles), Gunilla Wallengren (4 Great North Run titles), and Shelly Woods (8 Great North Run titles) producing astonishing performances time and time again.  The fastest of all however is Swiss Paralympian Manuela Schär in a time of 48:44 set at the 2017 Great North Run.  

Everyday heroes 

And who can forget the everyday heroes doing incredible things outside of national records and race titles?   

Abbey Silvester took on the Great Bristol Run in 2023, raising funds for Cots for Tots, the dedicated charity for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St Michael’s Hospital, in memory of her daughter who was born sleeping. 

Jess Dyer endured severe bullying at secondary school which led her to self-harm for the first time when she was just 11 years old. She took on the Great Manchester Run for the first time in 2015, age 20 and raised over £1000 for the mental health charity, Mind. 

Kate Farley, an athlete with Cerebral Palsy, conquered her goal of completing the final mile of the 2018 Great South Run, completing the distance for the first time and raising funds for her charity, Superpeople. 

And then there’s Claire Lomas, the incredible ‘bionic woman’ who completed the Great North Run in 2016 in a special robotic exoskeleton suit after being paralysed in a horse riding accident.  Claire followed that up with the #10in24 challenge at the Great South Run in 2017, continuing throughout the day and night with no sleep.  Claire has raised over £750,000 for spinal injury research since the life-changing incident, won countless awards and taken on a new role as a motivational speaker.  

The incredible Holley Tierney, who completed the 2019 Great Manchester Run after battling cancer through her pregnancy.  Taking part in support for Mummy’s Star, the charity that helped her following her diagnosis.  

Gemma Green, had to learn to walk and talk again after she suffered a stroke when she was just 29-years-old, but took her place on the Great Bristol Half Marathon start line in 2018.  Gemma walked and jogged her way to the finish line, raising vital funds for the Alzheimer’s Society, in memory of her Nana.  

Lastly, a shout out to the thousands of charity runners each year who raise incredible amounts for women-centred charities: Breast Cancer Now, Women’s Refuge and so many more.  

Inspiration level:  off the charts.  


If you’ve been inspired to lace up your trainers, fundraise for a good cause, or push your limits, find your start line here.  Or click here for more information about International Women’s Day.