Once Upon The Tyne…

Great Comeback 1

Celebrating 40 years of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  As the Great North Run turns 40, we take a look back at some of the highlights from the event’s history. 

On 28 June 1981, 12,264 people lined up in Newcastle for the first Great North Run – it was the start of something special.  40 years on, the event has grown into a landmark event on the sporting calendar and earned the title of the world’s biggest half marathon. 

To celebrate the 40th staging of the Great North Run, we’re showcasing some of the magical moments, memories and landmark achievements from the past 40 years.  We hope you enjoy! 

40 YEARS OF MAGICAL MOMENTS 
We’ve been lucky to have been able to share some wonderful stories and witness history over the past 40 years.  Here are just some of the highlights: 

Keegan’s football boots – England Football captain at the time, Kevin Keegan took part in the first Great North Run wearing a special half Newcastle, half Sunderland shirt.  Suffering from blisters after selecting the wrong footwear for the run (his England Patrick football trainers) he stopped at mile 10 to swap trainers with a young lad on the side of the course, completing the final miles of the race in his borrowed trainers.  Keegan also made a donation to charity after making a bet to give 50p for every runner who beat him to the finish line. He finished in 490th place. 

Millionth Finisher – Tracey Cramond became the Millionth Finisher across the Great North Run in 2014, the first event in the world to reach a landmark one millionth finish.  It turned Tracy into a local celebrity overnight, switching on the Christmas lights at South Shields with pop star Joe McElderry, presenting at the BBC North East Awards, featuring in the Great North Greats Exhibition and being appointed a Great North Run ambassador. 

Great World Run – Long hailed as the world’s favourite run, in 2016 the Great North Run broke the record for having the most countries represented in a single running event in history.  Runners from 178 different nations were represented, from Azerbaijan to Zambia.  The unique achievement led to then-United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon sending a message of support to the event organisers and the 57,000 entrants.

Claire’s Walk – In 2016 Claire Lomas walked the 13.1-mile course using a revolutionary bionic exoskeleton ReWalk suit.  The feat took Claire 5 days to complete, finishing on the same day as 57,000 others and just ahead of the elite athletes.  Claire was 16 weeks pregnant at the time and bravely battled the elements, morning sickness, sores and fatigue to complete the event, inspiring thousands of people on her journey from Newcastle to South Shields.  Claire has managed to raise over £600,000 for the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation through her challenges since she was left paralysed and has since been awarded an MBE for her fundraising.

Sting The Starter – The 2009 GNR got underway with local music superstar, Sting, firing the starting pistol.  Wallsend-born Sting, who made his name as frontman for The Police returned to the Great North Run fray in 2014 for a starring role in the Great North Run Million opening ceremony.  

Paula’s Year – Paula Radcliffe claimed her first GNR victory in 2000, in a time of 67 minutes and 7 seconds, a new European record at the time.  Her victory continued the previous British & Irish successes of Liz McColgan and Sonia O’Sullivan.  Paula returned to take the crown again in 2003, recording the fastest female half-marathon in history in a time of 65 minutes and 40 seconds.

Officially the World’s Largest Half Marathon – GNR broke the Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Half Marathon on 7 September 2014.  57,000 runners entered the event with 41,615 crossing the finish line.  The 2017 Great North Run eclipsed this finisher’s total with 43,656 runners, making it the largest half marathon race of all time.

Red Arrows –  The Red Arrows have become a popular sight at the Great North Run ever since their first fly over in 2002.  The distinctive roar when the Red Arrows soar over the Tyne Bridge and along the South Shields seafront, is always a memorable moment for runners and spectators, many of whom wave and cheer as the jets fly over.  The pilots themselves love and are honoured by their involvement in the event. Squadron Leader and Synchro Lead Simon Stevens, Red 6 says, “The Great North Run 2006 was my final display and flypast as a Red Arrows pilot and so holds a special significance for me. Even from above you can feel the electric atmosphere and seeing all the runners packing the Tyne Bridge as we flew over is something I will never forget.” 

Great North Run Million Opening Ceremony – A spectacular celebration of the Great North Run becoming the first event in the world to reach a landmark one millionth finish.  The occasion was held on the banks of the Tyne, just a few days ahead of the 2014 Great North Run and included performances from Sting, Mark Knopfler, The Unthanks, Chase and Status, state of the art video projection on the Sage Gateshead, floating sculptures on the Tyne, hundreds of volunteer performers who formed a giant choreographed circuit around the Quayside and a stunning fireworks show. 

Farah vs Bekele vs Gebrselassie – The 2013 GNR saw one of the greatest half marathon races in history as Mo Farah, Kenenisa Bekele & Haile Gebrselassie raced against each other.  With all three running legends still together with 1 mile to go, it turned into a nail biting finish with Bekele just holding on from a chasing Mo Farah to claim the 2013 title. 

The Original Runners Guide 
Back in 1981 most people didn’t know what to expect from a big running event, let alone how to prepare for it!  The original race organisers carefully created an event guide packed full of useful info – most of it is a given nowadays, but it makes for fun reading!  We’ve recreated the original runners guide with some of the best Do’s & Don’ts:   
You can download a copy here.  

Stories From The First 

We asked the original race organisers Sir Brendan Foster and John Caine to relive the very first Great North Run.  They share funny memories and anecdotes from forty years ago.  Enjoy! 

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA OF THE GREAT NORTH RUN?   
This video explores where the original concept of the GNR came from and the very early stages of the planning. 

WERE YOU PREPARED FOR 12,000 RUNNERS?   

Sir Brendan Foster and John Caine fondly remember how the first GNR event day unfolded. Without giving much away, it didn’t all go to plan!  

Things We Take For GNRanted 
The world has changed over the last 40 years.  Timing chips on race bibs, radio communication, automatic race results, an online entry system… these are just some of the things that didn’t exist back in 1981.  We’ve taken a look at some of the things we take for granted (or GNRanted if you will).  Read more here.

Good Luck 
Thank you for choosing to take part in this year’s unique 40th Great North Run. Thank you for raising millions of pounds for charities and good causes.  Thank you for celebrating this momentous occasion with us. 
We wish all of you the very best of luck on Sunday 12 September, see you at the finish! 


The 40th Great North Run will take place on 12 September 2021, 40 years on from the very first event on 28 June 1981.  Find out more here.