The Ever Presents Club
"I’ve done lots of other marathons but London is special. Nothing can beat it,” says 86-year-old Ken Jones, the oldest participant at the 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon.
Jones is part of an elite group of 10 runners known as The Ever Presents, who have taken part in every single edition of the London Marathon since the first race in 1981. They have all been awarded Spirit of the London Marathon Awards in recognition of their longevity, and on Sunday 26 April 2020, they will all be hoping to continue their incredible record at The 40th Race.
We spoke to Jones and two other ‘Ever Presents’, Chris Finill and Bill O’Connor, to find out what they remember about the first ever race, how the London Marathon has changed over the last four decades and whether they foresaw how important the event would become to them.
Reasons to run
The three Ever Presents are now all good friends with distinguished marathon careers but back in 1981 they had very different reasons for making their way to the Start Line on Sunday 29 March.
Jones explains: “My other club members wanted me to run it. There were quite a few of us and we did a lot to help out at the beginning. We provided the course doctor, we measured the course, we manned the two feeding stations, and a lot of our guys were there helping at the finish.”
Jones was 47 years old at the time and had enjoyed a long career as a club runner. Meanwhile, Finill was a 22-year-old university student and running enthusiast who was eager to experience more marathons.
“I ran my first marathon when I was 20 in 1979 in Saginaw, Michigan,” says Finill. “I also ran the Milton Keynes Marathon later that year. In 1981, I was in my final year at university in Surrey and I was running for a London club, so it seemed completely logical to run the London Marathon.”
For O’Connor, then aged 35, it was more about ticking something off his ‘bucket list’ before returning home to his native New Zealand after a decade of living in the UK.
“I thought I might be going home,” he says, “so I decided to do London before I went, so I could say that I’d done it.” [He never did move back.]
“I’d refused to do marathons for years and years – I thought only mugs ran marathons. I used to run up to 10 miles but no further. When the London Marathon came along, I had a reason to do it and then I got bitten by it. I never thought I’d still be doing them after all these years.”
Finill, who took up running when he was eight years old when he used to run to and from the shops to buy cigarettes for his mum, remembers being excited by the prospect of the new race.
“I thought it was a great idea. I already had a couple of marathons under my belt, so I wanted to extend my experience of running those sorts of distances. It was tremendous and I was really pleased that we were taking a leaf out of the New York City Marathon’s book and producing our own version of it.”
A journey of discovery
The trio all have very fond memories of the day. Jones recalls: “The first London Marathon was a great experience. We’d obviously never run the course before and it was so interesting. It was such a good course it made me want to do all the others.”
"The atmosphere was unbelievable...The numbers and the enthusiasm weren’t like anything else I’d ever experienced before.”
It was a leap into the unknown and a journey of discovery for everyone, including the race organisers. Jones remembers that things weren’t quite as orderly at the inaugural race as they are now: “I can’t remember how I got to the start but I remember there were no toilets! But it didn’t matter, we were there and we all chipped in and did what we could.
“We put our clothes on these London transport buses and then we couldn’t find them at the finish. We had to search for about half an hour to find them but it was all part of the fun.
“The next year, I think they had lorries and a couple of years later lorries with numbers on. Everything has improved until now, when everything is perfect. It couldn’t be better.”
Back to the start
O’Connor remembers the excitement of getting to the start. “We got trains down to Blackheath from Kilburn.
"The atmosphere was unbelievable; it was just different. The numbers [around 7,000] and the enthusiasm weren’t like anything else I’d ever experienced before.”
Finill had a straightforward journey to the start. “My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, was living in Lewisham, so I was able to walk to the start, which was good. It was about a mile and a half up the hill onto Blackheath.
“The day itself was very gloomy, very dismal weather, but it was a joyous event for obvious reasons. From there it was the springboard to the race becoming one of the most important fixtures in the British sporting calendar.”
World famous atmosphere
The atmosphere on the London Marathon course is famous the world over and O’Connor remembers it being incredibly special even back in 1981.
“The atmosphere on the course was fantastic. I remember coming onto Tower Bridge and seeing all the crowds of people and thinking ‘Wow!’ I never thought I’d see anything like that and I never thought I’d see it again but of course I have. “It was an amazing sight. All the crowds were cheering and waving banners and other bits and pieces that people had brought out.”
Obviously, some parts of the course have changed. Finill explains: “There were parts of the course where the race was quite sparsely supported. In the early days, it hadn’t really gathered a head of steam where people wanted to come out and support the race.
“Places like the Isle of Dogs, particularly in the ‘80s before it became a major part of the city when Canary Wharf was built, were quite desolate places really.
“It was all wood yards, transport cafes and Alsatians. It wasn’t the glitzy overspill from the wealth of the city that you see nowadays but that’s how London has developed. London has thrived and become an even bigger global city than it was before and the atmosphere in that part of the course has changed enormously.”
A lovely occasion
Jones may have arrived with his club mates but he says that such was the atmosphere, everyone was soon mixed in together, having the time of their lives. “We all went our separate ways and joined in,” he says. “We laughed and joked with everyone. It was a lovely occasion.”
Finill believes the atmosphere at the race has remained the same throughout the years. “In many ways, elements of the London Marathon are remarkably unchanged. The general vibe is very positive, welcoming and friendly and that has been a constant throughout,” he says.
The trio can all remember the kit they wore on the inaugural Race Day. Finill says: “I would have worn my club colours. Harrow Athletic used to be called Old Etonians and we ran in a white vest with light blue and green. I wore very short shorts that were fashionable in the 1980s.
“I wore a pair of Nike Spins, which were a beautiful pair of orange and green running shoes. They were very early Nikes and they were made of very light leather rather than whatever shoes are made from these days.”
O’Connor ran in his red-and-white-striped Queen’s Park Harriers vest. “We still use them,” he jokes. “I might even be using the same one!”
He adds: “I had a pair of running shoes that I’d paid £2.50 for. I bought two pairs for a fiver. They were called Inter, which later became known as Silver Shadow.”
“By 1981 we had good shoes, we had Tigers, Asics and things like that,” recalls Jones. “Before that we had terrible trainers. All of our toes used to get skin taken off. We used to buy plimsolls in Woolworths for about one pound and 10 shillings.”
The three all remember the surprisingly small medal they received for crossing the Finish Line. “They gave us a little, tiny medal,” says Jones. “It was like a five pence piece!”
Set in stone
Just like the medals, the race has grown enormously in size over the years but surely nobody could have foreseen that back in 1981? Did any of the three have an inkling that the London Marathon would become a mainstay in the capital and their lives for the next 40 years?
“We never had any idea that it was going to be an annual thing, we thought it was a one-off,” says Jones. “Of course, it has turned out that it has gone on and on. It has improved each time. The whole thing – from collecting your number to taking part in the race – it’s fantastic.”
“I knew the organisers were keen to put it on again the following year, but a lot would depend on the GLC [Greater London Council] and the leader, Horace Cutler,” says O’Connor.
Finill was confident there would be more to come. “I think everybody thought it was clearly a success, so why wouldn’t you have it for a second year, a third year and so on?” he remembers. “Once it became an established race, it was set in stone as an event that London would definitely stage.”