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Top 40 London Marathon moments

By Ian Chadband

After taking part in the 1979 New York City Marathon, journalist and former Olympic steeplechase champion Chris Brasher felt inspired at being “part of the greatest folk festival the world had seen” and asked in the pages of The Observer: “I wonder whether London could stage such a festival? We have the course… but do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?”

Brasher went on, less than 18 months later, to co-found the London Marathon and saw his question answered in the affirmative quite gloriously, time and time again. It has not just gone on to become Britain’s greatest annual sports festival but also a global celebration of athletic excellence, a carnival of fun running and the most uplifting mass demonstration of the human spirit.

To celebrate the 40th London Marathon, join us for a jog down memory lane to recall 40 of its greatest moments.

The first London Marathon, March 1981

The way we were (1981)

Brasher had wondered if London had the heart and there was the answer at 09:00 on the damp, drizzly Sunday of 29 March 1981. “This London Marathon, even before it’s started is surely the most remarkable success,” intoned the BBC’s original voice of the race, David Coleman, just before 7,055 people, to the sound of a cannon being fired, streamed out of Greenwich Park for the very first edition. It looks almost like ancient history now, rough and ready on the back of a £100,000 budget and hardly a fancy-dress runner in sight. But the seeds of greatness had been sown.

Inge Simonsen and Dick Beardsley, London Marathon, 1981

The hand of friendship (1981)

The first great image of the London Marathon spirit remains its most potent – that of American Dick Beardsley and Norway’s Inge Simonsen crossing the line together hand in hand as joint winners of that inaugural edition.

It nearly never happened, of course, as they both tried to break each other until Beardsley suggested they shared a symbolic victory and Simonsen thought “Why not?” (even though he now laughs “I never thought about doing that before or since!”) It brought them sporting immortality in a way that one of them running away to victory could never have done. Incidentally, the last two finishers that day in joint 6,254th place – Parisian Marie Dominque de Groot and Londoner David Gaiman – also crossed the line hand in hand.

Paula Radcliffe sets a new world record at the 2003 London Marathon

Paula’s simply the best (2003)

There are world records and there are world records. Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 mark of 2:15:25 remains an athletic feat to stand up there with Bob Beamon’s out-of-this-world 1968 long jump or Usain Bolt’s lightning 9.58sec 100m in Berlin in 2009.

“She’s like Neil Armstrong!” boomed Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski about this giant leap for distance running.

Radcliffe smashed her own record by nearly two minutes and, despite cramping over the last five miles, destroyed a world-class field by more than four minutes. No one since has come within 90 seconds of challenging this pure, wondrous landmark. “The longer it’s gone on, the more attached I’ve become to it,” smiles Radcliffe. “It’s started feeling part of the family!”

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Jonesy, Charlie and a famous pit-stop (1985)

What a duel we saw – but thank goodness we didn’t see the race-changing moment. As Wales’s former world-record holder Steve Jones and England’s Olympic bronze medallist Charlie Spedding – the marathon’s answer to Seb Coe and Steve Ovett – forged clear, Jones, desperately needing a call of nature at 22 miles while struggling with stomach cramps, turned to his rival and asked his advice.

“Stop,” was Spedding’s laconic answer. Out of view of the cameras outside the Tower of London, Jones  took care of business and, with renewed vigour, soon caught and sped past the speeding Spedding for a famous win in 2:08:16, a course record that stood for 12 years. “I didn’t shake hands with him at the end, and not because he’d beaten me!” smiled Spedding

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The People’s Champion (2003)

Boxer Michael Watson’s 12-year fight to learn to walk and talk again after being left on the brink of death in a brutal world title fight against Chris Eubank was one medical miracle. The next came when, over six long, physically crushing days, where every mile took about an hour to complete, he walked the London Marathon. Cheered every painful step of the way by well-wishers and met at the finish by Eubank, it meant the world to the heroic Watson that he had become ‘the people’s champion.’

Eliud Kipchoge sets a new course record at the 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon

He’s the Greatest! (2019)

Eliud Kipchoge is to marathon running what Jesse Owens was to sprinting, Muhammad Ali to boxing, Jack Nicklaus to golf and Roger Federer to tennis. At London, we’ve been privileged to see the elegant and smiling Kenyan in his competitive pomp, winning the men’s race a record four times, the latest of which was his imperious 2:02:37 course record triumph earlier this year that only he has ever bettered with his 2:01:39 world-record triumph in Berlin.

So, how great was Kipchoge’s London run? Well, try running 100 metres in just under 17.5 seconds. Then imagine doing that 420 more times without a break and you’ll comprehend its superhuman nature.

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A right royal race (2017)

Imagine running the London Marathon and the surprise of suddenly finding that you’re being handed a bottle of water en route by the most unlikely of VIP sources. That was the amazing experience of runners in 2017, who were offered water bottles, given high-fives and cheered by their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, whose mental health charity Heads Together was the race’s official charity that year. Not only did the royal trio officially start the event, they stayed on to support the runners, with one or two enjoying a right royal hug with Harry, a selfie with Kate and even splashing water on the amused William!

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Running for Boston (2013)

The show had to go on – and it did, triumphantly. Six days after the bombing near the finish of the 2013 Boston Marathon killed three and injured several hundred, 34,631 runners set off to run the 2013 London Marathon, many wearing black ribbons after immaculately observing a 30-second silence.

They were cheered along the route by 700,000 spectators, all quite undeterred by Monday’s horror and determined to show solidarity with their US friends. In many ways, these felt like the Marathon’s finest hours.

Mary Keitany runs 2:17:01, 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon

Mary’s record is on the money (2017)

Mary Keitany, the amazing Kenyan three-time London champion, broke Paula Radcliffe’s 12-year-old women-only world record (also set in London) by 41 seconds in 2:17:01, a run so staggering that it deserved to be accompanied by unprecedented rewards. It was, too! In total, the 35-year-old scooped more than $300,000 for winning her third title, along with the various time and record bonuses, and it’s still reckoned to be the most lucrative day’s prize money haul in distance running annals.

Joyce Smith, 1981 London Marathon

The Marathon’s First Lady (1981)

Joyce Smith often wonders what she’d have achieved if the advent of women’s marathon running had come earlier. Even though she was a 43-year-old mum when competing in the inaugural event, this marvellous British endurance running pioneer, who fitted in training around work as a wages clerk in Watford and picking up her kids from school, was still good enough to become the first – and still the oldest and most dominant – London winner.

She triumphed by nine minutes, while also becoming the first British woman to break two-and-a-half hours. She lowered her UK record again when successfully defending her title a year later at the age of 44 years, 195 days.

David Weir, 2002 London Marathon

No looking back for the ‘Weirwolf’ (2002)

Chasing down French wheelchair racer Pierre Fairbank, the surprise young British pursuer David Weir watched the leader misjudge a corner and hit a mid-road island. “Suddenly, I was in the lead and thought ‘What do I do now?’” he recalls. He remembered how his coach Jenny Archer had told him never, ever to glance behind him and, head down, he ploughed on to win. He’s never looked back since, becoming a Paralympic legend and London’s unmatched eight-time champion.

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Supermum’s hat-trick (1994)

Katrin Dorre-Heinig was one tough athlete, fitting in her training from husband/coach Wolfgang around looking after their daughter Katharina. As she won her third straight London title on a morning so demanding and windy that her 2:32:34 still stands as the slowest winning time ever, back in Germany four-year-old Katharina was beginning to understand how good mum was.

She’d watch Dorre-Heinig’s workaholic sessions and when asked if she’d follow in her mum’s footsteps, would protest: “Never, it’s much too tough!” Twenty-three years later, Katharina Heinig came to London to compete for Germany in the IAAF World Championships marathon, finishing 39th.

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...and Dionicio follows suit (1996)

Unlike Dorre’s treble, sealed in miserable conditions, the Mexican Dionicio Ceron’s third win in a row – still a unique achievement in the men’s race – came during what was then the hottest London Marathon, as he lurked for much of the race at the back of the pack before smoothly tracking 19-year-old Kenyan Jackson Kabiga, who dreamed briefly of becoming the only teenage winner, and pulling away to history.

Save the Rhino costume runner, London Marathon

A rhinoceros? Of courserous! (1992)

No London Marathon would be complete these days without a running rhino. For that, we can thank William Todd-Jones, a Welsh puppet designer, performer, director and screen writer who was the first to highlight the Save the Rhino cause by completing the course in the iconic costume. There have been welcome herds ever since.

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Basildon’s finest ends an era (1993)

For years, he’d been a car worker doubling as a British athletics stalwart, but it was only when he sprinted away from Isidro Rico at the old Westminster Bridge finish that Eamonn Martin and his yellow Basildon AC vest whizzed into a new league of fame.

Afterwards, he met the Prime Minister John Major, appeared in Hello! Magazine and had everyone tooting as he drove by in his car with ‘Eamonn Martin, sponsored by Ford’ on its livery. Now 26 years on, we understand why. Before his triumph, there were five British men’s winners in 12 editions; in the subsequent 26, alas, not one.

Khalid Khannouchi wins the 2002 London Marathon

Khannouchi’s world record scuppers Haile (2002)

Still the only men’s world record breaker in London, Khalid Khannouchi did it the hard way, by beating track deity Haile Gebrselassie. Amid the fuss over the Ethiopian’s marathon debut, everyone forgot just how steely Khannouchi, the existing record holder, was.

The 30-year-old Moroccan immigrant to the US, who’d funded his running dream in Brooklyn by working all hours as a dishwasher, showed his grit by outlasting third-placed Gebrselassie, whose consolation was the fastest-ever debut marathon (2:06:35).

Khannouchi clocked 2:05:38, slicing four seconds off his own record. “It’s difficult to call someone the greatest,” he smiled modestly, when praised for downing Haile. “You can be one of the greatest, but you can’t be the only one.”

Mo Farah runs his first London Marathon in 2014

Mo turns marathon man (2014)

There was no more eagerly-awaited marathon debut than when Sir Mo Farah, double Olympic and triple world track champion, first looked to the long road. Would it be ‘Fly Mo’ or ‘Slow Mo’, a breathless nation asked, not knowing quite what to expect. Neither did Mo. He bungled at a water station, ran too long on his own and felt his legs turning to lead long before finishing eighth in 2:08:21 behind winner Wilson Kipsang. Still, the crowds willed him home every painful inch of the way like no one before or since. “Without them, I don’t think I’d have even finished,” said a chastened but defiant Mo. “But I’ll be back…”

Paula Radcliffe, 2015 London Marathon

Thanks for the memories, Paula (2015)

The big sign held by the fans on the Embankment told Paula Radcliffe, “We will miss you!” but Britain’s marathon queen reckoned she’d miss them more as she said goodbye to athletics at 41 with a run that turned out to be a 26-mile procession of honour on the roads where she’d won three London titles and set three world records.

She clocked 2:36:55 this time, more than 21 minutes slower than in her heyday, but the time didn’t matter. “I wore the sunglasses to keep a lid on my emotions,” she smiled. “They hid the tears along the way.”

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A royal record (2010)

Princess Beatrice not only became the first member of the Royal Family to run the marathon but also the first to break a world record – for being part of the longest line of folk to ever finish a marathon while tied together. And while dressed in a lime green tutu over her running gear. Mum and dad, the Duke and Duchess of York, gave her a hug when she crossed the Finish Line after nearly five-and-a-quarter hours.

David Wyeth and Matthew Rees

The epitome of the marathon spirit (2017)

Dehydrated, delirious and desperate: David Wyeth was 300 metres short of the Finish Line when total stranger Matt Rees proved his good Samaritan and provided London with another defining, shining image.

“I decided to forget my race,” said Swansea Harrier Rees, who put his arm around the stricken Wyeth and helped him to the line, while telling him, “You will finish, I won’t leave your side.” When the Welshman’s selflessness went viral, it also became the unwitting start of a beautiful friendship between the pair.

Grenfell firefighters, 2018 Virgin Money London Marathon

Grenfell’s firefighting heroes (2018)

Eighteen heroic London firefighters who, the previous year, had helped extinguish the flames and evacuate people from Grenfell Tower on the night of the horrific fire that killed 72 people, ran the course in full uniform in 2018. It was hard to remember when any runners had received a more emotional, rapturous and deserved reception all around the course.

Tim Peake

Peake is out of this world (2016)

If you thought Kipchoge was other-worldly, what about British astronaut Tim Peake, who ran the event on a treadmill attached to an uncomfortable harness on board the International Space Station, starting somewhere over the Pacific Ocean just as the London Marathon thousands were streaming out of Greenwich?

Three hours 35 minutes and 21 seconds later, by now somewhere above Ecuador, he completed his personal 26 miles 385 yards. But as the ISS had made two orbits of the Earth in the interim, Peake had actually travelled more than 53,000 miles during his feat of becoming the first marathon man in space. Even Kipchoge might struggle to match that!

Fauja Singh

The ‘Turbaned Tornado’ centurion (2012)

The venerable Fauja Singh was unmissable in his five London Marathons and though Guinness World Records couldn’t certify him as the oldest-ever runner because he lacked a birth certificate, most were happy to be persuaded by all the other evidence that the Punjab-born, Essex-based phenomenon was 101 years old when he crossed the line in 7:49:21 in his last spin.

Known as the ‘Sikh Superman’ or ‘Turbaned Tornado’ (as his autobiography was entitled), he told a BBC documentary maker on the way round: “It’s not easy – but you’re not going to give up, are you?”

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Rutto’s great fightback (2004)

As he raced Kenyan compatriot Sammy Korir on the cobblestones alongside the Tower of London, Evans Rutto slipped in the miserable wet conditions, crashed into a barrier, took a slithering fall and brought down Korir too amid the crowd’s gasps.

Rising groggily, Rutto then showed extraordinary resilience to outpace the field and win in an amazing 2:06:18. “If I hadn’t fallen, well, I’m not saying that I could have broken the world record, but it’s possible,” he shrugged, even if his bloodied knees said differently.

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26 miles of mystic smiles (2015)

With the endless parade of fancy-dress runners down the years, everyone has a favourite. We all loved this 2015 classic when Gemma Kirkham from Bedford ran as the framed portrait of the Mona Lisa. “26.2 miles of smiles,” she explained, enigmatically.

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Fundraising king beats golden Olympian (2007)

It needed something incredible to eclipse Britain’s most revered Olympian, but when London-based charity fundraiser supremo Reverend Steve Chalke set his mind to beating a world record set by five-time rowing gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave, he proved unstoppable. In the 2005 race, the Baptist minister Chalke had raised the most sponsorship money ever by an individual at a single event, £1.25 million, only for Redgrave to top him with £1.785m at the 2006 edition.

Watching on TV, Chalke, a self-confessed competitive character, was spurred on to regain his record in 2007 by raising £1.855m for his Oasis Charitable Trust. Still not satisfied, the amazing Rev Chalke improved that landmark to £2.32m in 2011.

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Keeping your eye on the ball (2011)

Multiple freestyle football world-record holder John Farnworth had, almost unbelievably, gone over 12 hours without a mistake as he stepped his way carefully around the course while juggling a football from right to left foot on just a diet of water and wine gums when, by now in darkness, a drunk started running towards him. Fortunately, John’s brother rugby tackled the assailant and Preston’s king of keepy-uppy made it to the finish after 12 hours 15 minutes.

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Do you take this runner? (1999)

In another London ‘first’, forty-somethings Mick Gambrill and Barbara Cole started the race as an engaged couple and finished it as man and wife after whipping off the course in Greenwich in their half-traditional, half-Lycra wedding outfits – created by top designer Jeff Banks, incidentally – to be married nearby by a local registrar. Then it was back on course, as they sipped champers en route to the Finish Line.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni wins again (2002)

It was as a 22-year-old student that Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson started forging her athletic career by winning the London Marathon wheelchair race for the first time. A decade later, in the 2002 event, she was back as a fully-fledged Paralympic legend but also as a new mother, having given birth three months earlier to daughter Carys. “It was pretty hard and I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision to take part,” she reflected afterwards. A record sixth and final wheelchair title, though, suggested she had got it right.

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Jo and the wonderful strangers (2018)

She thought she’d just strained her knee but 41-year-old maths teacher Jo Denton was in real agony, wondering how she could negotiate four more miles. Enter the heroes; fellow runners and volunteers who carried her, gave her piggy backs and pushed her in a wheelchair until she was able finally to hop over the line. Only after the race did she learn she had actually broken her leg. “My faith in humanity is at an all-time high,” said Denton, thanking her saviours.

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The warrior spirit (2008)

No overseas visitors to the Marathon were ever more welcome than the magnificent six Maasai Warriors from northern Tanzania, who sang and danced their way around, while wearing their traditional red ‘shuka’ blanket togas and car-tyre sandals, all to raise funds to pay for the installation of pumps to bring fresh water to
their village of Eluai.

One had to abandon the race with circulation problems and was accompanied to hospital for moral support by another. Happily, though, they returned to the course the very next day and completed their eye-catching and worthy mission.

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And who cares who’s 36,510th? (2015)

As you’d expect from an Olympic champion, when the 1968 400m hurdles winner David Hemery put his mind to completing the marathon as a 70-year-old for his charity, 21st Century Legacy, nothing could stop him, not even an Achilles injury he suffered in training the week before the event.

He finished in just under six-and-a-half hours and placed 36,510th but won a finisher’s medal every bit as precious as his Mexico gold.

The Queen

Thank you, Your Majesty (2018)

Some distinguished names have been official starters of the race down the years, from Princess Diana to Sir Roger Bannister to Sir Andy Murray, but nothing could quite compare with the 2018 edition when, at Windsor Castle, Her Majesty the Queen, a day after her 92nd birthday, launched the race with the press of a red button – 110 years since the 1908 Olympic Marathon was started on the same grounds by her grandmother, Princess Mary.

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Shannon’s one in a million (2016)

How appropriate that the millionth person to finish the London Marathon should be a 39-year-old policewoman who ran for the worthiest of causes – to raise funds for the NICU that saved her daughter’s life. Shannon Foudy’s daughter Catrin had weighed 2lb 5oz when born prematurely at just 26 weeks but she battled through organ failure and a brain haemorrhage with the inspiring help of Luton & Dunstable Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Six years later, this one-in-a-million, Catrin, was at the roadside cheering on her one-in-a-million mum.

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Run, Forrest, Run... (2018)

Rob Pope, a 39-year-old Liverpool lad, was dressed – straggly beard to blistered toe – as film character Forrest Gump and like his fictional inspiration, ran like the wind. Rob, who’d followed Forrest’s runs around America from Alabama, covering 15,348 miles over 409 days, found 26.2 miles in London no problem, whizzing round in a near-elite 2:36:28 to set a Guinness World Record as ‘fastest marathon in film character costume.’

Big Ben runner Lukas Bates at the 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon

And time stood still… (2019)

Tick-tock, tick-tock… he’d run for 26 miles 384 yards for nearly four hours dressed as Big Ben but the final yard proved the big problem for Lukas Bates. “I thought I’d done the hard bit,” sighed the 30-year-old, whose hilarious attempts to manoeuvre the 11ft structure under the finishing gantry with the help of a race volunteer after he’d got stuck proved an internet sensation earlier this year.

But it wasn’t the end of the story. While celebrating in a pub afterwards, Lukas’s costume was stolen from outside and he didn’t get it back until a certain TV presenter pledged £1,000 to the runner’s chosen charity for its safe return.

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Here come the Chariots (1983)

The London Marathon proved so popular and inclusive that two years after the first race, wheelchair racers were invited to join the party. The inaugural 19-competitor event, organised by the British Sports Association for the Disabled (BSAD), proved a striking addition to the race. The first winners were British international athletes from other sports – the wheelchair basketball player Gordon Perry won in 3:20:07, while Denise Smith, who went on to win three ice sledge speed racing silver medals at the 1984 Innsbruck Winter Paralympics, finished in 4:29:03.

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Great Grete’s glory (1983)

Everyone loved Grete Waitz, the Oslo schoolteacher who was such an elegant and graceful pioneer for women’s distance running as the nine-time New York champion. So it felt fitting this all-time great should be the first to set a world record in the London Marathon, her 2:25:29 being the fourth time she’d lowered it, slicing 13 seconds off her 1980 New York mark.

Though her record was broken the very next day in Boston by Joan Benoit, the Norwegian became the inaugural world champion later in 1983 and regained her London title in 1986 before, tragically, losing a long battle with cancer at the age of just 57. London never forgot her graciousness.

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Ingrid the inspiration (1985)

It wasn’t just Grete who was Norway’s darling; her one-time roommate, friend and rival Ingrid Kristiansen remains the only four-time winner of the women’s race with her crowning glory coming when she sped to a new world record in 2:21:06.

Watching her majestic performance on the streets that day was an 11-year-old kid called Paula Radcliffe. “It made me think ‘Why couldn’t that be me one day?’,” she recalls.

Gezahegne Abera

What a blanket finish! (2003)

Paula Radcliffe’s world record was the headline act that day but it really had needed something special to upstage the closest London men’s race in history (if you ignore Beardsley and Simonsen’s ceremonial finish in 1981) as Ethiopia’s Olympic and world champion, Gezahegne Abera, pipped Italy’s Stefano Baldini and Kenya’s Joseph Ngolepus in a blanket sprint where just one second separated  the three. We should have known what to expect from Abera, who had now won all of his last four marathons by a combined margin of six seconds. Talk about brinksmanship!