In the Beginning
It all started in the pub, according to John Disley and the late Chris Brasher, co-founders of the London Marathon…
The Dysart Arms next to Richmond Park is the home of the Ranelagh Harriers running club, and on Wednesday nights runners drift in and talk over pints of bitter. One night, the talk was of the New York Marathon – a marathon with a buzzing atmosphere and spectators who don’t let you give up.
Several club members had competed in the 1978 New York City Marathon and never tired of talking about it. They were amazed how different it was to the UK marathons, where a handful of spectators and a few cows watched 20 or so competitors trudge around country lanes.
After several weeks of listening to these stories, Brasher and Disley decided to see the New York Marathon for themselves. They did some training and entered the 1979 race.
Brasher admitted he’d been unsure about running a marathon, the most punishing event of the Olympic athletics programme, but he saw the New York race as a great opportunity to experience the drama and get a true understanding of the determination needed to compete for over two hours.
So the pair ran, finished, and witnessed how wonderful a ‘city mass marathon’ could be. With world famous sights, cheering spectators, and the camaraderie of the runners all around, they found the event exhilarating.
On returning home, Brasher wrote an article for The Observer called ‘The World’s Most Human Race’. This is how it started:
“To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. Last Sunday, 11,532 men and women from 40 countries in the world, assisted by over a million people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen.”
Brasher ended the article by wondering “whether London could stage such a festival? We have the course, a magnificent course … but do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?”
Donald Trelford, then editor of The Observer, hosted a lunch in early 1980 so Brasher and Disley could meet the relevant authorities who’d be involved in organising a marathon – the Greater London Council (GLC), the police, the City of London, the Amateur Athletics Association and the London Tourist Board.
The pros and cons of a marathon were discussed and it was agreed that the idea was worth pursuing. The difficulty came in persuading the police that 26 miles of road could be closed off for a marathon without causing London to shut down completely.
A couple of weeks later, Disley presented a course design that used the Thames as a ‘handrail’, while only closing two bridges. One of those, Tower Bridge, was often shut on Sundays anyway. The police approved the event and the tourist board were happy the course passed so many of London’s sights – Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, the Docks, The Embankment, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.
However, there was one condition from Sir Horace Cutler, the chairman of the GLC, who told Brasher and Disley: “You should never ask the ratepayers to bail you out. Not a penny from the GLC.”
Later that year Brasher travelled to America, where the 1970s running boom had started. He witnessed the Boston Marathon and revisited New York to discuss finance and organisation.
On his return, a budget was prepared for the first London Marathon with an expenditure of £75,000 over and above any revenue expected from entry fees. This was serious money, which even second mortgages on Brasher’s and Disley’s houses wouldn’t meet.
Then fortune smiled on the enterprise when Gillette gave up their sponsorship of cricket’s Gillette Cup. The company asked their agents, West Nally, for advice on what to sponsor next. Peter West told them two young Olympic medallists were putting on a marathon and needed help. A deal was done and Gillette became the Marathon’s first title sponsor. The deal was worth £75,000 a year for three years.
Charitable status was established for the event, and Brasher and Disley devised six aims for the London Marathon:
- To improve the overall standard and status of British marathon running by providing a fast course and strong international competition.
- To show mankind that, on occasions, they can be united.
- To raise money for sporting and recreational facilities in London.
- To help boost London’s tourism.
- To prove that ‘Britain is best’ when it comes to organising major events.
- To have fun, and provide some happiness and sense of achievement in a troubled world.
Five months later, on 29 March 1981, the first race was held. Some 20,000 people wanted to run. 7,747 were accepted. There were 6,255 finishers, led home by the American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen, who staged a spectacular dead heat at the rain-swept finish on Constitution Hill. Joyce Smith, 43 years old and mother of two, broke the British record to win the women’s race.
The event was a massive hit with the runners, the thousands of spectators who lined the course, and viewers who followed the race on the BBC. As a result, the 1982 race received more than 90,000 applications from hopeful runners around the world. The entry was limited to 18,059.
The race has grown in size, stature and popularity ever since. Now established among the major events in the sporting calendar, the London Marathon is shown on television in nearly 200 countries around the world.
Over one million runners have completed the London Marathon (1981 to 2016), while a record 40,255 people finished in 2018.
Chris Brasher CBE died in February 2003. John Disley CBE, the President of the London Marathon Charitable Trust, died in February 2016.