The Genesis of the London Marathon
Prior to the London Marathon, participation in marathon races in the UK was usually limited to a few hundred almost exclusively male club runners who would often be considered eccentric.
On the other side of the pond the New York City Marathon organised by Fred Lebow had been gaining momentum since its inception in 1970 and by 1977 had surpassed the participation levels of the long established Boston Marathon.
Steve Rowland, a young Ranelagh Harrier, who would go on to become club president in later years, had read an article about the New York City Marathon. Rowland was so enthused by the story of over 4000 marathoners running through the five boroughs of New York City supported by many thousand more that he placed an advertisement in Athletics Weekly and Observer to organise a trip to the 1978 event. The 1978 party to travel to New York included half a dozen Ranelagh members, Steve Rowland, David Wright, Dave Daniels, Dave Williams, Norman Archer and Guy de Boursac. Their infectious enthusiasm and the stories they regaled, over post-training pints in the Dysart Arms, rubbed off on 1956 Olympic Gold medalist and fellow Ranelagh member Chris Brasher so much so that he entered the New York City Marathon to experience it for himself. Brasher was accompanied in the 1979 New York City Marathon by his fellow Olympic medalist and Ranelagh Harrier John Disley.
By the time of their return the pair were convinced that London could equally host such a magnificent marathon event and so they resolved to organise one.
Brasher, a journalist at the Observer wrote: “To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. I believe it because I saw it happen. Last Sunday, in one of the most violent, trouble-stricken cities of the world, 11,532 men, women and children from 40 countries of the world, assisted by one million black, white and yellow people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen. Last Sunday millions of us saw a vision of the human race, happy and united, willing their fellow human beings to a pointless but wonderful victory over mental doubt and bodily frailty. I wonder 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?” Observer, 28th October 1979.
By 1980, Brasher and Disley, met with the authorities required to organise the event, at a lunch hosted by Donald Trelford, the editor of the Observer. In attendance were the Greater London Council (GLC), the police, the City of London, the Amateur Athletics Association and the London Tourist Board.
Disley designed the course with the Thames at its heart, with the route passing many London landmarks such as, the Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, The Docks, the Tower of London, The Embankment, Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben. This more than pleased the tourist board and the police approved the route with the race date being set for 29th March 1981.
Volunteers from Ranelagh Harriers and Blackheath Harriers were heavily involved. David Wright, Phil Dowling and David Dunn headed a team of runners to recce the route and gave it the thumbs up.
Ranelagh volunteers were joined by a contingent from Blackheath Harriers at County Hall to sort the 21,000 entry forms that were received where only one in three could be accepted. Indeed, the event caught the public imagination to a greater extent than even Brasher could have hoped.
The Observer recruited two teams of marathon debutants, one to follow the long slow distance training plan of Ranelagh’s John Hanscomb, the other to adopt Brasher’s mixture of speed and miles. A series of articles in the newspaper charted their progress.
One week before the race the director of the New York event Fred Lebow was a guest at the Dysart Arms. The Strand Palace Hotel was the site of the race registration and it was again Ranelagh and Blackheath volunteers who were manning the desks.
The big day itself dawned cool and drizzly – fine for the runners but uncomfortable for would-be spectators. Seven thousand runners set off from Greenwich, amongst them nearly thirty from Ranelagh including Brasher himself. Whilst the Norwegian Simonsen and the American Beardsley tied for victory, sixteen Ranelagh Harriers beat three hours. Remarkably, despite the pressure of organization, Brasher found sufficient energy to record 2hrs 56mins 56secs.
The number of Ranelagh competitors more than doubled in 1982, and the club provided the winner in Hugh Jones, who crossed the line on Westminster Bridge almost three minutes clear of the field in 2hrs 9mins 24secs.
Ranelagh’s close involvement behind the scenes would continue for many years and several members – David Dunn, Jay Cook, Mary Smith, Steve Pratt and others – took full-time jobs with the organisation. Bill Bird and David Wright became regular drivers of the lead vehicles. Colin Gostelow was later to serve for three years as a Director of London Marathon Ltd.
Forty years on from that historic first race, Ranelagh’s Mike Peace is one of a very select group of only ten ‘ever presents’ who have completed every London Marathon. Covid 19 restrictions would mean they had to participate ‘virtually’ close to their homes for the 2020 event.