THE legendary Brendan Foster has won many accolades during a career as a world class runner, sports campaigner, businessman and recently retired BBC commentator, and must surely be in the running for a knighthood.
Yet he will be the first to say that the greatest honour of all was being afforded the privilege of starting this year’s Great North Run, the mass participation half-marathon that he created in 1981 in defiance of police chiefs who never sanctioned the necessary road closures.
And it was a completely new experience for this remarkable 69-year-old – he had either been competing or commentating from a vantage point close to the finish line in South Shields where his great hero, Sir Mo Farah, sprinted clear to record another famous win.
Yet, as Farah basked in the adulation of the spectators who turned out in force to cheer on the multiple Olympic and world champion, Foster was still at the start 13 miles away in Newcastle imploring the last stragglers as they began their own race.
With a record 43,000-plus competitors taking part, it took nearly an hour for the runners to reach the start point before the now traditional Red Arrows flypast as competitors, of all ages and abilities, crossed the magnificent Tyne Bridge – one of the most stirring sights of world sport. Participants came from 178 countries last year, a number that organisers hoped to surpass.
After firing the starting gun – Foster joked “at least I have got a proper job” – he then stayed on a special gantry applauding and encouraging each and every competitor, his smile as wide as the Tyne itself, as runners sought to perform a high five with their hero. The more ingenious even tried to take selfies because he means that much to them.
He said he needed a plastic arm because so many runners had shaken him by the hand during this sporting celebration that sees the world’s best completing alongside the also rans and fun runners in fancy dress who are raising money for an array of charitable causes.
He said starting the race was a “longstanding ambition” as he followed in the footsteps of North East footballing greats, like the late Sir Bobby Robson, Sir Bobby Charlton and the World Cup winner’s brother Jack, who had previously been given the honour. There was also a minute’s applause for veteran television presenter Mike Neville who died on Tuesday, and who started the very first Great North Run in 1981.
Once the last competitor was off and running, Foster headed to the finish to hail the winners and meet Farah who was looking forward to celebratory “sticky toffee pudding and apple pie” after his exertions left him flat out with exhaustion.
In overcoming the pesky challenge of Jake Robertson of New Zealand to finish in a time of one hour and six seconds, Farah became the first athlete to win the race four times in a row.
Not even Foster could have envisaged this when he decided to bring the athletics to the people. More than a million people have now completed the race and raised countless sums for charity, a priceless legacy that will run and run just like the North East’s very own local hero.
NEW Zealand athlete Jake Robertson had reason to celebrate after finishing as the runner-up to Sir Mo Farah.
He proposed to his girlfriend Magdalyne Masai, from Kenya, who had earlier finished fourth in the women’s race to Kenya’s Mary Keitany.
To huge applause from spectators lining the roadside at South Shields, she said ‘yes’.
Celebrities taking part included television presenter Davina McCall, newsreader Sophie Raworth and X Factor contestant Sam Lavery.
Yet this was a day when every runner was a winner because of sport’s ability to inspire and change lives.