Chris Brasher was one of the great Corinthians: four-minute mile pace-maker, Olympic champion, mountaineer, journalist, pipe smoker and all-round bon vivant.
His great legacy was the London Marathon and, although coronavirus dictates it will not flow through the capital’s streets on Sunday, the spirit Brasher first imbued in the annual pageant will live on.
That spirit was set out in an article he wrote in 1979 after running the New York Marathon as a journalistic exercise. His son Hugh, now race director in London, recalled this week that the idea of 26.2 miles on a city road had filled his father — a lover of nature — with sheer horror.
Dick Beardsley (left) and Inge Simonsen cross the line together in the first London Marathon
As it turned out, the event stirred his soul. He reported in the Observer: ‘Last Sunday, in one of the most violent, trouble-stricken cities in the world, 11,532 men, women and children from 40 countries, assisted by 2.5million black, white and yellow people, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Confucians laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival the world has seen.’
Inspired, he and his old Olympic chum John Disley began the London Marathon.
Disley, the course mastermind, was the logistics man. Brasher, the visionary, took a wrecking ball to bureaucratic resistance.
Their reward came on March 29, 1981, when 7,055 runners — just 300 of them women — set out on the first London Marathon. Sunday’s race would have been the 40th. But as Hugh Brasher recalls, the inaugural event nearly never got across the start line.
‘My memory goes back to when I was a 16-year-old schoolboy selling 6,000 train tickets to runners in the basement of the Strand Palace Hotel, helping my father in that first year,’ he says.
Members of the public give runners support on the road during inaugural event back in 1981
‘I remember my mother and father discussing how they might need to mortgage the house to fund it. At the last moment, Gillette came in and all was well.
‘I slept through that first race and it was only when I saw the front page of the Daily Mail the next day — with the picture of Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen holding hands as they crossed the line on Constitution Hill tied for the win — that I realised how big it was.’
There was the elite end of it, of course, but from the start a dollop of eccentricity. At that first race girls in basques and fishnet stockings handed out sustenance at the feeding station under the slogan: ‘Get Your Kiss of Life Here.’
One of the first fancy dress extroverts was the ‘running waiter’, Swiss-born restaurateur Roger Bourbon. Wearing a bow tie and carrying a tray, he completed the trip in under three hours. This flamboyance was a precursor to the cans of baked beans, telephone boxes and rhinoceroses that were to come.
‘I think the marathon has shown what my father envisaged: that the spirit of mankind can be united,’ said Brasher. ‘Charities and communities come together.’
Yes, over 40 years and with more than a million finishers, the marathon has raised north of £1billion, including £66m in 2019 alone.
One of the first fancy dress entrants was the ‘running waiter’ and restaurateur Roger Bourbon
And although this weekend’s race is postponed until October 4, Brasher is directing our readers to twopointsixchallenge.co.uk — a fundraising initiative in which people complete a task comprising the numbers two and six.
‘There is a five-year-old running 2.6 miles a day 10 times,’ says Brasher. ‘Someone else is pulling 260 weeds. Someone is climbing 26 stairs as many times as is equivalent to climbing Everest.
‘Eleanor Davis from Stockport, an elite marathoner, is running 2.6 miles as part of a virtual relay between her nursing shifts on the Covid-19 ward of Stepping Hill Hospital.
‘I hope this project will capture the public imagination in the way my father would have wanted —uniting the kingdom in a great British exercise.’
For Hugh Brasher the memories tumble through his mind. There was the call from his father at midnight prior to the race. ‘He said, “Can you open up Sweatshop (my retail business, where I was working 18 hours a day) and bring a size nine-and-a-half Nike shoe to the Tower Hotel by 7am?”
‘He put the phone down. Thanks, Dad. I delivered the shoe to the elite British athlete. I’m not naming the individual in case I have got the identity mixed up.’
Race director Hugh Brasher first helped his father and race founder Chris as a 16-year-old
The 2003 race was special for Hugh. His father had not long since died, aged 74, and there was applause at the start.
‘That was the year Paula Radcliffe produced her incredible run in 2hr 15min 25sec.’ Her world record stood until October last year when Brigid Kosgei, the 2019 London winner, broke it in Chicago.
Underlining the marathon’s part in the life of the nation is the example of 7/7 survivor Jill Tyrrell. Just 290 days after sharing a carriage with one of the terrorists and spending two and a half months in hospital, she completed the course.
In contrast, someone whose whereabouts are unknown is a Japanese runner from 1981. According to the story in this paper, close to April Fool’s Day, he was under the illusion that the race was 26 days — rather than 26 miles — long.
Despite several reported sightings across the country and an enquiry from the Japanese Embassy, he remains missing.