John Herring

Distance runner who became course director of the London Marathon
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The Independent Online

John Bryan Herring, runner and athletics administrator: born London 10 April 1935; Assistant Director, Crystal Palace Sports Centre 1970-87; start co-ordinator, London Marathon 1982-93, course director 1993-96; married 1958 Shirley Dyer (one son, two daughters); died Lavenham, Suffolk 7 October 2003.

John Herring was a runner who understood runners. Good enough to compete for Britain in his youth, Herring made an even greater impact on the sport through his work, for over 20 years, with the London Marathon. While the inspiration for the Marathon came from Chris Brasher and John Disley, it was Herring, as much as anyone, who gave the event its heart.

The inaugural London Marathon in 1981 was heralded as a ground-breaking event, but the start of the race had been chaotic. Herring was drafted in the following year to sort it out and did just that. There were 7,000 runners in 1981 and almost double that number lined up a year later, but this time everything went smoothly - as things invariably did when Herring was in charge.

For the next 14 years, during which time the race numbers crept up to and above the 30,000 mark, Herring was pivotal to the London Marathon organisation. More than anything, what counted was his ability to smooth the way for changes by listening and responding to people's concerns. Problems were solved over lunch or dinner and with a good bottle of Barolo, a policy that seldom failed him. "He liked his food and his wine, but he kept people on side and made a lot of friends, really just by caring for people. It was as simple as that," said Disley.

Although Herring became progressively more important to the event, eventually taking over responsibility for the entire course in 1993, he seldom enjoyed a comfortable relationship with Brasher. While Herring was a passionate man, he was even-tempered and always rational, a devotee of detail and a lover of lists. Brasher's fire burnt differently; he was a man of extremes, brilliant or unbearable in equal measure.

So when Brasher urged innovation, it often foundered on Herring's logic. "When they argued, I usually sided with John, firstly because he was usually right, and secondly because I couldn't bear the thought of replacing him," said Disley. For years, despite the extraordinary success of the London Marathon, Herring and Brasher hardly exchanged a word outside the regular Marathon meetings.

Herring had been involved in distance running all his life. In the Sixties, he was close to the top of a talented generation of distance runners. So high was the standard then that, just a few months before his death, Herring was able to note with some irony that in his peak he ran the 5000 metres faster than the winner of this year's world championships trials, such is the current poverty of British distance running.

There were no world championships in the Sixties, but Herring, a lifelong member of Blackheath Harriers in south-east London, did make the Tokyo Olympic team in 1964, aged 29, though an injury in Japan meant that he ran below his best and did not qualify for the final.

Herring worked for Customs and Excise during the Sixties, and was allowed time off for his running. In 1970, he took a job closer to his heart when he was appointed assistant director of the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, with particular responsibility for the athletics stadium. During his years at Crystal Palace, Herring was also involved with the International Athletes' Club (IAC), effectively a runners' trade union, but which also organised athletic events. In his capacity as chairman of the IAC he became race director for the first IAC Coca-Cola meeting at Crystal Palace. Those annual IAC events, later promoted by the current race director of the London Marathon Dave Bedford, would usher in the new age of professional athletics.

A persistent Achilles tendon injury meant that Herring's own running was curtailed shortly after he started working for the Marathon. He took to swimming with the same dedication as he ran; a 1000m swim every morning before work. During his time with the Marathon - he continued to work as a consultant after retiring as course director in 1996 - Herring was also a considerable fund-raiser for Great Ormond Street Hospital, applying his organisational skills in raising around half a million pounds through sponsored runners. It was done unobtrusively.

Peter Nichols