Athletics: Brown is the Great North hope

Simon Turnbull meets the distance runner determined not to be an also-ran
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For Great British runners the Great North Run, the mass half-marathon from Newcastle to South Shields, has become an annual procession of also- rans. The last six winners have all been Kenyans. Not since 1985, in fact, has a British man crossed the finish line first, and even he was a Kenyon. Steve Kenyon, a Salford Harrier and ceramic tile salesman, has long since hung up his racing shoes but this year there is genuine hope of a home runner finally following in his victorious footsteps.

Even the belated entry of Benson Masya, the Kenyan who last year recorded his fourth victory, has not deflated the patriotic fervour. Such is the expectation Jon Brown will bear on his shoulders when he lines up today in the record field of 36,576 Great North Runners.

Masya's presence on the start line will not intimidate a man who has beaten the very best of the Kenyans. Twice last winter, during the cross- country season in which he won the European title, Brown took the prized scalp of Paul Tergat, who in Brussels last month relieved Haile Gebrselassie of his 10,000m world record with a time of 26min 27.85sec. And in his last race on British soil, the Durham cross-country international in December, the victorious Brown's vanquished rivals included no lesser light than Daniel Komen, whose summer on the European circuit has yielded world records for two miles and 5,000m in addition to the World Championship 5,000m gold medal. It is precisely because of the record-breaking track feats of Komen, Tergat and the Ethiopian Gebrselassie, though, that Brown can be found on the roads of Tyneside today.

The path he has in mind lies beyond South Shields - half a world away. As Brendan Foster, founder of the Great North Run 16 years ago, put it on Friday, Brown is "Britain's best hope of featuring in a distance race at the Sydney Olympics". And that distance race is the 26 miles 285 yards of the marathon, which the Great British hope will race for the first time in Chicago on 20 October. Brown, whose 10,000m time at Hengelo in May, 27:27.47, ranks him second to Eamonn Martin on the British all-time list but a minute behind the best in the world now, simply sees the marathon as the final frontier the world-beating Africans have yet to put beyond the reach of the rest of the running world.

"Spaniards finishing first and second in the World Championships said it all for me," Brown mused. "I've been racing against Abel Anton and Martin Fiz for years and there's no way they are any better than me. I just don't think the Africans have got it together in the marathon. There's no dominance, like there is at 5,000m and 10,000m. The times have just gone crazy at those distances. But until they start running 2hr 4min I think the marathon's up for grabs. To me, if you can run 27min dead for 10,000m you should be able to run 2:05 for a marathon."

The British record Steve Jones set in Chicago, 2hr 7min 13sec, has stood since the same year as the Kenyon victory in the Great North Run of 1985. "Yeah, I think it's beatable," Brown said. "Definitely." Jones, 42 now and a resident of Boulder, Colorado, happens to be the leading entrant in the veteran section today. Technically, he has already lost one of his records to Brown this year. Though brought up in Sheffield and now domiciled in Vancouver, Brown was born in Bridgend, which qualifies his Hengelo run as a Welsh 10,000m record.

Only once before has the 26-year-old run a half-marathon (he was led off course with the rest of the leaders in Marrakesh in 1994) but he is likely to threaten Jones' officially recognised British best of 60min 59sec. So is Paul Evans, the other notable British contender. The Belgrave Harrier, who defends his Chicago Marathon crown against Brown next month, clocked 60:09 in the 1995 Marrakesh half-marathon but his time has not been ratified because of doubts about the accuracy of the course distance.

More serious doubts persist about the British Athletic Federation's commitment to distance running, and distance runners, despite a commendable unsolicited plea for help on Brown's behalf by Foster. Anton and Fiz were able to prepare for the World Championship marathon at Spain's endurance running centre with financial support from their national governing body, offsetting the need to earn a living by chasing cash on the road-racing circuit. Brown, however, lamented: "I don't expect things to change for me. I'll have to look after myself."

To that end, he is moving from Vancouver to Victoria - to make use of Canada's national distance running centre. Brown, though, is not doing a Rusedski in reverse. He is maintaining his allegiance to his homeland, a loyalty that will be exploited with patriotic zeal if the man from the Don Valley halts the Rift Valley flow on the road to South Shields today.

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