Athletics: Brown proves staying power

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The Independent Online

Jon Brown, the lone world-class male British distance runner of the present generation, had reason to get nostalgic as he flicked through this 20-year-old copy of the running magazine that long since hit the publishing wall. "I used to read this," he said. "I was 14 in 1985. This is what I used to devour. I know all these guys: Steve Kenyon, Mike McLeod..."

McLeod won the first two Great North Runs, in 1981 and 1982, and was runner-up in 1985. He and Kenyon are the only British athletes who have won the men's section of the 13.1-mile race. Brown would love to follow in their footsteps today, though as a natural pragmatist he knows that the odds are not in his favour.

For one thing, his best time on the deceptive, undulating course is 61min 49sec, and his rivals include Dejene Berhanu of Ethiopia and Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa, who have won the last two Bupa Great North Runs in 59:37 and 60:01 respectively. For another, Brown - who has never placed higher than sixth in the race - is preparing for the bigger picture of the New York Marathon on 6 November.

"Unless you're very knowledgeable about the sport, it's difficult for people to appreciate that 20 years ago you could win the Great North Run in 62-63 minutes and now you have to run 59," he said. "I'm in shape to run a good race but I know I'm not going to be able to go off at 59-minute pace. It's important to me to run well here, and in the world half-marathon championship race [in Edmonton, Canada, on 1 October], but when you do a marathon everything else is a build-up to it."

Having come fourth in the last two Olympic marathons, in Sydney in 2000 and in Athens last summer, Brown has a proven pedigree for getting himself ready to mix it with the world's best in major championship mara-thons, if not quite in his preparation races. At 34, he is still getting the best out of himself - astutely guided by the veteran running guru of Loughborough University, George Gandy.

In April Brown finished sixth in the London Marathon, clocking 2hr 9min 31sec, a personal best. Following his outstanding run in Athens - where he finished a tantalising 80 yards shy of a medal - it was a further riposte to those at UK Athletics who chose to drop his funding in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics. Brown's funding has since been restored, but after such an ill-timed lack of faith (not to mention support) he could have been forgiven for switching his international allegiance.

Born in Bridgend and raised in Sheffield, he has lived with his family in Canada for the past eight years - initially in Vancouver, latterly in Victoria. He has had dual citizenship since May this year.

"Running for Canada was an option," Brown confided. "Maybe if things hadn't turned out the way they did in Athens, it might have got to that stage. But, really, I'm too old to mess around with that kind of business."

On adopted home ground in Edmonton next month, the great north runner will still be in the red, white and blue of the old home country.