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Athletics: McLeod: When we were the run kings

Great North Run's first winner 25 years ago is at a loss to explain the lack of home success

For 15 years now Britain's biggest road race has turned into an African procession at its sharp end. It is unlikely to be any different today, with Dejene Berhanu of Ethiopia expected to be in the vanguard of the 50,000 Bupa Great North Runners wending their way from Newcastle to South Shields.

There was a time, though, when Britons led the way in what has become the world's biggest half-marathon. Indeed, of the 660,357 runners who have completed the 13.1-mile route, the very first was a Geordie.

It is 25 years now since Mike McLeod - the Elswick Express - blazed a groundbreaking trail from the centre of his home town to the North-east coast. On the morning of 28 June 1981 he led the 12,000 inaugural Great North Runners from the start to the finish, blitzing the opening mile in a knee-trembling 4min 12sec.

"I was clear by then," McLeod recalled. "And I think I went through five miles in 22min 30sec, which equates to 28 minutes for 10,000m. It turned out that the course was flaming well long, which was annoying, because I think it would have been a world record."

McLeod crossed the finish line in 63min 23sec, 1min and 11sec clear of the holder of the world best time for the half-marathon, Oyvind Dahl of Norway. He finished four minutes ahead of Steve Cram, six minutes clear of Brendan Foster, his long-time rival and founder of the Great North Run, and 23 minutes in front of Kevin Keegan, who was captain of the England football team at the time.

McLeod won again in 1982 and is one of only two British winners in the quarter-century history of the race. The other was a Kenyon: Steve Kenyon of Salford Harriers. He won the 1985 race ahead of McLeod, who had won an international 5,000m track race at Gateshead less than 24 hours previously.

"I would have been the only British winner if I'd got my head together that day," McLeod lamented. "I'd run in that track race the previous day and I let Steve get too far ahead. He was in damned good shape, though. I was beaten by a better man on the day.

"It would be nice to have a British lad at the front in the Great North Run again. I can't really say why that's not happening. We've all got our views: people not training hard enough, not applying themselves. But the Africans are so bloody good now. They just seem to drift away at the front and our lads can't go with them. But I think it'll be a good race this year. The British lads will do well. They'll try to get as close as possible to the foreigners. There's not much else they can do."

At 54, McLeod's running days have been temporarily halted by a knee problem. Still, he is doing his bit to spark a Great British distance-running revival as coach to a group of talented young North-easterners.

His charges include his son, Ryan, 21, a former British junior international who ran in the Great North 3km event held on Newcastle's Quayside yesterday as an hors d'oeuvre to today's big race. He has also persuaded his elder son, Mark, a former basketball player, to join the group. The 26-year-old runs in his father's footsteps as a debutant Great North Runner today.

"He's got talent," M McLeod Snr said of M McLeod Jnr, "but he doesn't like pain. I just hope he has a steady run. He'll start off at about 5min 30sec pace and pick it up from there."

It is to be hoped that Mark's sense of timing has improved since he arrived into the world at 2am at the Princess Mary Hospital in Newcastle on the day his father was due to run in the televised IAC international cross-country race at Crystal Palace in December 1979. Mike attended the birth, missed his early-morning flight to London but caught a lunchtime plane. "I got picked up at the airport, got changed in the car, got dumped off at the course and ran to the start, got cracking and won the race," he recalled.

The Elswick Harrier always was a bit of an Alf Tupper - in his early days he fitted in his training and racing around his job as a motor mechanic. He now runs a thriving printing business at Pelaw, just off the roundabout at the four-mile point on the Great North Run course. At the peak of his track career McLeod won the IAAF Golden 10,000m race - effectively a world championship - in 1979 and 1981.

Uniquely, he also won two medals from the Olympic 10,000m final in Los Angeles in 1984. It ought to have been all three. He won bronze on the day and was belatedly presented with silver after Martti Vainio, the Finn who had come second in the race, tested positive for the anabolic steroid primobolin. He never did get the gold, though, even when Alberto Cova - the Italian winner - subsequently confessed that he had indulged in the practice of blood doping.

"When you know somebody's been blood doping, it would be nice to have the next medal handed down, to say, 'I'm the Olympic champion'," the original Great North winner mused. "I would have been the first one in the North-east. But it's gone now. What's done is done. I've got to be happy with what I have."