Jon Brown has been this way before: on the road from Newcastle to South Shields in the Bupa Great North Run. This time, though, in the 28th edition of the world's biggest half-marathon this morning, Britain's most successful Olympic marathon man of the last quarter of a century will be setting off not as one of the leading home runners but as a member of the foreign contingent at the sharp end of the 52,000 field.
It was in November last year that Brown, who came fourth for Britain in the Olympic marathons of 2000 and 2004, switched his international allegiance to Canada. The Bridgend-born, Swansea-raised athlete moved to Canada in 1996 and has settled in Victoria, British Columbia, with his German wife Martina and their two children, Dylan, 10, and Rosa, seven.
His decision followed his omission from Lottery funding for a second time; he was also cut from the list when he was out injured the year before the Athens Olympics. It was not that personal kick in the teeth so much as a disenchantment with the level of priority given to distance running by UK Athletics, the domestic governing body, that persuaded the 37-year-old to pin his colours to the Maple Leaf mast – as he revealed in these pages in April.
Back then, Brown aimed the brunt of his ire at Dave Collins, performance director of UK Athletics at the time. "The sooner UKA get rid of him and hire someone who has a passion and commitment to athletics, the better," he said. Five months on, Collins has gone and Charles van Commenee, the man who guided Denise Lewis and Kelly Sotherton to Olympic heptathlon medals, has been appointed to a new role as head coach.
Van Commenee's return from Holland, where he worked as performance director for the Dutch Olympic Committee after a stint as technical director of combined events and jumps for UK Athletics, has been welcomed by the adopted Canadian.
"Well it can't be a bad thing," Brown reflected. "Charles has a good understanding of the sport at the highest levels and what it takes to achieve results at the big championships. That just wasn't there with Collins. With Charles' passion for performance and his genuine interest in the well-being of athletics as a sport, right now I think we have cause to be more optimistic."
The "we" might suggest that Brown holds a lingering attachment to the land of his birth (he still holds the British record for 10,000m, 27min 18.14sec), but he has no regrets about his decision to switch to Canada. "I was being directed by a bad system and I had to get out of it fast," he said. "Of course, I would have preferred it if the decision had been made in a more positive atmosphere. Everything just came to a head in a very confrontational way."
For Brown, now in the twilight of his distance-running career, the target is to qualify for what would be a probable last hurrah at global level: a place in the Canadian marathon team at the World Championships in Berlin next August. Injury ruled him out of challenging for Canadian Olympic selection earlier this year but his groin and hip problems have eased and today's half-marathon on Tyneside – against a field that includes Luke Kibet, the reigning world marathon champion from Kenya – is a stepping stone to the Fukuoka Marathon in Japan in December. The World Championship qualifying time is 2hr 18min, modest by the standards of Brown's personal best of 2hr 9min 31sec.
Still, the Berlin standard has been achieved by just two Britons this year, Dan Robinson (2:13.10) and Tomas Abyu (2:13.40), a measure of the drastic decline in the strength of British distance running – 8min 29sec slower than the personal best that Brown recorded in London in 2005. Though the appointment of Van Commenee is widely applauded as a step in the right direction for British athletics as a whole, the Dutchman cannot be expected to suddenly produce world-class distance runners out of a hat.
"The problems endurance running has in Britain aren't something I think any performance director will be able to solve," Brown warned. "The reality is that effort invested in men's endurance events will not be rewarded by medals at global championships. It's now just too difficult for non-Africans to do that."
Evidence of that is likely to unfold on the way from Newcastle to South Shields this morning. The Great North Run has not had a Great British men's winner since 1985. He was a Kenyon: Steve Kenyon, a ceramic tile salesman from Bolton.Reuse content