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Foster father for a race against time

The Great North Run turns 30 next weekend but its founder is far from complacent

Brendan Foster – Big Bren, as he was known in his days as a trailblazing British track star – always has been a man who has made big things happen, who has cut through the doubts, the drawbacks and the difficulties, who has delivered what others have dared not conceive.

When Gateshead Council considered the possibility of installing a synthetic running track, Foster vowed to attempt to break a world record on it – and then, in August of 1974, delivered a new global two-mile mark as the centrepiece of an international athletics meeting that put the Tyneside town on the sporting map. When he was confronted by the presence of Lasse Viren in the 5,000m at the European Championships in Rome that same summer, he hatched a plan to break the formidable Finn with a devastating mid-race burst – and duly delivered a performance that won him the gold medal in stunning style.

When Foster hung up his racing shoes after the Moscow Olympics in 1980 he craved another bold challenge and invited four Gateshead Harriers club-mates to the Five Bridges Hotel to discuss an idea for a mass run. That kernel, planted over a couple of beers and a plate of sandwiches, has grown into the world's biggest half-marathon and Europe's biggest mass participation event. The Great North Run, the annual 13.1-mile race from Newcastle to the coast at South Shields, will be staged for the 30th time next Sunday with a field of 54,000, among them the greatest distance runner of all time, Haile Gebrselassie.

"It's an historic event for us," Foster reflects, sitting in his office just off the Scotswood Road, which is celebrated in the Geordie anthem "The Blaydon Races", a music-hall ditty about a horseracing festival held from 1861 to 1916. "Next Sunday you have the 30th Great North Run, the Pope's Mass, in which he's going to make Cardinal Newman a saint, and the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – all live events on BBC on the same day.

"It makes you suddenly think, 'Hang on a minute, it's a little bit different from a bunch of blokes from Gateshead Harriers and Blaydon Harriers and Saltwell Harriers running across the Tyne Bridge'. People ask me how and why it's become so big and I think it's got a lot to do with the history in the North-east of things like the Blaydon Races and of pedestrianism – professional running – which was big here in the 1800s. There were great champion foot-runners like James Rowan, who was known as the Little Black Callant, and Jack White, the Gateshead Clipper.

"There were also massive professional rowing races on the Tyne, with huge crowds [up to 100,000] lining the banks of the river to watch world champions like Harry Clasper. When he died there were 60,000 at his funeral. Then there was the Morpeth to Newcastle Road Race, which my dad used to take me to watch."

"The Morpeth" was held every New Year's Day on the 14-mile stretch of road on which Rowan, the world 10-mile champion of 1858, used to train. It was first held in 1904 and was won by some of the all-time greats of British distance running – Jim Peters, Jack Holden, Jim Alder, Mike McLeod – before falling by the wayside in 2004. "The Morpeth lasted 100 years," Foster says, "but all these great sporting events up here have come and gone.

"We're coming up to our 30th year and the big task for us is to make sure that the Great North Run is still here in 100 years' time, because The Morpeth isn't and the other events aren't. Myself and others in the organisation feel we're custodians for the biggest, most successful event in the North-east and we can't be complacent.

"You can't assume because we have 54,000 runners this year that there'll be 54,000 here next year. It's up to us to make the organisation better and better, and to make the event of better and better quality."

It is a measure of how far the Great North Run has come since Foster and his colleagues persuaded Northumbria Police to close the Tyne Bridge and allow the first race to go ahead in June 1981 that the 30th edition will stop an East African nation next Sunday. The event is being screened live in Ethiopia and all 11 million souls who have access to television sets are expected to watch the Great North Run debut of Gebrselassie, the 5ft 2in world record-breaking phenomenon known as "The Little Emperor".

If Gebrselassie crosses the line first he will become the 806,690th runner to complete the Great North Run. The first, in 1981, was McLeod – like Foster, a Tynesider and an Olympic 10,000m medal-winner. And in 491st place that day, in a respectable time of 1hr 26min 25sec, was Kevin Keegan, the England football captain.

Foster chuckles at the memory of receiving a letter from the British Amateur Athletic Board telling him that the 1982 race could not go ahead because Keegan's participation had been in contravention of the rule that amateur athletes could not be "contaminated" by the presence of professional sportsmen. "I rang them up and said, 'If you want to cancel the race I'll arrange a rostrum and a loud hailer and you can tell all 12,000 people they're not running'," he recalls. "They said, 'We're not doing that'."

The governing body sent an official to Tyneside. Foster had one line drawn at the start for elite athletes and club runners and another for the rest – technically making it two separate races and removing the evil threat of contamination. It was one of Big Bren's many masterstrokes.