A cursory glance around Hugh Brasher’s office at the London Marathon HQ is enough to reassure you that his father’s legacy is in safe hands. A stack of medals from various races hang from a coat hanger in the corner of the room, telling you Hugh does more than talk the talk. Items of VLM race kit are scattered around everywhere, painting a picture of a man utterly involved with the details. The London Marathon, as he tells RW, has long been a big part of Hugh Brasher’s life…
What are your memories of the first London Marathon?
My personal memory was of working in the basement of The Palace Strand Hotel, selling 6,000 train tickets to runners. My dad needed someone to sell them, I was 16 and I was available. I remember we sold them for 50p each when they had cost 47p, putting £190 into the marathon’s coffers, which I didn’t think was going to do an awful lot...
So it was all hands to the pumps?
I remember getting a phone call at 10pm on the Saturday night to tell me that one of the elite British athletes had only packed one shoe, so can you open the shop, get him a pair of shoes and deliver them to the hotel by 7am the next morning. So fine, you do.
And how was the pressure on your father at that time?
He was always just so busy doing so many different things, and the marathon was just one of them. The better person to ask about pressure would be my mother, because they didn’t have a sponsor until the last minute and I think at one stage he was going to mortgage the house to ensure it went ahead.
And after the event?
My main recollections are of relief – the relief of finding a sponsor, my father’s relief that everyone got round safely, that the press embraced it, that all the things that might have gone wrong hadn’t. Pride, too, at what they’d achieved in the timescale since writing the Observer piece.
So, pride, relief, and then a snowball thing of how many people applied next time, and the time after and the time after that. I remember - I think it was in 1983 - queuing outside Kingston post office because in those days they had something like 400 different post boxes where you could post your entry. The post boxes opened at 7am on the Saturday morning and it was first come first served. You queued up, you were allowed four entries per person and I queued with a guy I worked with at Sweatshop in Richmond, Adrian Webb, who is now a coach. He did 6pm on Friday evening until midnight, then I did from midnight until 7am in the morning. There were something like 45 people in the queue already at 6pm the night before, and about 240 when we changed over. And there were something like 400 of these post boxes all over the place!
I also remember the front page of the Daily Mail, which we still have here in the office, and the perfect story of Beardsley and Simonsen crossing the line hand in hand. You couldn’t get a better story.
It seems a fitting image for an event which sought, from its inception, to be more than a competitive race for the elite and to be more inclusive.
Yes, but it was still very much the dawn of a new era. It was still predominantly blokes – skinny blokes in dodgy shorts. There were only 300 women out of 7,500 in that first race, and a stat I always remember from those days was that the percentage of male readers for RW magazine – which I believe in those days was called Jogging (RW: it was indeed, later to become Running and finally Runner’s World) – was higher than the percentage of male readers of Playboy, which gives you an understanding of how different it was. But six months later the Great North Run was formed, then the Reading Half Marathon, the Robin Hood Marathon – you had loads of other races that were set up as a result of it.
But London remains the pinnacle...
It’s London’s biggest one-day festival. You have a stunning elite field at the front, with six of the world’s top 10 marathoners last year, and at the same time you’ve got 70-odd pubs on the route having their busiest day of the year. You’ve got people running six or seven hours and the camaraderie is amazing.
Your father said that, aside from his family, being involved with the marathon was the thing he was most proud of. How do you think he would feel looking at the event now?
I think he would be incredibly proud of where Dave and the team have taken the event in the last 20 years – in terms of the charitable fundraising, the elite field and the first world record set on the course just six weeks after he died with Paula’s stunning 2:15:25. Look at the six goals my Dad and John Disley put down and you can see they still resonate. Go back and read his initial Observer article and it’s incredibly passionate in talking about how the communities in New York had come together. Every community in London is unbelievably welcoming and comes out to support.
I also think it’s an amazing that the course John Disley developed has stayed fundamentally the same for 32 years – Greenwich, Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, Embankment, Big Ben. It’s an absolutely iconic course.
And what’s your vision for the next 30 years?
Well, there’s 'London Marathon' the company and 'Virgin London Marathon' the event. The company organises a number of events, from the adidas Silverstone Half to the BUPA London 10,000. We’re also one half of a partnership organising Ride London, a festival of cycling which people have called the London Marathon on wheels. So, the plan is to organise more world-class events, bringing that organisational expertise and taking the spirit of the marathon to give more people the chance to have a similar experience, even potentially in a different sport.
For the VLM, it’s evolution, tiny tweaks. Is there going to an amazing, radical change? No, you would be crazy.
The biggest ‘problem’ with the VLM is it can’t accommodate everyone who wants to run. Is there potential to increase the numbers? Wave starts perhaps?
I don’t believe there’s potential to increase the numbers because of the pressure London has on re-opening the roads, unfortunately. The time window means you just can’t start extending the numbers. In fact, we are challenged to get the roads open earlier every year. We get fantastic support from the boroughs, but London can’t shut down, so many other communities are affected and ultimately it’s not just about runners.