“The world could be a different place by 4 October”
Like many of you, we are anxiously on the edge of our seats, waiting for news to come from the government about mass participation sports. We want to know when we go to parkrun again; we want to know when we can start signing up to races again. To find out what’s happening from the other side of the fence, we spoke to Hugh Brasher, event director of the London Marathon, to find out what he thinks the future of racing events will look like. We desperately want to know what’s going on with the London Marathon, of course, and we were interested to find out what it was like to postpone such an enormous event, and what plans that have for the new date of 4 October.
What was it like for you and your team to have to postpone the London Marathon?
It was a pretty intense few weeks. The world was changing in a manner that was unprecedented. The speed of it. So the speed of thinking we needed to do, the agility of planning was immense. But the marathon is far more than just a race. It’s far more than just 26.2 miles. When my father and John Disley founded the event back in 1981 they put in some amazing pillars, and one of them was to show that on occasions the family of mankind can be united. And to show communities coming together.
The Marathon is about communities; about people supporting each other, and the charity fundraising. The support you get through every step of that 26.2 miles is almost impossible to imagine. You name will be shouted from the first step to the last: you’ll never have that at any other time of your life. And what we had was huge goodwill from London and the boroughs and the emergency services to come up with another date.
So the feeling is of huge responsibility. There’s a really committed team, trying to ensure that the experience can be enjoyed by as many people as possible, but when it’s right to happen in society: it can’t be just what is right for runners. We have communities that we run through, communities that we run with, we have emergency services, we have volunteers, charities. We are allowed to run in this great city of London and so whatever decisions are made have to be taken taking all of that into account. And with the London Marathon, all our profits go to our charitable trust, and their vision is inspiring activity. They help other people to build facilities to encourage activity across Britain, across all communities. We’re the sole fundraiser for that, so the responsibility was huge.
Four months ago was 11 February, and was I aware that something was going on in Wuhan? Yes. But did I expect to now have been in lockdown for 10 weeks and there to have been the number of deaths that the UK and the world is experiencing? Never. So what could you imagine in four months’ time, which would be 11 October? The world again could be an entirely different place
So we have to try and deal with the situation that we’re in now, but plan for so many other situations that might occur ahead of 4 October. And try and do it with positivity, and that’s what the team is committed to doing at the moment.
Can you tell us about the planning and the logistics that goes into planning the London Marathon, and how that has changed in the last few months?
We’ve been working on the 2022 London Marathon for about eight months now. It always surprises people – “oh you’re the event director of the London Marathon, what do you do for the other 51 weeks of the year?” There are so many moving pieces. In terms of what we’ve been doing [in recent months] is working with universities and scientists on fluid dynamics and social distancing, and there’s some amazing togetherness.
We have had to look at what other sports are doing, look at what football is doing which is starting again. We’re a member of the World Abbott Majors, so every two weeks we talk to the directors of Berlin, Chicago, Tokyo and New York. We learn off each other, we put ideas out, and that network is great to be able to. Have. We now have that with other UK mass participation organisers, and that got set up around sustainability. The 2.6 challenge came out of that too. We speak to Great Run, Human Race, the Bath Half, Limelight, people like that. We were looking at sustainability, and then all of a sudden we’ve had to change focus. We’re looking at a shortfall of £4 billion pounds in funding this year for events, and yet we’re going to need an additional £3 billion for us to meet the requirements that there now are for our services.
We’re talking to tech companies, healthcare companies, other organisers in different sports to get ideas. We’re talking to the government. We’re working on at least 11 current scenarios for the 4 October. I’m not going to go into the details of any of them, and those 11 they sometimes go up, they sometimes go down, they get ripped up, new ones get introduced. We’re in such a rapidly changing world, new information is coming out of the situation, but it’s still so uncertain. That information is difficult to piece together. Scientists have different opinions. So we’re looking past that, and looking holistically at what is best overall for society. And I believe as an event director that’s what you really have to do.
What do you think the future holds for events over the next few years?
The bit that you can absolutely say is that social distancing will be a part of it. You can’t say whether that will be two metres, 1.5 metres or 1 metre. We’re working with universities and scientists on the flow of people and how they move, and the technology you can introduce so people know when they’re socially distanced. So the one thing we can say is that it will be different – 100% it will be different.
The great thing about mass participation sports are that they’re outside. And the research suggests that the chances of catching the disease outside are massively reduced. But it suggests it – nothing is certain. How people turn up to races will be different, too. There will be much more self sufficiency in terms of support that you as a runner need to bring yourself, so that the human touchpoints can be reduced. Start procedures and the times that events are on – all of those things will look different.
How different will the London Marathon look as a result of the experience of Liz Ayres and the back of the pack runners in 2019?
The irony of that situation is that our whole purpose is to inspire activity across all ages, all demographics, everybody. So we fundamentally let ourselves down in delivering that experience. We did a hugely thorough investigation, and there were so many things that happened that ended up with that experience. What we’ve done is really engage with Liz, with other back of the pack runners from other events, taking a look at what you can do. It’s very challenging, the fact that we have 42,000 finishers, and we’re trying to give the best experience to as many people as possible. We’re borrowing the roads, we’re closing roads and we need to reopen them quickly to give them back to businesses and communities. And what we really tried to do was ensure there would be support, there would be fun. And that there would be an amazing community spirit at the back. We really hope that what we had planned for 26 April can happen on 4 October.
What does the London Marathon do to promote racial inclusivity in running and at the event itself?
We’ve been doing a lot of work over the last few years, looking at running and distance running and the diversity of it. For whatever reason, it appears to be incredibly middle class. It’s not diverse in terms of BAME communities. It should be. It’s an incredibly accessible sport. And with all of that, it’s never one factor. In terms of the diversity of distance running, a lot of work needs to be done.
We started the Big Half three years ago, and it has a simple goal, which is to be truly global yet uniquely local. We want to create the first mass participation event whose diversity truly represents the amazing diversity that London has. We’ve been working with a charity organisation and employing our own community engagement manager, and really going out into communities to inspire and embrace all communties in the boroughs the London Marathon runs through: Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Southwalk, Lewisham. We’ve used the name Big Half – it doesn’t have the word marathon in it on purpose. If you ask people who don’t run what’s the number one word you would use to describe running, the answer is “boring”. If you ask people who have run the London Marathon what is one of the top words to describe it, it’s “fun”. So why do you have that wide dichotomy? It is about community, it is about crowds, it’s about spectators.
So over the last few years we’ve been working with communities and getting some amazing results in terms of BAME participation. But it’s the start of a journey. With the Big Mile, 30% of participants are BAME, while the average half marathon in London is about 8%. With the Big Half, we’re at about 19 per cent. It should be 40% overall, if we’re being truly representative, so we have a long way to go. But we’re doing it across other events, and we want to be doing it in the London Marathon.
These events were set up to show that we can be united and marathon running can do that. But we have to genuinely look at ourselves and look at what we do. We really are at the start of the journey and we have been doing things, but we need to do an awful lot more.
What advice would you give people who have signed up to the October London Marathon?
Keep training, keep having fun! We know that exercise is so important for our mental health. So carry on doing that, carry on running. Do it easily, do it at a pace you can talk. You don’t need to race, you don’t need to go a crazy distance. Enjoy it and have fun and stay fit and stay healthy, as that’s what we should all be doing. The 4 October gives you plenty of time. Try not to worry about what might happen; just enjoy the beauty of getting outside and enjoy the fresh air that’s fresher than it’s been in my lifetime and enjoy the birdsong that you can now hear because there are less planes flying. And look forward to the 4 October, because we hope it will be a very special day.
Hugh will be delivering an open letter about the postponed October London Marathon on 21 June. We’ll be reporting on that here.