From small to majestic - Virgin Money London Marathon

From small to majestic - Virgin Money London Marathon

How the race earned the crown in the world of marathons

The very start of London Marathon in 1981 attracted 6,300 runners; a majority of them “skinny men in dodgy shorts”. The 2018 Virgin Money London Marathon has over 386 000 applicants, nearly half of them women and is one of the most iconic sport events globally. Worldsmarathons met up with Hugh Brasher, Event Director, Virgin Money London Marathon, to understand the journey that made the race one of the world’s greatest and why Brits are so talented in organizing large scale sport events? 

How has the event changed over the past years?

Without doubt the biggest change over the history of the Virgin Money London Marathon are our runners. When the event was founded in 1981 by my father Chris Brasher and John Disley, the field was packed with skinny men in dodgy shorts and less than 300 of the 6,300 finishers were women.

Fast forward to the ballot for the 2018 Virgin Money London Marathon and more than 45 per cent of the total of 386,050 applicants were female which was a new record and absolutely incredible. On top of that, just over 58 per cent of applications came from people who had never run a marathon before. This shows how the culture of running has changed and we are very proud that the London Marathon has been such a driver of social change.

Which areas do you try to evolve?

We are always looking at ways to improve our event and to maintain our position as the greatest marathon in the world. Every year we undertake a very detailed review, listening to feedback from participants, staff and our partners. This review drives the planning for the following year. 

More broadly, we want to continue to make running more accessible to all. We have made great strides in attracting more women to take part in the event and we also want to encourage runners from a greater range of social and ethnic backgrounds to enter the event. This is the ambition of our new half marathon, The Big Half and our aim to create a running event that represents the wonderful diverse culture of our great capital city. Longterm we hope The Big Half inspires a new runners to take on the challenge of the London Marathon. 

Which components of the event remain the same? 

Fundraising is central to the Virgin Money London Marathon and about 75% of our runners raise money for charity. We are proud to have been the world’s largest annual one-day fundraising event for the past 11 years. The 2017 race raised a incredible record-breaking £61.5m for charity and every year we hear extraordinary stories from runners about their reasons for fundraising. These stories and runners are hugely inspirational and help to make the London Marathon such an iconic event.

London is praised for its superb sporting arrangements, what is the magic sauce?

The people of London and the local authorities. Londoners embrace sport. This was shown to world at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and is shown by the crowds that line the barriers every year at the Virgin Money London Marathon, at the NFL games that have now been taking place in London for the last 10 years, at Premier League fixtures week in week out and at the 2017 World Athletics championships to name but a few events. 

London is one of the world’s greatest cities. Londoners embrace big sporting events, they want to see world-class events in their city and the authorities work brilliantly to ensure people like us can put on events like the London Marathon every year.

Terror attacks are unfortunately part of today’s event planning. Is it possible for you to say something about security planning?

We want to reassure our runners, spectators, volunteers and everyone connected with the event that we do everything we can to ensure their safety. We work closely with the Metropolitan Police, the Mayor's office and other authorities on security measures. 

Which are your most memorable moments from the London Marathon?

My most memorable moments are always the ones that are in the future. We plan many years ahead, we have great ideas for 2018, 2019 and 2020 and we always look to improve the event year on year. The work that the team has done to improve the Virgin Money London Marathon in many different areas and is planning to do in the future is what I find so inspiring.

Do you experience competition from other sport formats?

We strive to be the greatest mass-participation events company in the world and we believe that the Virgin Money London Marathon is the greatest marathon in the world. This year we had a record 386,050 people apply to take part in the 2018 event making the London Marathon the most popular marathon on the planet. We do look at other events and events companies, but in general we try to focus on what we can control and what we can deliver – which is one of the greatest days in a participant’s life. 

The feeling that runners get by being cheered from their first step to their last stride by an enthusiastic crowd which is willing each individual to attain their goal and run 26.2 miles is a feeling like no other. It is the crowd engagement that makes the London Marathon so special and is not something than can be copied.

How do you work with international runners? Who do you want to attract to the event?

More than 100 nationalities were represented on the Start Line of the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon and their participation is another ingredient that makes the event so special. It is one of the world’s most iconic marathons and people want to come from around the world to take part.

From an elite perspective, we aim to bring together the world’s best marathon runners every April and we believe that our elite fields are the strongest of any marathon on the calendar. It is repeatedly said that it is harder to win the Virgin Money London Marathon than it is to win the Olympic or World Championship marathon. Dave Bedford, my predecessor as Event Director, does a great job in ensuring we get the world’s top athletes on our start line every year. We are very proud of our elite fields.

Why should runners sign up for the London Marathon?

In life, you may be lucky enough to have a handful of individuals who are always willing you on but if you take part in the London Marathon, for one day only, you will have tens of thousands of people supporting you, cheering for you, urging you on to that finish line. I can say with absolute conviction that it will be one of the most emotional, awe-inspiring moments of your entire life.

Can you give the runners some attractions along the route that they must take a look at?

The London Marathon passes some of the city’s most famous landmarks so runners will get to see plenty of the sights. There is the famous tea clipper The Cutty Sark in Greenwich which they loop around at 6.5 miles before crossing the River Thames at the iconic Tower Bridge at the half way point. From there, runners head out towards the financial heartland of Canary Wharf before looping around the Isle of Dogs and heading back towards central London and a breathtaking final five miles.

At around mile 22, runners will pass the Tower of London, before passing through the City of London and then following the River Thames along the Embankment and a first glimpse of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben which marks just a mile to go. From there, runners turn right into Great George Street and Birdcage Walk before turning past Buckingham Palace and a memorable finish on The Mall.

What do you recommend runners travelling to the event do prior or after the race?

Prior to the marathon I’d advise staying off your feet as much as possible but one place you will have to go to is the Virgin Money London Marathon Expo at the Excel Centre in East London. This is where you will get your race pack and is also an opportunity to meet other runners, stock up on any last-minute essentials at the many retail outlets, enjoy some great activations and listen to talks from our special guest runners. You will leave there more excited about the London Marathon than ever.

As for after the race, there is the whole of London to enjoy – so long as your legs hold out!