Brendan Foster is one of the most recognisable and enduring personalities in athletics.
Familiar to all athletics fans in the UK as the characterful voice of BBC commentary, “Big Bren” first earned his fame through his magnificent achievements as an Olympic medal winner, European champion, Commonwealth champion, two-time world record holder and 1974 BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He made a lasting impact on the growth of mass participation running with the creation of one of the finest races in the world: The Great North Run.
He announced earlier this year that he will retire from BBC commentary after the IAAF World Championships in August. But he’s not putting his feet up: it’s an exciting time for the Great Run Company, of which Brendan is Chairman, as it launches its first marathon events in Stirling and Birmingham this year.
So we’re delighted to bring you this timely two-part interview with the man himself.
In Part 1 below, we chat with Brendan about his running career, how he trained, and how and why the North East of England became a world capital for the best of endurance running in the 1970s.
In Part 2, Brendan shares his stories behind setting up the Great North Run, as well as favourite tales as a BBC commentator.
PART 1: RUNNING WAS MY HOBBY
The Best Run I’ve Ever Witnessed
September 1974. A group of nervous athletes toed the start line inside the grand Stadio Olimpico in Rome. The European Championships 5,000m final.
Eyes turned to the Finnish star and double Olympic champion, Lasse Virén. But the field also included a challenger to Virén’s dominance, the newly crowned world record holder for 3,000m: Brendan Foster.
Brendan had rehearsed his race plan well. He knew he needed to break Virén, and he knew it would hurt.
“Traditionally the 5,000m at the Europeans was a slow, tactical race. I knew Virén would be hard to beat in that kind of race, so I decided to make it a harder race if I could.
“I got to 3,000m and kicked on, but Virén came with me. I kept up that pace until he broke and I ran away from him.”
As Brendan increased the gap and the pressure, everyone started watching the clock. He was close to the world record. Did he think it was within his grasp?
“I was close, but it was 90 degrees, red hot. I got to the bell and looked at the clock, and thought I’d have to run 57 seconds on the last lap to break the world record. I was knackered! I was there to win the European Championships – so my main aim was winning in style.”
He certainly did that. Breaking Virén in the way he did, at a time when Virén was so dominant, made the race particularly memorable for British fans.
“The nice thing was that Lasse Virén said to me afterwards ‘That’s the best run I’ve ever witnessed.’
“Virén is one of the top athletes in the history of long distance athletics, so for him to say this to me really meant something.”
Made in The North East
Brendan had developed as a young athlete amid the phenomenal rise of the North East of England as a powerhouse of endurance running in the 1970s. Alongside him, the region produced athletes of the calibre of Olympians Mike McLeod, Charlie Spedding, Barry Smith and a bit later Steve Cram.
So what triggered this growth? And what was it like to be at the centre of it? Was there a supportive environment, or a fiercely competitive one?
“When we started we didn’t realise how it would develop of course.
“When I was at school, there was a first generation of newly-qualified, enthusiastic PE teachers leaving colleges and going out to the regions. They were setting up sports teams at their different schools, and competing against their mates who were PE teachers at other schools. They coached their football, cricket, cross country running, or track athletics teams so that they could beat the each other, and there were various leagues set up in different sports. So there were some great local rivalries.”
During this period, Stan Long was an athletics coach at Gateshead Harriers. He would go along to the athletics matches, and encourage the talented youngsters to join the club.
Brendan was, unsurprisingly, one of the gifted young runners approached by Stan:
“It was an accolade to have Stan ask you to join the Harriers. So if you were asked, you agreed!
“A group of us started training with Gateshead Harriers: we were learning as we went and we talked about it all the time.”
These youngsters developed and started competing regularly. After they left school and started work, many of them still trained together.
“We just wanted to run, and get better… and eventually quite a few of us did.”
Running Was My Hobby
Back then things were rather different for athletes at the top. It was a strictly amateur sport if you wanted to compete for your club or country, so even the best Olympians had to fit training in around their full time jobs. Brendan explains how this shaped his perspective on running:
“The bottom line is that running was my hobby. We were all amateur athletes and we had to fit running around our jobs. One guy was a lecturer, another worked at the ICI plant, one was a linesman for the county in Cumbria, one was a chemist, two or three were school teachers… we ran in our spare time.
“It was my social life too, it was what I did with my mates. We trained hard and we trained together. We were literally a group of runners in the North East who just trained together – we didn’t go off to altitude camps and all of that.
“We were amateurs but we wouldn’t have run faster if we had been paid.”
And this context kept Brendan grounded as he steadily became more successful:
“After the Olympics I’d be back at my club on a Tuesday night, and the lads would take the mickey and say ‘Here comes the big shot.’
“If I hadn’t been a good runner, I would have been a bad runner, but I still would have been a runner. My lifestyle would have been the same. It was down to earth, and pretty matter of fact. It was just what we did.”
Promises Kept & World Records Broken
In 1972, Brendan headed off to his first Olympics in Munich for the 1,500m, where he finished fifth in a high class field. Not to be satisfied with this, he began to extend his focus to slightly longer distances which he felt would suit him better. It was a good move: 1973 he broke the world record for two miles at Crystal Palace.
After breaking the world record, he was invited to an award presentation arranged by Gateshead Council. At the time, there was a major local government reorganisation under way, and Gateshead Council would lose money left in their budget if they didn’t spend it by the following spring.
They decided to use this surplus to build a tartan athletics track, which would become the world famous Gateshead Stadium. Brendan tells me:
“The leader of the council rang up the boss of 3M and said ‘Do you do tartan tracks?’
“’Yes, we’re the world leading supplier,’ he said.
“‘How much do they cost?’
“‘Quarter of a million quid.’
“The council boss said ‘Great. Can I have one then?’”
It’s hard to imagine anything like this happening with council budgets nowadays. Brendan continues the story:
“So at this awards presentation in 1973, there were rumours about the track. I said (after a couple of drinks) ‘I hear that you might be building a tartan track. If you do, I promise I’ll come to the opening of the track and break the world record!’
“Soon after that I was head-hunted Recreation Director of Sport on the council (I’d been a school teacher). When the track opening came around I stayed true to my word and broke the 3,000m world record.”
Montreal: “Why Didn’t You Just Outsprint Him?”
A couple of years down the line, with the European 5,000m title under his belt, Brendan set his sights on the Montreal Olympics. In the summer of 1976 he was in great shape and running well. But athletics in the UK was not in such good shape. The obstructive and unhelpful attitude of the British Athletics Federation (predecessor to UKA) meant that athletes lacked support. The results were telling, and Brendan’s bronze would be the only medal the British team brought home.
“The problem was that the BAF was like the obstacle course you had to negotiate to get to the Olympics rather than giving you support. For example, a couple of weeks before Montreal I went to another race in Zurich to try to break my own world record for two miles. I went with one of my training partners, Barry Smith, who was going to set the pace help me break the record. We got to the airport, and the boss of the Federation came to meet us, and told Barry he couldn’t come to the meeting and had to go home because “we don’t allow pace makers in races”. I went on my own, set the pace myself, and just missed the world record. If I’d got it, it would have made a difference to my confidence going into the Olympics.”
The race schedule in Montreal meant Brendan had four tough races in less than a week: heats and finals for 10,000m and 5,000m.
“The heat for the 10,000m is the worst race you ever run, because every step is a step you don’t want to take. They’ve stopped that now of course, they just go straight to the final.
“When I went to Montreal I realised I was going to have to run 75 laps of the track!”
Despite his medal, Brendan was disappointed with his performance in the 10,000m final.
“I didn’t feel great, and didn’t run great. Carlos Lopes dragged Lasse Virén away from me with about five laps to go, and I finished third. I was probably the favourite.
“After the race, a BBC interviewer asked me on live television:
“Well that’s disappointing Brendan, what happened?”
I said “Well, I did the best I could. I finished third.”
He said “Yes but why did you let him get away when he was pushing the pace? Why didn’t you go with him?”
I said “Well when they pulled away, I didn’t have anything left.”
He said “But surely with five laps to go you could have just hung on to him and then outsprinted him at the end?”
I said “Yeah, it’s a funny thing about running. The further you go, the more tired you get.”
Two days later, Brendan broke the Olympic record in the heats of the 5,000m. But the final was fiercely competitive.
“The final was a great race! There were five blokes still in it with 200m to go. Five of us thought we could win, but Lasse knew he could win. And he did.
“Any time anyone made a move, Lasse went faster and faster. Nobody could get on terms with him. It was an exciting race, but he was the best man on the day.”
The race is incredibly exciting, with five medal contenders tearing down the home straight, but Virén ultimately smooth and in control. Hildenbrand of West Germany literally throws himself over the line to steal the bronze, while David Coleman sounds like he’s going to burst a blood vessel in commentary. Watch it here…
Virén had now strung together four consecutive Olympic titles – the 5,000m and 10,000m in 1972 and 1976. But he hadn’t finished yet. As Brendan recalls:
“The day after the 5,000m final I was sitting in the village with some fellow GB athletes. My legs were really stiff. We were watching the marathon on television, and suddenly at 20 miles Lasse Virén took the lead!
“We were thinking how the hell is he doing that? He finished fifth in the marathon. He said afterwards that if he’d had one more day to recover after the 5,000m he thinks he would have won the marathon.”
Training for the Top
Brendan describes what his training looked like during this period…
“We trained hard, in groups. I would run about 120 miles a week, so about 15 miles each day and 20 on a Sunday. In the winter we just ran steady pace (though it was probably pretty quick as not everybody could keep up with us!).
“I used to run to work in the morning and home at night. That was my regime.
“Then during the summer I would go to the track once a week on a Saturday morning. I did track sessions of varying lengths, like 3 x 1 mile, or 6 x 800m. On a Tuesday night I’d do something like 10 x 400m, and on a Thursday I’d go to a cricket field and run sprints on the grass.
“It was pretty simple. But I got stronger and faster. There weren’t many people who could keep up with me all week.”
Brendan also explains that he found it helpful to have a rest period after the track season…
“After the summer track races I would very quickly put on half a stone in weight. Then I used to spend the rest of the winter getting the weight off.
“I didn’t realise but the Kenyans do exactly the same as that. They go away after the season and have some time to ‘get fat’ as they call it. They reckon there’s something in it that helps to take the strain off your body, and lets your enzymes recover. They say it’s good to have a proper rest, but also that it’s good for the body to put weight on and then lose it again.”
Sounds good to me!
Read on to Part 2, where Brendan shares his stories behind setting up the Great North Run, as well as favourite tales as a BBC commentator.