Behind the scenes of the Great North Run

PUBLISHED: 11:35 16 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:00 20 February 2013

Behind the scenes of the Great North Run

Behind the scenes of the Great North Run

Tom Fennelly follows the route of the Great North Run, meeting the people along the way who make it the world's biggest half marathon

Before the last feet cross the finishing line at the end of this years Bupa Great North Run on Sunday September 18, the work on clearing up after the worlds biggest half marathon will already have started behind them and the planning for next years event will already be well under way.

Such is the organisation and effort that goes to make the GNR the success it has become since its founder, the North Easts own Brendan Foster, first had the idea of a mass participation running event after a training session in New Zealand, that in its 31st year the organisers are constantly aiming to give runners and spectators an even better event experience.

Foster was first inspired when he and fellow world record holder, Olympic athlete David Moorcroft, took part in the Round the Bay Race in Auckland in March 1980. He returned to Tyneside and put together a team to organise the first Great North Run in 1981 and they were overwhelmed when, instead an expected entry of 5,000, more than 12,000 people wanted to join in.

Yes, weve come a long way since what was initially a pipedream became a reality, said Foster. But each year since we have looked for further improvements and rest assured well continue to do so after every event.

A remarkable live outside broadcast television spectacle follows every step of the way

The event now takes a maximum of 54,000 entries from the almost 100,000 applications received each year. The statistics and achievements are impressive. Most of the worlds elite distance athletes have taken part alongside a host of celebrities from all walks of life and tens of thousands of the fun runners who have raised millions of pounds for a variety of charities and good causes over the years.

Each one of them is cheered on by massive crowds at the start, along the route and at the finish on the seafront at South Shields.

Millions more around the world watch four hours of live TV coverage by the BBC with commentary, of course from Foster himself and from fellow Olympian and sports commentator, the legendary Jarrow Arrow Steve Cram, who also took part in the very first GNR.

With cameras in helicopters, camera motorbikes and camera cars, computer graphics and all the technical wizardry of modern sports broadcasting, every step of the route is covered from start to finish, making the Great North Run a remarkable live outside broadcast television spectacle.

The Bupa Great North Run is organised by Fosters own company, Nova International, established in 1988, which specialises in the development, design, organisation and rights management of mass participation, televised sports events.

An army of volunteers, sponsors and partners supports team GNR

Two key players in the Novas Bupa GNR team are Race Director Nigel Gough and Finish Director Charlie Mussett, who between them have the daunting task of setting up and organising the event. The finish area construction at South Shields takes two and a half weeks and a further week to dismantle. The mass start arrangements, on the Central Motorway East, in Newcastle are set up in a remarkable overnight operation from the roads closure at 8.30pm prior to the start next day.

Charlie describes the Great North Run as an international event with a great local presence. As other parts of the events can be tweaked, the one constant is the actual finish line, which is very accurately measured from a fixed point on The Leas. Apart from the safety and welfare of the runners, Charlie is also responsible for the corporate hospitality, with 1,200 guests, the Charities Village and the re-instatement of the National Trust site as well as 101 other things.

The Bupa Great North Run is quite different to any other major outdoor event in so much as we assemble the participants in one place and then require them to move themselves to a venue more than 13 miles away where they arrive exhausted, emotionally and physically drained and needing to be looked after and reunited with their families, friends and belongings, says Charlie.

Quite apart from the massive administration of the applications and distributing of race numbers, sponsorship, race partners, charities, hosting elite athletes, among an endless list of tasks, it could not happen with an army of volunteers.

Volunteers (including Army personnel) help with race marshalling, handing out water, results co-ordination, handing out the tee-shirts and medals, the hospitality and a host of things that contribute to the smooth running of the GNR machine. The volunteer medical teams, led by Race Doctor Andy Kilner, are backed up by South Tyneside District Hospital, the North East Ambulance Service, the Red Cross and St John Ambulance First Aiders.

Policing of the event is co-ordinated by Northumbria Police and a major traffic management plan deals with an expected 20,000 vehicles, which head in to and out of South Shields, as well as car and coach parking and public transport co-ordination. Bus companies provide 50 additional services and the Metro carries 90,000 passengers. A further 7,500 use the cross-river ferry. Private coaches move 5,500 more runners from around the region and beyond.

An iconic image of all that is great about our region

The secondary finish in Gypsies Green is where runners can meet up with family and friends and relax and enjoy a great line-up of music from local band The Gaslighters and Tony Auden (Bob Hope from ITVs Emmerdale) who performs with his White Van Band each year after completing the run.

South Tyneside Councils Events Officer Karri Prinn, who has 12 years of GNR experience, and is the local liaison person with the organisers, says: The Great North Run is the biggest event of the year in South Tyneside and the sheer scale of the operations needed to make it happen requires a great deal of coordinated planning and months of careful preparation. It is really hard work and although most of the runners and spectators do not see what goes on behind the scenes, I am sure that they all appreciate what has to be done to make it work on the day.

Councillor Tracey Dixon, South Tyneside Councils Lead Member Leisure and Community Safety, says: The event has grown to be an internationally renowned success and it has literally put South Tyneside on the map with millions of people sampling the warmth of Tyneside hospitality and the great atmosphere of the Great North Run. The finish here in South Shields is always something very special. The event has become an iconic image of all that is great about our region.

The great cleanup challenge tackles the course with sweepers and brushes

The great clean up is spearheaded by the local Council partners in Newcastle, Gateshead and South Tyneside who have supported the event since its inception. The stages, first aid posts and feeding stations which are set up along the route generate tonnes of race litter, which is systematically swept up and the town centres and seafront and highways are returned to pristine condition within hours of the end of the event.

In charge of the largest cleansing operation from White Mare Pool down to the finish and beyond for the first time this year is Karen Hollander, Environmental Team Leader. I have been involved in previous years and I am totally confident that we can maintain the high standards we achieve with our mechanical and manual cleaning teams. It is a challenging and very intense day, says Karen.

With ten large mechanical sweepers, five smaller sweepers, hundreds of extra litter bins and baskets, Karens team of 93 people are strategically placed along the route and down into South Shields town centre. The work continues until the whole South Tyneside stretch is swept clean.

Thanks to everyone

And that makes it a clean sweep all the way along the route of the Great North Run, for the thousands of runners and their supporters, the army of organisers and volunteer helpers, the police and medical teams and the residents and business people of Newcastle and the south bank of the Tyne. All winners, every one of them.

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