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'We want to be a beacon of positivity' says London Marathon Event Director, Hugh Brasher

Jane McGuire
·5-min read
Photo credit: Jeff Spicer - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jeff Spicer - Getty Images

From Runner's World

It's a gloomy day in London when I sit down to speak to Hugh Brasher, Event Director of the Virgin Money London Marathon; Storm Christoph has brought snow and storms to parts of the country, Glastonbury has been cancelled and the UK is in its third national lockdown. 'We want to be a beacon of positivity', says Brasher, as he announces plans for the largest London Marathon on record for October 4.

As always, he is infectiously optimistic about what he calls 'the world's greatest marathon'. The plan is for 100,000 runners to run this year's race - 50,000 on the traditional course from Blackheath to The Mall and an additional 50,000 as part of the Virtual Virgin Money London Marathon. 'It’s a big day and it makes me quite emotional to announce these plans' Brasher says. Below, he unveils his plans for the day and his message for runners ahead of the October race.

The plans for the 2021 London Marathon are out in the open - how much did you learn from last year's version of the race?

We learnt an unbelievable amount. We believe that we’ve always been one of the most inclusive marathons and sports events in the world - you get the Gods of our sport and the everyday athletes running on the same roads at the same time. But last year, actually allowing people to do the London Marathon their way and taking away that pressure of time (other than the 23:59:59 they had to complete 26.2 miles) made us so more inclusive than ever.

Is this new format of a traditional race day and a virtual race here to stay?

Yes, absolutely. All London Marathon events we organise will go hybrid. How can you get more people to believe they can run or walk 26.2 miles? By taking the time pressure off. If they can complete the distance in the virtual event, it will bring them to the mass-participation event. It can make our sport more inclusive. It can make our sport more diverse and that is something we absolutely want to do. That was the thing that the London Marathon and all the Abbott World Marathon Major races did - the everyday person saw people looking like them, doing this marathon challenge. That's what changed the face of our sport for good and we believe that this is the next seminal moment that it will change it exponentially again.

We learnt so much [last year] and we believe what we are doing now is one of the most powerful things we have ever done. We are really showing that a hybrid event can magnify the unification of the world at a time when more than ever, we need that unity. We were a beacon of light on 4 October, we hope again this announcement, at a time when we’re in lockdown 3.0 does the same. Lockdown is oppressive, it’s mentally so waring, but sport, running, walking, that’s what will help us through this. We're giving people a goal and we know this changes behaviour for the good. It’s a big day and it makes me quite emotional.

Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images

How confident are you that all 50,000 runners will be able to compete in person? Do you have contingency plans in place in case that’s not possible?

We have lots of contingency plans, we always have lots of contingency plans, but we’re very hopeful. We’re very optimistic. The UK government have said that the whole of the UK population should be vaccinated by September. Yes, we have lots of scenarios, but no we’re not going to say what they are. One of those scenarios we were looking at last year was having every single runner using bump technology, I’m not saying that will happen in 2021, but I'm saying we have lots of different scenarios and we're working with some of the leading companies in the world.

Why the decision to increase the field size for the first time this year?

We have been working since 2014 on crowd modelling and developing our processes to be able to have 50,000 people running the marathon. We started putting extra mats in places, we then used video cameras, we then implemented fluid dynamic modelling and changed the start processes. Behind the scenes, we’ve been working to a goal of having 50,000 runners at the London Marathon by 2023. All we’ve actually done is put our plan for 2023 forward two years because we had to fit in all the runners who couldn’t take part in the in-person event in 2020 and wanted a place in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Do you envisage changes to the start of the marathon with the larger field size?

We have so many different scenarios of how we might adapt the marathon to the circumstances that exist in October. I don’t want to go into detail because one question leads to another - I didn’t do it last time, I don’t want to do it this time. We surprised people with what we were looking at doing [in 2020] we will surprise them, even more, this time. We really have learnt so much from 2020, we went into lockdown on 23 March 2020 thinking we would be out of it in May, we never expected to be in the situation we’re in. Having that learning and realising the agility and ability of the team here at London Marathon, we are really positive about what we can do.

Finally, what's your message to runners who have been training for this London Marathon for over a year now?

Having a goal - that is what’s going to make you go out and going out at the moment to do your run, to do your walk. A goal is so beneficial for your mental health, so absolutely keep that goal in mind and let us reignite that flame. We really hope this news acts as a positive in these difficult moments where we have the longest nights and the worst weather.

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