Memories of the Norfolk Marathon and the 1980s running boom
Running expert Neil Featherby recounts his memories of the Norfolk Marathon and discusses whether the event could ever make a return
I can remember the first London Marathon back in 1981 with just 7,000 runners taking part which back then was considered huge.
To say it caught everyone's imagination really is an understatement. Even though there was no live television coverage that year, when watching the highlights later on that evening, the sight of watching so many people of all ages and from all walks of life pounding the streets of the capital most certainly made for what was to become known as a people's marathon and of course triggering the first marathon boom in this country.
This then led to many other marathons springing up all around the UK for which I myself also became caught up in the buzz and decided to enter the first Wolverhampton Marathon which was to take place at the end of March the following year.
Just as I was approaching the final stages of my Black Country marathon preparations, I saw details in the EDP about a marathon at Bungay followed by a Norfolk Marathon which was to be held on the first Bank Holiday Monday in May starting at Kelling just outside of Holt and finishing at the awesome setting of the Norwich Cathedral.
At the time I was more than a little disappointed as my sights were now firmly fixed on Wolverhampton and from what I had read in all the books and magazines about post marathon recovery, there was going to be very little chance of me being able to run another marathon so close after my first one. Little did I know at the time of course!
Despite being very naive when it came to running 26.2 miles and what with having slept in my car the night before whilst even doing an early 3 mile run prior to the marathon, I somehow ran far more quickly than I thought I would and despite suffering badly during the last 4 miles, I actually crossed the finish line in just over 2 hours and 37 mins.
This in itself led to me making a phone call to Mike Wilkinson whose name I had seen in the EDP as not only a very experienced marathon runner himself, but the man who was one of the main people behind the organisation of this forthcoming Norfolk Marathon.
After telling him about my recent marathon exploits, he said I should join the Norfolk Olympiads which needless to say I did, making lots of new friends with other runners in the process. This also led to me being talked into entering the Norfolk Marathon to run as part of the club.
Come race day, we all met in Castle Meadow and travelled out to Kelling on one of the many buses laid on from Norwich. As we made our way in what was the opposite direction of which we were going to be running back to Norwich, it was quite clear that not only would we be running into a strong head wind, but the course was also very hilly and undulating especially to the half way point at Aylsham where the half marathon runners were going to finish.
Whilst I was gently jogging around the Kelling grounds warming up, the sight of hundreds of other runners, some serious and others not so, all added up to what can only be described as feelings of very nervous excitement.
Then before you knew it, the theme music to the film Chariots of Fire bellowed out across the PA Systems to signal that it was time for everyone to make their way to the start line for the inaugural first Norfolk Marathon.
I very quickly linked up with a fellow Olympiad in Phil Hutchings who was someone who I very much looked up to, hanging on to his every word when telling me stories about his past running career.
The miles seemed to tick off very quickly despite the long drawn out steep climbs and wind in our faces and whilst there were lots of spectators cheering us on during those early miles, the noise when going through Aylsham was electric and almost deafening until hitting the new bypass section of road which had not yet been opened.
However, and once on to the main Cromer Road, it was then basically a straight run into Norwich for which I ran side by side with Phil as we very patiently picked off runners along the way.
Just after Newton St Faiths and 20 miles in, Phil told me to push on.
This I did whilst passing several more athletes including what had been the first and second placers Vic Holman and Dave Goodwin in the first ever Bungay Marathon just a few weeks before.
In my eyes these guys were legends and the fact that they both wished me well fired even more adrenaline into my body as we then ran through a hailstorm.
After going past the Norwich airport the course for the one and only time in the Norfolk Marathon's brief nine race history went all the way down Aylsham Road before entering Magdalen Street and of course those fantastic last few hundred metres after Fye Bridge where you ran as hard as you could up the slight hill all the way to the magnificent finish in front of the Cathedral whilst being cheered on by absolutely hundreds of spectators.
I was thrilled to finish in seventh place in 2 hours 40 mins and 18 secs. It was three minutes slower than my debut at Wolverhampton, but I was ecstatic.
I was just as elated when the winner of the race Terry McBrien who had finished in 2:27 started talking to me. I had never met him before so of course I was a little starstruck whilst wondering what it must be like to win such an amazing race.
I took part in the Norfolk Marathon on six more occasions for which each one of them has a very memorable personal story for me.
However and one which I perhaps would prefer to have forgotten was the second running of this great race in 1983. Just days before and after a 2:33 marathon clocking a few weeks earlier, I injured my back severely.
Rightly or wrongly I was still determined to start, but unfortunately, I bailed out at 20 miles. I was pretty devastated at the time and it took me another five months before I fully recovered from the injury.
In 1984, I finished seventh again, but this time 10 minutes quicker than on that first occasion and most pleasingly after a decent period of training without any signs of what had been a bad setback the year before. Jeremy Watson from Thames Hare & Hounds won for the second year in succession in what was then a new course record of 2:24:48.
By 1985, things really had seemed to have clicked for me, but my coach at the time told me that there would be no Norfolk marathon for me this year, despite my protests what with it being just two weeks after running 2:20 in the London Marathon. He was right of course and this particular year the marathon took a completely different course after Aylsham for which it was the only year where it didn't finish at the Cathedral, finishing at the Norwich Rugby Club instead and won by Gregor Booth in 2:30:33.
Then in 1986 and just two days before what was to be the fifth running of this race, I took a call to say I had been selected to run for England at the end of May in the Aberdeen Marathon on the back of a 2:19 clocking in Berlin at the end of 1985 and a 2:21 in London a couple of weeks earlier.
“Whatever you do between now and Aberdeen, be sensible and don't race anything further than 10k,” I was told by the team manager.
Needless to say, I did run in the Norfolk marathon and whilst I felt guilty for doing so, I did run well within myself winning in a time of 2:29. This was also the year when the Norfolk Gazelles had five runners crossing the line together for first place in Aylsham Market place in the Half Marathon. As for Aberdeen, I finished 2nd in 2:23 in what was also a very tough course.
Now whilst there was most certainly a head wind every single year as runners battled their way from Kelling to Norwich, the one year when this was different was in 1987. Whilst I had entered the race, I had no intention of using it as anything other than just a training run what with having just won the Wolverhampton Marathon at the beginning of April as well as having ran in two other big international marathons during the previous six months which included my PB of 2:17.
For the first time ever, there was a tail wind and in all honesty, I was annoyed thinking just how typical this was what with not taking this year's race seriously.
I had even told a club mate that I would pace him to what would hopefully be a new PB for him.
I was so laid back during the race, that I even ran back in the opposite direction several times so as to go collect more drinks and sponges for my colleague whilst even stopping for a brief chat on one occasion.
Despite running at a low 2:20 pace, it felt so very easy. Then at 20 miles where I had agreed to meet my mum and jump in her car she failed to arrive.
I looked for her and even shouted to people on the side of the road asking if they had seen her. By this point I had already pushed ahead so it was now a case of just keep going.
Initially I was really annoyed and took off like a bat out of hell and by the time I hit Fye Bridge it was obvious that I was going to finish in 2 hours 20 mins and a new course record which once again annoyed me as this really had been a day for running much faster.
The last 10k had taken me just 31 minutes. I did also feel bad for my club mate as he wanted to win the race, but in truth he had smashed his PB finishing in 2:22 and went on to many more great performances himself including a trip out to the Guernsey marathon which I had initially been offered by the race promoter. As for the conversation with my mum afterwards when asking her where she was, her reply was “stop moaning, you were running so easily and should have ran even quicker”.
In 1988, I was once again side-lined from competition for a big part of the year through the result of another back injury for which I had to resign myself to a spectator's role on the side of the road just outside of Marsham. This was made even worse when having to continually explain to people as to why I was not running.
By the following year in 1989, I was back and winning once again in what was a canter for me at the time in 2:31.
However, I didn't enjoy the race at all. Apart from after the first mile in Holt and of course Aylsham, it really was a long lonely run with regards to very few spectators cheering the runners on into Norwich. The finish as always was superb, but all the other usual points where in the past you had been able to guarantee large crowds of people, for some reason it didn't really happen this year.
In truth it was a sign of things to come in as much as what had been the 1980s marathon boom, now appeared to becoming to end. Certainly for the Norfolk Marathon. Even the media coverage that year was well below that of previous years.
With this in mind, it was then announced that the Norfolk Marathon for 1990 was moving its date to October with rumours that it was likely to be the last one what with costs of putting it on increasing and the number of entries greatly reducing.
The marathon bubble, other than the very big city races, seemed to have certainly burst, but my old mate Pete Duhig had also entered this year's race so one thing which was for sure was that I knew he would take off very quickly.
Pete was a real racer with no fear. In fact we went through the first mile in 5 minutes dead for which I knew that it was going to get tough in the later stages especially with the hills and of course the usual stiff breeze in our faces.
I can't remember exactly when Pete did drop off, but when he did I was somewhat pleased and even though I had a good lead by 15 miles, I was also tired and relied upon the fact that I could take my foot off the gas and just stroll into Norwich for what I hoped would be another win. This I did in 2 hours 30 mins which was four minutes ahead of the second placer. However, he was more than 10 mins behind me with 10 miles to go. Nevertheless, it was a win and of course the last win in what was the original Norfolk Marathon.
Be it the full marathon or indeed the half marathon, both races had some absolutely fantastic athletes from home and away taking part for which I will at some point put together a much more detailed feature of both races.
It is now definitely a part of Norfolk athletics history, but as for it being resurrected again in the future, I unfortunately do not think so.
The costs and administration of putting on such a race again would probably be far too much with a huge headache for those who oversee it.
However, and on the plus side, I do have a feeling that before long there will be another annual Norfolk Marathon which takes place in our county. With regards to a finish at the Norwich Cathedral, well let's hope so as there cannot be many races out there which can better that.