BRENDAN Foster was minding his own business, emerging from a meeting at the headquarters of BBC Scotland, when he encountered someone who had been out for a run along the banks of the River Clyde.
“You alright?” asked the former athlete turned entrepreneur and TV commentator.
The knackered jogger was indeed alright, but only just. Confronted by the Englishman, who won medals at the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, he held out his weary frame for inspection, looked himself up and down and, with a shrug of his shoulders, said: “Well, I think it’ll last the winter.”
Foster liked that. He is, after all, a Geordie who sees something of his ain folk in the Glaswegians. He likes their patter, their passion and their common touch, which is just what he needs if he is to fulfil his ambitions for the Great Scottish Run, a mass-participation event that allows the man in the street to compete alongside Haile Gebrselassie.
As far as Foster is concerned, running is the people’s game. As chairman of Nova International, he has presided over the phenomenal growth of the Great North Run into an elite race that also happens to be the second-biggest half-marathon in the world. Earlier this month, it attracted 56,000 participants to Newcastle, which is 20,000 more than there were in the London Marathon five months earlier.
Now, Foster’s company has enlarged its portfolio to include the Great Scottish Run, the various elements of which will be held in Glasgow next weekend. On Saturday, a series of junior and family races will take place in the city centre. On Sunday, the 10k will be followed by the main event, the half-marathon.
The Great Scottish Run has grown steadily since it was established in 1982, attracting a record 24,000 entrants last year. But, according to Foster, its potential is far from fulfilled. It has a way to go before it is in the same league as its Newcastle equivalent.
“The Great North Run is the biggest mass-participation event in Britain,” says Foster. “We had a record turnout this year. But there’s no reason why Glasgow can’t be challenging that over the next ten years. It is one of the major sporting cities in Europe. It should be bigger than the Great North Run, shouldn’t it?
“This year, the Great Scottish Run will be on national television for the first time. It will be shown all around the country, which is as it should be. The greatest distance runner in the world, Haile Gebrselassie, will be running in Scotland for the first time ever. He said to me, ‘why have I never been invited before? Why didn’t you ask me earlier?’”
Ethiopia’s Gebrselassie, the 40-year-old “Emperor” of distance running, will head a field that also includes Susan Partridge, Freya Ross and Stephanie Twell, together with Andrew Lemoncello, winner of this year’s Great Edinburgh Run. While they are some of Scotland’s top athletes, Neil Lennon would admit that he is not. The Celtic manager will run the 10k for charity.
As many as 26,000 are expected to enter. The difference this year, says Foster, is that ten per cent of them will be from outwith Scotland’s borders, a statistic he attributes to links with his company’s other “great runs”, in the likes of Manchester and Birmingham.
Eventually he wants competitors to come from further afield. He sees no reason why the Great Scottish Run should not become a spectacle so big and internationally-renowned that it is a tourist attraction to rank alongside the marathons in New York and London.
“Look at the Berlin Marathon this weekend,” he says. “There are thousands of people going there from London to run. If you think about it, Glasgow should be in that group. Eventually, what we want to do is start publicising the Great Scottish Run in the United States, and say ‘it’s the one you’ve got to come home for’.”
Now 65, Foster can look back on a successful career, on and off the track. Not only did he win a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympic Games and a gold at the 1978 Commonwealth Games, he has gone on to establish himself as a pioneer of athletics for the people.
No one has done more to put the fun in running. The idea first occurred to him when he was in New Zealand ahead of the 1980 Olympics. Invited to compete in a mass-participation event there, it dawned on him that Britain had no equivalent, except perhaps the National Cross Country Championships, which attracted around 1,300 people.
Later that year, Foster persuaded the city of Newcastle to close its streets and allow him to hold the first Great North Run, in which 12,000 participated. Since then, it has steadily grown, together with his ambition to replicate the effect nationwide.
“When you are a runner, you want to encourage other people to be runners,” he admits. “It’s a kind of missionary zeal. If you go to a Catholic school [as Foster did], you want to persuade other people. You can’t convert them to Catholicism so you convert them to running.”
Next year, the Great North Run will become the first IAAF event in the world to have welcomed a million athletes through its finishing line. Its annual impact on the Newcastle economy is estimated to be worth £20 million. It raises £28m for charity every year. The plan is for the Great Scottish Run to do likewise, with a little bit of help from Glasgow 2014.
The city’s profile is sky high ahead of next summer’s Commonwealth Games, the venues for which will be passed by the athletes next weekend. The Hydro, Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow Green – all will feature along a new route that will still incorporate its customary sweep across the Kingston Bridge.
Foster, who will be commentating for the BBC, is looking forward to showcasing a city that the wider population still misunderstands.
“When the whole 13-mile route is seen on national television, people will say, ‘Christ, it’s different from what I thought it was. It’s not just Taggart and all that’. They’ll be a bit surprised because you don’t often get a tourist view of the city. They’ll like how modern it is, but also they’ll like the enthusiasm and the atmosphere of Glasgow people joining in the spirit of the event.
“What they will get is a magnificent course in a fantastic city, but one of the things I’m looking forward to most is the vox-pops, when we go round the spectators and get some Glasgow witticisms. They will show the personality of the place. It’s going to be a positive, joyous occasion.”