01 October 2020, 7am
Until this year it had been taken for granted that races would be held year after year, with cancellations only in exceptional circumstances. No longer: but this list of long-serving race directors of AIMS races provides a wistful look back at those times and how mass marathons first found their place on city streets.
A later article will look at how the big city marathons expanded into areas of the world where distance running had not been considered as a sport for the masses and at those races which developed the phenomenon of “running tourism”.
When AIMS was founded in 1981 marathon running was in its infancy as a mass-participation sport. There was usually one inspirational race director figure who had dreamed up the event and got it on the road by heading up negotiations with the city authorities and recruiting race sponsors. A few names stood out: Fred Lebow in New York, Horst Milde in Berlin and Chris Brasher in London, who were all central figures in the founding of AIMS.
Some individuals still head the race organisations they created. Others, like those mentioned above, lasted 20 years or more in charge but as races grew in size and complexity they developed a more departmentalised structure. Administration and marketing became separated from operational matters. Many of the early race directors were members of running clubs and recruited fellow club members to share the workload. Among these, the New York Road Runners and Berlin’s Sport Club Charlottenburg expanded their race organisations commercially and today employ dozens of people.
The City authorities, who controlled the roads on which Marathons were run, saw these events as at least partially their own. In Barcelona, and later Rome, the City seized control and engaged a contractor to deliver the race, either with the aim of upgrading the event or to extract payment for the right to organise it.
Japan has a long history of distance races which pre-dates the Western “Running Boom” of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But in Japan races were contests between elite athletes: fields were usually only a few dozen runners but attracted a lot of spectator interest and were often televised and usually sponsored by newspaper groups. As organisations they were – and still are – seen more as public properties belonging to the local governments and the athletics federations.
Under this organisational model the title of race director was more of an honorary post that rotated every few years, and was typically held by someone from the federation or a leader of the local government such as the city’s mayor. This remained the case after the introduction of mass participation races starting from 2007.
The idea of a long-standing race director does not fit well in the culture of Japan. China, which only developed a running culture much later, has adopted a similar model. But there is always the exception: in 1986 the Lake Saroma 100km Ultra Marathon was established by Jiro Hashimoto as a privately-organised race through his company R-bies.
As the popularity of running increased it became recognised for its potential as a part of the tourism market. Events were set up specifically to attract runners from foreign countries – who would most likely spend more and have a greater impact on the local economy than nationals or locals. Tour companies went a step further and set up ‘boutique’ races as the central focus of trips they organise.
Now, with 470 AIMS member races spread throughout 125 countries, distance running has been made into a truly global sport by their efforts, from Boston to Bhutan, from Venice to Vladivostok – and all points in between.
One of the pioneers
Horst Milde, Berlin Marathon, est. 1974
The first Berlin Marathon was held on 13 October 1974 with 286 runners. 244 of them finished. It was the first time in Germany that unregistered runners were able to take part in a race. We fought a battle with the police for permission. Their attitude was: “only cars should be on the street, not runners”. For the first seven editions the race was confined to lesser-used roads in the Grunewald.
The Berlin Marathon became international on 27 September 1981 by moving from the forest roads of the Grunewald to the city centre, starting at the Reichstag and finishing on the main shopping street, Kurfürstendamm. With 3486 participants from 30 nations (2583 finishers) and incorporating wheelchairs for the first time it was a sensation in Germany at that time.
Winning times improved and the number of participants climbed to almost 17,000 from 60 nations but in 1989 radical political change brought a new dimension to the Marathon.
The 1990 Berlin Marathon broke through to the international elite of marathon running when, on 30 September 1990 (three days before German reunification), a field capped at 25,000 participants from 61 countries ran for the first time from Berlin (West) to Berlin (East) through the Brandenburg Gate and back. The race was a world sporting and political spectacle which was broadcast live worldwide. A run that was at first only a family affair had become an event that dominates the German capital for two days as spectators enthusiastically celebrate from the first to the last runner.
Following 1990 the number of participants initially declined but the winning performances improved every year and the flat and fast course strongly appealed to mass runners. When Berlin became the capital of Germany again the number of participants rose to record levels every year.
I had arranged with the management of the SCC Berlin club that I would retire as race director in 2004 (after more than 330 events over 40 years with 1.3 million participants).
Mark, our second son, had helped with all the running events since he was a child and had grown up with the Berlin Marathon. He took advice from his colleagues in New York and London and then became my ‘shadow’ Race Director.
Since 1974 eleven world records (previously world best times) have been set in the Berlin Marathon starting with Christa Vahlensieck (GER) in 1977 and ending with Eliud Kipchoge’s (KEN) current world record of 2:01:39 in 2018.
With 46,983 registrations from 150 nations the 2019 Berlin Marathon was one of the largest races in the world. As one of the World Marathon Majors it has become an important flagship of elite and popular sports in Germany. In my wildest dreams I never imagined the success of the marathon. Although it resulted from the work of a large and experienced team, we were humbled by it.
Early fitness awareness
Rick Nealis, Marine Corps Marathon, est. 1976
On 17 October 1975 Col. Jim Fowler (USMC) spurred an idea that would become the Marine Corps Reserve Marathon – which would also serve as a recruiting tool. After the Vietnam War popularity of the military declined but distance running was gaining considerable positive attention.
In Washington DC the first participants came to the start line on 7 November 1976. 1018 finishers made it the largest inaugural marathon up to that time. Each participant paid only $2 to enjoy a run through the nation’s capital. Two-time Olympian and eventual MCM Hall of Famer Kenneth Moore was the overall winner with a time of 2:21:14.
The Marine Corps Marathon Organization (MCMO) is celebrating 45 years of promoting the organisational skills of the United States Marines, embracing the good will of the Washington DC community and supporting our runners who are role models for a healthy lifestyle. Over 600,000 marathon runners have selected “The People’s Marathon” as a ‘must do’ race. An event for first time marathoners, the Marines pamper and assist runners throughout. Race Director Rick Nealis, a retired Major of Marines (1981); Oprah Winfrey (1994) and former Vice President of the United States Al Gore (1997), all chose the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) to make their debut.
In September 2001 the world was shocked and appalled by the coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the crashing of an airliner in a Pennsylvania field. While a feeling of terror swept the world, the MCMO was able to plan, organise and execute the first major event in the Washington DC area just six weeks later. Runners led the way in showing the world we were going to take back our lives and use our sport of running as a vehicle to bring back normalcy into our daily lives.
Almost 20 years later, the world is again in a sense of shock as we combat another enemy, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As live events are cancelled, marathons must come to grip on how we go forward with organising and hosting large-scale running events. Race directors strive to understand the safety protocols and social distancing requirements before we can begin to put on races again for the masses.
But race directors are problem-solvers: we will figure out what the future of marathon events will look like in 2021 and beyond. As AIMS members we have a responsibility to come together now more than ever and have our running events again lead the way to a healthy lifestyle.
Jiro Hashimoto, Lake Saroma 100km, est.1986
On a visit to Okinawa keen ultrarunner Jiro Hashimoto saw a poster with aerial pictures of dream landscape of green forest with blue sea on both sides. “If only I could run in such a beautiful location…” he imagined. It was an ambitious idea but he found support from town mayors and deputy mayors in Wakubetsu, Saroma and Tokoro and also from the owner of a local resort hotel which became the race headquarters.
The first race drew 50 runners of whom 26 finished – the last in 13:36:32. Just two years later the number of participants had increased tenfold (to 526) and has continued to rise as the race has become the mecca for Japanese ultra-runners. The 2019 race had 3550 runners in the 100km and 550 in the 50km. By the tenth race in 1995 1362 runners entered including elite runners from both at home and abroad. At the 1998 race Takahiro Sunada set the men’s world record of 6:13:33 and just two years later Tomoe Abe followed with a women’s world record of 6:33:11, taking 27:37 off the previous mark. In the 2018 race Nao Kazami improved the 20-year old world record by over four minutes with a time of 6:09:14.
Nowadays the race is staged by the local authority but R-bies leads in the organisation. Mr. Shinichi Marjuma Aejima (CEO of R-bies) will succeed Mr Hashimoto in 2021.