Association of International Marathons and Distance Races

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Running into history

01 July 2022, 2pm

In the last edition of Distance Running (2022/2) a few of the race directors who came together to form AIMS in the early 1980s gave their recollections of how this came about. A significant proportion of the 28 founding members (see table) remain members today but keeping the race going through the intervening 40 years has often presented severe challenges. Below some of the races being held today trace their pathways from the early days up to the present time.

Keeping on track

*Barcelona Marathon / Marathon Catalunya*

Ramón Oliu became a runner when he was in the US in the 1970s and ran the breakthrough ‘Five Borough’ race in 1976 celebrating the American Bicentenary. On his return to Barcelona in 1977 he realised that there were practically no road races in Catalonia, or even in Spain. He contacted the city authorities and the athletics federation but never received any responses from them. So he put together an enthusiastic team, the “Comissió Marathon Catalunya” “dedicated to recreational long distance running” and with the aim of setting up a Marathon in Barcelona.

Barcelona authorities refused permission for the race to be held in the City, but a small town on the Costa Brava called Palafrugell was receptive to the idea. The first Marathon Catalunya was held in 1978 with 185 runners entering and 138 finishers. This was the first popular marathon in Spain, pre-dating the Madrid Marathon that same year and being held the following year with increased numbers (302 registered, 224 finished).

The third edition in 1980 was the first to be held in Barcelona itself but retained the name Marathon Catalunya. The start and finish were at Montjuïc, where the Olympic Marathon was to finish in the Olympic Stadium in 1992. The course ran through the industrial area and several outlying towns.

The running movement in Barcelona kept increasing in numbers and popularity. Some towns and running clubs begin to organise their own road races (10km, 15km, and half marathons) and a regular calendar was established.

The Comissió Marathon Catalunya took an active role in promoting road racing both among citizens and with the city authorities. It published a specialised running magazine and oversaw the organisational quality of races. Raimon Vancells was the race director between 1984–1989. He headed an amateur organisation working to improve the marathon and road races within Catalunya. In the 1980s fields of more than 3000 participants were common.

Because of the impending 1992 Olympic Games Barcelona became a city of interest and participants came to run from all around the world. The race start moved to Mataró, where the Olympic Marathon was to start, and the finishing line was in the Olympic Stadium. Adolf Torruella and Domingo Catalan were the presidents of the Comissió Marathon Catalunya and race directors. (XIII Marathon Catalunya to XXIV Marathon). The World Congress of AIMS was held in Barcelona in 1996.

After a decade of using the point-to-point Olympic course from 2001 the Barcelona Sports Council decided to return to running the race entirely within the City of Barcelona. Josep Antentas worked as race director. The name of Marathon Catalunya changed to Marató de Catalunya – Barcelona and finally took the current name of Marató de Barcelona.

The name changes were symptomatic of the City asserting its grip on the right to hold races on the city streets within its jurisdiction and under what conditions those rights would be granted. This came to a head in 2005 with a big crisis between the original organisers and the Barcelona Sports Council which resulted in the cancellation of the 2005 edition of Barcelona Marathon. In response the traditional organisers put on a different event called the Marató del Mediterrani just outside Barcelona itself.

From the 2006 edition the race was organised on a different basis. The number of participants had increased only very slowly since the 1980s and the objective was to attract far more runners, especially by promoting it as a major tourism event.

The partners in this new project were RPM Racing and ASO (the organisers of the Paris Marathon). A new course was designed entirely within the city and passing by the main monuments and avenues and the old town. The start and finish line in Montjuic was the same as for the first marathon held entirely within Barcelona.

The new Barcelona Marathon began with 4636 runners and grew steadily to over 20,000 participants in 2017. During this period the race directors were Bep Solé (2006–2011), Cristian Llorens (2012–2021) and Mauro Llorens (current).
For the 2019 race the marathon course was changed again and subsequently both male and female course records were broken.

The 2020 edition of the race was first postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and later cancelled. The 2021 race was run on 7 November and the 2022 race only six months later on 8 May. In 2023 it is expected that the race will return to the traditional date in mid-March (19 March 2023).

Berlin Marathon

Horst Milde writes: The “40 Years of AIMS” story is the history of the development of the running movement worldwide, but one forgets when you were there from the beginning. It was very fortunate that at that time there were innovative and decisive colleagues who drove the development forward with vision.

Berlin, the city, was traditionally a running powerhouse. At the SCC Berlin (Sport-Club Charlottenburg founded in 1902), there was already a large group of runners in the 1970s who participated in West Berlin. At that time I was chairman of the athletics section of the SCC and developed new running formats like the 1st Berlin cross-country in 1964, a “people’s march” over 20km and a “people’s hike” over 25km. What was new was that people who were not members of the club could pay a fee and participate.

This was the background to the first “Berlin Volks Marathon” held on roads near the Grunewald forest on 13 October 1974 with 286 participants. Anyone could take part – there was no need to belong to a club as had previously been required. New running publications informed the public about marathons held abroad, with huge numbers of participants, that went through the very heart of the city.

Berlin running tourists flew to the New York City Marathon in 1980 optimistically promoting the Berlin Marathon as passing through downtown Berlin (starting from 1981). In March 1981 I sent three “spies” to London to see how Chris Brasher and John Disley had organised the inaugural London Marathon. In 1979 they had themselves been on just such a mission to the New York City Marathon.

The Berlin Marathon team in London delivered a report which allowed us to learn a lot from the London experience. But it took a lot more effort to convince the Berlin police to allow runners to use the streets. I invited Berlin’s Chief of Police to the Stockholm Marathon. Stockholm police colleagues were able to explain everything to him. They told him that everyone wants to be on duty because the marathon brings so much fun and joy for everyone. That same evening in the hotel in Stockholm, the Berlin police chief gave his permission for the Marathon to be run through the centre of Berlin on 27 September 1981. This was the breakthrough we needed. That first city race attracted 3486 participants from 30 nations.

AIMS was founded in 1982, as an association of race organisers, which addressed their main concerns such as accurate timing and measurement of the course.

Fred Lebow, the New York City Marathon race director and mentor to many other races, ran the Berlin Marathon on 25 September 1983. He was in Berlin to attend the 3rd World Congress of AIMS held in connection with the Berlin Marathon under AIMS President Chris Brasher.

Berlin was the largest German marathon and by 1985 could already boast 11,814 participants from 58 nations, and the course records regularly improved. Berlin had arrived among the big races of the world.

On 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell – a global sensation. On 1 January 1990, we organised the Berlin New Year’s Run starting in West Berlin and passing through the Brandenburg Gate, for the first time in almost 30 years, to East Berlin and then back to the West. The race attracted well over 20,000 runners from all over the world and worldwide TV coverage.

The 17th Berlin Marathon on 30 September 1990 – three days before official German reunification – was similarly spectacular. With a cap of 25,000 participants from all over the world, Steve Moneghetti (AUS) triumphed in the fastest time of the year and Uta Pippig gave Germany a home win.

But in 1991 there was a decline in participants: 18,909 registered from 61 nations, and this continued in 1992 until 1997. It was not until the 25th anniversary race on 20 September 1998 that there was a new record number of participants with 27,621 from 71 countries. The anniversary was crowned with Ronaldo da Costa’s world record of 2:06:05

The Berlin Marathon made major changes in 2003. It became a two-day event with all its supporting events, and the Marathon course was altered so that the start and finish were at the Brandenburg Gate with the last 1500m run on the spectacular boulevard Unter den Linden before passing through the Gate.

In 1977 Christa Vahlensieck (GER) had run the first official world’s best time for women in Berlin with 2:34:48 on the occasion of the German Championships within the 4th Berlin Marathon. Berlin’s world record-breaking reputation began from there but started to take off after Ronaldo da Costa’s 1998 win. Tegla Loroupe (KEN) ran 2:20:43 in 1999 while in 2001 Naoko Takahashi (JPN) improved this time to 2:19:46 to become the first woman to run under 2:20.

Two years later, in 2003, Paul Tergat (KEN) was the first man to run under 2:05 with a win in 2:04:55. Haile Gebrselassie (ETH) improved this time to 2:04:26 in 2007 – and one year later to 2:03:59. In 2011 Patrick Makau (KEN) set a new world record of 2:03:38 which lasted until he ran 2:03:23 in the 2013 race. One year later Dennis Kimetto (KEN) undercut the 2:03 mark with 2:02:57. The most recent highlight of Berlin as a world record race was provided by Eliud Kipchoge’s magnificent 2:01:39 on 16 September 2018.

The Berlin Marathon has become a sporting, sporting-political – and also economic power in Germany, which goes far beyond the winning times.

40 years of AIMS should be a time and reason to say thank you to all the men and women who, with their knowledge, skill and commitment, have developed the organisation to this level of importance.

Chicago

The first Chicago Marathon was run on 23 September 1905 but was discontinued during the difficult years of the early 1920s. It was not until Frank Shorter’s triumph in the 1972 Olympic Games Marathon that the American public’s interest returned to the Marathon. It continued with the rivalry between Shorter and Bill Rodgers on the domestic scene. New York City capitalised on the popularity of the Marathon as a spectacle by establishing a city-wide event to celebrate the American Bicentennial in 1976 with the course passing through all five of the city’s Boroughs.

The New York City Marathon grew rapidly in the late 1970s but even before the first race was run in Chicago the Parks’ Superintendent Ed Kelly refused permission for the Marathon to use the parks or the Lake Michigan lakefront. Lee Flaherty, the founder of the Marathon, managed to win the support of Mayor Richard Daley. Mayor Daley died but his successor Michael Bilandic approved the race and managed to win Kelly over. Bilandic was a runner and he and his wife handed out medals when the first edition, called the Mayor Daley Marathon, was run on 25 September 1977. The race had no sponsors and Flaherty had to put up his own money for it to go ahead. Although the race attracted 4200 entries and had 2128 finishers the second edition went ahead again only thanks to the race founder’s deep pockets.

Beatrice Foods became the Marathon’s first sponsor in 1979 but it wasn’t until the 1982 race that there was enough prize money to attract elite runners. That year Greg Meyer set a benchmark course record of 2:10:59.

Chicago was one of the first races to pay appearance money to elite athletes and this quickly generated quality fields in both men’s and women’s divisions. Many of the top finishers in the 1983 World Championships and 1984 Olympic Games went on to compete in “America’s Marathon Chicago” as it was known in the mid-1980s. The 1984 Olympic women’s Marathon winner Joan Benoit described Chicago around this time as “The World’s Marathon”.

In 1984 Beatrice raised the prize money to more than New York offered and a sharp rivalry ensued. In 1985 Steve Jones broke his own course record (which at the time he set it was the world record). He ran just two seconds short of the world record and Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic Champion, set a course record that stood for nearly a generation. At that time Chicago was rated as the most competitive marathon in the United States and perhaps in the world.

In 1986 the race had world-class runners among the 8000 participants but the winning times were significantly slower. Beatrice Foods dropped out as a sponsor in 1987 and only a half-marathon race was held that year. The marathon was moved to the spring of 1988 and attracted Heileman Brewing Company as a new sponsor of what was now called the Old Style Chicago Marathon. This lasted until 1991 after which diminished prize money led to slower winning times. In 1992 the race was again without a title sponsor but in 1994 it became the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon.

This turned out to be a momentous change. Major Events Inc had bought the rights to the race from Lee Flaherty in 1993 but in 1996 LaSalle Bank bought the race from Major Events to effectively bring it ‘in house’. In 2007, after 10 years with a steady sponsorship arrangement, the Bank of America took over LaSalle Bank’s parent company ABN AMRO and the race took the name by which it is still known: the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

Khalid Khannouchi set a world record of 2:05:42 in the 1999 race, and when Catherine Ndereba broke the women’s world record with 2:18:47 in the 2001 Chicago Marathon both men’s and women’s then current world records had been set at Chicago.

The race grew rapidly in the period following its acquisition by LaSalle Bank. The year before (1995) 9000 people registered but by 1999 there were over 29,000 entries. A cap of 37,500 was imposed in 2001 after the 2000 edition attracted 33,171 registrations. From 2003–2006 there was a cap of 40,000 entries which was reached before the entry deadline. When the New York City Marathon was cancelled in 2012 Chicago was the world’s biggest (based on finisher numbers) with 37,437 finishers. Since then it has been among the three or four races in the world with more than 40,000 participants.

Apart from coming under the Bank of America flag the 2007 race was a landmark event for another reason: the excessive heat experienced on race day when temperatures hit 31ºC and the course had to be closed after only three and a half hours. Nearly 11,000 runners failed to finish.

In common with many other races throughout the world the 2020 edition of the race was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. There were over 26,000 finishers in the comeback race in 2021.

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