Memories of the first Great North Run

The first Great North Run in 1981.
The first Great North Run in 1981.

It’s the Great North Run on Sunday, so I asked readers who did the very first event in 1981 to get in touch with their memories of that inaugural run.

Here are their wonderful recollections of that day on June 28.

When she was just a teenager Jacky Burton was diagnosed with severe arthritis, and told that she would soon be confined to a wheelchair.

But battling Jacky was determined not to let the illness rule her life, and three years after that devastating diagnosis, she attempted – and completed – the very first GNR.

“I was told, when I was 19, that due to my severe arthritis, I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was 30,” said 55-year-old Jacky, who lives in Biddick Hall, South Shields.

“But I was determined that I wasn’t getting into a wheelchair, and although I use crutches, I am still not in a wheelchair.

“I was 21 at the time of the first run, and just a fun runner. I had done a couple of short runs for charity and used to jog for fitness, but I’d never ran that far before.

“I wanted to do things to test myself,” added Jacky, who ran with colleagues from Norwich Union’s Newcastle office.

At that time, runners were not charity-sponsored, so Jacky and her workmates decided to collect their own money for the South Shields’ baby unit.

“We went around the pubs in Shields, and the regulars pledged to give us a tenner if we finished the race. I raised £70.”

How was that first race?

“It was chaotic, they re-opened the roads while we were still running. There were buses running behind us.

“They said it themselves, they didn’t expect people like me, a fun runner, to finish, they expected us to give up halfway round.

“But they learned from their mistakes. Even a year afterwards, when my brother did it, it was so much better. It was a learning curve for them.

“I never thought it would become what it is now. It is fantastic now.”

Although Jacky got a medal and certificate for her efforts, she never got a T-shirt.

However, she got something much more precious than that – a real sense of achievement.

“It was an amazing experience. The people were fantastic, that’s what kept us going, it really did.

“There was a woman whose legs had gone, and she could barely walk the rest of the way.

“We thought we couldn’t just leave her there, so we helped her. There was a lot of that.”

After the race, Jacky and her workmates went for a meal at a restaurant in Seaburn and then had a plodge in the sea.

“I felt amazing, I couldn’t believe I had done it,” she says.

“It was such a sense of achievement. We were euphoric, so gung-ho about it.”

l Former Shields Gazette worker, Dennis Stidolph, also ran that first race – and every one since, all 34 of them.

He saw an article about the run on Look North, and persuaded his Gazette colleagues to take up the challenge.

“There were 13 of us,” explained the 69-year-old former compositor.

“A lot of them used to play football, which I did too.

“We all ran for the John Wright rehabilitation centre, in Flagg Court.

“During the second year’s race, I pushed a girl from the centre around the course in a wheelchair.”

What was it like back in 1981?

“It was really atmospheric and nerve-wracking, even though we had trained quite well for it.”

Mr Stidolph, who lives in Bamburgh Court, South Shields, completed the first race in two hours and eight minutes, but has since done it in one hour and 37 minutes.

Although he’s pulled on his running shoes for every race since – qualifying him to join the select group of people who have completed 30 or more Great North Runs – an injury had cast doubt over his ability to take part in this year’s event.

Thankfully, he has shaken it off, and will be there at the start as usual.

“It’s always brilliant, the people along the route deserve a medal for standing there, hour after hour.”

l Also at the starting line for that very first run was Ian Yarrow, who went on to run 32 of them.

“I was a crafts teacher at Whitburn Comprehensive at the time. A colleague, English teacher Joe Flegg (who did 25 GNRs), used to run along Whitburn beach, and I joined him. I said do you fancy trying the GNR and we did.

“ It was hard going, it was the first time I had ran that far, but there were quite a lot of people out watching, even for the first one, and they were very supportive.

“The first one was pretty basic,” said Mr Yarrow, who was featured in the Gazette in 2011 when he was joined on the 13.1-mile route from Newcastle to South Shields by his grand-daughter, Paula Charles, 22.

“ I think it will continue to go from strength to strength.

“I have lots of happy, exhausting memories of the run over the years.”