Hugh Brasher - Event Director of London Marathon Events
This edition of Timekeepers reveals an insider view of the running (and running) of the London Marathon – with Hugh Brasher, Event Director of the race since 2013. An admirable athlete with an equally impressive internal clock, Hugh waxes lyrical about the ins and outs of orchestrating a big city marathon. As the Official Timing Partner of the London Marathon since 2016, TAG Heuer is proud to bring you this exclusive and timely conversation.
You’ve worked on every London Marathon since the very first in 1981 – with the exception of one… now that’s a long-term relationship! Tell us how the marathon has grown and changed over time.
It’s grown enormously – from 6,300 finishers in 1981 to 100,000 registered runners this year, including participants in the physical and virtual events. It’s the world’s most popular marathon.
When it started in 1981, 96 % of the runners were male. The speed they were running was, on average, considerably quicker than it is now. Now, it’s a sea of everyday humanity, taking up an incredible challenge, doing it for their own reasons. And it’s one of the most life-affirming things that people will ever do in their lives, because you have three quarters of a million people cheering you every step of the way. If you put your name on your t-shirt, you’ll be running on a wave of positivity with everyone cheering every step.
Vivian Cheruiyot KEN and Mary Keitany KEN lead in the Elite Women’s Race through Greenwich. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 28 April 2019.
Runners pass through Canary Wharf. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 28 April 2019.
Can you speak more to wanting the London Marathon to “to be a beacon of positivity”? And why do you feel this is an important philosophy today?
It is a sea of emotion, a sea of positivity. The number of people that burst into tears on the finish line, or when they see their friends and family on the route is huge. Especially now, in a world where we’re apart, I think the connections that people make, the community feeling that there is, it’s a very, very special feeling. And that’s what mass-participation marathon running has become. That’s a huge change from where it was in 1981.
Runners at the end of their race on The Mall. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 28 April 2019.
You call the London Marathon, “the world’s greatest marathon”; what makes it special?
We’re one of six Abbott World Marathon Major races, and they’re all great and different in their own way. What London has is a course designed by John Disley, who co-founded the event with my father, which hasn’t fundamentally changed since day one, in a city that has changed quite a lot.
Britain really comes out and supports this event. We love events! [The marathon] is what I would call Britain’s biggest street party, with fifty thousand people who just happen to be running 26.2 miles while that street party is going on.
You also have the most incredible elite athletes. And it has been said that it is harder to win the London Marathon than it is the Olympics.
A general view of the runners as they pass The London Eye in the Virgin Money London Marathon, 22 April 2018.
Let’s talk about that one year exception in 2005: is it true you were riding your motorbike from London to Cape Town? What a journey! What made you decide to make that particular ride?
I took a motorbike trip in 2003 going around the world in 60 days. I thought it would be a fantastic way to see the world. Time has always been of the essence, I was always busy at work and so [in 2005] I had a certain window of time, and along with nine friends, we headed to Cape Town. It was a magical experience. I love motorbikes – it’s an amazing way of seeing the world, even if you’re doing it incredibly quickly.
And you’re a champion motorbike rider, correct?
Yes, I do endurance racing and have won several championships. It’s a team event and I have very, very good teammates. That’s what you need in life: to surround yourself with great people. I am by far the worst of the riders on the team. It’s an incredible sport. You’ve got to be consistent, almost metronomic. It’s lovely to be able to think of nothing else other than the breaking points, the turning points, the apex where you’re exiting … and nothing else is getting in the way.
Let’s rewind a bit: Your father, who was pacer for the legendary Sir Roger Bannister for the first sub-4-minute mile, was one of the London Marathon’s original co-founders. So obviously, running runs in the family. Tell us about that. When did you first start running?
You haven’t mentioned that my mother was a French tennis open champion! My father was an Olympic gold medallist, and as you say, he was pacer for Sir Roger Bannister in Iffley Road when he broke the 4-minute mile. Sport absolutely has been an intrinsic part of my upbringing. I was actually a tennis player first – I didn’t start running until I was 18. It was instilled in me at an early age to be the best that you can be, which is all about surrounding yourself with great coaches and great people. They taught me that you can’t control if someone is better than you. But what you can control is how good you are. So whether it’s nutrition, sports physio, your coach, surround yourself with great people. Do that in work, do that in sport and you will be rewarded.
So what’s your overall sports or training regime like?
It’s quite relaxed now. I stay fit through cycling and running. The physical and mental health benefits of exercise are becoming more and more known. The London Marathon 2017 became the mental health marathon; the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry really came together with a campaign called Heads Together. The marathon was the final event on that journey. It really started getting society talking about the importance of mental health.
HRH The Duke of Sussex, Prince Henry of Wales, HRH The Duchess of Cambridge and HRH Prince Henry of Wales hand out water to runners at a Buxton water stand at Mile 22. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 23rd April 2017.
How do you perceive time when you’re cycling or running? What happens in your mind?
I’ve got a pretty good perception of time. When I was training, I used to run 70 miles a week as a runner. We used to do track sessions and I was known for being able to set the pace.
However, when I’m concentrating incredibly hard in sport, I can block everything out. And that’s when time actually disappears. When I was playing competitive tennis, if in the middle of the match I could hear an aeroplane going overhead, I knew that my brain was not in the right place. But there are times where time totally disappears, it’s just you in the moment. A moment can be a second or two hours. When running marathons, it’s about trying to lose yourself. Allowing your mind to wander. If you keep focussing on that time, it can get really tough.
Let’s get back to the nuts and bolts of planning the London Marathon. What are the challenges and logistics like for holding a city-wide marathon in one of the world’s most bustling capitals? Especially during and after a pandemic year…
People seem to think that these things just happen very quickly, but we’re thinking and planning years ahead. There is an incredible team of people working on the London Marathon who get into an unbelievable level of detail to make the experience truly phenomenal.
And that’s in a normal year, not dealing with a pandemic. We have entered very uncertain times. We’re really looking forward to October and there are lots of different scenarios we have planned, which we’ve been testing. You have to plan, test and then execute. These events only happen once a year, which means you’ve got one opportunity to get it right.
A View of Tower Bridge as runners cross it. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 28 April 2019.
Tell us about the Virtual London Marathon concept that you launched in 2020. What was the overall vision behind it and what results did you see?
We launched it last year with eight weeks notice, and it was incredible. We set a Guinness world record for the number of people who finished, which was 37,966. This year we have 50,000 people looking to do it along with 50,000 people running from Greenwich to Westminster.
It really makes the marathon even more inclusive. Normally when you’re in a city, you’ve got real pressure on you to reopen the streets and to clean up afterwards. And by people being able to run wherever they are, roads aren’t being shut. So it can encourage people who may need more time to run and inspire more people to get active. That is our fundamental vision, to inspire activity. That’s what we want to do for all ages, all demographics, all abilities. It’s what drives us and it’s what we’re passionate about.
You’ve touched upon the time it takes to run a marathon, and of course, in a race, time and timekeeping are essential. Tell us about how you plan for and manage that at such a large scale for the big race.
Probably 85 to 90% of people have a certain time they’re aiming for, so being accurate on that is important. It’s fundamental to the event. And in the elite events, the clock on the lead vehicle is vital: it has the time for their last mile, their predicted time, their elapsed time, etc. To mitigate any issues, we put in major infrastructure at the timing points, be it hardwired or using 5G or 4G networks. The technology that we use ensures timing accuracy and that everyone understands it. Time and marathon running go hand-in-hand and it’s something that people don’t necessarily see, but it’s a really complicated and essential part of what we do.
Mary Keitany KEN during the presentation for the Elite Women's Race. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 23rd April 2017.
That makes perfect sense. And when it comes to your own personal training regime or day-to-day life, do you have any tools, devices or programs you rely on for your own timekeeping or time management needs?
Like an awful lot of people these days, I use an app* which times distances and has a community element. Challenge and competition are what I’ve grown up with, they’re part of my everyday life. Philosophically, and for mental health, I think it’s important to set goals, but also to be flexible.
[*Editor’s note: Used along with a Connected Watch, this can be an excellent solution for tracking your times and setting your own records.]
What are you most looking forward to in regards to this year’s marathon, which is being considered the largest London Marathon on record?
I’m excited about us being together, about the community being together in a world where we’ve been separated. I think it will be incredible and will make it probably the most moving London Marathon there’s ever been. So just delivering that for people is what we’re passionate about doing on the 3rd of October this year.
The Elite Women’s Race leaves the start line on Blackheath. The Virgin Money London Marathon, 28 April 2019.
What are some of the most moving or memorable marathon moments for you?
There are so many different ones. For me personally, it probably has to be 2003. Sadly, my father passed away six weeks beforehand and I felt that I needed to run the marathon. On the start line, there was applause for 30 seconds. A great Welsh athlete was there called Steve Jones, and I ran the first 10K with him. On that day, Paula Radcliffe smashed the world record, which had stood for 19 years, and that really changed women’s running in the UK, practically overnight.
Those two factors personally made it an event that I will never forget, but there are so many. It’s always an event where humanity has shown us its best.
Thank you for sharing that. And finally, what advice do you have for first-time marathoners?
Relax, smile. Don’t worry about those first two or three miles, don’t worry that it’s crowded, that you’re going slowly, that you might be behind your time, just enjoy it. Go slowly at the start and it will be better at the finish. I absolutely promise. Put your name on your t-shirt. Don’t do anything new for the first time, like change your breakfast or your running shoes. Do it with a smile – and it will be incredible.
TAG Heuer has been the Official Timing Partner of the London Marathon since 2016.
If you’re looking for ways to train for or keep time during the London Marathon (or other sporting events), the TAG Heuer Connected Watch will help you set and beat your own records!