‘2020 was a damp squib’: Great North Run veterans hail its return

Ron Snaith felt like part of his life was missing last year. Now retired after four decades as a shipbuilder and joiner in the north-east of England, he would normally spend his summer evenings kitted up and training hard. “When the Great North Run sign goes up on the Tyne Bridge, that means it’s only a week or two away,” says Snaith, 66. “It sends a shiver down your spine.”

To the disappointment of about 55,000 runners, the sign for the event did not go up in 2020. “It was a bit of a damp squib,” says Snaith, referring not just to the run itself but the absence of group training sessions and the annual socials that also fell victim to Covid.

Snaith has completed every Great North Run, now the largest half-marathon in the world, every year since the event was established in 1981. Having grown up in Jarrow, Snaith started working at the Clelands shipbuilding yard in Wallsend as an apprentice joiner when he was 17. “In those days, there were a few other heavy industries around but from North Shields right up to Gateshead, it was just littered with shipyards on both sides of the Tyne.”

Snaith recalls first hearing of the event from a fellow young joiner, Bob Hepburn, and the two have completed the run together ever since. “Me and Ron and a few others in the yard were quite young and sporty so a half-marathon sounded like something we could do for a laugh,” says Hepburn.

That first year there were 12,000 runners – “a bit of a shock to the system” says Hepburn. “The only sizeable crowd you’d ever see in those days was at St James’ Park. To see so many people in one group all running was just unbelievable and that excitement’s never left us.”

After a year away, the run returns on Sunday, albeit with a redesigned course to ensure a degree of social distancing among the crowd. “We’ve had to make some changes but we hope it will be as exciting as ever,” says Sir Brendan Foster, the founder of the Great North Run and an Olympic bronze medallist in the 10,000m in 1976.

“The Great North Run is about bringing people together, the pandemic is about keeping people apart. Last year’s virtual [event] was a nice idea but it was a pale imitation of the real thing.”

Neither Snaith nor Hepburn can contain their excitement at the thought of being back at the start line after last year’s hiatus. But Snaith’s return is especially poignant. He was given six to nine months to live in December 2018, having been diagnosed with mesothelioma – a form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure: “I thought the virtual one could be my last.” But after a successful operation, he is confident of getting a few more in.

Snaith believes the condition dates back to his youth on the shipyard, where he eagerly volunteered for extra shifts and odd jobs that included cutting asbestos. He faces bouts of chest pain and severe breathing difficulties, but he says his lifelong commitment to fitness has held him in good stead – he completed the run in 2019 just a week after finishing a round of chemotherapy. “I’m quite strong willed. Two years ago, I managed to get round the first three miles but then my brother had to push me the rest of the way down to South Shields.”

The wheelchair will be there again on standby this year but this time it is Hepburn who has accepted the responsibility of getting his old friend over the line. “We’ve always had this pact where if one of us had a broken foot, or something, the other will push the wheelchair … I’ll make sure Ronnie makes it,” he says.

After a year off, the pair are hoping for a sizeable crowd. Hepburn has a bad knee and is no longer able to train as often as before, but he says the atmosphere is a huge spur for struggling runners. “I know people who haven’t trained or who are completely exhausted who have been dragged to the finish by the crowd egging them on.”

“Plus you get lots of freebies on the way down,” says Snaith. “People are giving you jelly babies and beer!”

To date, the Great North Run has raised an estimated £1.3bn for good causes through runner fundraising and this year Snaith is running on behalf of the mesothelioma charities Readley and Meso UK. He and Hepburn have run for a string of different causes over the years however, including the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in honour of Snaith’s partially sighted father.

“Every year you see people running on behalf of loved ones and I’d like to think one of my family members would do the same for me,” says Hepburn. “I vowed to do as many great runs as possible and I thought: why can’t one of my sons carry my ashes … The last step I want to take is across the finish line at the Great North Run.”