The Story Of The Man Who Founded The London Marathon

By Londonist Last edited 98 months ago
The Story Of The Man Who Founded The London Marathon

At some point during this year’s London Marathon, the organisers will celebrate the race’s one millionth finisher. There is a chance that at some point on that runner’s 26-mile, 365-yard journey from Greenwich to the Mall, they and their 36,000 other competitors will look down at the road and notice the dash of blue paint to mark the route. When they do so, they should remember the quiet, modest man who set them on their course.

John Disley, an Olympic bronze medallist and educationalist, was the co-founder of the London Marathon which was first staged in March 1981 despite a multitude of bureaucratic and official barriers and which immediately captured the public’s imagination to grow into the world-leading event it is today. It was Disley who provided the nuts and bolts organisation alongside the promotional bluster of his friend and business partner, the journalist and broadcaster Chris Brasher, which managed to get the event to its own starting line.

John Ivor Disley CBE died in a London hospital on 8 February, after a short illness. He was 87, having been born in November 1928 in the North Wales village of Corris, Gwynedd, a part of the country with which he retained an abiding affection and which was to play an important part in his career.

After attending Oswestry High School, Disley went to Loughborough College just after the end of the second world war, where he trained to become a teacher and was able to hone his talent for running, coached by Geoffrey Dyson, who would be the national athletics team coach at three Olympics and who established a much-admired national coaching system.

While Disley’s athletics contemporaries such as Brasher, Chris Chataway and Roger Bannister focused on chasing the four-minute mile, Dyson got the young Welshman to focus on one of track’s 'Cinderella' events, the 3,000 metres steeplechase.

Not as quick on the flat, perhaps, as his better-known British teammates, Disley had formidable strength and stamina — he would break the record for traversing all of the 3,000-foot peaks in Wales — and at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, while his more famous teammates suffered various disappointments, Disley won a medal, the bronze, as the American, Horace Ashenfelter, ran a world record 8min 45.4sec. Disley, in third with 8:51.8, set one of his five British records at the event.

On the same afternoon another of Dyson’s athletes, Sylvia Cheeseman, was part of the British women’s 4 x 100m relay team which also took bronze medals. Cheeseman’s bronze would be part of a matching set, as she and Disley would marry.

Disley also set Welsh records at six distances and broke the British record at two miles on four occasions. His fastest steeplechase came in September 1955, when he ran 8:44.2 in Moscow to set the world record.

Disley sketched out a course suitable for a much bigger field, and using the River Thames as a “handrail” from start to finish.

He was beginning to focus more on his professional career, as his passion for hill walking and mountaineering saw him appointed as the first chief instructor at the Central Council of Physical Recreation's outdoor pursuits centre at Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia, where Lord Hunt’s team had trained for their Everest expedition.

When seeking other pursuits to add to the centre’s repertoire, Disley investigated “cunning running” by competing at the European orienteering championships in Sweden. Disley wrote books on the subject, and working together with Brasher they founded the British Orienteering Federation in 1967. They even set up a company to import specialist compasses and equipment from Scandinavia. By 1976, Disley and Brasher managed to bring the world championships to Britain.

Disley and Brasher was a working partnership which would flourish, as they also acquired the British distribution rights for brands of sportswear which used a new fabric, Gore-Tex, and American running shoes, at around the time that the United States was encountering its first running boom. They just needed to help create the demand in the UK.

In October 1979, Disley accompanied Brasher to New York to see the mass marathon which had been run through the five boroughs for nearly a decade. Brasher, a former sports editor of The Observer and presenter of Man Alive on BBC2, wrote a challenge in his newspaper column: “I wonder whether London could stage such a festival?” They already had a plan, based in part on an international women’s marathon planned around the City and Battersea Park for 1980. Disley sketched out a course suitable for a much bigger field, and using the River Thames as a “handrail” from start to finish, past many of the city’s great landmarks.

Presenting the inaugural John Disley Lifetime Achievement Award to Paula Radcliffe in 2015

Disley’s organisational skills and attention to detail would be vital, especially when dealing with the sceptics among the Metropolitan Police, the Greater London Council and the blazered officials within his own sport. Disley’s research took him to Milton Keynes, for Britain’s trial race for the 1980 Olympic marathon. “There were more cows watching the race than people,” he would recall in his slightly lisping, soto voce. “There were a few wizened men — well, they looked old to me — in shorts and vests and that was it. It was pathetic. They were no competition for us.”

To get the all-clear, Donald Trelford, Brasher’s editor, held a boozy lunch at his newspaper offices for Sir Horace Cutler, the then Tory leader of the GLC, and others. “That Observer lunch was the turning point,” Disley said. Within just two weeks of getting Cutler’s backing, Disley had produced a plan to the police who approved a route that thread its way from Greenwich Park to Tower Bridge, and then out to the then undeveloped and unloved Isle of Dogs, before turning back past the Tower of London and heading for the Mall. It remains the basis of the course to this day.

Symbolic of the London Marathon’s ethos was the hand-in-hand finish of that first race, as Inge Simonsen and Dick Beardsley opted for a dead-heat rather than a sprint for the line.

But 35 years ago, there was no agreed method for measuring road race courses accurately. Using a surveyor’s wheel and specially adapted bicycles, Disley virtually invented the craft of course measurement single-handedly over the next few years, so that for the first time in more than a century of organised athletics, the fastest times for marathons and other road races could be given true status as “world records”.

And overnight on the eve of the London Marathon for its first decade, while the runners were loading up on carbs at their pasta parties, Disley and a small team would head off up the course, daubing broken lines of blue paint to mark the route, taking care to use a special formula which would allow the paint to be removed later on the Sunday afternoon.

Disley, usually seen with his half-moon spectacles parked on the bridge of his nose and wearing one of his branded all-weather running suits, was the calm, quiet voice at the London Marathon’s early office in a lodge in Richmond Park – conveniently close to Brasher’s own home. At first still working as a schools inspector, Disley visited Zetters, the football pools firm in Liverpool, to get their help with the thousands of entries, and he recruited volunteers from athletics clubs and schools to help with the drinks stations along the course.

Symbolic of the London Marathon’s ethos was the hand-in-hand finish of that first race, as Inge Simonsen and Dick Beardsley opted for a dead-heat rather than a sprint for the line. “In this race, they all win, and every runner is regarded as important,” Disley said.

Disley stayed part of the London Marathon organisation throughout the rest of his life, last April accompanied by Prince Harry to present a special trophy to Paula Radcliffe. Disley made no secret that the London Marathon, and the thousands of runners who take part in it and the millions of pounds that it raises for charity, are his proudest achievements.

“There is only one London Marathon but there are hundreds of medals won at the Olympic Games,” Disley said, in typically modest, and measured, manner.

“The London Marathon has become an institution in a country where it usually takes centuries rather than decades to become a tradition… The police and the politicians can’t stop it now and that’s because of these magnificent masses.”

Last Updated 09 February 2016

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