The Great South Run is the world's most popular 10-mile run. Although the inaugural run took place in Southampton in 1990, since 1991 it has been held in Portsmouth in Hampshire. Between 1992 and 2014 it was sponsored by Bupa, with Morrisons taking over from 2015. This prestigious mass run is one of the International Association of Athletics Federations' Gold Label races. Although often considered the flattest world-class 10-mile run, it has a reputation for being the windiest.
As well as the main 10-mile race, in recent years children's races1 and the Great South Mini Run, a 5k race, have been held the day before. Over 75% of runners raise money for various charities while running.
Getting to the Run
The Great South Run begins in the region of Portsmouth known as Southsea, though much takes place in Portsmouth itself. Portsmouth is England's only island city, located on Portsea Island. Race organisers strongly recommend that runners and spectators utilise public transport, especially trains, to get to the run. It is advised that runners keep an eye on train operating companies' websites in the period leading up to the run to be aware of any engineering works, cancellations or rail replacement bus services likely to affect getting to the run. Park and ride schemes transporting runners from London, Southampton, Reading and Brighton have operated in the past.
Many runners choose to avoid the rush to the start on Sunday by staying in Portsmouth. With many historic attractions nearby including the dockyards, it is well worth spending time in the area. Attractions include the National Museum of the Royal Navy and Action Stations, plus historic ships such as the Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior. Other places to visit include Southsea Castle, the D-Day museum & Overlord Embroidery, the Royal Marines Museum and Spinnaker Tower. Near Portsmouth are many other visitor attractions, including the Submarine Museum at Gosport, Portchester Castle, and Fort Nelson, home to the Royal Armouries' artillery collection. Portsmouth also boasts the Portsmouth Museum, Aspex Gallery, walking trails, shopping and all that can be expected from a thriving 21st Century city.
There are three train stations located on Portsea Island:
Portsmouth Harbour - the closest station to the start line, located on the Hard, the transport interchange where the Gosport and Ryde Pier Head ferries and bus and coach services meet.
Portsmouth & Southsea - this railway station is about a 20-minute walk from Southsea and is closer to the main shopping area.
Fratton Station - Similarly located about 20 minutes away from Southsea Esplanade.
Many roads are closed off during the day of the race, so it is advised that runners travelling in by car arrive early, as by 9.45am many access roads are closed. There are a number of car parks available, as well as parking on Southsea Common itself, for which there is a charge. A general rule of thumb is that the further from the start/finish that you park, the quicker your journey out of Portsmouth will be after the race. As Portsmouth is an island (except at low tide), leaving by road means using one of only three bridges2 and these may well be gridlocked under such peak pressure. Roads generally reopen by 2pm.
If you wish to cycle to the start, Southsea is easily accessed from National Cycle Route 2 and can also be reached from Gosport via the pedestrian ferry across the harbour from there. It is also possible to catch a pedestrian ferry from Hayling Island to Southsea.
From the Isle of Wight
Portsmouth is accessible from the Isle of Wight by car ferry from Fishbourne, catamaran from Ryde Pier Head, both services provided by WightLink, and Southsea is accessible by hovercraft from Ryde Esplanade. Hovertravel often run extra services for runners.
With the first and last two miles of the course taking place along the Esplanade of Southsea seafront, the Great South Run is famed for its strong headwind. There is an undiluted, undefended sea breeze that strikes runners, pushing against them when they are the most tired. A world record-holding professional runner has said:
[In 2002] I went down on the Friday... and went for a 90-minute run and it was blowing an absolute gale. It was the worst possible conditions you could imagine.
- Sonia O'Sullivan, 2002 and 2003 Women's Race winner, who set the unbroken women's 10-mile World Record at the Great South Run in 2002 at a time of 51 minutes.
Kenyan athlete Florence Kiplagat, the half-marathon world record holder and world cross-country champion, described the course in 2013 with the words:
I was trying to push all the way but I've never run against such a strong wind. I struggled in the last two miles. I didn't seem to be going anywhere.
Fellow Kenyan athlete Emmanuel Bett, male 2013 winner, the same year said:
The course was nice but it was very windy and became tougher for me as the race went on... I tried to push the pace against the wind in the last two miles, but it was very difficult.
On The Day
Race assembly begins at Southsea Common, adjacent to Southsea Castle, the D-Day Museum, Aquarium and Pyramids Centre. The Pyramids Centre is used as the baggage storage area. Only runners are allowed in and out of this area and checks are made to ensure that bags are removed only by the runner with the same name and number that is on the bag's label. Despite this, bags are left unsupervised and it is advisable not to leave valuables unattended.
The race assembly area includes the charity village, where representatives of numerous charities stay in marquees providing literature and goodies for runners raising money for their cause. There are also water distribution areas as well as numerous portaloos. Queues for loos often are longest at the first set of portaloos encountered when walking to the race area as not everyone realises that there are toilets available at other locations on the site. Various forms of fast food can be purchased from vans and there is also a family reunion area, where there are flags labelled A-Z. It is recommended that runners can meet up with family members beneath the flag that matches the initial of the runner's surname.
On the day, runners need not worry about registration, merely assembly. As most of the registration details were taken when runners registered online, on the day all runners have to do is turn up to the right place in plenty of time wearing their run bib and timer chip. Runners are organised into waves, which are indicated by the colour of the race number. The race number must be worn, with emergency contact details completed, and should not be used by anyone else. Assembly begins from 9am and unless the official event magazine sent to runners indicates otherwise, it is advisable to find your wave's assembly area by 10am. At 10.20am, the first Mass Warm Up begins for the first wave of runners, the Orange Wave, with Warm Ups held for each wave of runners in turn. The Mass Warm Ups involve being crammed in a small area, surrounded by thousands of other runners with barely enough room to breathe, and doing warm-up exercises and stretches.
As it is likely to be windy when waiting for the run, many runners wear a disposable layer of clothing to help protect them from the cold, with bin bags being particularly popular. As soon as the race begins this layer is discarded, with old clothes donated to charity. The run is broadcast on Channel 5. Sadly the coverage tends to concentrate only on the actual athletes, all-but ignoring the fun runners.
As well as achieving the satisfaction of completing a 10-mile run, one of the advantages of an event such as the Great South Run is its exciting, vibrant atmosphere. Many runners take part while wearing a wide variety of different costumes. Crowds come out to cheer runners all along the route, from start to finish, with onlookers clapping, cheering and encouraging, standing in the wind for over an hour to wave at complete strangers running by. The spectators make the run interactive even for other spectators, contributing to the festival atmosphere themselves by dressing up, playing music and even giving out food and drink. Children too encourage runners with high-fives.
To ensure that runners enjoy a good atmosphere, the route passes several 'Bands on the Run'. These, named after the Paul McCartney album of the same name, are groups of musicians who at key points along the route play music to encourage and entertain the runners and spectators. Runners are treated along their way to a wide variety of different music styles, from martial to samba, rock and roll to jazz.
The course follows a flat 10-mile route around Portsmouth, and after the start heads northeast along Clarence Esplanade adjacent to the Solent. After passing the Aquarium, the towering Royal Naval Memorial, the hovercraft terminal and Clarence Pier3 it heads slightly inland along Pier Road, turns left into Pembroke Road before heading northwest along the High Street next to the Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury by the 1 Mile Mark.
At the end of the High Street the route turns right along St George's Road towards Gunwharf Quays, the 170-metre-tall Spinnaker Tower and the Hard, the interchange area where Portsmouth Harbour Railway Station, the Isle of Wight and Gosport ferries and various buses and coaches meet. Soon after the route enters Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, running by HMS Warrior and the National Museum of the Royal Navy gallery. The 2-mile marker is opposite HMS Victory and the new Mary Rose museum. The route passes parts of the dockyard not normally open to the public, which form both the northern and westernmost point of the route, before leaving the naval base at Cross Street, heading east along Queen Street and passing the Treadgold Museum and heading South along Anglesea Road adjacent to Victoria Park and the 3-mile mark.
Soon after, the route follows Winston Churchill Avenue, a wide dual carriageway where runners head East for about a third of a mile, go around a roundabout, and then head West on the opposite carriageway for a third of a mile. Halfway along the Avenue marks the first area where bottles of water are distributed. Along a long table are bottles of water, distributed by volunteers handing the bottles out to those running past. From here runners can expect the road surface to be covered in plastic bottle tops that had been pulled off the sports-top bottles and dropped on the floor, bursting like bubblewrap as you run on top of them.
After leaving Winston Churchill Avenue the route heads south along Hampshire Terrace and the junction with Museum Road is the halfway mark. Continuing south along King's Terrace and left (west) into Southsea Terrace the route passes the blue plaques on the wall of the small flat above a Chinese Restaurant next to a zebra crossing where Peter Sellers was born in 1925. The route heads southwest along Clarence Parade next to Southsea Common, passing the distinctive Queen's Hotel. This landmark is another drink distribution point.
By the 6-mile barrier the route for a third of a mile shares South Parade with the last third of a mile of the entire course, separated by a fence. Then the route heads along the north of the Common and the canoe lake, passing the Natural Sciences Museum and Southsea Model Village along Eastern Parade. At the 6½ mile point is a run-through shower, a small tunnel-like structure that sprays a fine mist to cool runners down.
The 7-mile mark marks the final drink distribution point of the run, located just before the route zig-zags along the bend of St George's Road, north into Cromwell Road and finally east along Henderson Road. The 8-mile mark celebrates the route's easternmost point at Eastney, before turning west along the seafront, heading back along the Esplanade for the infamous final straight two-mile stretch against the wind to the finish.
After passing the Royal Marines Museum and Yomper Statue, there is a distribution point where traditionally jelly babies are given to the runners, with the entire road surface in the area often transformed into a layer of trampled jelly babies, running over which is a rather unique and squishy experience.
After the ninth mile, runners pass those who have just passed the 6- Mile mark on the opposite side of the road. When crossing the finish line, runners are asked to keep going to keep the line clear for the runners arriving behind. In the finish area, the timing chip is removed from runners' shoes and each runner is given a bottle of water as well as the finisher's pack, containing the all-important medal and t-shirt. There is also a massage area nearby for finishers wishing to take advantage of a well-earned free sports massage.
Among the runners to have raced the Great South Run in the past are Paula Radcliffe the 2008 winner, and Mo Farah, who won in 2009. The only man to have won more than once to date is Gary Staines of Great Britain, who won in 1993, 1994 and 1996. Female winners who have won more than once include Liulia Negura of Romania (1991 and 1992), Restituta Joseph of Tanzania in 2000 and 2001, Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland in 2002 and 2003 and Jo Pavey of Great Britain in 2006 and 2012. Winners have represented many different nations, including Australia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Kenya, Morocco, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, South Africa, and Tanzania. The most successful nation to participate in the Great South Run is Kenya, with 11 different male and four different female Kenyan runners having won to date.