Chichester Half Marathon has become a big success... again

Graham Jessop concludes our mini-series on the history and success of Chichester's biggest annual athletics events by looking at how the Chichester Half Marathon began, then disappeared - and has now come back to great acclaim.

The programme from the first half marathon, in 1987
The programme from the first half marathon, in 1987

It is more than 33 years ago that planning started for the first Chichester Half Marathon to mark the centenary of the Chichester Observer in 1987.

I had always wanted to organise a road race on behalf of Chichester Round Table, Observer editor Graham Brooks wanted an event to commemorate the centenary of the paper and Phil Baker wanted to put the relatively new Chichester Runners club on the map.

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The three of us got together one evening – and, as they say ,“the rest is history.”

James Baker, centre, after winning an eighth straight Chi half marathon in 2019 / Picture: Derek Martin

The half marathon became bigger and better over its first three years but in the end it was probably too successful for the team to cope with – and for 22 years, sadly, there was no half marathon In Chichester.

I had always wanted to see the half marathon revived so when the chance came to join the new team who were planning the new Chichester Half Marathon, revived in 2012 thanks to the efforts of Chichester District Council and locally basec charity Children On The Edge, I had no hesitation in agreeing.

So how does the original half marathon compare to today’s event?

In 1987 there was very little guidance on how to organise a road race so we started from scratch – hours individually and collectively working out strategies, getting the route approved, attracting the runners and working up the detailed logistics for race day.

June Whitfield presents a prize to the first Chichester man home in 1989, Paul Fround, watched by Graham Jessop

Everything had to be done manually, including recording data and taking cheques to the bank. Today there is so much more paperwork – licences, health and safety, risk assessments, governing body guidance, road closure orders, not to mention the use of modern technology in both the managerial and operational aspects of the sport.

The size of the field of runners has changed - there were 1,400 in 1987 compared to 500 in 2012, the first year of the multi-terrain event, although we are increasing our numbers each year and more than 1,000 runners were involved in the 2019 event.

The route in 1987 went out to the north and west of the city through West Stoke and Funtington – solely on roads. Now the route goes up towards Goodwood with the long climb to the top of the Trundle offering a very unique feature for a race. The return is via the Centurion Way which was not in existence then.

Terrain-wise, the first four half marathons were relatively flat and fast and solely on road, where as the current one is a good mixture of road, paths, cycle tracks and cross country

The winners of the first four road races were Michael Derrane (Royal Navy AC 1.10.15), Neil Popplewell (Havant AC 1.07.59), Jerry Barton (Blackheath and Bromley AC) and Mark Harris (Portsmouth AC). Harris holds the course record for the road event in 1hr 6min 37sec but for the multi-terrain course the record is 1.12.

The winning women in those early road races were Christine Andrews (Arena 80 AC 1.24.45), Julie Ince (Brighton and Hove AC 1.20.59), Debbie Noy (Havant AC) and Caroline Horne (Crawley AC 1.16.49).

The course record for the road event for women is held by Noy in 1.14.38, somewhat quicker when compared to the multi-terrain record of 1.28.

The original race was solely a half marathon, although latterly a children’s fun run was included. Over the past eight years the half marathon day has evolved into a “festival of running” and now has a ten-miler as well as a three-person relay within it.

The most surprising statistic, probably, is the percentage of women entrants. In 1987 they made up 12 per cent out of nearly 1,400, in 2012 it was 39 per cent out of 500 runners and in 2019 it was 44 per cent.

The multi-terrain race winner in 2019, for an incredible eighth year running, was popular Chichester Runners member James Baker in a time of 1.15.28.

After the race he told the Observer: “I’m proud to have won all eight races since the half marathon was revived ... my aim is to carry on and take ten titles.” No female has won the event twice.

Sue and Dave Barty of Chichester Runners have the distinction of appearing ‘then and now’ - in the original and the revived half marathons, and have enjoyed the challenge of at least all seven of the ‘new’ races. They said: “Very well done to all those involved in organising and putting on this event and raising substantial funds for such a worthwhile charity”.

David Worcester, also of Chichester Runners, is probably the most successful athlete after James Baker to have featured in at least eight events and in three of the road races.

Chichester Runners have won the male team prize in all of the multi-terrain half marathon events but did so in only one of the four road-based events.

All four half marathon road races between 1987 and 1990 were organised primarily by members of Chichester Round Table with the support of staff at the Chichester Observer (the main sponsors) and members of Chichester Runners.

The multi-terrain event is now with its third management team.

The race was revived eight years ago by Children on the Edge and Chichester District Council. When the council outsourced some of its leisure services the management of the event was taken over by Everyone Active.

Now COTE have relinquished their involvement in the event and for 2020 it is being managed solely by Everyone Active.

Ben Polhill, from the council and more recently Everyone Active, and I have been ever-present members of the management team. In the early days following the event’s revival, Emily Dadson of COTE played a major part in project managing the event; subsequently she was joined by Amy Chamberlain and Jamie Fellows from the council.

In the first four half marathons only runners participated but in the multi-terrain event there has been a good contingent of Nordic walkers – more than 100 in one year.

The multi-terrain event has had the same sponsors for the first eight years - the main sponsors being Montezuma’s Chocolates and Store Property, who, along with other local businesses including Covers, have contributed most generously to the race.

Probably what has not changed is the fantastic support provided by spectators all along the route. The sponsors were also very evident along the route and among the competitors.

Both courses have received numerous compliments on the standard of organisation and the choice of most interesting routes – some of the best on the south coast.

At the time of writing planning is still under way for the ninth multi-terrain event on October 4, 2020, although in what form it goes ahead will very much depend on advice and regulations from the government and UK Athletics.