March 29th 1981: The seven Harlow men who ran the first ever London Marathon

Athletics / Sun 28th Mar 2021 at 12:28pm

THE FIRST ever London Marathon was held on Sunday March 29th, 1981.

On that day, just over 8,000 runners took part. It has now become one of the most famous sporting events in the world.

Since 1981, thousands of Harlow residents have run the 26 miles and 385 yards but back on March 29th, 1981, just seven Harlow residents, from a St Mark’s teenager to a veteran 5000 metre champion took part.

YH has interviewed the seven runners who took part that day.

We hope you will agree that each came away with a different experience from the day but the runners, who are aged between 59 and 85 are still very proud to have been part of history.

Each interview covers why they got into running, the race itself and their running careers afterwards.

Robin Campbell, aged 85 Time: 2hrs 35 mins

Old Harlow runner, Robin was and remains a class athlete. He came third in the Olympic trials for marathon in 1964. His appetite for running remains as intense today as it did after he began in the 1940’s.

He still runs every morning and he stresses “every morning”. Robin and his wife Ruby have visited hundreds of park runs around the country.

It was an honour to interview him.

Peter Mills, aged 72: Time: 2 hrs 48 mins

Peter Mills is somebody you could interview all day. He has a wonderful way with words which is no surprise as he is an outstanding script writer (Midsomer Murders, Coronation Street and Doctors to name just a few).

But here we discussed why he ran the London Marathon.

Peter is still a member of the Harlow Running Club and implores people, who have taken up or are thinking of taking up running over the past year, to give them a go.

Roy Steven, aged 69: 2 hrs 43.28

We specifically interviewed Roy on what has become known on the Harlow parkrun course as Roy’s Hill.

Anyone who has run the Harlow parkrun, will recognise him as the marshall who is so full of encouragement as they run up the horrible hill after the Howard Way underpass.

They may not know, what a class athlete the former Shaftsbury Harrier was but I am sure they will appreciate what a gentlemen and ambassador for running he is.

Dave Horton: aged 63, 2hrs 32 mins

WE interviewed former Harlow AC star, Dave Horton over the phone. Dave produced the fastest time on the day of 2hrs 32 mins.

The former Netteswell student was your classic. hardworking athlete who earned every medal and personal best through graft.

Anyone who ran with Dave alway had great admiration for his ability and his dedication.

Dave said: “I had run the Harlow Marathon in 1980 but dropped out at the 19 mile mark. I learned a lot that day and felt well prepared for the first London.

I was pleased with my time and my performance. I do remember coming down the home section past Buckingham Palace and hearing cheering. I soon realised it wasn’t for me but the first woman home, Joyce Smith, who was about to break the British record.

A year later, I went on to run 2hrs 20 mins at the Harlow Marathon.

Yes, I trained hard and ran up to 100 miles a week. I ran a 30 mile race at South London Harriers.

“I was part of a great set up at Harlow Athletics Club, who had great middle and long distance groups and great coaches such as Cecil Smith and Nat Fisher.

“I am pleased my children got into running and am pleased to see that so many people, whether through the London Marathon or through the lockdown have got into it”.

Graham Ellis BEM, aged 71. 3hrs 32 mins

Old Harlow resident may not have led the race but he led the way in fund-raising. There were very few people running the first ever London Marathon for charity but Graham did. He raised over £300 for the baby unit at Princess Alexandra Hospital.

And he hasn’t stopped since. For over 40 years, he has been raising money for a host of charities from Alzheimers to the British Heart Foundation. This year, he is running for the Dogs Trust.

In recognition of his achievements, he was award the British Empire Medal (BEM). And not a bad time in 1981 for a man in a pair of squash shoes!

Mike Varney, aged 77. 3hrs 10 mins

MANY people will know Mike Varney though his Physiotherapy Clinic in the Harlow Leisurezone. Others will remember him as the Spurs physio between 1975 and 1986. When Mike broached the subject of the first London Marathon on the team bus in September 1980, there was a deafening silence. Then the players teased Mike that he would never finish it. Challenge accepted but on the proviso that they would sponsor him!

We spoke to Mike about the day. We spoke about his pre-marathon physio clinics he runs in conjunction with Harlow Running Club and we also spoke about those Spurs days and linked Ricky Villa’s FA Cup final performances with the London Marathon credo of never giving up!

Michael Casey, Aged 59: 3hrs 46.11

IN August 1980, teenager Michael had failed his A Levels. He dreamed of going to university but at that point it was a dream shattered. He sat at home, and decided to retake them. The former Harlow AC middle distance runner then read an article about the first ever London Marathon.

Could March 1981 be a double whammy? Get to university and run a marathon?

Forty years later, he is still out there at the back but sort of hang on in………

AS we said, there are a lot of opportunities to get into running in Harlow. You may just like jogging on your own but if you wish to join a club there is:

Harlow Running Club

Harlow parkrun

Hopes to resume on Saturday June 5th. A lovely 5k run around the Town Park.



We cannot recommend their track sessions at Mark Hall Sports Centre enough.

Coaches Adrian Fell and Sharon Wright are really bringing on runners of all abilities.


Harlow Athletics Club

Established in the early sixties, the club has nurtured Olympians such as Andrew Osagie (2012), Wendy Jeal (1988) and Commonwealth Games medallist Sue Mapstone (1978)

If we have missed anyone out, then please let us know at [email protected]

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