The Half Marathon for anyone and everyone: an inspirational story of how Phil Gibson, founder of St Albans Half Marathon, brought 1000s of people together under the sport of running.
By Bronwyn Tagg
For those that haven’t met me in the DMs of Instagram and Facebook… Hi! I’m Bronwyn, the social media manager at Active Training World. I was desperate to share this inspirational story that has already touched so many hearts in the running community. Enjoy ☺
Active Training World took over the St Albans Half Marathon event as event organisers… just in time for COVID. Unfortunately, this meant that the 2020 St Albans Half Marathon was postponed until 13th June 2021. I already knew this event was a popular community day, but it wasn’t until I spoke to the race founder, Phil Gibson, I realised how influential this running event was. This year should have been the 40th anniversary of the event, and so I have written this blog to give St Albans Half Marathon the recognition it really deserves as a successful community event!
Like a lot of inspiring stories, the founding of St Albans Half Marathon began with sadness. In 1980, Phil’s mum died of breast cancer. As you can imagine, in 1980, the technology around the detection and treatment of cancer within hospitals was minimal. Phil set out to organise a ‘mini marathon’ to help raise money for cancer scanning technology for the St Albans hospital… and so, it began!
On the 21st of June 1981, 1,300 runners took the start line of this ‘mini marathon’, who each paid a £1 entry fee and who each received a race certificate upon completion. The first male home was local athlete Kirk Dumpleton and first female was a local school teacher called Irene Peatie. What’s even more impressive, is the fact that in just this one year, they raised £27,000! Let me remind you, this is 40 years ago – today that would be worth £104,179.50!! Whilst this would have been a successful point to end here, Phil kept going. For the next 26 years Phil Gibson has organised the St Albans Half Marathon himself. He measured the course, spoke to the council, organised the road closures with the local police, and gained sponsorship from the local newspaper.
Back in the 1980s, entry to this amazing event was via the local newspaper! Today we have event entries made easy with online entry pages and automated confirmation emails – to think that Phil did all that hard work manually, and for so many runners for so many years, is awesome in itself. When runners finished that first year of the event, Alan Woollaston, sitting on the gantry above the finishing line, would speak the numbers of the finishers into a tape recorder. Then, working late into the evening with his son, he would feed them into the computer, generating the results.
From day 1, the event snowballed. Phil remained on the committee (and still is!), often organising, setting up the course, running the St Albans Half Marathon himself, then taking down the course after a quick pint in the local town pub. A family ‘fun run’ was added to the event day, as was a step workout before the race. On the 25th year of the race, the route was altered to run through the town centre, which Phil admits “caused havoc on the hottest day the race has ever taken place on”! Inspired by a local walking group with over 100 walkers, the ‘walking half’ was added to the events program, as was a ‘wheelchair half’.
The St Albans Half Marathon quickly became about celebrating the inclusiveness of all within the local community and raising money for local charities, with most years hosting 7,000 runners. The extent of the community spirit can easily be summarised in a story Phil told me:
“Back in the beginning, the local residents did more than just clap and cheer as runners ran past their door or down their street. They let us hook up hoses to their water supply in order to hydrate the runners after the race, or at water stations – you wouldn’t be allowed to do that now!”
Phil himself ran many of the St Albans Half Marathons, averaging “a time somewhere around the 2 hour mark most years”, although his pb was a solid 1:41 hours. He admitted to me on our virtual chat that he had “always been a runner, but not like a ‘proper’ runner, you know?”. The question made me chuckle. In my eyes, anyone who puts their foot in front of the other a little bit faster than walking makes themselves a runner – but I know what Phil meant. Having hosted races for some seriously fast runners in his time, Phil’s admittance was truly humbling. Despite developing an eye condition that makes running the course somewhat hazardous, Phil still takes part, walking the course with a family member. Throughout our call he was insistent on the fact that I thanked Active Training World from him in this blog. I know, like the rest of the team, St Albans Half Marathon provides a unique and fulfilling opportunity to bring the community together in celebration. After the last year, I truly believe that events like the St Albans Half Marathon are more valuable than ever because, no matter your speed, your distance, your background or your goals, we are united by running in the beautiful city that is St Albans.
The St Albans Half Marathon was, and is, more than just a running race. It’s a tool for community cooperation and for building relationships – something that was taken away from us in 2020 by a global pandemic. Since 1981, the St Albans Half Marathon has generated over £800,000 for more than 80 national and local charities. On that note, we invite you to join the Active Training World team, alongside Phil, on a day of celebrating community, the sport we love, and charities that spend every day helping those around us.
If you would like to enter the St Albans Half Marathon, please enter HERE.
If you would like to support our 2021 St Albans Half Marathon charity, Herts Domestic Abuse Helpline, please visit their website HERE for ways to do so, and more information.
See you there!
Social Media Manager for Active Training World, and inspired runner