Over-50s make up a quarter of the Great North Run – here’s why they love it

The Great North Run attracts older runners in their droves – including a 102-year-old veteran, and a 71-year-old with Parkinsons.

Every year, tens of thousands run the Great North Runand every year the half-marathon from Newcastle Town Moor to the coast at South Shields is packed with older runners. 

At this year’s race, which takes place today (Sunday September 10), around one quarter of the 60,000 participants will be aged 50 and over – so age is certainly no barrier for this halfmarathon. 

Indeed, this year will see a 102-year-old former RAF veteran, Bill Cooksey, taking part. “I hope it will encourage other people to try the same thing,” he told the BBC. “Very often you get to the same age and say, ‘That’s it, I’m not supposed to be able to do this’, but I just carried on as normal and I shall continue to do so until I am forced to stop.” 

So what makes the annual running event so attractive to older people?

Runners on the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle taking part in the Great North RunCredit: Shutterstock / RedCap

Why people love the Great North Run

The brainchild of Olympic 10,000metre bronze medallist Brendan Foster, the first Great North Run took place in 1981. Foster had run in the Round the Bays race in New Zealand and wanted to create a similar fun run in his home city of Newcastle.

Fast winning times have always been a focus, but anyone who’s run it will tell you that taking part is about so much more – including raising money for charity and, above all, enjoying a community spirit where everybody feels part of the day.

Fun for all the family

The Great North Run is an event for the whole family. Whilst the over-50s who make up a quarter of the main race do their thing on Sunday, their children or  grandchildren can get involved in the kids’ races the day before.

There’s mini (ages three to eight) and junior (ages nine to 16) races​ on the Saturday, at 1.5km and 2.5km respectively, and a junior Great North Run over 4km.

What’s more, at the finish of the 13.1mile (21.1km) main race there’s a huge charity village packed with everything you need to re-energise for the trip home. 

The atmosphere is electric

Standing on the start line of the Great North Run could be compared to playing in the FA Cup final or taking part in the Olympics. It’s such a spine-tingling experience

Once things get going, the race continues to deliver. The Red Arrows greet runners as they cross the Tyne Bridge, while along the route there are six activation zones”, which play upbeat tunes to keep runners motivated and moving. 

The crowd is always as warm, welcoming and enthusiastic as you’d expect from an event held in the North East, too.

The course is fantastic

A lot of the half-marathon distance is downhill, especially the first four miles – music to the ears of anyone who hates hills.

The route will take you across the Tyne Bridge and past the iconic Gateshead International Stadium, three-time host of the European Athletics Team Championships. Even the dull-sounding Fell Bypass is inspirational, given the huge crowds that cheer you on every step of the way.

And what’s not to like about finishing by the coast, with the sea shimmering on your right for the final mile? 

Running the Great North Run with Parkinson’s – Paul’s story

I’m 71 and live above Ullswater in the Lake District. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in July 2022, and the consultant said that in addition to medication, the best treatment for the condition was exercise, exercise, exercise.   

“In October 2022, we were staying in Whitley Bay with my stepdaughter and family when her husband suggested that I enter the ballot for the Great North Run for 2023. Her runs it every year and was very encouraging. I used to run half marathons but hadn’t done any running for 15 years.  

“I entered the ballot and was offered a place. I started training and slowly began to run longer distances. The longest I have achieved to date is eight and a half miles, but I am hopeful that I will make the finish line on the day! I’ve had to learn again that the first 20 minutes of every outing is hard work – but it gets easier once you have warmed up. 

“And as for the Parkinson’s? I currently feel significantly better than I did before the diagnosis and the start of treatment, of whichtraining for the Great North Run has been a major part.”  

Good news for older runners

Science is on your side as an older runner. Research confirms that if you’re over 50 you’ll improve more quickly than younger athletes. If you’re new to running, Couch to 5k can be a good place to start. Or, if you’ve already conquered the distance, we show you how to progress from 5k to 10k.

How do I enter the Great North Run 2024?

If you’ve been inspired by the over-50s running this year’s race, here’s how to apply for a place in next year’s Great North Run.

Places are allocated each year via a ballot system. The general ballot usually opens each year in early January, with the deadline closing a few weeks later, in February.   

You must register, fill out an online application and submit it before the allocated deadline in February if you wish to take part. You will then be notified whether your application has been successful by the end of February.

A running shoe recommendation

Whether you’re gearing up to run a half-marathon like the Great North Run or you’re just getting started with running, a good pair of running shoes is essential. Our top choice is the On Cloudsurfer, a great road running shoe that feels soft and responsive from the very first steps.

On Cloudsurfer

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Green and orange On Cloudsurfer running shoes
Editors Choice

For runners looking for a cushioned road running shoe, the On Cloudsurfer excels.

Run (or walk) with the Great North Run’s founder

If you fancy something a bit different, consider the 13 Valleys Ultra. This event will introduce you to rarely used paths and trails in the Lake District.  

Great North Run founder Sir Brendan Foster will be hiking the 20km (12-mile) route, on Saturday, September 30. It starts and finishes in Keswick, and the course runs around Applethwaite and Threlkeld, mostly on trails. It is as much about walking and exploring as it is running, with a generous seven-hour cut-off time. 

“In terms of sustainability, we wanted to make sure to be mindful of the local communities,” says Alice Peyredieu, from the Great Run company.

“We’re donating 5% of every entry fee to the Lake District Foundation, a charity that works to protect the National Park. And we are using local staff and suppliers where possible, to reduce travel and support local communities.”  

Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Updated:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.