Susan Tooby (now Wightman) told Ruth Jones about the training that led to her record-breaking performance at the 1988 Great North Run
Breaking the British half-marathon record hadn’t been on Susan Tooby’s radar when she toed the line at the 1988 Great North Run, but her training in the preceding months ensured she was capable of sustaining a blistering pace.
Unusually for an endurance runner, the Cardiff AC athlete averaged only a modest 65-70 miles a week, dropping to 45-50 closer to major competitions. Tooby’s coach, Harry Wilson, plotted a higher quality, lower quantity-loaded training schedule for her and her twin sister and fellow Olympian Angela, who has a 31:55.30 10,000m time to her name.
Wilson, famous for mentoring Steve Ovett to major championships victory over Seb Coe in 1980, saw that his protege might struggle to make the GB 10,000m team for the Seoul Olympics despite her obvious aptitude for the distance. With Liz McColgan, Jill Hunter and Angela all having run faster times on the track, she was in a vulnerable fourth position in the eyes of the selectors.
Although the legendary coach was keen for Susan to run the Olympic 10,000m trials that summer, he knew she stood a better chance of making it on to the plane to South Korea if she targeted the marathon instead. His insightfulness proved right as Tooby secured her place when she ran 2:32:09 in London (also the Olympic trials) in April that year, finishing fourth and second Brit behind Ann Ford in only her second marathon.
The combination of the marathon miles and her track work boded perfectly for her debut on Tyneside in July. “Breaking the British half-marathon record was a direct reflection of this,” she acknowledges, adding that she had also broken the 10 mile record at Aylesbury earlier that year, but it was later remeasured and found to be 20m short. “Leading up to the Great North Run, my killer session was 4x1200m off 400m recovery, averaging 3:45 for each interval. Angela was an ideal training partner, and we took it in turns to lead each rep.”
Proving how committed the pair were to their training, they would regularly travel from their home in Bristol to Bracknell to do the session under Wilson’s watchful eyes. “I used to start feeling nervous from the time I got in the car to go to the track, as I always knew it was going to be tough. Not only did I want to impress Harry, but I needed to be able to keep up with Angela,” Susan says.
“The 4x1200m session was a particular killer because the recovery was so short, and we had no real rest period, running the subsequent efforts with increasing amounts of lactic acid in our legs. On one occasion when we were running the same session on grass, I keeled over before the last rep, having fainted. Harry was proud of me for getting up and finishing the set.”
Tooby knew she was in good shape in the lead up to the iconic event, having recorded a 10,000m PB in Oslo just weeks earlier. Yet her preparation was left wanting as she planned to camp near Hexham with her sister and father two nights before the race in a bid to see Hadrian’s Wall.
She recalls how Max Coleby, the co-founder of the Great North Run, arranged more suitable accommodation the night before the race and, following her standard but unusual pre-competition breakfast of digestive biscuits and coffee, she was ready for the run of her life.
The PE teacher’s plan to try to stick with 2:30 marathoner Veronique Marot, who went on to run a British record 2:25:56 for the marathon the following year, went out the window when she caught up with an old Cwmbran training partner, Ian Beard, at the halfway stage, and pressed on with him instead. “We had a chat and ran together until the closing miles, when I pulled away from him. I remember the long downhill sweep to the finish and seeing the sea, which was glorious for a country girl who didn’t get to the coast very often,” Tooby says.
“I had no idea I was in second place behind Grete Waitz, and even less of a clue that I was running inside the British record pace. It was only when I had crossed the line and was interviewed by Tom Knight, a renowned athletics journalist from my hometown of Hereford, that I realised I had broken the record. I remember feeling on a high – possibly from exhaustion – and it not quite sinking in.”
Tooby’s time of 69:46 was the first sub-70-minute performance by a British woman and still ranks her ninth on the UK all-time list. Her record stood for nearly four years, before finally being broken by Liz McColgan in 1992. Tooby went on to finish 12th in the Seoul Olympic marathon that September, clocking 2:31:33 to notch up yet another lifetime best, before clinching the national 5000m title the following year and pulling on the GB vest once more in the European Championships marathon in 1990.
Now married to Commonwealth Games and European Championships marathon man and major events announcer Geoff Wightman, they have three children, one of whom is GB international Jake Wightman, who has PBs of 1:47.13 and 3:35.49 for 800m and 1500m. Jake’s twin brother, Sam, has also shown promise on the track and ran 4:20 for 1500m as an under-20, while sister Martha is London School of Economics running club’s social secretary, meaning the Great North Run star is still very much involved in athletics.
Tooby teaches PE at an independent school in West Sussex and works hard to keep up with her young pupils, balancing running with swimming, exercise bike work and yoga. She ran 19:36 at her local parkrun in Cranleigh in June which placed her fifth W55 in the country for the event at that time.
SUSAN TOOBY’S TRAINING DIARY IN THE WEEK LEADING UP TO THE 1988 GREAT NORTH RUN
Aside from Susan’s benchmark 4x1200m killer session, the track and road ace had a number of track sessions in her programme, including 4x4min, 6x800m and 6x1000m, which saw her reach the form of her life in 1988.
Monday 18 July 1988
am: Ran 3 miles easy (22min) – supposed to be a rest day
Tuesday 19 July 1988
am: 5 miles, including 20min steady, 6min easy, 6min fast
pm: 32min hard
Wednesday 20 July 1988
am: 8 miles in 50min, felt better than yesterday
Thursday 21 July 1988
am: Session, on grass because the track was occupied. 6x1000m steady off 2min recovery, 3:09, 3:05, 3:01, 3:07, 3:07, 3:09
Friday 22 July 1988
pm: 3 miles easy in 25min in the rain. Felt tired.
Saturday 23 July 1988
am: 5min run with 4 long steady strides.
Sunday 24 July 1988
am: Great North Run. Went through 5 miles in 26min and 10 miles in 53min. Finished in 69:46 to break the British record.