The Isle of Man Easter Festival of Running has a rich history spanning six decades.
The history of the Festival is documented below. From humble beginnings as a local event, to the vibrant and unmissable three day event we see today.
THE EARLY DAYS
The idea of an Easter Festival for athletics on the Isle of Man was born in 1962.
There were already some well-established festivals on the Island at Easter involving sports such as football and rugby, and there were suggestions from athletics clubs in the north-west of England that a running event should be considered at Easter.
Local athletics historian John Wright recalls that the Manx Athletic Association, as it was then known, decided to use the End to End event from the Point of Ayre to The Sound as a seven-stage club relay at Easter 1963. One team from off-Island accepted an invitation to participate, and that was Wirral AC. The three teams taking part were Wirral and local teams Manx AAA and Boundary Harriers, who were set on their way from the Point of Ayre by Jack Sherlock, Chairman of Ramsey Commissioners.
The result was never really in doubt, with Wirral AC winning in 3 hours 34 minutes 27 seconds, followed by Manx AAA in 3 hours 55 minutes 7 seconds and Boundary Harriers in third place in 4 hours 16 minutes and 9 seconds. The local runners taking part that day were Eddie Harvey, Henry Harvey, Bill Christian, Peter McElroy, John Tasker, Michael Mitcham, Eddie Convery, Alan Corlett, Dick Corlett, Ken Sloane, Joe O’Hanlon and Mike (Mitch) Joughin.
The trophy awarded to Wirral AC delighted the visitors, who told their hosts that the magnificent cup was much better than anything that they received for their efforts in races on their home patch. They were also fulsome in their praise for Manx hospitality.
The next year, 1964, the Manx Athletic Club, as they were by then known, moved to attract more entries by having teams of five competing in a relay using the ’round the houses’ circuit in Douglas instead of the seven-leg End to End Relay.
Finally in 1965 the host club decided to introduce second and third events to the Festival. These included a solo event on Good Friday on a course beginning at Onchan Commissioners’ offices in Onchan Main Road, then turning left down the ‘Butt’ along Groudle Road to the Liverpool Arms, down the Whitebridge and back to Commissioners’ offices. The first winner was Eric Austin of Worcester AC in 21 minutes 50 seconds. Also included in the programme was a women’s relay, which was run on Douglas Promenade on Easter Saturday morning.
Historical information on the Festival in the latter half of the 1960s is scarce, but the popularity of the event was on the increase and it began to attract the interest of more visiting clubs. Significantly, the event was also starting to capture the attention of university running teams, and that interest was to lead to what many regard as the ‘halcyon’ days of the Festival in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Halcyon Days
From its modest beginnings, the Easter Festival quickly grew into an unmissable annual event for hundreds of visiting runners and an opportunity for locals to pit their talents against them.
Many regard the 1970s and 1980s as the ‘halcyon days’ of the Festival, during which university running teams and many athletics clubs from around the British Isles – and even further afield – made the annual pilgrimage to the Isle of Man. For many, the Easter Festival quickly became the big highlight of their year. At the front of the races, many high-profile international athletes were to be seen including a number of Olympians.
The late Ron Hill used the 1972 Festival as part of his preparations for the Olympic Marathon in Munich, and 40 years later he was to return as Guest of Honour for the 50th Festival when he ran in all three races at the age of 73.
Among other notable names to compete at the Festival during the 1970s and 1980s were Ricky Wilde (1970 European Indoor Champion) who was the Easter Festival champion in 1974, Hugh Jones (1982 London Marathon winner and Olympian), Charlie Spedding (Olympic bronze medallist and 1984 London Marathon winner) and Lynne McIntyre (nee MacDougall) who was sixth in the 1984 Olympic Games women’s 1500 metres final in Los Angeles.
Many traditions were born during this era, both official and unofficial, many of which have continued to this day. Visiting university clubs kept handwritten records of their trips each year, detailing lots of entertaining background stories behind the races, and of the all-important social activities. Friendships were born and renewed every year, and for many the annual pilgrimage to the island in the Irish Sea became a ritual not to be missed.
The race programme changed a number of times during this era, but by the end of the 1980s a more settled programme had emerged. This would comprise a ‘Round the Houses’ road race in Douglas on Good Friday evening, which started and finished at the Grandstand of the world-famous TT Course on Glencrutchery Road. On Saturday afternoon the action moved west, when the Peel Hill races over fairly short courses would feature a multi-coloured ribbon of runners heading up the initial steep climb before the gentler approach to Corrin’s Folly and the return. On Easter Sunday morning, a four-leg relay was held for male runners, and a straight race for women, on various courses featuring Douglas Promenade, and by the end of the 1980s on the spectacularly scenic Marine Drive just south of Douglas.
Friendly rivalries between teams were an annual highlight, with the overall Festival team title for men and women going to teams such as Glasgow University, Bolton AC, Lancaster University, Salford AC and Leeds City AC. During the 1980s some of the leading local athletes played starring roles, with Manx AC winning the men’s team title in 1984, 1986 and 1987. In 1988, Graham Clarke (Manx AC) became the first local to win the overall Festival title.
A steady decline
The period from 1990 to 2005 was a difficult one for the Festival, and by the early years of the new millennium there was real doubt as to whether the event had a future.
The Festival was still vibrant in the early 1990s though, with visiting clubs and university teams continuing to support the event in large numbers. During the 1990s the leading individual athletes included Bashir Hussain (Stockport Harriers), Robert Quinn (Paisley Harriers) and Mark Croasdale (Bingley Harriers).
The women’s events saw a first local champion, with Brenda Walker (Western AC) winning all three races in 1992. Lucy Wright (Leeds Uni) then dominated the decade, winning the title four times between 1993 and 1997. In 1998 the champion was Mara Myers (now Yamauchi) of Oxford Uni, and she was to finish sixth in the women’s Marathon at the 2008 Olympic Games.
In the early 2000s the Festival struggled for momentum and there was a marked decline in entries each year, though still plenty of quality at the front. New local resident Colin Moore (Bingley Harriers) was the champion in 2001, and in 2005 a new star emerged in the shape of James Walsh (Leeds Uni). Jackie Ashman (Manx Harriers) became the second local women to win the title in 2000.
The sad death of long-time Festival Director Joan Powell, and the retirement of other organisers, seriously threatened the long-term future of the event, and by 2005 the only visiting clubs who were still supporting the Festival in numbers were Manchester and Leeds Universities – Alehouse and Doss as their running clubs are popularly known.
Only 114 competitors took part in the 2005 event, and at that point it was make or break as far as the future of the event was concerned.
REBIRTH OF THE FESTIVAL
The autumn of 2005 was decision time for the Easter Festival. The decline in profile and in athlete numbers, and the lack of organisers, brought matters to a head with a very real threat of the event being consigned to history. Happily a new organising committee was assembled, and a concerted publicity campaign was launched which sought to attract visiting groups back to the Isle of Man as well as encouraging more locals to take part. The new team acting on behalf of organising club Manx Harriers was Chris Quine, Paul Jackson, Dave Ronan and Gianni Epifani, with many others involved over the weekend itself.
For that first event of the new era in 2006 a new format was established, and the opening race took place for the first time on a scenic 10k course in the south of the island based in Port Erin. The traditional Peel Hill races retained their popular Saturday afternoon slot, with the Sunday event being switched to a measured 5k out-and-back course on Douglas Promenade walkway.
The response was magnificent, with competitor numbers more than doubling and many visiting groups returning or attending for the first time. The champions that year were James Walsh (Leeds Uni) and Laura Carney (Liverpool Harriers), with James winning three titles in all between 2005 and 2010.
Over the next few years the upturn in popularity of the event continued, with top-class athletes such as Jonny Mellor, Sarah Inglis and Emma Raven bringing their talents to the Isle of Man. Emma (three times women’s champion), along with Rachael Woodnutt and other Leeds Uni runners, worked with the organisers for several years to promote the Festival among other universities, those in Scotland in particular.
In 2012 the Festival celebrated its 50th edition, with a huge entry of 385 being the best since the 1980s. The great Ron Hill accepted an invitation to be Guest of Honour for the weekend and he ran in all three races. Matt Janes (Bedford & County) and GB cross-country international Rosie Smith (Hunters Bog Trotters) were the champions on that landmark occasion, with Cambridge and Leeds Universities taking the respective team titles.
The momentum of that memorable occasion was sustained, and competitor numbers continued to grow spectacularly, reaching over 500 in 2015. Since then the 500 mark has been reached on every occasion. There was great support from Scottish universities, with Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen all firmly established along with their respective alumni clubs.
There was also a great upturn of interest from local athletes during this era, recognising the unique annual opportunity to compete in big fields against athletes of all standards, in a friendly yet competitive environment without having to travel away. Rachael Franklin (Manx Harriers) won the women’s title in 2014, and for the first time Manx athletes won both the men’s and women’s titles in 2018 through Rachael and Ollie Lockley. They were to retain their titles in 2019 when Rachael became the first local to win the title three times.
One change to the programme had come in 2017, when the men’s 4x5k relay on Sunday morning was replaced with a straight race, a move that met with general approval.
The Festival then faced a totally unexpected setback with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. That year’s event had to be cancelled at short notice – the first-ever cancellation – and with travel restrictions to and from the Isle of Man still in place a year later, plans to hold a local-only event in 2021 were also thwarted by a further lockdown shortly before Easter.
The worry for the organisers was that many visiting groups may not return, with that all-important annual handing-down of experience of organising group trips being lost. Those worries proved to be completely unfounded, with huge entries of 522 in 2022 and a record 559 in 2023 re-establishing the Festival in style and proving beyond doubt the attraction of this great annual tradition which has become so much more than just a sporting event.
As we mark the 60th Festival in 2024 – two years later than scheduled – we warmly welcome back all our friends for what is sure to be a memorable celebration of everything that is good about running.
David Griffiths, November 2023