UK astronaut Tim Peake will help Sunday's London Marathon lift off, says PR chief

The London Marathon's comms chief is hoping the (very) remote participation of British astronaut Major Tim Peake and a campaign celebrating the event's one millionth finisher will make the annual event a winner with the public this weekend.

Lots of small steps for man: Astronaut Tim Peake will run the marathon (Credit: Virgin Money London Marathon)
Lots of small steps for man: Astronaut Tim Peake will run the marathon (Credit: Virgin Money London Marathon)

Held annually since 1981, the event is again sponsored by the bank Virgin Money, and takes place on the streets of the capital on Sunday (24 April).

Of nearly 40,000 runners expected to finish the race, around three-quarters will raise money for charity, either through an official charity place or having chosen a good cause after gaining entry to the race, according to Penny Dain, the head of comms for the event.

Dain has worked full-time at London Marathon Events since the start of 2013. She has been involved with the event on 15 occasions previously dating back to 1991, as part of a career that has included time working with other sports including rowing and rugby, and on the 2012 Olympics in London.

Alongside the "wealth of stories" that she said race participants always bring to the event, and what has been described as the strongest elite field ever, Dain said there were two key comms drives this year.

The spaceman runneth

The first is around the participation of UK astronaut Tim Peake, who will take part in the event on a treadmill on the International Space Station (ISS). He will also participate in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, live-streamed from space, which Dain hopes to live stream via Periscope and Facebook, and which will be attended by a number of news media.

Dain said discussions over Peake's participation dated back two years. "The European Space Agency needs to keep astronauts fit, so they do run a couple of hours a day already, but they needed to balance up his fitness and his return date, and they didn’t want it to interfere with his main job," she said.

The news of Peake's participation made international news in December, and interest in the UK was buoyed by other media appearances he made before leaving earth two weeks after the marathon announcement. Even from space, he has increased his profile with other media engagements via videolink, including the Brit Awards in February.

Peake has run a time of three hours and 18 minutes on earth for the distance, but on the ISS it is expected to take him a further hour or more. While Peake's charity of choice is youth organisation The Prince's Trust, he is not allowed to fundraise due to rules from NASA, one of the joint owners of the ISS.


Back on earth, Dain said the other main comms drive was around the #oneinamillion campaign – this year will see the event's millionth finisher cross the line. However, Dain was keen to emphasise that this campaign was "not all about that finisher, it’s about all the one million people who have taken part". The event has been encouraging people to raise their forefinger to the camera as they cross the line, and asked people who have participated previously to share their story.

The one millionth finisher will be announced on 9 May, alongside the announcement of how many people applied for a ballot entry for the 2017 result. Dain said this delay was necessary in order to sort out any issues with timing chips and results queries, and helped ensure the #oneinamillion campaign celebrated the many rather than being focused on one individual.

Dain also said that a team of 20 people has been working on digitising all results from the event history – timing was done manually before 1990 – in order to create a system where finishers can order a T-shirt with their unique finisher number, between one and one million.

Race week

Dain told PRWeek that she had three other year-round members of her comms team, which works alongside a six-person content and web team. The marathon does not work with any outside PR agencies aside from broadcast content agency Sportsbeat, but Dain said she did collaborate with agencies activating sponsorships for event partners.

She said the team would spend this week based at the Tower Hotel near Tower Bridge, which becomes the temporary race HQ. As race day approaches, her team will swell to eventually number 75, bolstered by a video team of five, plus eight official photographers and various volunteers, freelancers and two week-long interns from Sheffield Hallam University.

The team will be split between the hotel, the finish line, the temporary post-finish media centre and other locations, with key jobs including spotting celebrities as they come into the finish, co-ordinating nearly 200 journalists post-finish and working with BBC broadcasters. Dain said she would begin work around 6am, and remain busy until at least 7pm, when crews begin to disassemble the race finish.

Dain said that while national media were always very open to writing about the event during race week, she wanted to increase coverage at other times of the year. "The marathon is a national institution, it’s one of the dates that everybody knows so it’s a natural thing for media to have interest in it during a set window – the challenge for us is widen that window as much as possible, and keep the coverage going all year round," she said.

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