Marathons, Viola Costumes and World Premieres - a typical Sunday in Brum

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Birmingham Royal Conservatoire pulls a few strings to help Alistair Rutherford attempt a new world record - running a marathon in a foam viola costume.

A student from Birmingham City University’s Royal Birmingham Conservatoire is doing a remix of his love of both music and athletics. This time, he’s on track to attempt another Guinness World Record: to run the fastest marathon dressed as a musical instrument!

Donning a custom-made viola costume, Alistair Rutherford — a.k.a. The Running Viola — will run the Birmingham International Marathon on Sunday 15th October. This will add another string to his bow as he’s already broken the half marathon record once this year.

Merseyside-based designer Brian D Hanlon created the lightweight Plastazote foam outfit in which Alistair will attemp the record. The striking headpiece mimics the shape of the viola’s neck and pegbox, so you won’t miss him!

Meanwhile, fellow students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire will serenade Alistair as he completes two laps of the circuit. From the sidelines, they’ll premiere two pieces specially commissioned for the occasion.

Alistair is just one of thousands taking part in the marathon – and half marathon. Also competing is Laura Leyland, Senior Lecturer in Engineering at Birmingham City University in her first ever marathon!

Laura’s been documenting her own progress in a blog. As well as paving the road to her own success, it includes coaching from academics who teach on the institution’s new Sport and Exercise Science degree programme.


Alistair Rutherford hopes to raise at least £4,000 for a collaborative UK-South African project. Entitled “Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music & Birmingham Conservatoire” — or ARCO — it’s also the moniker of the technique of playing a stringed instrument with a bow.

To date, 24 South African strings students aged between eight and 17 have participated in weekly instrumental Skype lessons through the ARCO initiative. Academics, current students and alumni of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University, have conducted those sessions.

ARCO strives to provide the life-changing inspiration of music to children in the most deprived of circumstances. But it’s not just about delivering the benefits of transformative music education activities. Conservatoire staff and students – including Alistair – have tried to become role models for vulnerable youngsters living in Soweto. Even today, poverty and crime still inflict injustice in this township in Johannesburg.

Turning donations into action

Funds raised from Alistair’s world record attempt will enable his pupil, 17-year-old Njabulo Nxumalo, to fly to the UK next month. Kwanda Buthelezi, aged 13, and Mbali Phato, aged 12, will accompany Njabulo and perform in the ARCO Concert on Saturday 18th November as part of the second Cecil Aronowitz Viola Competition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Meanwhile, Alistair’s marathon journey will stream live to the ARCO youngsters so that they can reciprocate the love all the way from Jo'burg.

How far he’ll go to raise funds

Running the Birmingham International Marathon is just one of several fundraising events the postgraduate student has organised in aid of ARCO. Last year, the violist ran 1,739 miles (2798 km) — the equivalent distance of the length of South Africa’s coastline — by the time he flew out to Johannesburg for the first ARCO Festival. That was the first time Conservatoire students and staff had met and performed with their students in person.

This marathon wasn’t the viola costume’s first outing. Donning the Plastazote foam, this year, Alistair's already run:

  • the Liverpool Half Marathon;
  • the Wirral Half Marathon;
  • the Simplyhealth Great Birmingham 10K run

21-year-old Alistair, who hails from Allerton in Liverpool, said:

“After running the distance of the South African coastline during my third year of study at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and previously running a marathon when I was 17, I was struggling for fundraising ideas.

“One evening whilst in our local pub myself and fellow ARCO teacher Matt Johnstone joked about a Guinness World Record involving both the things I love: running and the viola.

“With the half marathon record now under my belt, it seemed that the next logical step would be to try and become the world’s fastest musical instrument in the full marathon.

“Training has been going well and I am aiming to beat the record that currently stands at four hours, 14 minutes and 18 seconds.”

The current record was set by Adam Hill on 20 March 2016. The U.S. runner from Springfield, VA ran the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach dressed as a cowbell. Ding, dong!

Support from all angles is the DNA that knits Alistair’s efforts together

Louise Lansdown, Head of Strings at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, initiated the ARCO project in 2015. She said:

“The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and in particular the Strings Department, are hugely excited about The Running Viola’s marathon record attempt on Sunday 15 October.

“Alistair Rutherford’s energy, passion and unswerving commitment to the ARCO project, for which he is fundraising, is an example to us all.

“Everyone at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire could not be prouder of Alistair and his incredible achievements.

“Furthermore, thanks to Dr. Joe Cutler, Head of Composition, and the Composition Department at the Conservatoire, we have two new works specially commissioned for the occasion: a brass dectet and a massed viola work, both world premieres!

“Students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire will be serenading Alistair and the other elite runners as they arrive at the finish line.”

A rush on for Alistair’s mini-me

Additional support for Alistair’s challenge comes in the form of his own personalised ‘mini me’ mascot.

Joyce Peacock, from Kirkby, Liverpool, created and knitted the 16½” doll, coincidentally the same height as Alistair’s real-life Luthier Bernd Hiller viola. Since February 2015, Joyce has knitted 375 ‘running dolls’ for good causes and currently has more than 50 on order.

Record-breaking Birchfield Harriers lend their support

Alistair began running in Liverpool in 2013 when he joined Mossley Hill Athletic Club.

Today, he runs for Birmingham-based Birchfield Harriers athletics club, who’ll also back Alistair’s record attempt.

One of the most successful athletics clubs in Britain, Harriers became the first club in history to win both the men’s and women’s Premier League titles last year. They’ve also had representatives at every single Olympic Games since 1908 bar one.

In August this year, The Running Viola competed in the 5,000 metres at the British Athletics League Premiership (not in costume!) for the Harriers. The Senior Men’s Team won the title for the third time in a row, much owing to Senior Men’s Distance Coach Dave Lawrence, who is Alistair’s current trainer.

The city’s marathon will kick off from Birchfield Harriers’ Alexander Stadium, which is in contention to be the host venue for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Post-marathon activity; get involved: support, donate, rewind

You can support Alistair’s world record attempt via his Just Giving page.

You can also watch videos of Alistair training in his costume (laughing allowed, if not encouraged :-)). You can also watch his progress in the Liverpool Half Marathon on Facebook LIVE from 09:00 on Sunday 15th October.

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