TENS of thousands of fun runners can look back on the 2003 Great North Run with added pride after taking part in a record-breaking feat.

Paula Radcliffe's world best time for the half-marathon was described as "the cherry on the cake" by delighted organisers of the 23rd Newcastle to South Shields running festival yesterday.

But hours after the Sports Personality of the Year finished on the South Shields sea front in a record time of 65 minutes and 40 seconds, thousands of other heroes of the event trudged, stumbled or fell across the line.

The British athletic superstar thanked the crowd lining The Leas, at South Shields, for giving her the added impetus in the closing stages to break the previous best by five seconds.

Such was the roar at the finish that an experienced hack from the athletics press described it as sounding "like a football crowd".

Later, the man on the mike thanked the assembled masses for their support and many of the runners who had just completed the race turned the tables by applauding the spectators.

In contrast to the one-horse race in the elite women's event, the crowd enjoyed a thrilling head-to-head finish to the men's race, with South African Hendrick Ramaala, a late entrant, winning for the second time in two starts, out-sprinting Jackson Koech, of Kenya.

Such was the throng at the finish that police last night described the congestion on surrounding roads leaving South Shields as "horrendous", with the chaos lasting several hours after the finish of the races.

Otherwise, the event appeared to pass to plan, with the clear skies and sunshine helping to bring out the crowds.

Dave Martin, of promoters Nova International, said the run, which began as a parochial North-East fun run in 1981, continues to go from strength to strength, now under the glare of the global media.

"It's been absolutely brilliant. We seem to say it's been the best ever every year, but as an athletics spectacle this could not be beaten," he said.

"Putting Paula's achievement in context, it was not only the fastest ever half marathon, it was the greatest, given the tough, undulating course."

A special cheer was reserved for race instigator Brendan Foster, the pied piper of North-East running, who came home in one hour and 40 minutes.

There was more muted applause a minute later when spin-king Alastair Campbell, the outgoing Downing Street press secretary, slumped to the ground on crossing the line.

"The people here have been really good - it's a pity we didn't have the by-election here on Thursday," he joked.

His 16-year-old son fared better on Saturday, finishing 17th of 6,000 starters in the Junior Great North Run, in drizzly conditions on the Newcastle Quayside.

Among the bravest of the finishers yesterday was "superwoman" Jane Tomlinson, the 39-year-old mother from Leeds, who completed the run for the second time, despite having terminal breast cancer.

The Northern Echo's Kate Bowman surprised herself with a time of two hours and 25 minutes in her first-ever half-marathon.

She raised more than £500 for Macmillan Cancer Relief to make the months of training worthwhile.

She said: "The last mile was the hardest I have ever run in my life - but the support from the spectators was brilliant.

"They were passing me chocolates and ice-pops and cheering me on when I was ready to drop."