1Don Ritchie is from Scotland and some people argue that Don is the greatest ultrarunner in history on tracks and roads. In his early teens he took part in school sports as a sprinter and usually finished in the top three. When he was sixteen years old, he participated in his first “walking race” which was popular at that time. The race was for seven miles and had 45 walkers. Don finished “a tired fifth” and walked in his working clothes and shoes. He walked the race again the following year and was bothered that two girls beat him. He concluded that he probably needed to train.

Don ran cross-country in school and during the track season raced the 440 and 880 yard races. His coach advised him to concentrate on the 880. In 1963 at the age of 19, he started to run fifteen miles regularly with Alistair Wood, one of the great ultrarunners of the early 1970’s, who later won London to Brighton race in a record time. Don eventually started to keep up with him on training runs.

Scottish Athletics required that runners be at least 21 years old in order to run in marathons. In 1965 Don was old enough and entered a marathon with Alistair Wood. The furthest Don had trained was 17 miles. He did great and was pleased with his finish time of 2:43. His mentor Alistair, won the race in 2:24. When Don finished, he didn’t say “never again,” he was excited to run more marathons. Don’s personal best for a marathon would be 2:19 at the London Marathon.

History was made in 1977, Don’s best running year of his life, at the age of 33. In September, he got time off from his job without pay to go run a 24-hour race on an outdoor 400-meter track at the Crystal Palace in London. He took the train there and checked out the tartan synthetic track, a surface he had not run on before. He taped his feet and would run in racing shoes without socks. The weather was good, but would warm up to 65 degrees in the afternoon. On Don’s historic 100-mile run, he started blazing fast. His first ten-mile split times were, 1:02, 1:03, and 1:02, reaching 50K in 3:15. He only stopped once to use the bathroom the entire 100 miles and averaged 6:54-mile pace.

Don lapping a runner during his 100-mile run.

Don lapping a runner during his 100-mile run.

At about mile 40, Don’s feet and legs started to become sore. He speculated that it might have been due to the warm afternoon’s effect on the synthetic track surface. Don took salt tablets and fueled on a special carbohydrate drink with vitamin C and potassium. The halfway point, 50 miles, came at 5:15. He hit the 100K mark at 6:39. At 80 miles he was informed that he was on a world record pace for 100 miles. By mile 90, his feet were very sore, so he took a couple aspirin. His 150K split was an obscure world record of 10:37:47. He ran his last 10 miles in 1:18, and broke the 100-mile World Record in 11:30:51. His 100-mile track record stood for 25 years until broken in 2002 by Russian, Oleg Kharitonov, who ran 100 miles in 11:28, also at the Crystal Palace. After two more laps, Don stopped to check on his feet. He wrote, “I had two blisters on my left foot and my right had three blisters, plus a cut. I changed my shoes and tried walking, but I could not make myself run again.” He decided to drop out of the 24-hour race.

For some time, Don had been thinking of attempting a 100K race but there were none scheduled to be run in the U.K in 1978. One of his team members suggested he run a well-established road race in Hartola, Finland. He decided to sign up and ran weekly miles of 127-189 miles in the weeks building up to the race. The weather was ideal for the race and he set his sights to beat Cavin Woodward’s best of 6:19 set in France. Don ran the first marathon in 2:31 and hit the 50K mark in 3:01. At one point he wasn’t paying attention close enough and missed a turn following a cyclist. He had to retrace his steps, costing him an extra 600 meters. But in the end he finished in 6:18, setting a new world record. He won a wooden rocking chair and 20,000 Finish Marks to cover expenses.

Later in October, 1978, Don again raced 100K at an event that became scheduled for the Crystal Palace. He ran the first 10K in 34:06. At 16 miles he had gut issues and had to stop at the changing room.  Once running again, he was a lap and a half behind the leaders, Cavin Woodward and Mick Molloy. He caught up to Cavin around 50K which he reached in 2:59.  He chased Mick who eventually “blew up.”  From there Don felt strong and pressed far ahead of the field.  He reached 50 miles in an astonishing 4:53:28, and finished the 100K in a world record time of 6:10:20. His 100K record still stood in 2017. (The road 100K world record of 6:13:33, was set in 1998 by Takahiro Sunada of Japan.)

In 1979 Don came to the United States for the first time to run the New York Road Runners Club 100-miler held at Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York. He was given a free trip to New York to participate in this historic race. The weather was hot (85 degrees) and humid as the race started at 7 p.m. About 50 spectators cheered at the start including ultrarunning legend Ted Corbitt. The field consisted of 27 runners and they ran through the night. The bugs were bad and several runners complained about swallowing them. Don joked, “I was getting protein when I needed carbohydrates.”

Don started at a 6-minute-mile pace and broke away from his nearest competitor by mile 20. He reached the marathon mark at 2:40. “My feet became very painful but they lost feeling at about 50 miles, which was a blessing.” Fifty miles came at 5:23 and he needed a stop to tape over a blister. He favored that foot for the rest of the race. The night air cooled a little to 78 degrees. He hit 100K at 6:49 and cruised to 100 miles in 11:51, setting a road 100-mile World Record, breaking a record held since 1958 by Wally Hayward. (Yiannis Kouros would break that record in 1984 when he ran 11:46 in New York City. Don’s 11:51 still is the second fastest road 100 ever.) From 1979 to 1984, Don held both the road and track 100-mile World Records.

Immediately after finishing, Don was carried away to a cot to recover. Don wrote, “I soaked my feet for half an hour in a bucket of cold water, to extract some of the heat from them. They were not as bad as I had expected. Ted Corbitt presented me with the ‘Ted Corbitt Cup,’ about an hour after finishing. It was a pleasure for me to meet Ted.”

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After that 1979 race, Don was soon sidelined with injuries: hamstring, groin, and heel spurs. But by 1983 he was racing again. His training was incredible. He would typically run about 100 miles a week at 6-minute-mile pace. For many of the miles, he would run to and from work.

In 1988 while running the Lincolnshire 100K, he fell and broke his kneecap. Don fought through months of recovery and was running the next year in top form.

In 1990 he ran at the World 24-hour championships in England at Milton Keynes, on an 890-meter loop in the largest shopping mall in Europe. Cones were put out with long stretched of plastic tape. The surface was hard marble. This race was referred to as “the greatest 24-hour field ever assembled.” There were several elite runners from the United States in the race including, Roy Pirrung, Sue Ellen Trapp, and Randi Bromka.

On the way to the mall Don was stuck in a terrible traffic jam. Once out of it, his driver had to drive 90 mph while Don changed into his running clothes in the passenger seat. He arrived with nine minutes to spare and no time for the bathroom. The race started at 8 p.m. He wrote, “I was so relieved to be underway after that nerve-racking and emotionally draining journey.” Don started out cautiously for this race and after one hour was in 8th place. There was a large board that was updated once per hour with the standings. He ate every hour, either a slice of white bread or a ripe banana. After four hours he took the lead and extended that by about one kilometer each hour. Don ran away from the rest of the field, reached 92 miles in 12 hours, and reached 100 miles in 12:56, an indoor World Record. He won with 166 miles in 24 hours for another indoor World Record. The best US showing was Roy Pirrung, who finished in 3rd with 154 miles.

The best ultrarunners in the world before the 1990 race, Don Ritchie, Eleanor Adams, and Yiannis Kouros

The best ultrarunners in the world before the 1990 race, Don Ritchie, Eleanor Adams, and Yiannis Kouros

Also in 1990, Don came back to the United States and ran in the 100K World Championship at Edmund Fitzgerald 100K in Duluth, Minnesota, referred to as “The Greatest 100K Road Race in History.” The race started in the village of Finland, Minnesota. It was chilly and windy so Don applied some olive oil to his arms and legs for some insolation. The race got underway at 7:00 a.m. under a starry pre-dawn sky. Don settled in with a lead pack of about 50 runners. At the 10K mark, dawn arrived and Don was surprised that their pace was “only” 38:10. It felt like they were moving faster. He was in a group of seven including Ray Krolewicz. Ray announced that there was a runner still ahead who was out of sight. Ray was the first to drop away from the pack. The course went off the pavement onto a dirt and gravel road and by the time it returned to the pavement, Don was struggling. As he started to recover, he ran with Charlie Trayer, of the U.S. They hit the marathon mark at 2:47. He had lost sight of about six runners ahead and knew the win for him was gone. At about 70K, a few runners caught up and invited him to join in with them but Don was “locked into survival pace,” and just trying to hang on. He was frustrated that his quads wouldn’t let him stride out as they ran down toward Lake Superior. Don finished in 10th place. He wrote that he was “very pleased to be finished from this distressing experience.” Don was puzzled with his poor performance but later discovered that he had some sort of lung infection.

In 1993 at the age of 49, Don returned to the U.S. again to run a 100K race with many international runners. He ran in the USA 100K National Championship held in Central Park, in February. It was bitter cold, for the 7:00 a.m. start with 136 runners. They first ran a one-mile out-and-back and then started running a course of 15 laps. Don started easy but soon pushed into 5th place. Andy Jones was pulling away. By lap three, Don was in third place but beginning to tire badly. He passed the marathon mark in 2:53. Things got worse from there and he just had to hang on and finished in 9th, with 7:53. He had tried his best. After the race he was pleased to spend some time with American runners, Jim Shapiro and Alan Kirik who he had met before.

Don loved racing and admitted that he raced too often. He over-trained at times but had the sense to back off. He suffered at times due to an irregular heartbeat. By 2000, he could tell that his strength was declining at age 55. He could still run sub-three-hour marathons and sub-eight-hour 100Ks. In 2008 he needed heart surgery which solved his heartbeat problem. He wrote, “Looking back, I am satisfied with my lengthy running period of 48 years. I felt fulfilled that I was able to establish world best performances on the track at: 50K, 40 miles, 50 miles, 6 hours, 150K, 100 miles, and 200K.” (Richie, The Stubborn Scotsman, 342)

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Don won his first ultra in 1977 and his last in 2003 for a timespan of more than 26 years. Just seven others have had a longer time span in the world. As of 2011, Don had reported that he had run 208,000 life-time miles. In 2016 Don wrote a book, “The Stubborn Scotsman,” available from the UK on Amazon.com. It is very detailed and fascinating.

To read more about the history of 100-mile races and the fastest 100-mile runners in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, see Swift Endurance Legends.