Neil Featherby: Don Ritchie - the quiet man of the road
- Credit: Red Daniells
I have mentioned in this column on numerous occasions about the time I shared a car with none other than the legend that is Emil Zatopek, and didn’t realise who he was at the time.
Well, one other great running legend I also had the honour of sharing a car with was the very modest gentleman Don Ritchie, from Aberdeenshire - this time I knew who I was sharing with!
Whilst Don may not have the same superstar status, he was a truly remarkable athlete and if not the greatest ultra-runner of all time then most certainly one of the very best.
His range of brilliant performances went from 10 miles up to well over 100.
I had just been to a GB ultra-squad weekend in Nottingham in 1993 when asked if I could give Don a lift back to our hotel. I didn't give it a second thought and while I was a little tongue-tied in his company, he seemed even more shy than I was.
We had met before, but only when competing against each other, when I ran for England and he was representing Scotland in the Aberdeen Marathon seven years earlier.
I, of course, wanted to ask him all about his many great achievements, such as winning the London to Brighton classic race in 1977 and 1978, along with what was at the time his world record run in 1989 of 846 miles from John O’Groats to Lands End in 10 days, 15 hours and 27 mins. But, just like Emil, albeit much more quietly spoken, he kept asking me about how my running was going and why I had at that time in my running career decided to move up to the much longer distances.
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Why have I decided to look back on this great man? Well, because this very same week, on October 25, 1977, and October 28 1978, Don set two very significant world track records for 100 miles in 11 hours, 30 mins and 51 secs and 100km in six hours, 10 mins and 20 secs.
Even though these records have now been surpassed, both performances are still phenomenal, particularly when you consider that back then footwear was very basic and sports nutrition products as we know them today were still a long way from being introduced. As for being a professional paid and sponsored athlete, everything was very much done under the amateur code in the 1970s.
Whilst his 100-mile feat averaged 6:55 per mile, his 100km record was just short of a full minute quicker, averaging 5:58 per mile. There are a lot runners out there today who would love to be able to run at that speed for just 10km.
Reading back through an old Road Runners Club report of the 100km race, Don, along with Cavin Woodward from Leamington, who at the time was the current record holder, covered the first five miles at a rapid pace going through in 27:21. Then at 20 miles, Don had to leave the track, which saw him one and a half laps behind in third place by the time he returned. However, he set about powering on until just after 30 miles when he took the lead - and he didn't look back until crossing the finish line in a new world best which remained until just a few days after his passing in June, 2018 when just a month away from what would have been his 74th birthday.
Incidentally, Woodward hung on to second in six hours, 38 mins and 48 secs and I must also mention just what amazing rivals these two were back in their day. Just three months earlier, Woodward had defeated Don into second place, finishing over nine minutes ahead of him, in the Woodford to Southend 40-miler and then just three weeks prior to the 100km race, Don reversed the placings when finishing over five minutes ahead in the London to Brighton 52.5-mile classic.
Whilst Don won an amazing number of races, particularly at marathon distance and upwards, he also held world track bests for 50km in 2 hours 50 mins 30 secs, 40 miles in 3 hours 48 mins and 35 secs and 50 miles in 4 hours 51 mins and 49 secs. Oh, and not forgetting 200km in 16 hours and 30 mins and a world indoor best of 166 miles in 24 hours.
I was lucky enough to represent GB on two occasions with this amazing man and he was always a quiet and reflective person, I, along with others, would still hang on to every word when it came to running.
I'm sure there will be many a runner, particularly those younger than myself, who will not recognise the name Don Ritchie. But he truly proved that the very nicest people are winners too.