Don Ritchie ran his first marathon at the age of 21
Don Ritchie ran his first marathon at the age of 21

Everyone has been there — they set off in plenty of time, but something goes wrong. And Don Ritchie was in a good old Scottish fankle, stuck in a traffic jam for an hour and half on the M25, en route from Guildford in Surrey to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. When finally reaching the open road his driver hit 95mph, while Ritchie climbed into the back of the car and changed into his running gear.

He arrived five minutes before the start of the race, with no time even to visit the lavatory. Ritchie was, in his own word, “agitated”. He was soon running at less than eight minutes a mile — a respectable pace for a 5km park-run race, but this was a race against the greatest ultra-long distance runners.

It was 1990 and Ritchie was 45 years old. After an hour he was in eighth place; after four hours he had taken the lead. He ate every hour, alternating a slice of white bread and a ripe banana. After some 12 hours, 56 minutes and 13 seconds he had broken the world record for running 100 miles. But he was only half-way there.

As Ritchie noted: “With about five hours remaining, I began to get twinges and pains in my lower-right quads. However, these did not become any worse so I was able to continue jogging. I was very tired and found the last three hours rather hard, so I was very relieved when the finish came.”

After 24 hours of continuous running Ritchie had covered 166 miles and 429 yards, beaten the runner-up by more than ten miles and set another record.

Ritchie was a pioneer of ultramarathon racing — running distances longer than the conventional marathon of 26 miles and 385 yards. Because ultramarathon running was in its infancy when he began, he was 39 years old before he got his first Scottish vest and 56 when he ran his last race for Great Britain. Those ultra distances included the 846.4 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End, which he completed in a record ten days, 15 hours and 27 minutes in 1989. On this occasion the normally phlegmatic Ritchie sprinted the last stretch to the cliffs and looked like he might not stop, before yelling out and punching the air in sheer relief. He had run the equivalent of three marathons a day for ten days, but it took its toll. “[A] cold soon developed into bronchitis and this, together with stomach pains, intestinal blood loss, a sore mouth, regular nose bleeds, chest pains and torrential rains led me to feel very relieved when I reached Land’s End,” he said. He took five months to recover.

Donald Alexander Ferguson Ritchie’s working-class family came from the Govan area of Glasgow, but he was born in Haddo House, Aberdeenshire, a stately home that served as a wartime maternity hospital. After the war his father worked on farms in the north of Scotland and Ritchie’s first memories were of life in a cottage at Inverlochy, near Fort William, without electricity or a bathroom, where the lavatory was “a pail in a narrow wooden pillar-box- like structure”.

He left school just before his 15th birthday and took a job in a sawmill before training in radio and television servicing. He also began running with Aberdeen Amateur Athletic Club, competed in the Scottish cross-country championships and ran his first marathon at the age of 21. “Soon I was finding even marathons were not long enough for my liking, so in my late twenties I turned to ultra-distance running,” he said.

In the late 1960s he began an electrical engineering degree at the University of Aberdeen, which led to work in the oil industry. In 1975 he fell 33ft into the North Sea during bad weather. Not only was the water freezing, but he could not swim. He was rescued, but the accident made him reconsider his life choices. He became a physics teacher at Lossiemouth High School, where he met his wife Isobel, who survives him with his daughters: Anna, who is a teacher; and Claire, the mother of six children. His grandchildren include Sunny McGrath, who has already represented Scotland at youth level.

Ritchie later lectured in electronics at Moray College, in Elgin, and he ran regularly with Forres Harriers and Moray Road Runners.

With his receding hairline, beard and relentless, metronomic style, Ritchie became an iconic figure on the longest running courses and set world records for several distances. He said that to run ultramarathons a runner needs the right mental attitude, “ie, you must be a little crazy”. He retired from running in 2011.

Ritchie, who enjoyed hill-walking and socialising, developed late-onset diabetes and heart and lung problems. “My irregular heartbeat and atrial fibrillation are probably the result of decades of high mileage running,” he wrote.
Don Ritchie, MBE, ultramarathon runner, was born on July 6, 1944. He died on June 16, 2018, aged 73

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