Obituary: Don Ritchie MBE, athlete, ultra distance runner and record holder, GB internationalist
Don Ritchie who has died aged 73 was a phenomenal Scottish ultra distance runner whom many regard as the world’s best ever.
He set numerous world track records at distances from 50km to 200km, including intermediary marks, 24 hours events, world road records at 100km and 100 miles, won a clutch of highly prestigious races in Europe, the US and Japan as well as enjoying success at cross country, hill races and marathons.
For services to athletics and charity he was appointed MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 1995. His appetite for running was near insatiable and between 1962 and 2011 his records show he ran a total of 208,100.8 miles in training and almost 1,000 races, which equates to going round the world about eight times.
Such are his multiple achievements it is almost invidious to single any out but most observers would agree that his 100km record is worthy of particular mention. In October 1978 he covered 250 laps of London’s Crystal Palace track, 100km.[62.2 miles] in 6hrs 10m 20s, equivalent to two consecutive marathons plus 10 miles, at an average of under six minutes per mile.
Almost 40 years later, his record still stands at the distance recognised as the premier international ultra event. Another mind-boggling feat was his record for the 846 mile John O’Groats to Land’s End run in 1989 of 10 days, 15 hours and 27 minutes.
This was achieved in challenging conditions during which Ritchie developed bronchitis, endured stomach and chest pains, intestinal blood loss and regular nose bleeds.
It took him five months to recover fully during which he was prescribed seven courses of antibiotics. Little wonder that when interviewed once about the qualities required for ultra distance running he responded: “You require a suitable mental attitude, ie, you must be a little bit crazy!” He possessed mental fortitude in abundance and an exceptional capacity to tolerate pain and discomfort over protracted periods.
Although usually considered a reserved and modest individual, once into running kit a steely determination and sharp competitive instinct kicked in to provide the foundations of his success.
Born at Haddo House, Aberdeenshire, then a wartime hospital, he was the son of Alexander and Rachel, nee Ferguson, and elder brother of Ann.
His father worked as a dairy cattleman and Ritchie was brought up mostly near Tarves where he attended school and showed some promise at the annual sports. Once he left school he worked as an electrician and it was only in 1962 that he took steps to further his athletic interest. After reading an article about Aberdeen Amateur Athletic Club, he began attending their training sessions at Linksfield Stadium.
Initially he was encouraged to run the quarter mile but soon gravitated towards long distance running, encouraged by Peter Duffy and Alistair Wood, both eminent endurance athletes. In 1966 he ran his first marathons in creditable times and in 1967 and 1968 recorded his first notable successes, finishing second each time behind Alistair Wood in the Scottish Marathon championship.
Twenty years later in 1988 aged 44 he again finished second in the event, only 17 seconds behind the winner. Between 1968 and 1971, he also secured two silver and a bronze medal in the Scottish 10 miles track championship.
Having secured qualifications through evening classes, in 1968 Ritchie started an electrical engineering course at Aberdeen University whom he represented on the track and at cross country, winning the Scottish Universities’ title as well as a high finish in the National championships over the country.
His first ultra event was the 36 mile Two Bridges race across the Forth and Kincardine bridges in 1970, finishing a respectable seventh. This signalled the start of his ultra career with his first world record being set in 1977 over 50km at Epsom.
In 1977 and 78 he won the historic prestigious London to Brighton road race in record times and over about the next seven years set the majority of his world records.
A serious accident while working offshore led to his retraining as a teacher and teaching physics at Lossiemouth High School where he met future wife and colleague Isabel whom he married in the early 1980s.
Later he lectured in electronics at Moray College of Education in Elgin, regularly running to and from work from home in Lossiemouth.
By now he was running for Forres Harriers and Moray Road Runners for whom he would turn out regularly at local cross country and road races despite his global commitments.
Among his myriad achievements he also counted 10 Scottish and 17 British international vests at marathon and ultra distance events, numerous world age best performances, running 166 miles for a 24 hours record, 100 miles in 11½ hours for another world record, a 200km world record at Coatbridge in just over 16½ hours, 12 marathon wins at Moray, Black Isle, Caithness and Lochaber, and hill run successes at Cairngorm, Mamore and Achmony, among others.
In 1992 he was also awarded the coveted George Dallas Memorial Trophy by Scottish Athletics.
Friends set up the Ritchie Foundation in his honour which over the years has raised large sums of money particularly for cancer charities. Despite being diagnosed with diabetes in 1996 with consequent wider health issues, he continued running till 2011.
Triple Scottish marathon champion and friend Colin Youngson commented: “He was the toughest and most non-complaining guy I met, a superb runner and a great man.”
He is survived by his wife, children Claire and Anna and five grandchildren.