(Pre-emptive caveat: lists are a load of wank.)
Shortly after Rob Krar’s recent win at Leadville Andy Jones-Wilkins posted this on Twitter.
Among the conversations this started was a more general, more parochial debate; the best UK ultra performances. Any distance, any era, any gender.
Given that I have had a lot of time on my hands in the last 2 weeks I’ve done a little navel-gazing and come up with a list. Following Andy’s lead I’ve stuck to 5. Here they are, in coincidental chronological order.
1. 1978 Don Ritchie – 100k World Record 6.10.20
Comparing across different eras, distances and terrains is problematic. Ultra is so broad a term as to be of little use. Weighing the relative merits of athletic feats which have almost nothing in common, the waters are bound to get slightly muddy. So here’s a little clarity.
Don Ritchie is the best ultra runner this country has ever produced, and this is his best performance. Whereas some entries on this list are a question of taste, or require a little context, Ritchie’s 100k world record is objectively staggering.
Running on the Chrystal Palace track in south London, the self-styled Stubborn Scotsman averaged a whisker under six minute mile pace for six and a bit hours; just shy of two and a half 2:38 marathons for all you bumper stickered tosspots who only think in multiples of 26.2 miles.
Rather than being good for its time, this run was enduringly great. When Don died on June 16th this year his record still stood. In almost 40 years no-one had improved upon his mark. Not on the road, not on the track, not in any of almost 30 100k World Championships which had been held since. It was the oldest record in track and field, two fingers to the notion of the inexorable progress of sport.
But then, before Don’s funeral had even taken place, it was broken. On June 24th, 8 days after Ritchie passed away, Nao Kazami ran 6.09.14 at the Lake Saroma Ultramarathon in Japan.
The Stubborn Scotsman’s most stubborn record outlived him by little more than a week.
2. 1992 Helene Diamantides – Dragon’s Back Race
I’m not one to jump up and down when women win races outright. Generally, I think it’s a sign that the best men didn’t show up and, more importantly, I find it is a fixation which detracts from consideration of the actual merits of a performance.
None of which is relevant to Helene Diamantides’ win in the unaugural 5 day race down the mountainous spine of Wales. Partnering up with Martin Stone (who cruelly misses out on inclusion in this list due to the ~10% physiological advantage he carried the length of the country between his thighs), Helene beat the best long distance hill runners of the day. The second place pair of Adrian Belton and Mark McDermot were no slouches; OMM wins, the records for Ramsay’s Round and Tranter’s Round, hairy ol’ balls and sweet, performance enhancing testosterone coursing through their veins.
The best men showed up. Helene won anyway.
3. 1995 Mark Williams – The Barkley Marathons
(What do you mean my biases are showing?)
A counterpoint to the durable brilliance of Don Ritchie, this is the kind of OfItsTime accomplishment without which this list would be incomplete.
In a world where incremental improvements are the norm, from time to time someone produces a performance which genuinely shifts the boundaries/breaks new ground/choose your own spatial metaphor.
Deep in the Tennessee woods in 1995, Mark Williams and his Bill Gates glasses did something categorically unlike anything that had gone before. Up to this point, the 100 mile Barkley finish had fended off everyone and no-one. Despite the participation of a number of notable runners, Tom Possert and a crack team from the Soviet Union among them, almost nobody showed up to Frozen Head State Park intending to try and run 5 loops. Williams didn’t succeed where others had failed; he succeeded where it had never occurred to others to try.
Mark didn’t know it was a joke.
4. 2010 John Fleetwood – Winter Rigby’s Round
(Don’t worry, this is as far down Ally’s Esoteric Rabbit Hole as I plan on taking you.)
Although many people, perhaps most, would barely recognise John’s solo, unsupported 54 hour December trudge around the Cairngorms as running, to me it represents a logical endpoint of everything the sport of hill running can and should be.
The right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.
Setting off into picture postcard perfection, John’s outing soon became the stuff of nightmares; alone, in the dark, in freezing rain, he continued on across the most exposed, inhospitable, isolated hills in the country. I’ll stop my synopsis there, because a first hand account, and some incredible photos, are available here. Do yourself a favour, stop reading this shite and have a look. The initial commitment is impressive enough, but the tenacity John showed in seeing it through is mind blowing.
Although I’ve never even met him, I can think of few runners I admire as much as John Fleetwood.
5. 2014 Ellie Greenwood – Comrades Marathon
I’ll be honest, I pulled this one out of my arse. Looking back up the list, a big win in a competitive race was notably absent and I felt compelled to include something a little more mainstream. Comrades is the oldest, biggest, most competitive ultramarathon there is, so for all that it’s not a race I’m passionate about, a win there, particularly in the modern era, must measure up to any other competitive achievement. Not only did Ellie win, but she did so in some style, overturning an 8 minute deficit in the final 18 kilometres.
With her win and course record at Western States in 2012, Ellie may be her own closest competitor for this slot, though Lizzie Hawker is no doubt due some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award for her 5 wins at UTMB.
It is blindingly obvious that this list tells you much more about me than it does about the history of UK Very Long Distance Running. AJW’s picks were contentious and he only had to choose from men running 100 miles in the last 20 years. Attempting to throw the net this widely inevitably results in many deserving runners being excluded.
And that’s only the ones I know about. Thinking this through has brought into focus just how ignorant I am about much of ultra running. Someone else’s list might be made up entirely of people I’ve never heard of, doing jaw dropping things in areas of the sport that I know nothing about. If anyone feels like educating me, I’d appreciate it.