Monday, 25 January 2010

Ultra legends from the 80s

Nothing much to report on the running front as the  knee is still goosed and unless things improve this year's Fling might be getting flung, but I will see how things go in the next few weeks.  While I was digging in the loft for my LA Marathon video, I found a pile of old home videos with races from the early 90s - mainly Springburn Harriers' races but also Edinburgh- Glasgow Relay races and quite a few National Cross Country Championships.   There is also a relay from Bishopbriggs to the top of Ben Lomond.   I know a few of the harriers want some copies, so I will try and get them transfered onto disc.

A few weeks ago I was reading the latest issue of PB and enjoyed the article on the top 10 Scottish ultra moments by Adrian Stott.  I have to agree with Adrian that, without doubt, Don Ritchie is the greatest ultra runner this country has produced and his 100km record in 1978 is regarded as one of the greatest distance runs of all time - 6 hours 10 min 20 sec (av pace 5.59 per mile). 

I was lucky to see him perform in the 80s and in 1983 watched Donald run at Coatbridge when he broke the 200km world best in terrible conditions - gale force winds and horizontal rain battered him all day and night.  I left the track late at night as he raced around the track with only a tee shirt and shorts to protect him from the elements, while the rest of the field were all wrapped up in full wet suits.  As I lay in bed that night and listened to the rain battering the window, I thought nobody would continue, but as I entered the stadium early the next morning there was Donald still lapping in the same attire!  A truly incredible performance which got zero coverage from any newspapers in Scotland but without doubt he is one of the top ultra legends of the 20th century.

During the 80s another ultra legend appeared - South African Bruce Fordyce.  In 1978 when we lived in South Africa I ran my first ultra, well 14 miles of it as I was my dad's seconder during the Comrades Marathon and I ran the last 14 miles to help him get to the finish in Durban.  The Comrades at that time had about 3000 runners and each runner, if they wanted, could have helpers following them with drinks etc but as the fields grew this was withdrawn due to huge traffic jams.  We had relatives living near the start and my uncle offered to take me on his moped with buckets over each handlebar and rucksacks full of drinks and food to allow us to get about easier.  As the field set off, we jumped onto the bike and shot off in the dark down quiet back streets that my uncle knew and that is one of my memories of that fantastic day, holding onto my uncle as we bombed along in the darkness out to catch the runners as they appeared down the hill at Polly Shorts as the sun started to rise.  The atmosphere during the race some 32 years ago with 3 000 runners was great and now with over 15 000 it must be incredible.

There were a few things that caused the race to become so popular and one was the tv coverage that started in the 80s when the whole race was covered from start to finish.  The other main reason was Bruce Fordyce - the king of the Comrades.  Bruce was the master tactician and thrilled the crowds and tv viewers with his surge in the second half of the race and flew past everyone as they dropped like flies.  I have videos of Fordyce racing in the Comrades from 82-86 and his run of 1986 is one of the ultra runs of the century. He set a new course record for the  down race ( it alternates each year) of 5 hrs 24.07 that was to last 21 years!  It was finally broken in 2007 by Russian Leonid Shvetsov, a man who had finished 13th in the Athens Olympic Marathon and we need to remember Fordyce set the record when athletics was still an amateur  sport.

Fordyce won the Comrades 9 times, including 8 in a row, but he was not a one race man and he also won the London to Brighton 3 times, beating the likes of Don Ritchie and Ian Thomson (2 hrs 9 min marathon runner).  Fordyce did the double 3 times by winning both in the same year. He set a world best for 50 miles during the 1983 London to Brighton passing the 50 mile marker in 4 hrs 50.21 and then the next year went to Chicago and ran an American all-comers record of  4 hrs 50.51 which gave him the two fastest times in the world.  A time of 6 hrs 25 min gave him the world best for 100km on the road in 1989 but it was his runs in the Comrades that made him, in my opinion, the greatest ultra runner of the last 30 years.

The video below shows the closest race in the history of the Comrades and the man who collapses just before the line is Tommy Malone from Shettleston who was a club mate of my father when they were boys running for Shettleston Harriers in the 50s.  Tommy emigrated to South Africa in the 60s and in the year previous to this dramatic finish, he won the Comrades at his first attempt and was attempting to retain it when he collapsed 80 yards from the line and lost by 1 second!  Later, when we went to live in South Africa, Tommy was still running and we used to meet up regularly at road races.


  1. Robert some great reading there,things l never know even about your personal life etc but here's hoping the injury heals in time to allow to run at this years event if not keep the chin up and look ahead.

    Keep blogging even if it is only stato stuff as l could read this all day long.


    John the Jogger

  2. Hi Robert,

    Fascinating stuff, particularly about Scottish Ultra legends like Don Ritchie and Tommy Malone.
    Hope your injury recovers in time for the Fling.
    Wearing my SUMS co-ordinator hat, could you send us a PDF ( of the fantastic photo on your blog banner. The SUMS trophies may feature such a view as a backdrop and your picture looks ideal if we go down that route.