Donald Ritchie, 73, record-setting ultrarunner

As a student in his native Scotland, Donald Ritchie became known as a gifted 400-meter runner.

At the finish, he always noticed that his competitors were exhausted but that he was barely warmed up. So he moved up through the distances, eventually becoming a marathon runner, once clocking 2 hours, 19 minutes, 34 seconds in the London Marathon.

Even after marathons, when his fellow competitors collapsed at the finish line, he found his stamina had barely been tested.


Mr. Ritchie, whose death June 16 at 73 was announced by the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), became the United Kingdom’s greatest ‘‘ultrarunner’’ and one of the best in the world. He set international records for distances from 50 kilometers to 200 kilometers and in time-based races of up to 24 hours.

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For mountaineers who scale Everest, there is no place higher to summit. For runners like Mr. Ritchie, there was always another mile or horizon. His inspiration helped to increase the number of ultrarunners by 1,000 percent over the past decade, according to the Guardian newspaper.

The IAU, which organizes world championships over ultramarathon distances, said Mr. Ritchie set world records: for 100 miles around a track at London’s Crystal Palace on Sept. 25, 1977, with a time of 11 hours, 50 minutes, 31 seconds; and for 100 kilometers on the same track on Oct. 28, 1978, when he clocked 6 hours, 10 minutes, 20 seconds.

Fellow distance runner Glen Elliot wrote in 1989: ‘‘His 100- mile race at Crystal Palace in the late ’70s still staggers the ultra-distance fraternity . . . a phenomenal pace of under seven minutes per mile — yes, for every mile.’’

On June 16, 1989, at an event in New York City, it took Mr. Ritchie just 11 hours, 51 minutes, 11 seconds for a 100-mile race. That same year, running on behalf of the British charity Cancer Research — the disease killed both his parents — he ran from John O’ Groats at the northerly tip of Scotland to Land’s End at the southerly tip of England. He covered the 844 miles in just over 10 days, the equivalent of more than three marathons a day for 10 days. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 1995.


In 2016, he published his autobiography, ‘‘The Stubborn Scotsman,’’ which has become a guidebook for what he called ‘‘the crazies’’ — men and women who feel compelled to run until they drop.

In the book ‘‘Training for Ultras,’’ written by his friend Andy Milroy, Mr. Ritchie explained: ‘‘To run an ultra marathon, you require a good training background, and a suitable mental attitude, i.e. you must be a little crazy. A certain type of mentality seems to be advantageous. I think you require to be a calm, determined, patient person with a high toleration for prolonged discomfort and a high capacity for delayed gratification.’’

Asked about the secrets of ultra-running, Mr. Ritchie admitted he never stopped at the portable toilets but preferred to urinate while running. It saved him vital minutes or seconds, he said, and dehydration meant that no one but he would probably notice.

Although he came from a working-class family, Donald Alexander Ritchie was born July 6, 1944, in a famous stately home, Haddo House in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Its aristocratic owners had allowed the house and estate to be used as a maternity hospital for mothers evacuated from areas under threat from Luftwaffe bombing, mostly the large shipyard town of Glasgow.

His mother and father had lived in the fishing harbor town of Lossiemouth. It remained Mr. Ritchie’s hometown and base for the rest of his life.


He went to the University of Aberdeen, graduating in 1972 with an electrical engineering degree. At 18, he had started as a 400-meter runner with the Aberdeen Amateur Athletic Club. It was only in 1977, at 33, that he realized he had more stamina than most and decided to run for as long or as far he could. That year, he posted a world record for 50 kilometers by clocking two hours, 51 minutes, 38 seconds at Epsom, outside London.

‘To run an ultra marathon . . . you must be a little crazy.’

He kept running well into his 60s. Wherever he ran, he always tried to get back to his day job on a Monday morning — as a lecturer in electronics at Moray College in Elgin.

In 1983, he married Isobel Stewart. In addition to his wife, he leaves two daughters; a sister; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Ritchie declined endorsements and other profit-making avenues, other than accepting a sponsor who provided his shoes. ‘‘Life in hotels, the travel, the hype, does not appeal,’’ he once told the Glasgow Herald. ‘‘I would not be happy, chasing money.’’