While the wind howls and the waves lash the rocky coastline, a small, lean middle-aged man suddenly appears, stepping lightly over rocks and boulders, before running up steep paths. Don Ritchie is in training by the Moray Firth in Scotland, and for someone who has run 166 miles, non-stop, in 24 hours, a gale force wind and the odd 10 miles are a breeze.
In case you think you have misread those figures, let me repeat them: 166 miles, non-stop in 24 hours. To put it another way, six back-to-back marathons.The little Scot from Elgin did this six years ago when he was 46 years old. Despite his age, he plans to appear in more 24-hour specials in the near future.
His list of ultra-distance achievements is remarkable. He has held no fewer than 14 world records since 1977, ranging from "tiddlers" such as 50 miles, to his 24-hour marathon of marathons. "Aye, that was a bit long," he conceded, revealing that he is human - just. "It hurt a bit after that."
Even today, at the age of 52, the man still holds four world records, plus a host of over-45 and over-50 world bests, and is considered good enough still to represent his country, mixing with athletes 30 years his junior. Ritchie will be on the startline in Basle on 2 May hoping to add the 1997 European 24-hour championship to his impressive collection of honours. He has run the London and New York marathons, of course, but views them as no more than a quick sprint in comparison. A real run is what he did in 1989, when he set the Land's End to John O'Groats solo record, completing it in just 10 days, 15 hours and 25 minutes.
So what sort of person can, or even wants to run these incredible distances? "It helps if you are a little crazy," the electronics lecturer at Moray College, Elgin, admitted. "I think you also need to be a calm, determined and patient person, with a high tolerance for prolonged discomfort. I actually find it therapeutic because the physical stress of running neutralises the mental stress caused by work. After a run I feel calm and content."
Well, he certainly gives himself enough time to think things over. Not surprisingly, for a man who sees even a 50-mile run as nothing to shout about, he cannot understand why people find his achievement staggering. Even the Queen, when she presented Ritchie with the insignia of the MBE a couple of years ago, pointed out that he did seem to run an awfully long way. "She seemed to be well-briefed, and after discussing the fact that I can run for a whole day and night, she said, 'That must be a lot of hard work'. The thing is, I've been doing it now for so long, that I rarely find it that hard. Of course, there have been times when it has got uncomfortable, and after the Land's End to John O'Groats run, where I lost 14lb, it took me five months and seven courses of antibiotics to recover. But in general there's never been a problem."
Typically, Ritchie has played himself down. When pushed, he revealed exactly what he went through during this run. "I developed a feverish cold soon after the start and then faced vicious head winds and sleet. The 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 finally reached Land's End." Somehow, he failed to sell the idea that this is fun.
He has become a familiar sight to his students, arriving each morning after a quick eight-mile sprint from his house, and returning home in the same fashion each evening. When I asked him about stitch he had to dig deep into his memory banks to recall the feeling. "It must have been 30 years since I last had that problem," he said.
Not even Ritchie set out to run such distances when he first discovered athletics. In fact, at school he was a very useful sprinter. But having joined a local running club, he soon discovered that he could run further and further. "Each time I ended a run I had plenty left inside me, so I entered longer and longer races. Soon I was finding even marathons were not long enough for my liking, so in my late twenties I turned to ultra- distance running."
His diet is similar to any fit sportsman - loads of fish, chicken, high fibre and carbohydrates, and his health is remarkable. Like the stitch, Ritchie can hardly remember the last time illness prevented him from attending his work.
Ultra-distance running has been, and will probably always be, a minority sport in Britain, even though, in countries such as France and Spain, it has a higher profile. Ritchie has picked up the odd lump of prize money in his time - "a few hundred pounds over the years" - and was sponsored by Nike until recently, but he accepts that it is unlikely to become the next boom sport.
"You don't get too many people trying it because it's very time-consuming and it can ask a lot of you," he admitted. "But it's in my blood, and as long as my health stands up, I'll carry on until the day I die."
He already reckons he has run about 15,000 miles in races and training in his life, at an average of 120 miles a week, and with the small matter of the European championships to compete in, goodness knows how many more miles and records he will clock up.
Judging by his reaction to my suggestion about giving him a lift home in the car from college that evening, there is plenty left in the tank. "Oh, no, thank you, it's just a small jog."
By now the wind is whistling, the wind chill factor is making it numbingly cold, and it is pitch black outside, but Don Ritchie, ultra-distance runner extraordinaire, is looking forward to his nightly fix.
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