The Universal Ultra
av Andy Milroy

Although any race beyond 42.195km / 26m385 yards is reckoned to be an ultra, across the world there is one particular distance which has become universally popular - the 100km/62.1 miles. 100km races have been held as far north as Baffin Island in the North West Territories of the Canadian Arctic and as far south as Puerto Varas in Chile; as far west as Honolulu in Hawaii, and as far east as Lake Saroma in northern Japan. The races are held on tracks, on trails, on road loops and from point to point; through cities, towns, and villages, through forests, across deserts and over mountains. Some cater for a mere handful of enthusiasts, others feature a cast of thousands. This year there will probably be over two hundred such races around the world.
The mile has been around since Roman times, but the kilometre is a relative newcomer. Following the French Revolution of 1789, a new scientific basis for measurement was devised.. A new measure for length was proclaimed - the metre which was to be one ten millionth of the distance from the pole to the equator. The kilometre, a multiple of the metre, took a century to gain acceptance on the Continent as the recognised unit of long distance. (As late as 1881 the Germans, for instance, were still using German miles.) Thus, competition over the 100km distance did not really begin until the end of the nineteenth century.
There are, however, accounts of walkers and runners tackling distances that approximated the 100km for many years before 1900. In the tenth century, Alswith, a walker in the Isle of Man, an island between England and Ireland, reputedly covered 112km/ 70 miles in a day. Some two hundred years later, an English shoemaker named Gilbert walked the 106.2km/ 66 miles from Canterbury to London in a day.
Coming into more modern times, in 1709, a Russian, Vronov, walked a 100 vestes [about 107km] between daybreak and sunset. In Britain the great pedestrian of the early nineteenth century, Captain Barclay, twice walked 102.9km/ 64 miles in ten hours - once from Charing Cross to Newmarket [1802], and on the second occasion, from Charing Cross to Seaford in Sussex [1805]. Perhaps the most precise mark from this period was achieved by a Mr Hooper who covered 101.3km/63 miles in 11:38:45.
The best mark for the approximate 100km distance came in the 6 Day Era of the 1870s and 80s . In a shorter event, the British pedestrian, George Cartwright, produced an eight hour record of 101.2km/ 62m1584y in 1884.
Thus when French ultra long distance racing flowered in the 1890s, there were already well established marks at the approximate 100km distance and beyond. It was from this `Belle Epoque' in France that the 100km at last emerged as a recognised distance in its own right. In 1902 one of the top French walkers and runners, Emil Anthoine, produced a startling 7:25 for the distance on the road, en route to a longer performance. How accurate the distance was measured is hard to say after all this time.
After this brief flourish, Ultrarunning went into temporary decline, and the 100km distance was left to the walkers. 100km road races were held in Germany, Italy and France , and walkers like Carl Brockmann, Harold Ross and Donato Pavesi gradually reduced the walking best to under ten hours. The last of these performances came in 1922.
Four years later, one of the most intriguing episodes in the history of the 100km event took place. A 100km race was held as part of the Central American Games held in Mexico in 1926, and two Tarahumara Indians, Tomas Zafiro and Leonicio San Miguel ran from Puchuca to Mexico City in a time of 9h37:00 Newspaper reporters at the finished recorded that they were not even panting. Their run created so much interest in Mexico that Government officials and sportsmen petitioned the International Athletics authorities to accept the record as official, and moreover, to include the 100km event in the 1928 Olympic Games at Amsterdam. Nothing came from these efforts.
The leading Ultrarunners of the `20s and `30s, Arthur Newton and Hardy Ballington, surpassed the Tarahumaras' time for the approximate 100km distance, if we look at their splits for 65 miles/104.6km in their Bath 100km mile runs .Newton running 8:51 in 1928 and Ballington running 8:17:30 in 1937
These marks were to be improved in the 1950s when the South African
Wally Hayward clocked 7:41:36 for 62 ¼ miles/100.18km on the track
en route to his 24 hour world best , and Britain's Ron Hopcroft, 7:33:29
for 64 miles/102.9km on the Bath road. Hopcroft's mark was set in
1958, just before the 100km road event was to begin its re-emergence on to the world stage.
French walkers like Florimond Cornet and Henri Caron had gradually edged closer to the absolute 100km best of the Mexican Zafiro, and in 1953 Caron had recorded 9:32:52. It was in fact as a walking race that the Biel 100km event in Switzerland began in 1959, but it rapidly became a go as you please event, and by 1961 the winning time was down to 8:43. The Swiss race was joined by the Liberec [Reicheneau] race in the then Czechoslovakia in 1965., the Czech race being won in 11:54 that year, with walkers leading the way once more.
Four years later the Unna race in West Germany began, and was won by Helmut Urbach. [Urbach subsequently won the race four more times - as compared with his seven wins at Biel] The now defunct Jeugdtehuis 100km in Belgium began in the same year.
1972 seems to have been a watershed in the development of the event. The
inaugural Millau race in France was won by Serge Cottereau, and the
first Italian 100km at Turin went to the Italian Bonini. The Finns had their first race at Jarvenpaa, switching to Hartola in later years. Also in Scandinavia, the Danish event at Aarhus, Copenhagen joined the rapidly growing list of 100kms.
Two years later the world's two Super Powers, not wishing to be outdone, introduced their own 100km events. Lake Waramaug was to be the first such race in the United States, and Odessa the first in the then Soviet Union. By 1977 there was a 100km Club organising track races in South Africa, and a track 100km had taken place in San Sebastian in northern Spain. During the seventies and early eighties the spread of the road 100km event in Europe proceeded steadily . Winschoten (Netherlands), Hirtenberg and Bruckendorf (Austria),Santander (Spain), Lincoln
(Britain) and Varazdin (Yugoslavia) were added to the calendar of 100km events.
The first such race in Australasia /Oceania was probably a track 100km was held in Canterbury, New Zealand in 1980, although Australian George Perdon had clocked 7:26:14 en route to his 100 mile track run in 1970.
In the mid eighties 100km running began in South America with races in Brazil and Chile, and in 1987 the Saroma 100km began in Japan. At the last count there were 100km events in at least fifty countries around the globe. Many countries are content with just two or three a year, but two nationalities seem particularly addicted. The French put on well over twenty such races each year. The Japanese go in for numbers in 100km races, as opposed to numbers of 100km races. There are currently three Japanese 100km races with a thousand or more starters each year, and they also have several smaller 100kms with only 150 or so runners as well..
The largest 100km race for individual runners is not held in Japan, however, but is in fact, the grandfather of them all - Biel in Switzerland, with 2813 starters and 1,849 finishers in 1996. Another large field also tackled the Italian Faenza race which had around 2500 starters that year. However the time limits on 100km in Continental Europe are often generous - sometimes 24 hours, which thus throws the event open to much wider spectrum of walkers and joggers.
In the early 80s the 100km event developed a stage further and national championships at this distance began to be recognised first in France and the United States, then in Germany and Spain. From that it was short step to international competition, and in 1984 a Three Countries Cup was developed by Harry Arndt. This was an individual and team competition based on the results of Vogelgrun [France], Winschoten [Netherlands] and Rodenbach [then West Germany]. From this competition in 1986 emerged the 100km Europa Cup circuit competition which was enlarged to include Torhout [Belgium], Hartola [Finland], Hirtenberg [Austria], Geneva [Switzerland and Santander [Spain].
In 1987 the first IAU World 100km Championships was held, at Torhout in Belgium. This was just a competition for individuals. The following year, at Santander, came the first IAU 100km with IAAF recognition. In 1990 the event went out of Europe for the first time, when it was held in Duluth in the United States. In 1994 the race went to Asia, hosted by the Japanese Lake Saroma event. The Duluth event had seen the first
international team competition, which by 1997 had grown to 23 men
national men's team and 13 national women's teams.
1990 was a very significant year in the development of the event. At an IAAF Council meeting at Athens in September the 100km was added to this list of officially recognised road distances. Also in that year the Inter-Continental 100km Cup replaced the Europa Cup competition, enabling runners around the world to compete internationally, in races which were reasonably close to them.
Also in the early 1990s the European 100km, under the patronage of the European Athletics Association , was first held.
The concept of a 100km team race open to groups began in Hong Kong, and
by 2000, that event had 900 teams and 3600 competitors start the
race. There were 2509 finishers.
Over the years, several runners have made a major impact upon the 100km event. The original `Mr 100km' was Helmut Urbach of the then West Germany. Since the 1960s he won some twenty-two races in five different countries. The Swiss Biel race was a particular favourite of his, he won it seven times from 1967 onwards. He was also the first man to duck under seven hours for the track 100km. In 1975 he ran 6:59:57 to hold the world best for a week.[The following weekend Cavin Woodward won the Tipton 100 miler in a new world best, passing the 100km point in a world 100km best of 6:25:28.]
The most prolific 100km runner of alltime is Henri Girault of France who has probably run close to 450 thus far.[ as of August 2000 he had run 434] His 100km total changes almost weekly. He has run a 100km in every continent except Antarctica, and at the last count had run 100kms in some 26 countries.
The most remarkable 100km performance belongs to a runner who ran 6:18 in his first ever 100km. In his second he ran 6:10:20. After close to twenty years, Don Ritchie's great track record is still in a class of its own. On the road the world loop best is 6:16:41 by Jean Paul Praet of Belgium, and the point to point best is 6:13:33 by Takahiro Sunada set in 1998. Apart the marks set by the now retired Praet, sub 6:20 marks are very rare, and even performances under 6:30 are uncommon.
The greatest 100km competitor of recent times has been Konstantin Santalov of Russia, who has won the World 100km Challenge three times. He was famed for running high class 100km races very close to one another. The most remarkable example of this was when he won the European 100km at Winschoten in 1993 in 6:26:20 one weekend and then next ran 6:23:15 at Amiens.
For women, the 100km was opened up internationally by two of the runners who also set world marathon bests, Christa Vahlensieck [then West Germany] and Chantal Langlace of France. In 1976 the German woman ran 7:50:37 at Unna.; four years later Langlace ran 7:27:22 at Amiens and in 1984 at Migennes 7:26:01. On courses measured by calibrated bicycle it was to be the Americans Sandra Kiddy [7:49:16] and Marcy Schwam [7:47:28] who led the way.
It was at the IAU 100km Championships at Santander in 1988 that Ann Trason [USA] first came to international prominence. She won the world title in a new world best of 7:30:49. Germany's Birgit Lennartz improved this first to 7:26:52 a year later , and then the following year reduced it still further to 7:18:57.
In 1993 Ann Trason took the world best once more, with 7:09:44 at Amiens, but her greatest 100km was to come in the 1995 World 100km Challenge at Winschoten when she ran 7:00:48 to set the current world best.
In the late 90s the Japanese have emerged as a force to be reckoned with, as first Noriko Kawaguchi became the second best female performer of alltime with 7:11:42, and then Yashfumi Mikami produced the best male mark seen for three years in 1997, followed by the fastest road time yet on a calibrated bicycle measured course, 6:13:33, by Takahiro Sunada set in 1998.
The year 2000 saw the biggest breakthrough yet by a woman, who, incidentally was also a Japanese. Using the Lake Saroma race as a training run in her marathon preparation, Tomoe Abe ran 6:33:11, to surpass the previous best mark by some twenty-seven minutes. Although the Saroma course is point to point and there is evidence of wind assistance, this cannot detract from this phenomenal performance. Sunada and Abe's marks are the best ever debuts made at the 100km distance.
The latest nation to emerge as a major power in the 100km is Brazil. Valmir Nunes, winner of the Faenza World 100km Cup in 1991, was to show the potential of South America in Ultrarunning; he was to follow this up with another decisive win in the 1995 World Challenge at Winschoten. In 1998 he was to be joined by the most significant South American women to emerge in World Ultrarunning - Maria Auxiliadora Venancio. who ran
7:20:22 at Cubatao in August 1998 , defeating the then existing
holder of the World title, Valentina Lyakhova convincingly.
Interestingly the national bests male/female for the 100km for Japan and Brazil are both superior to those of Russia, usually recognised as the strongest nation in the 100km at present.
With Asia, South America and Europe contending for supremacy over the 100km, the strength and talent of Africa must not be overlooked. South Africa has over 25,000 ultrarunners, with several of their ultra races having over 2000 runners, the 90km Comrades alone attracts over 20,000 runners in 2000! Potentially the South Africans are a threat to anyone over the 100km distance, but with their primary focus being on the 90km Comrades, that potential may not be realised.
As to the future, Don Ritchie's 6:10 will take a few years to surpass. The first sub-6 hour 100km will probably it will take a 2:10 or faster marathon runner . Sunada ran 2:10 for a new marathon personal best at the Berlin marathon in 2000... The increased pressure of the international competition has made runners more cautious, and less willing to go for all out assaults on records. With perhaps just two or three opportunities to excel in a season, and positions in national teams and international championships at stake, runners are reluctant to push through 50km in under three hours and take the risk crashing or not finishing, when a more conservative strategy will bring them success.
The first a sub-7 hour 100km by a woman has already been achieved, but it could take some time before another woman breaks through this barrier.
Ultrarunners tackle a huge range of events from 50km to multiday monsters stretching to 5000km and beyond. Classic races like the London to Brighton, the Comrades, the Spartathlon and trail 100 milers like the Western States will always be a major attraction for many runners, but to thousands of others around the world, Ultrarunning means one particular event, the 100km - the Universal Ultra.