The Greatest 100 Miles

by Andy Milroy

Distance running can be a fairly predictable sport; runners set off at an even pace to finish in a time close to that they have achieved before. Sometimes however, a runner emerges who is touched by genius, who seeks to break the mould.  Over thirty-five years ago, such a runner produced his greatest performance, a performance that still is regarded with awe by ultrarunners across the world, not just for the times achieved, but the sheer audacity of the run.

On October 25, 1975, at Tipton in England, perhaps the greatest 100mile race ever staged took place. It was a British Road Runners Club promotion held three weeks after the London to Brighton Race. All 18 competitors had been very carefully selected from a far greater number who had wanted to run, and although only three of these had previously competed in a track “100 miler,” all were vastly experienced ultrarunners.

The two most experienced entrants were probably Ron Bentley, the then holder of the 24 hour track record 259.603 km, although until the last moment he was a doubtful starter because of injury, and New Zealander Siegfried Bauer, who had averaged 124 km a day in running the 1,600 km from Pretoria to Cape Town and 114 km miles a day on a 2125 km run of the length of New Zealand.  Bauer had also run 6:56:08 at the Unna 100 Km in Germany in early September. But for many, the most intriguing competitor was Cavin Woodward, who had won the Brighton in 5:12:07, just over a minute outside the course record, and who had also set a new world best for the 30 mile track event earlier in the year.

Before the race Woodward had looked at Derek Kay’s splits in setting the world track best for 100 miles (11:56:56), and decided that such even paced running was not his style.  The Woodward method of running a race was to go off as fast as he could for as long as he could: “No matter what pace you start at, you will slow eventually, so start at a fast pace which will give you momentum.”  He added, “The reason why I go out in front is because I want to run my own race.  If you are in a bunch, and the front runners stop, you have to chop your stride. In front I can speed up when I feel like it, slow down when I come to a hill, judge the traffic, and do what I want to do.”

However, even he had his doubts about his ability to blast 100 miles from the front.  As he said later, “My one big problem with this race was I did not know if I could cover the distance.  The longest race I had run was the Brighton; I knew I could run 50 miles, so I decided to go for as fast a time as possible for 50 miles and then ‘hang on’ as long as I could to see if I could cover the 100 mile course.”  So he devised three schedules.  The first would break the world record of 11:56:56 by 20 minutes; the second would break it by five minutes; and the third would break John Tarrant’s British record of 12:31.

The first schedule had ten mile [16km] splits of 55, 59, 62, 64, and 65 minutes for the first 50 miles, giving a 50 mile time of 5:05. Woodward would see how things went, and if possible try to break the world record of 5:01:01.  Woodward used a carbo loading diet prior to the race.  He ate kippers, grapefruit and so on for three days and then ate normally with potatoes, sandwiches and the like.  During the race he was to use the electrolyte drink supplied by the organizers, in this case Accolade, the race sponsors.

A dull and misty dawn broke to reveal a scene reminiscent of some medieval tournament, with brightly coloured tents that would shelter the many handlers ready to bring aid to the present day warriors who would be fighting out on the yielding but soft cinder track.  The day was never to be warmer than 12 degrees C —not really warm enough for comfortable running.

When the race started, Woodward took off like a marathon runner, a speed that appeared to surprise the timekeepers and recorders as they sat in their drafty stand.  Even those who were used to his blitz starts had figured he would treat an event four times the marathon with at least some circumspection.

The first mile was passed in 5:19, five miles[8km] in 27:49, ten miles[16km] in 56:27, 15 miles in 1:25:22, and 20 miles [32km] in 1:54:26.  At this point, Woodward was running at almost ten and one half miles [17.5km] per hour, and his very fast initial pace had apparently seduced the majority of the field to respond.  Fifteen of the 18 at 20 miles were inside a world record schedule. (But that is not too unusual in an ultra race of that duration.  Despite their most earnest pre-race pledges, male ultrarunners tend to go off too fast!)

When Woodward reached 20 miles, he was 26 minutes ahead of the even paced schedule to break the existing record, and his lead over the field was 16 minutes, with Martin Thompson of Australia in second place in 2:10:37, Derek Funnell third just over three minutes back, and Tom O’Reilly less than a minute behind him.  They were followed by a group two minutes later consisting of Siegfried Bauer, Fred Howell, Bill Carr, Alan Richards, and John Berry. Woodward reached the marathon point in 2:31:22.

By 30 miles [48.2km], Woodward was now two minutes and ten seconds inside his fastest schedule, so things were looking good.  He had a few twinges in his right calf, and shoe trouble, but nothing major.  The 50km mark was passed in under 3:01 – this is in a race that was scheduled as well over three times 50km!

By 40 miles [64.3km] he was 3:42 inside schedule, so it was set up for the next ten miles. Laps of 1:36 were planned for the next 20 laps, and 1:33 for the last 20 laps; he covered 80km in under 4:57 and reached 50 miles in 4:58:53 to be the first man to run faster than ten miles [16km] an hour for 50 miles.

Woodward was relieved to have broken the 50 mile record; it meant that the effort had been worthwhile.  Something had been achieved even if he did not succeed in breaking the 100 mile world best.  He relaxed a little, knowing that he could take two hours longer to complete the second 50 miles than he had the first, and still break the world 100 mile mark.  He pushed on for three more miles before he made his first toilet stop.  He had been determined that he would not do that until after 50 miles.  Tom O’Reilly was second through the 50 mile point with 5:32:49, having overtaken Martin Thompson (5:45:20).

Woodward’s schedule for the next 50 miles was ten mile [16km] splits of 74, 75, 76, 80, and 86 minutes. In the first 6 hours Woodward had run 94.54 km. He took another stop to check on a blister at 59 miles but decided that it would last out to the finish.

By 60 miles Woodward was nine minutes inside his fastest schedule, and pushed on to take the 100 km world best with a time of 6:25:28, taking a massive 34 minutes off the previous best mark which had been set in Germany only the week before. (The RRC had only just decided to start recognizing metric ultra distances, and Woodward was not really aware there was a 100km world best. )

Thirty years later such 100km times are still rare; only one runner has bettered it on the track.  Reflecting on his run, 20 years later,Woodward felt that he could easily have improved on the 6:25, remembering his various stops, but that might have had long term consequences for his final 100 mile time.).  In second place, Tom O’Reilly had produced the then third best track mark of alltime of 7:00:18.

By 70 miles [112km] Woodward had fallen back to six minutes inside his fastest schedule, but still covered 119km in 8 hours.  Following a further stop at 78 miles, Woodward was now only two minutes inside schedule.  By the time 80 miles [130km] was passed he was paying the price of his earlier speed and there was a marked drop in his pace.

There was just the chance that Tom O’Reilly, who was gradually reducing the distance between himself and the leader, would provide an upset that would have been unthinkable earlier in the day.  However, O’Reilly himself was having problems.  He had three bad spells between 65 and 80 miles, and stopped each time. On the final occasion, the tough veteran, Ron Bentley had said to him as he passed, “Get going.”  He did, and was not to stop again until he reached the finish.

Dr John Brotherhood took a sample of Woodward’s urine, decided that he was beginning to suffer from fatigue, and advised him that his temperature was dropping too fast and that more clothing was needed.  An additional Tshirt, a pullover, and rugby shirt, plus tracksuit bottoms, started to warm him up, and eased the pins and needles that he had begun to suffer in his arms, perhaps because of his high arm action.

Despite these problems, Woodward took the world 150 km best with 10:44:55, and from then began to pick up his pace, with the end in sight. From 90 miles he was running sub 5:00 minutes kilometres. From 95 miles he pushed hard, all the time coming closer to his fastest schedule. His last mile was 7:07, and he broke the world record by 18:02 with 11:38:54, bettering Derek Kay’s record set in Durban, South Africa, in 1972.

Woodward had taken 6:40:01 for his second 50 miles, a differential of 1:41:08 between the two 50 mile splits.  His 50km splits were 3:01, 6:25:28, 10:44:55, with 54 minutes for his last 10.93 km. Mentally he had kept going, and coped with the repetition of track running by checking his lap times and working them out.

A large crowd gathered to cheer the winner in the final stages, but now he had finished, the other competitors had to push on steadily into the darkness for another four hours or more.  Tom O’Reilly finished 23 minutes 28 seconds behind for second place, (taking third place on the then world alltime track rankings), and in third, a further 32 minutes, 19 seconds after came local runner Bill Carr, who had run a very even pace while other runners had had their good and bad patches.  The rest of the field came in at regular intervals until Bob Jeans finished in 13th place, 12 minutes inside the tough 16 hour time limit. The final results were:

1. Cavin Woodward 11:38:54
2. Tom O’Reilly 12:02:32
3. Bill Carr 12:34:51
4. Martin Thompson,AUS 12:42:50
5. Fred Howell 12:49:29
6. Alan Richards 12:59:48
7. Ron Bentley 13:29:56
8. Siegfried Bauer,NZL 13:31:55
9. Derek Funnell 13:49:24
10. Bob Meadowcroft 14:42:30
11. John Berry 14:55:38
12. Ken Shaw 15:35:44
13. Bob Jeans 15:47:58

Woodward commented afterwards, “I was told before the race that the one thing I could not do was blast off with 5m30s miles [3m43s kms].  Of course I did, and I broke the world 50 mile record.  Then I heard, ‘He will now drop out somewhere in the race, so who will break the 100 mile record?’  I went on and broke the 100 mile record as well . . . It was a great sense of achievement when I did do it, as I had had doubts.”

“I did not want to prove everybody had been wrong. I proved that it could be done.  I hope I have altered the outlook of some runners.  I hope I proved that running even paced is not the only way of winning races and breaking records.  I would like to think that if a runner wants to try and run ultras fast right from the start against the wishes of his coach or trainer he could convincingly argue that that was the way Cavin Woodward did it.”

If Woodward had not run the 100 miles in his own way, it is possible that people would still be saying that the only way to run a 100 miles is to start slow, and pace yourself through the race.  Woodward had no injuries following the race, and in fact represented his club in the Birmingham League races the following weekend, being one of their six scoring runners!