The sport of trail and ultrarunning–the very act of running itself, the natural places through which we travel in doing our sport, and the community which evolves from within it–incite in so many of its participants a rare, unbridled passion. It’s the kind of passion that turns people into racing obsessives, that drives runners to create careers within the sport, and that inspires us to advocate for the protection of the wild places in which we run. It seems sometimes that our passion runs deeper than almost everything else in trail and ultrarunning.
England’s James Elson is one such trail and ultrarunner whose passion drives not only his personal relationship with the sport, but his professional one. What began as a running hobby for him has evolved into a career of race directing, coaching, and community development. Arguably, James has had a significant hand in helping mobilize a nation of trail and ultrarunners. Here is his story.
James is 34, and he lives in London with his wife and two children, who are both under the age of three. He has been running ultramarathons since 2005 and trains up to 100 miles a week. That already is a busy schedule for the guy, but add in his two day jobs and, well, we see the personality of the ultrarunner begin to emerge. James is the founder of Centurion Running, one company with many different functions.
#1. Race Directing
At the time when Anton Krupicka and Kyle Skaggs were running their high, high mileage, when Dean Karnazes’s book Ultramarathon Man was sitting on the bestseller list, and when many people were quite suddenly starting to notice our niche sport, James, too, found his way into the ultra scene. In 2005, he ran his first marathon and first ultra, the latter being the popular Tring 2 Town, a 40-mile flat race along a canal path connecting the small village of Tring, located northwest of London, and the city of London itself. With a pack full of stuff he and his running partner did not need, the two set off.
“We walked most of it, to be honest,” James admitted. “And, we were nearly last. I think we were 91st out of 94 people.” To put it into perspective, he added, he’s managed to halve his then-10-hour finishing time by completing the event in 4:59 this past summer. “Over the years I managed to run it at least twice as quickly, so some things have changed a bit,” he said.
By 2009, James was traveling to the U.S. to do some bigger races on the far side of the Atlantic pond, including the Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run and the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Trail Run. (James is a five-time finisher of Rocky Raccoon.) One of his main aims in the U.S. was participating in the Badwater 135, which he completed in 2010.
However, returning back to the U.K. after the first few years, he realized the ultrarunning scene was not big enough for the amount of runners springing up in the area. “We didn’t have many options to do races. We only had about five,” he said. The biggest difference between these five races and about every U.S race (except The Barkley Marathons), he said, is the lack of course markings.
“In the U.K. we tend not to mark the course, so a big component of the race is navigation,” he explained. “The reason I wanted to do the ones in the U.S. was because they were marked. I just preferred running simply without having a backpack, map, and compass.”
The races already established in the U.K., he described, were through rough, rugged ground and are not marked. “A huge part of running is being able to navigate, so being able to use a map and compass always went hand-in-hand with ultrarunning,” he said. “You couldn’t really do it unless you knew how to do those things.” In these conditions, he explained further, races were not solely ‘racing,’ meaning they were not just races based on the physical shape of an athlete. That was the biggest change James wanted to make when he returned home from the States.
So, in 2011, he returned and put on his first 100 miler, the North Downs Way 100 Mile. “It was really successful,” he said. “As soon as that happened, I launched two further races in 2012.”
Eventually word-of-mouth news about these races spread, growing the Centurion Running races into four 100 milers, four 50 milers, and the option to earn a belt buckle for both a 100- and 50-mile grand slam, James’s U.K. iteration of the American Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.
The races include the South Downs Way 50 Mile (April) and the 100 Mile (June), the North Downs Way 50 Mile (May) and 100 Mile (August), the Thames Path 100 Mile (April), the Chiltern Wonderland 50 Mile (September), the Autumn 100 Mile (October), and the Wendover Woods 50 Mile (November).
James’s four races are all within the spring to fall months, all marked, and all include the typical amenities seen in a U.S. race: pacers, crew, and large amounts of food at the aid stations. The marked courses, he said, have been a great way to get more people, both new runners and professionals, involved in the sport and interested in his events.
“People could race each other on a more level playing field,” he said. “On one hand, it becomes easier for runners new to the sport to have a go at ultras, so they don’t have a map to read, and secondly, we can have international runners come over and race on a level playing field. I like that part. I like giving people the best opportunity to finish and the best opportunity to race.”
The races are clustered in the southeast of England and feature diverse terrain, rolling hills, flatlands hosting trails that bend this way and that, forested terrain, along the coast of the English Channel, and on the banks of the Thames River. Some races take place on the National Trails, a system of long(er) trails in England and Wales. James compares the National Trails to the U.S.’s Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, except much shorter in distance.
He launches the sign-ups to his races 10 months before the start and within one month they are sold out, he said, giving people a solid nine months to train. James caps the races at 400 for the biggest one and 180 for the smallest one, which are the numbers he feels are the best for the course, volunteers, and runners.
A fun benefit of volunteering at one of the Centurion races? After six hours of volunteering at a 50 miler or eight hours at a 100 miler, your entry to the next year’s race is free, as James’s way of giving back to his helpers. “Our goal is to put on races that are for runners, by runners,” he said. “The opportunity to have really big races is there, but that is not what we are about. It is about having the community spirit at the event and it is about making sure runners feel like they are a name and not a number.”
Even though James changed the U.K. ultra scene with marked courses, the requirement of carrying certain gear was something he could not and would not undo. European often races have a mandatory-gear list, including a map and compass, weatherproof jacket, base layer, hat and gloves, water bottle, whistle, headlamp with a backup, and your mobile phone.
Hat? Gloves? “Aren’t your races in the summer?” I asked.
“Yes, U.K. weather is very unpredictable. It’s horrendous, absolutely horrendous,” he said, answering my confusion. “It’s pretty shitty between November through March, so putting on races in those months, it is difficult at best and dangerous at worst.” Even in the summer, the weather can drop down to winter-like temperatures and during the day the wind and clouds can worsen conditions, James said.
At his races, there are men and women from age 18 to the oldest sign-up at 71. It’s a “highs and lows” kind of job, putting on eight races within only six months of the year, but every race is a learning experience, he said, with two key aspects upon which he focuses. First, information. Information given to the runners and volunteers is the best way to prepare them for the next eight to 32 hours. Second, self-sufficiency. It is the balance between the two that James has to rely on for every runner of every race.
“We are dealing with the general public, so we are dealing with those who are experienced and have done fifty 100 milers and the first-time runners who require assistance,” he said. “It is a good balance to strike and we do the best we can.”
As a Centurion Running race director, James’s job is to get his runners from the start line to the finish line, but as a coach, what comes before the start line is where the story begins.
Centurion Running employs three (maybe four, if you count Ian Sharman who used to coach clients for the group and who coaches just a few now) coaches who take trail and ultrarunners one step closer to their goals. The other coaches, in addition to James, are Robbie Britton and Edwina Sutton. Whether a runner’s goal is to PR at a Centurion race or to travel across the ocean to do something like Badwater, the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, or Western States, the coaches work with athletes looking for another edge to their competition.
“We only coach a very limited number of athletes each because the way we coach is very extensive,” James said. Each client receives a personalized plan updated for the next two to three weeks and unlimited contact with their coach. Many clients are coached for certain races, he said, and it’s thus handy that he’s run a diversity of races around the world–race like Sparthalon, Comrades Marathon, the 4 Deserts race series, Marathon des Sables, and UTMB.
James has more credentials that help him as a coach. In the U.K. he won the 2013 Grand Union Canal 145 Mile Race. “That was my first big win,” he said. “That was the first time I thought, Hang on, I might be able to do okay in this sport.” Most recently, last month, he joined Team Great Britain in the IAU 24-Hour World Championships, helping them toward a second-place finish. In addition to strong racing performances, he’s just plain run a lot of races. He is a member of the U.K. 100 Marathon Club, with his fastest time at 2:43.
#3. Online Store/Centurion Running Ambassadors
The third component of Centurion Running is its online store and ambassador team. The store sells all kinds of products from clothes to headlamps to what is needed for mandatory-kit lists at races around the world. Also a part of Centurion Running is its Ultra Team. According to James, this is group of un-sponsored ambassadors. “It began as basically a core group friends and colleagues in the sport and grew to include some of the best runners in the U.K.,” he explained. “But, the idea is not to sponsor athletes. They do not get salaries or anything, it is basically just a group of us to enjoy supporting each other.”
The group, about 12 athletes of both genders–usually donned in a Centurion Running Ultra Team jersey during races–crew, pace, and cheer each other on at races throughout England. They can be sponsored by other companies and brands, but when it comes time to volunteer or help someone get through a rocky patch during one of Centurion Running races, they respond.
You don’t have to be super fast, he said, just some one who can finish the race and has a story that fits in well with the group. “I don’t want to say it’s a type of family because that’s cheesy,” he said, pausing to think of an alternative. “But it is.”
His own stories of running and race directing could go on for days, he claims, always hoping there are more of those ‘high’ moments than ‘lows.’ One of his favorite director moments was watching one of the team runners, Mark Perkins, run 14 hours for the South Downs Way 100 Mile. Perkins ran the fastest 100-mile time for all the Centurion events. “It was such an exceptional display of running. He had no idea how fast he was going,” James recalled. “It was incredible to see him finish that.”
The runners who participate in the Centurion races, too, have stories about their experiences with James that could go on for days. Marissa Harris, an American who moved to the U.K. in 2006 for work and who is now a dual citizen, claims James’s belief in her changed her perspective of herself. In 2015, Marissa participated in Jame’s four 100-mile-race grand slam, but she didn’t start the year planning to do all four races. After sprinting the last 200 meters of the second 100 miler in James’s series–already over 25 hours in–James congratulated her and followed up with an impeccably timed question: “Are you sure you don’t want to run the grand slam? Two legs are done and you [are already] signed up for the fourth [race].”
“I think my death stare got him for a moment and then he kept talking, ‘Well, I will let you know if you get off the waitlist,’” she said. “James is not a pushy guy, but he believed in my ability. When I crossed the line of the fourth leg of the grand slam, I said his question will remain one of the most important physically, mentally, and spiritually I have had in my athletic career.”
On the switch side, he said, the worst day of his race-directing life was temporarily losing track of a runner during the first year of the South Downs Way 50 Mile. The runner went missing around 7 p.m. and by midnight, he still had not been found by volunteers, runners, and the local search-and-rescue team. During a night of horrible U.K. weather, James finally found the runner on top of a mountain, still on the race course. “We had spoken to him on the phone about 30 times. He was physically hugging the course marker,” he said, laughing. “He didn’t tell us he was on the course, otherwise we would have found him in seconds. I laugh now, but that easily could have been such a bad night.”
Goals for the future are supposed to be lofty and dream-like but still plausible. For James, his goals for both the company and his personal running are just that: lofty, but sustainable. His life is hectic, with a young family and a demanding six months of non-stop directing, but there is always room to grow. “It is really, really busy, but that is the way we want it,” he claimed. “We are not here to create a massive company with loads of races and staff. It is a sustainable lifestyle. We are not trying to make huge amounts of money to sell out and retire soon. It is really about the sport.”
Being a company for the runners is why Centurion Running stopped providing prize money at their races and instead put the money into infrastructure for the course, James said. He hopes one day to hold races of a more competitive nature, rather than just having one or two people battle it out, a typical competitive story at his races now. Typically, the winner of the race has a lead from the beginning to the end, finishing miles and minutes before second place, James said. He doesn’t know how he will accomplish this, he said, but hopes it will happen on its own in the coming years.
“The events are great the way they are. Coaching has been great and the online store will grow,” he said. Yet, he maintains those goals, not just for himself, but for the community. “The best thing about directing is seeing people achieve their goals, particularly when they set out to achieve something for their own reason,” James explained. “Witnessing the international-performance level over the years, it is really exciting, but it is equally exciting to see people achieve their own results. It is about the community spirit.”
“This company is not something I just created,” James added. “I think people feel ownership of it because they are part of the community and that makes the race seem as special as it is.”
Marissa extends James’s family simile, “He has helped create a series where the atmosphere is both about the Centurion family and the individual runner,” she explained. “I can’t speak for everyone, but from everyone I have talked to, a connection to the events equates to being part of the Centurion family.”
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Do you have a story about James Elson or participating in one of the Centurion Running events? Share away!