An Interview with James Elson of Centurion Running

Last updated: 06-Nov-18

By Luke Jarmey

As a top-level runner and Race Director of the fabulous Centurion Running events, it’s great to have you doing this Q&A with us, James. We recently had an interview with Robbie Britton and we’re very keen to hear about your time with him in Iceland this past autumn… it looked like an adventure in the truest sense of the word.

Q. First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

A. I am a 33 year old husband and father striving to put the pieces together to make being a part of the sport I love also the way to pay the bills. I like to think that with the help of about 600 volunteers and 15 dedicated race day staff, we put on some decent trail 50s/100s, helping a few get there with some coaching along the way. I run a bit too when I can, mostly in the winter.

Q. How did you get into ultra running and what was your first ultra?

A. My first ultra was the 2006 Tring to Town. I ran that in preparation for the Marathon des Sables in 2006 which was an international trip. Both came about thanks to seeing Ben Fogle at it the year before on TV and reading Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes. Cliché.

Q. You’ve really ticked off a huge number of the world’s premier ultra marathons, including the MdS, UTMB, Comrades, Badwater, Leadville 100 and Western States. Now, this is an interesting question for us due to your running and race directing credentials; from an all-round perspective, including organization, route, atmosphere and overall experience, which race do you rate the highest and why?

A. Western States is the best overall experience. It’s the best course I’ve ever been on, has the best atmosphere and crucially has the history and prestige to go with a small starting field. But I could find a reason to put any one of those listed, at the top. They’re all pretty drastically different from one another, crucially in environmental terms.

Q.  Focusing in on your personal experience with race organization; was the North Downs Way in 2011 your first crack as a Race Director or had you dabbled in these dark arts before the creation of Centurion Running?

A. No that was the first time I’d tried to organize anything. I’d helped at other events before, trail 100s in the UK, but only as a volunteer.

Q. The Centurion Running ultras are much anticipated fixtures in the UK ultra calendar with the Grandslam (completing all four 100mile races in a calendar year) being a particularly coveted goal. Where did the idea for the routes and Grandslam concept come from? And who else was involved in its creation?

A. I attempted the US Slam in 2011 but DNFd at Vermont. I didn’t know it at the time but I had two fractures in my tibia. I quit at Vermont though because the shins had left me undertrained and being three weeks after Western States I suffered some pretty horrible muscle cell breakdown/red pee. I still finished Leadville just after, but relinquished my ‘slam-contingent’ Wasatch 100 spot. A disappointing summer. When the first NDW100 went off so successfully (in the middle of those four races!) I pieced it together with the other two races I’d already set up and added a fourth, the Winter 100, to round it out.

Q. We know it’s now managed by James Adams, but please elaborate on the ‘Piece of String’ (aka The World’s Most Pointless Race) and how you dreamt up this event which every discerning ultra runner should find quite unfathomably tempting?

A. It was all James’ idea, we talk about a lot of really crazy stuff and once in a while I will put my race organizing to his insanity and a creation is born. It’s possible that race will never be seen again, but that’s up to James!

Q. Where do you see Centurion Running going in the future?

A. I hope we have the same community spirit and the same atmosphere at our events for the rest of my time. I recognize that it’s the same components that made the initial event a success that make for the best races today – and will still do in the future. If we can have a little space to talk about running, try out some gear, have people come down and do that with us then that would be great.

Q. I’ve read about your affinity with the Lakes and its Wainwrights and your plans to write a summary of each of Alfred Wainwright’s seven books. Tell us a bit about this.

A. Yes the Lakes are the place I’ve run most apart from around home. I love every aspect of the area and try to get there as much as I can. The Wainwrights are just one component that interest me in a never ending puzzle of opportunities in that small region. The Bob Graham Round was my first big ‘project’ there and there are many more to come I hope.

Q. Back over to your personal running, tell us what your Icelandic running adventure entailed?

A. 330km in 7 days from North to South of the island with Robbie Britton. We began with a climb from the coast out of Akureyri and continued until we were stopped by a storm on our penultimate day on a high pass in the Lagevegur area in the south. We re-routed and made it to the south coast via a 100km day on the road. Lyon Equipment and their brands particularly Petzl, La Sportiva, Julbo and Exped allowed that adventure to happen. We have a film coming out about that soon which should be great.

Q. Was this almost a holiday for you and Robbie? …albeit a damn tough, wet and windy one!

A. Yes it was, we just wanted an adventure. Setting an FKT on such a route is a fruitless exercise.

Q. Going into more detail on the route, what type of terrain were you generally navigating and what kind of mileage per day were you torturing your legs with?

A. Mostly crushed lava fields, at the beginning and end some tarmac. Our daily distance was around 50km, but we had one aborted day at 10km and the first and last day were between 80 and 100km each.

Q. Running that hard in such extreme conditions is a pretty intense situation to be in. Do you think you’d have been able to complete it running by yourself? Or did the presence of Robbie (and I presume a healthy portion of copious banter …an essential ingredient in any good adventure!) help carry you forward?

A. Yes I could have run it by myself but that would have been a miserable sufferfest as opposed to an adventure shared. Robbie and I have run together quite a bit in the past, we work really well as a team, I could not have asked for a better overall experience than we had during that week and that was largely down to Rob, Dan and Iain being there to share in it.

Q. And leading on from that, what advice would you give to anyone planning a running adventure of their own?

A. Don’t let Robbie plan it. Ok let him plan it but ask to hear it first.

Q. Finally, what does the rest of the year hold for you as a runner?

A. Athens 24hr in March, then we have a baby due July 5th so plans are as yet adjourned! I hope to fit in a summer 100 at some point.

Many thanks James.
Run Well!

You can follow James on Twitter: @jameselsons  or on his blog.

Update: James finished in 2nd place at the Athens 24hr, with an incredible distance of 242.5km. And will now be running at the European 24hr Champs in October. Well done! 

"that would have been a miserable sufferfest as opposed to an adventure shared"

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