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Centurion Running: An Ultra Running Venture

Becoming a race organizer from scratch is already difficult enough, but building a whole portfolio of races is something else. James Elson is the man behind Centurion Running, one of the most well-known race organizers in the UK and beyond. From being an ultra runner himself, he crossed the line and became a race organizer. He created an ecosystem of races ultra across all distances, from track to trails. We caught him during a recovery day after he ran The Arc of Attrition and we discussed how Centurion Running became what it is today and how he operates it.

How did Centurion Running start?

We started because here in the UK there weren't any fully marked and supported 100 miles events. At the time, I was traveling to the US to do those types of races myself, so I wanted to bring them here to the UK. We started with the four 100-mile races, then added the four 50 milers, and then more recently one 50k and one 200 miler. We have 10 races from 50K to 200 miles spread throughout the year. We focus geographically on the Southeast. We are close to London, but not in London. We are likely to stay in this area.

We've grown organically and sustainably. We've placed a lot of emphasis on building a community around the events. Our volunteers come regularly, and they run our races too. Our biggest race is South Downs Way and this year will have five to six hundred starters. Nothing massive but, big enough to be sustainable within the UK. 

What did you like about the American events?

I did six races in the US over the first two years: Rocky Raccoon 100, Old Dominion 100, with the first two I qualified for Badwater in 2010. In 2011 I ran Western States and Leadville. Western States was the one that impressed me the most. This is also the reason I added the track finish to South Downs Way. I love that environment at the finish there.

James elson Barkley Marathons 2019
James at the Barkley Marathons in 2019

You started with just one race and then grew your portfolio. What was your strategy?

I started the first one from scratch. It was a brand-new event, and it became popular. In the US, there is the Grand Slam of the 100 milers and I wanted to replicate it here in the UK. South Downs Way was already being organized, but on a completely different course, in a different direction, by someone else. she contacted me to say, I don't want to do it anymore, I don't have the time. Would you like to take it on? I took the South Downs Way on. Then I went out and found Thames Path 100 and Autumn 100. This is how we grew.

We started small and not-for-profit. It was just for fun. But when I added those other events, I was able to do the job part-time and draw a small wage from the business. Then, I added the shop and the coaching components. This allowed me to leave my old job gradually and focus on Centurion full-time.

Before starting Centurion Running, did you have any experience in organizing events?

I was working for a company called Clear Channel in London selling or trading outdoor advertising spaces. I began running whilst I was at that company and running took over. I wanted to turn my passion into my livelihood and the opportunity wasn't immediate, but I saw it emerging and wanted to try and pursue it.

How long did it take you before being able to leave your old job and work full-time at Centurion?

Probably two and a half years from when I went part-time. Then, gradually I did more and more of the running and less and less of the other job.

james elson winter spine
James at the Winter Spine

Centurion has a wide portfolio of races that covers the whole year. Are there any synergies you leverage across the races?

I have three employees who work part-time on the events for all year. One does the administration, email, and health and safety. Another one oversees the logistics, from the checkpoints to food supply. Lastly, there is a course manager. During the year, I am the one working on it every day. Then, during the race weekends, the staff jumps to 15-20 people. I am the race director for all the 100 milers and the 200 milers. Two other RDs cover the 50 miles and 50k.

Is each Centurion Event financially sustainable by itself or only Centurion as a company is?

All of the events have to be sustainable by themselves. The exception is the Track 100, that we organize because we are fans of the sport. It's great marketing too. Many people watch those records get broken and it draws attention to running. The race costs us a lot of money to put on because the entry fees don’t even cover the cost of the track. We get between 8 and 15 starters. On top of that, we have other bills to cover.

First, you found the four 100 milers and then expanded to the shorter distances. What was the idea behind it?

At the time, there weren’t many 100 miles, so I wanted to cover that gap. Then, I realized that we needed to offer shorter distances to give the opportunity to more runners to join our events. I introduced a South Downs Way 50 and a North Down Way 50, and then of course the logical step from there was to create a 50 Miles Slam as well. I created Chiltern Wonderland and Wendover Woods to complete the Slam.

Are runners interested in completing the Slams?

Autumn 100 and Chiltern Wonderland are the smallest races with only 250 runners. The number of Slams is capped at 250 each year. The 50 Miles Slam is more popular, while only 50% of the 100 Miles Slam participants complete it.

runners south downs way 100
Runners at South Downs Way 100

Centurion is popular among amateur runners, but its races do not see a deep competitive field. What do you think this is the case?

Our events are competitive in terms of UK athletes. For example, Tom Evans holds the course record at South Downs Way 50. Almost no international athletes come over to the UK to race apart from Ultra Trail Snowdonia, which is the UTMB event, and sometimes for a niche event like the Spine Race. Part of getting involved with World Trail Majors is to try to grow the elite field and bring more athletes to the UK.

We have one 100 miler on track where for the last four years the world records have been smashed multiple times. Camille Heron, Alexander Sorokin, and Dominika Stelmach participated.

In your opinion, why does the UK struggle to attract international elite athletes?

We lack the big mountain ranges, so a lot of UK runners are going abroad to get to the big mountains. I'm going to do Tor de Geants again this year. We don't have that here in the UK. The Lake District and Scotland are incredible, but the longest climb is 700 meters. What we have here are great, long-established historical trails. Even running down the South Downs Way, you can feel the history of the place. The highest point is only 300 meters but you have an open view of the landscape. Other factors come into play too. UK races haven't been that big because they haven't promoted themselves internationally well. A lot of our courses aren't marked and you have to navigate them using the GPS. South Downs Way offers a fully marked course and an iconic classically English terrain. I hope this can attract more international runners.

What does being part of the World Trail Major bring to South Downs Way?

I think the synergy between us, and the other World Trail Major organizers is that we're all heavily involved in the sport. We're all runners. We're all kind of volunteers and help out with other things. Janet at Hong Kong 100 is the president of ITRA. I'm the chairman of the trail running association here in the UK. 

We have strong communities around our events. We're completely independent. We are in charge of our destinies, but we all came together because we share the same trail spirit philosophy. The biggest opportunity for me in joining the group was sharing information with these other incredible organizations, incredible races, and help.

We didn't want to be part of something with a strong commercial angle like UTMB and Iron Man. There is nothing wrong with UTMB Ironman. People want to go and run UTMB races. They'll always be there. We know that. They've got incredible courses and incredible offerings. We're not looking to grow our events. We're looking to hold them where they are and continue to foster that independent trial spirit that we all stand up for.

runner boat thames path 100
Runner at Thames Path 100

This year, you added Winter Downs 200 to your race’s portfolio. Why did you decide to add this longer distance to Centurion?

I ran the TOR and the Spine. The Winter Spine is extremely difficult, covered in snow and windy, with checkpoints 50 miles apart. There is no alternative in the UK. So, I wanted to bring that format but without making it so difficult. I kept some elements from the Spine. The course isn't marked, the checkpoints are 50 miles apart, but they're on a good runnable trail and you can have a crew. I added a Centurion flavor to a Spine-type race.

I consider these longer races a different sport. Swiss Peaks, TDG, or Trans Gran Canaria 360 are adventures. The 100 miler is still a race that you can complete in one single push. Whereas in these adventures, you must manage the sleep deprivation and the many long nights out on the trail. It takes you to a different place. The satisfaction is completely different. That's why I think the 200s will continue to grow in popularity. 

You already mentioned some of them, but what are the events you look up for inspiration?

I like the balance of not having a too big starting field, but enough for it to feel like an occasion. I think the TOR with one thousand runners because you've got two starting waves of 500 each and it feels special.  I don't want to do a race where I'm queuing around the trail for 30, 40, 50k before I find my space. I like to run by myself. So, I'm always inspired by races that have found the balance between getting bigger, but not getting too big.

I'm impressed by races like Black Canyon and what Jamil does to cover the event. The next step for us is how we do live streaming, how we share the adventure with people watching in a way that's meaningful and that they can engage with. That's probably the thing that inspires me the most: being able to share the races with the outside world. 

Are you going to implement live streaming to your races this year?

Definitely. For Winter Downs 200, we had three photographers and a video guy doing daily highlights. What we were missing was the actual live stream. We will add the live streaming to South Downs 100, but it will be basic initially. It is not easy to make it work financially with only 500 runners at the start.

How do you plan to improve your events in the next five years? 

The focus will be on the carbon footprint of the events and trying to make them as sustainable as possible. We need to focus more on travel to and from the events. Incentivizing people to come to the race internationally is great, but we're encouraging a lot of air travel. We must be responsible, trying to make things balanced.

In five years, I don’t see our portfolio of events changing much. If anything, you will probably see us doing fewer races and making South Downs Way 50% bigger. In this way, we could focus more on specific events, but not lose the community feeling. Trail running is in a transitional phase. I don't want to get too far ahead and have to come back down. I just want to keep it sustainable. I think there are too many races in the UK and we've grown up to 10 now. Having less might make it a bit more sustainable for everybody.


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