“The distance runner is mysteriously reconciling the separations of body and mind, of pain and pleasure, of the conscious and the unconscious. He is repairing the rent, and healing the wound in his divided self. He has found a way to make the ordinary extraordinary; the commonplace unique; the everyday eternal.” ― George Sheehan, Running & Being: The Total Experience
It is with deep sadness that I read of Ed Whitlock’s death. He died on March 13, just a week after his 86th birthday, and only months after he set his most recent world record, running the Toronto Marathon in 3:56:33. In the process, clocking out miles at a 9 minute per mile pace, he shattered the previous record for men over 85 by more than 28 minutes.
Whitlock was a perennial hero to all of us who run and his ability to obliterate records as he grew older was both inspiring and disconcerting. How he went about doing so well was both mysterious and painfully obvious.
I think everyone gets the inspiring aspects of his accomplishments. He is perhaps most famous for his 2:54:49 marathon at age 73. But what many forget is that over the course of a long, medaled career he set age group records at distances ranging from 800 meters to the half-marathon to the vaunted marathon. His marathon mile splits in his 80s rival my current 5k mile times. It’s deeply humbling. And perplexing. What can we learn from this extraordinary man and his accomplishments?
After college Whitlock did little running due to family, work and an Achilles tendon that was a constant bother. But when he came back into the sport in his 40s he did so in an impressive but oddly unassuming way. He had no coach. He followed no specific training program or regimen. He ate no special diet nor performed any special exercises, stretches, visualizations or took any other esoteric measures to run well.
He raced in 20-year-old shoes and jerseys that seemed to have been lost in the bottom of a closet drawer for decades. He claimed to take no special joy in running, of being in nature. He ran to compete and quickly dismissed ever having experienced a running high. He showed no pretension of exercise induced insight.
I wanted to interview him for The Age Stronger Show and was hoping, as have so many others, for some glimpse into that both ordinary and inexplicable greatness, some way of accessing it and borrowing from his learning and experience in order to infuse my own meager efforts with greater purpose and strength.
From what we can tell whatever secrets he may have possessed were open, transparent and maybe, because of their unappealing ordinariness, too quickly dismissed in a rush to easier antidotes.
We know, for example, that Whitlock was blessed with uncommon but not blinding speed. In college he ran a 4:34 mile so, while he may not have been world-class fast, he commanded much better than average velocity.
But unlike the rest of us, after a long hiatus from running, once he began again his times were extraordinary for his age and continued to improve relative to his unfortunate peers. He ran a 1:20:33 half-marathon at age 68. When he was 75 he clocked an 18:45 5k and ran 44:22 for the 10k at age 82. At age 85 he ran the mile in 7:18:55, setting yet another world record.
To put these accomplishments into perspective it’s worth remembering that in 1908 the world record for the marathon, held by American Johnny Hayes, was 2:55:19. Whitlock bested that time with a 2:52:50 when he was 69. He then set a world record of 2:54:49 at age 73. He’s still the only septuagenarian, at least as far as I know, to have run under three hours in a marathon.
At only 5 foot 7 inches and weighing less than 110 pounds Whitlock was hardly an imposing figure. With his slight built-for-speed frame he hated hills and didn’t like the wind. He loved flat courses.
To train he’d ride his stationary bike for five minutes before walking two blocks to the Milton Evergreen Cemetery where, weather and injuries permitting, he ran for two to three hours a day along lanes abutting historic tombstones. We can only wonder if those ever present reminders of mortality quickened his pace. Each loop took no more than 5 minutes. He didn’t use a stopwatch or count his laps. He just ran for his allotted time. He claimed he didn’t like the drudgery of running yet somehow in workmanlike fashion he ran there day after day slowly increasing his volume until it rivaled the mileage of professional athletes in their 20s and 30s.
We know from extensive physiological workups that he had an extraordinary constitution and that as he aged his body managed to maintain what most of us lose only too fast. His VO2 max of 54 was off the charts for someone in their 80s. His body didn’t shed muscle like his fellow runners, and aches and pains aside, he proved remarkably durable.
He also did not like doctors, which we don’t know but may have contributed to his untimely death from prostate cancer.
If there are lasting lessons from his remarkable life it may be that we all have gifts but they require us, in our own way, to make the most of them. There is no one way to age stronger.
What worked oddly enough for Whitlock would most certainly not work for me. Yet from his life I still draw inspiration. His get it done attitude towards training is motivational and reassuring. We’re reminded that even the best among us need to consistently work hard to achieve. And just knowing he was capable of such magnificent accomplishments at increasing age forces me to let go of preconceptions about what is possible, for myself, and for all of us.
Do you know of an inspiring older athlete who might be good to feature on Age Stronger?
Please let me know in the comments section.