Ed Whitlock running in Milton Evergreen Cemetery. Photo Credit Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

 

“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 SheehanRunning & 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.

 

 

Robert Marchand, 105 sets new world record bicycling 14 miles

Robert Marchand, 105, sets new world bicycling record.

The French not only know how to live. Some of them are world-class at aging, both gracefully and vigorously.

On January 5, 2017 Robert Marchand, at the amazing age of 105 set a new world record and demonstrated something even more amazing. As if that were possible. He proved that you can actually improve exercise performance as you age.

This is startling because we’ve all been told, and have indeed experienced, how age slows us down, robs us of muscle, stamina and speed. But it appears that under certain circumstances, and with the right kind of training, the effects of age can be forestalled and even overturned, at least temporarily.

Marchand, after setting the one-hour record when he was 101 underwent a series of tests by Veronique Billat and her exercise science colleagues at the University of Evry-Val d’Essonne in France. Their tests created a benchmark against which they could measure subsequent performances. The results of these fascinating tests and subsequent follow-up were published as Case Studies in Physiology: Maximal Oxygen Consumption and Performance in a Centenarian Cyclist in The Journal of Applied Physiology. Clicking will link you to the abstract. If you are a fitness nerd (like me) you can access the full report via Google Scholar.

So Marchand sets a world record at 101 and then at the age of 103, just two years later, he set another world hour record, averaging 17 miles per hour, a performance improvement of 11 percent.

For those two years he trained 5,000 km per year (about 3,100 miles). About 80 percent of his riding was done at what was referred to as a “light” effort, a 12 on a scale of 1-20 with 20 representing an all-out effort. The rest of the time he trained at a considerably more vigorous pace, a 15 on the same perceived exertion scale. His cadence was measured at a rate of 50 to 70 revolutions per minute.

Over this period his body mass did not change, i.e. he did not gain weight or add muscle yet his VO2max increased by 13 percent. This is a fitness measure commonly thought to steadily decline after the age of 50. Peak power output also increased from 90 to 125 watts, an increase of around 39 percent. This was attributed not so much to his ability to pedal harder but to an increase in maximal pedaling frequency, which he boosted to a range of 69 to 90.

His maximal heart rate of 137 also did not change, which by most theories on aging should have declined. It remained steady while maximal ventilation increased from 57 to 70 liters per minute, an increase of 23 percent. Respiratory frequency increased 8 percent. So it appears the increased amount of intense exercise allowed him to consistently take in more oxygen and at a higher rate.

The scientists were as amazed as anyone to see that it was possible for someone so old to increase performance and VO2max simply by changing training protocol to include higher intensity work.

And for his record on January 5, at the age of 105 he managed to pedal at a pace of 14 miles per hour. I’ve been riding for years and there are many days when I would have been happy to have averaged 14 miles an hour.

After his world record he said he was disappointed with his time and feels that with a little more training he could do better. Spoken with the spirit of a true athlete.

Looking at the photos of him on the track I think one thing that could help is to have a major cycling brand sponsor his effort and get him an actual time trial bike along with some more aerodynamic gear like helmet, etc.

Maybe Marchand is truly a once in a generation phenomenon. But maybe not. There are a number of older, very talented athletes pushing age and performance barriers every year. Marchand may be just the beginning of a new era of human endurance and performance.