THE PRIME OF THE ANCIENT MARATHONER
What Ed Whitlock can do in a race could change the way we think about ageing
By Michael McGowan (written in 2000)
Ed Whitlock will turn seventy in March. Chances are you've never heard of
him. Seeing Ed on the street, you probably wouldn't give him a second
look. His eyes are slightly watery with a hint of red around the lower
lids, and his voice has thinned and become tremulous with age. His hair --
a full head of it, granted -- is snow-white. He might pass for being a few
years younger than his age, but then again, at five feet seven inches and
122 pounds, there's a frailty that makes him seem all of his seven
But the frailty is an illusion that disappears as soon as Whitlock starts
to run. Anyone at the finish line of the Scotiabank Half Marathon in
Toronto last September might have been excused for believing Whitlock had
pulled a Rosie Ruiz and taken the subway: he finished sixty-sixth out of
the event's 2,749 competitors in a time of 1:20:18. A little quick math
reveals that he averaged 6:12 per mile. Having trouble relating? Go to
your local 400-metre track and try to run once around it in ninety-three
seconds (a feat that would leave most people winded). That's the pace
Whitlock maintained for over thirteen miles.
A month later he travelled to Ohio for the Columbus Marathon, and
completed the 26.2-mile distance in 2:52:50, placing seventy-second out of
3,428 runners and setting a world record for his age. The next youngest
person to beat him was fifty-one, and even then Ed was only nine seconds
behind -- a virtual photo finish by marathon standards. To put this effort
into perspective, the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, long
considered an elite marathoner's marathon, is anything below 3:10 -- and
that applies to men between eighteen and thirty-four. For Ed's age group,
the cut-off time is 3:50 -- almost a full hour slower than the time he
actually ran. Another way of looking at his performance: in 1908, the
world record was held by American Johnny Hayes. His time? 2:55:19.
This year Ed Whitlock hopes to become the first septuagenarian to break
the three-hour barrier for the marathon -- an accomplishment that could be
considered as significant as Roger Bannister's legendary breaking of the
four-minute mile in 1954. If he doesn't get injured or "hit by a bus" (a
mode of dying that he brings up with surprising regularity in
conversation), he will eventually completely rewrite the over-seventy
record book, smashing marks for all distances from 1,500 metres and up.
Pioneers of human achievement expand the possible; pioneers of human
endurance revise the credible. Whether it's Sir Edmund Hillary climbing
Everest or Charles Lindbergh crossing the ocean in a piece of metal, world
records that touch on the physical have a way of quickly transforming the
previously unthinkable into the routine.
Ageing is one of the last physical frontiers. What Ed Whitlock does is to
fundamentally challenge the popular assumption that growing old is a slow,
inevitable dance to decrepitude. His running exploits seem to be a call to
re-evaluate our basic assumptions about ageing and performance. But that
presupposes that we can generalize from Ed. Is anything he does applicable
to the rest of us? Is he a pioneer for the population at large, one whose
über-active lifestyle will result in a new senior-citizen prototype, or a
freak of nature who's benefited from a few mutations of his ageing genes?
The answer matters, because whether it's grit or genes, the secret to Ed
Whitlock's prowess has one large implication -- the mortality of us all.
Born in 1931, Ed Whitlock grew up in the suburbs of London, England, where
he participated in track and cross-country. Though he was admittedly both
"serious and competitive," he was by no means an outstanding runner. After
graduating from University of London armed with a degree in mining
engineering, he immigrated to Canada in 1952 and started working in
Sudbury for Falconbridge. "To the best of my knowledge," he says, "there
wasn't another person running up there at all." At that point in his life,
the loneliness of a long-distance runner wasn't very appealing; he quit
the sport and didn't take it up again until two children -- and almost two
decades -- later. At forty-one, he started racing in middle-distance
events like the 800 metres and 1,500 metres, quickly excelling in masters
competitions (for athletes over 40), and eventually winning the World
Masters Championships in 1979 for the 1,500 metres in the forty-five to
forty-nine division. Impressive as his gold medal was, masters
track-and-field competition was (and remains) a fringe sporting pursuit at
best. In his fifties, busy with work and his family, Whitlock scaled back
his racing schedule.
His commitment to running became full-fledged again when he retired. Now
living just west of Toronto in Milton, Ontario, with ample time on his
hands and less than exemplary patience for household chores, Whitlock
decided to resume training -- this time with a vengeance. Because a
nagging Achilles tendon injury prevented him from doing the speed work
necessary to excel at shorter distances, he began the process of
converting himself into a long-distance runner.
Ed Whitlock doesn't eat a special diet, take vitamin pills, monitor his
weight, do push-ups, sit-ups, or visualization exercises, wear a Walkman,
stretch, carry a water bottle, or do much of anything besides run. His
training regime is staggeringly simple. Each morning, after downing a few
cups of tea and a couple of slices of toast, he does a leisurely
five-minute ride on his stationary bike, "just to move the legs around,"
before heading out the door of his Milton home to the Evergreen Cemetery,
located two blocks away. There he simply jogs around the same
third-of-a-mile loop over and over again. Alone. In classic
understatement, Whitlock says, "It's a very standard route. Sometimes I
get forced by other activity in the cemetery to make changes." Because he
doesn't keep track of how far he goes, any estimate he makes is rough, but
Whitlock figures he put in over 5,000 miles on that loop last year, an
effort that would have humbled Forrest Gump.
Whitlock refuses to train anywhere else. It's not that he has a plot
picked out and wants to keep an eye on his daisies, but out on the
streets, he notes, "cars tend to aim at you, whereas in the cemetery
they're a more docile lot." More importantly, the solitude of the cemetery
keeps Whitlock's competitive instincts in check. "My kids say I'm insane.
The thing is if I'm going to do a loop around town, which is ten miles, I
always start speeding up." Too embarrassed to be "seen logging nine-minute
miles" by his fellow Miltonians, in town he'll pick up the pace to protect
his dignity. In the cemetery, on the other hand, the residents don't care
how fast he goes. Without that pressure, "you don't know how far you've
gone and your only objective is that you have to go out for two hours,"
Whitlock says, "so you might as well take it easy."
The regimen, day in and day out, is close to unimaginable; I ask if he's
some sort of pain glutton. "I find it a drag," he acknowledges, before
adding resignedly. "It's just something that has to be done." Running at a
pace he considers a glorified shuffle, Whitlock's only goal is "to go out
there and put in the time" -- the training time, that is, necessary to
keep his racing times "competitive." Though Whitlock "likes the scene"
associated with races and says that "long-distance runners are good
people," for him, everything else is drudgery.
His resignation seems even more remarkable when you ask him about the
so-called "runner's high," the claim other runners make that their lengthy
forays somehow induce a blissful state of euphoria. "I don't experience
any runner's high or anything like that," he says. "Most of the time when
I'm running around there I'm thinking how soon will this be finished, more
than anything else." The philosophy behind Whitlock's training is based on
the astonishing long-distance times achieved by Kenyan runners, who, he
points out, developed their endurance by running to and from school as
children. "Presumably they weren't running terribly fast when they were
doing it," he says. It's an unorthodox approach: most world-class distance
marathoners mix long, slow distance runs like Whitlock's with a couple of
speed sessions each week, in what runners call fartlek (a Swedish word
that literally means "speed-play"). Whitlock, though, feels he gets all
the speed he can handle from the actual twenty-five to thirty races he
runs a year. Exercise physiologist and running guru Dr. Jack Daniels
doesn't disagree. "Each person has the best training method for that
particular person. Some principles apply, but who knows what is best?"
If there is a secret to Whitlock's seeming ability to defy the decline in
performance inherent in ageing, it's that he continues to increase his
workload. "I don't think you ever really stop the slide," he says. "You
can't do that. If you train the same way you did last year, all things
being equal, you're going to run a slower time. The only way you can hold
your own is by doing more training." But, he adds, "That's got to be
self-limiting by the end."
"Self-limiting," in his case, is a relative term. In the late 1990s
Whitlock could barely manage two hours of training a day. Two years later,
on the afternoon I first met him, he told me his legs were "a bit
shattered [after a] fortnight stretch of three-hour runs," and he'd
consequently decided to "back off a bit." That morning he had only gone
two and a half hours.
Besides the steady increase in workload, what's remarkable about
Whitlock's training is the absolute volume. "I wouldn't have believed a
seventy-year-old could run for two or three hours a day," says Dr. Mark
Bayley, Medical Director of the Neuro Rehabilitation Program at the
Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, and a doctor with many elderly patients.
"I wouldn't have expected that anyone would have been able to sustain that
training level for any period without getting injured." Bayley's
reasoning? As the body ages, it progressively loses its ability to
regenerate damaged cells. The result is a loss of muscle mass, decreased
cardiovascular endurance, joint stiffness, ligament fragility, and a
higher susceptibility to injury. Put simply, the elderly don't get up
nearly as quickly when they fall down.
So why can Ed Whitlock do what most of his contemporaries -- not to
mention most of us -- can't? To answer the question, I persuaded him to
come to The High Performance Specialists, a clinic in North Toronto that
helps athletes and teams improve performance. On the exercise-room walls,
autographed Maple Leafs' jerseys attest to the players who have taken
advantage of the clinic's services.
Valerie Skeffington, a conditioning specialist at the clinic, first used a
pair of calipers to calculate Ed's body fat. She took skin-fold
measurements from six areas of his body. Normally, in a healthy person
Ed's age, one would expect to see measurements somewhere between 15 to 25
percent. If this sounds high, keep in mind that one depressing side effect
of ageing is a tendency to get fatter. According to Dr. Bayley, "What
happens with ageing is you get decreased testosterone and your muscle mass
generally goes down, so the body replaces it with fat or connective
tissue." Studies have also shown that men lose their muscle mass twice as
fast as women.
But on the body-fat test Ed measured an astounding 9.5 percent. Dr.
Michael Clarfield, an MD specializing in sports medicine (he's also the
Toronto Maple Leafs' team doctor) put this number in perspective. "You
can't really get below seven or eight percent without worrying about
anorexia." What this means in practical terms is that Whitlock's system
doesn't have to lug extra fat around; it also means he's been able to
sustain his muscle mass -- something no one's overly surprised at, given
his training, but a fact that would normally be totally unexpected.
Next, the clinic's technicians measured Whitlock's "max-VO2" -- the
maximum oxygen that a body can process. The fitter the athlete, the more
oxygen he or she can use, and the higher the max-VO2 number. From football
players to speed skaters, elite athletes often subject themselves to this
gruelling test in order to find out what kind of shape they're in.
Whitlock was hooked up to an oxygen-intake apparatus, and each breath he
took was analyzed for levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Using this raw
data a computer calculated his "max-VO2," his maximal aerobic capacity.
The VO2 test was performed on a treadmill. In max-VO2 tests, pushing the
subject to exhaustion is acknowledged as the only way to measure true
fitness. Because the testers control both the speed and incline of the
treadmill, and because there's a little masochist in all of us, vomiting
is not an unheard-of side effect. Neither is blacking out.
When the test began, the scattering of folks in the clinic lifting
weights, stretching, and riding stationary bikes didn't pay much
attention. Ten minutes into Ed's session, interest had picked up. Dennis
Lindsay, director of the clinic, motioned for me to come behind the
treadmill to get a different perspective on our subject. Lindsay pointed
out the symmetry in Whitlock's body. He marvelled at Whitlock's muscle
tone. "He's a very fluid runner." Aside from some rigidity in the left
foot, Ed was a study in efficiency. His shoulders didn't stoop, and he ran
erect. All of which supports Jack Daniels's assertion that "running
technique and basic biomechanical structure probably prevents breakdown."
As Whitlock continued to pound away, I kept looking at the heart-rate
monitor, hoping, frankly, that we weren't going to kill him in the name of
journalistic curiosity. What experts expect for a seventy-year-old, even
one in excellent shape, is for the heart rate to hit an upper limit
somewhere around 150 beats per minute (using the standard textbook
calculation of 220 bpm, minus a person's age). For a few seconds Whitlock
flirted with 178 bpm; his average over a thirty-second period was 168. A
doctor who didn't know anything else about Ed except his age, and noticed
his heart was beating that fast, would have concluded he was experiencing
a massive coronary and called for an ambulance.
At fifteen minutes, with the treadmill on a twenty-two-degree incline and
the belt spinning at five miles per hour, even a couple of repair guys had
stopped working to watch Ed run. He was clearly in the zone, staring
straight ahead, refusing to surrender to the test. Val Skeffington shook
her head and muttered, "He's a machine." Whitlock lasted 16:41 before the
testers were satisfied that he had maxed out.
He also kept all his breakfast down.
Analyzing the test results, Skeffington stated flatly that Whitlock
"throws everything you learn in a textbook completely out the window."
Though it should be remembered that the max-VO2 test yields only a rough
estimate of potential, the score for a physically active person Ed
Whitlock's age is usually somewhere around 35. (Not surprisingly, as we
get older our bodies become less efficient and our max-VO2s decrease.)
Whitlock's measured 52.8. The translation? According to Val Skeffington,
"He's at the fitness level of a person in his mid-twenties." Jack Daniels,
who has put countless runners on the treadmill, says 52.8 correlates to a
sub-three-hour marathon. He notes that Whitlock "could certainly go a lot
faster depending on how efficiently he runs."
With the spirit of inquiry firmly kick-started, we turned our attention to
Ed's blood: perhaps there was something floating among his platelets that
would explain his prowess. "I'd be curious to know if his hemoglobin,
testosterone, or growth-hormone levels are higher than the average
person's," Dr. Bayley mused. "Those are levels that are supposed to drop
off." Because Whitlock also shared this curiosity (on a somewhat milder
level), he drove in from Milton again to downtown Toronto to have two
vials of his blood extracted and sent to the lab for analysis. When the
results came back two weeks later, though, they didn't point to anything
markedly different from the results of most people his age. His rate of
hemoglobin (which is responsible for the blood's ability to carry oxygen)
was average, as were his electrolytes (critical for maintaining nerve,
muscle, and circulatory systems). Hormonal studies of testosterone
revealed that Whitlock was actually at the low end of the normal range --
not unusual in the older population at large, but somewhat surprising in
his case, considering that testosterone kick-starts muscle regeneration.
The measurements for levels of other hormones, including thyroid (which
regulates the body's metabolic rate), again indicated nothing out of the
ordinary. All of which prompted Dr. Bayley to inform Whitlock, "You don't
have a hormonal advantage over your peers."
What Whitlock's lack of bionic blood means is that his achievements cannot
simply be dismissed as a mutation. Which in turn reduces the separation
between him and us by a few fascinating degrees.
Not surprisingly, the most important thing Ed Whitlock may have working
for him is genetics. His is a family of lengthy lifespans. His father
lived into his eighties (in Canada the average lifespan for a man is
seventy-six), and his mother died at ninety-three. However, it was one of
Whitlock's paternal uncles who was off-the-charts old (a fact that
Whitlock failed to mention until our third interview). When Uncle Arthur
Whitlock died last year at 107, he was the second-oldest man in England.
This longevity dna on the family tree prompts Whitlock to comment, "I
suspect I'll make old bones." Dr. Bayley believes there may be more to it
than that. "You wonder if physiologically [Whitlock] ages more slowly." In
other words, there may be some sort of built-in mechanism in his own
genetic makeup recognizing that Ed Whitlock is going to be around a lot
longer than most of us, which correspondingly delays the ageing processes.
According to studies published in the journal Physician and
Sportsmedicine, "Age-related declines in cellular, tissue, and
musculoskeletal-system function are far from uniform between individuals."
The journal continues, "differences in absolute values can be striking:
One person at sixty-eight may function at a higher level than another at
eighteen." Which would go a long way in explaining why Whitlock doesn't
break down or get injured, in spite of the volume of training he subjects
his body to.
Or then again, perhaps the most important advantage Whitlock has over the
rest of us is his attitude. People have asked, when they hear about Ed's
training, if he is a lonely old man. They assume that someone who would
devote so much time and energy to such an unlikely activity, at his age,
surely must be using it as a substitute for friends, family, for a life.
But Ed is married, has two sons, and doesn't appear, at least to me, to be
suffering from any sort of mental imbalance. "What I'm doing, I'm doing to
be competitive," he says. "To go out and drag myself around the cemetery
all that time just for the sake of being fit, I don't think I could do
What intrigues Whitlock is performance. While athletes like Wayne Gretzky
and Michael Jordan can walk away from their professions at or near the
height of their prowess, Whitlock is still trying to solve the equation of
peak performance within the parameters of age. Though on the surface this
passion may seem like an anomaly, it shouldn't. As the developed world's
demographics increasingly skew older, and as medical advances continue to
lengthen lifespans, our conceptions of ageing are changing. What was once
considered elderly numerically no longer applies. If anything is lagging,
it's society's willingness to redefine the meaning of the word "old."
Still, talking to Ed Whitlock, I never got the sense that he was a man
obsessed. He does admit to having "a lot of dogged determination, I
suppose," but the day he came into the city for his blood test he missed
his morning run and had no plans to make it up -- an oversight that would
usually be considered anathema in a sport where it's not uncommon for
individuals to have training streaks that extend for months, even years.
Maybe most refreshing is his matter-of-fact attitude towards his quest. "I
suppose it's fairly important in my mind to do this, but it's certainly of
no great importance in the worldwide scope of things."
Perhaps, too, in spite of his protestations about the rigours of training,
part of Ed Whitlock's motivation might come from the sheer joy, after all
thes in this life."