Happy birthday, and “many happy returns of the day” to Ed Whitlock who turns 80 this Sunday, March 6th, and is set to re-write the record books for octogenarians, just as he’s done for 70-year olds over the past decade.Born March 6th, 1931 near London, Ed’s story is now well-known around the world. It is that of a modest, unassuming, shy, retired Canadian mining engineer who after success running as a young man in the UK, took a 40 year hiatus, before returning to the sport in his later years, and with a vengeance after retirement. He has no coach, manager or agent, and has eschewed any kind of commercial endorsement. He runs 3 hours every morning around the same local cemetery in Milton, a western suburb of Toronto, snow, rain or shine, and describes it as “peaceful”.
Whitlock surprised the world on September 28th, 2003 when he ran 2:59:10 at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, aged 72, to become the first 70+ athlete on the planet to break the magic 3-hour barrier. “The marathon’s Greatest Day! New World Records in Berlin and Toronto,” boomed Amby Burfoot’s headlines in Runner’s World magazine. “A Day for the Ages.”
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Then Ed astounded everyone when he returned to Toronto’s Waterfront the following September, to clock 2:54:49 at age 73. In the words of Marc Bloom in the NY Times, he has deservedly “been heralded like an Olympic champion” since that run. It was that 2004 record that truly astounded and captured the imagination of the whole world. Ed Whitlock not only expanded the limits of what “Seniors” could do, but provided inspiration for people of all ages. This was everyone’s Granddad breaking 3-hours. He became an “everyday Superstar”, the talk of the global running community and the toast of the town.
In between his two Toronto Waterfront masterpieces [apologies for the pun], he accepted a challenge to race 72 year-old Dutchman Joop Ruter in the Rotterdam Marathon in April of 2004. I went with him to The Netherlands; Maclean’s magazine sent photographer Peter Bregg to capture the moment.
Ed dusted Joop, who could keep pace for only a few kilometres, and Ed crossed the line in another sub-3, at 2:58:40. I think he got more ink that weekend than Jim Mundi who won the race in 2:07, and the Kenyan elites were enthralled.
As a somewhat humourous aside [though not funny to me at the time!], as Ed and I were leaving the elite athletes’ building for the Awards Ceremony after the race, I realized I’d left my backpack in the athlete lounge room. I ran back to retrieve it, and straight through a plate-glass door, severing an artery just above my left eye. Blood everywhere. Scary! Gentleman that he is, Ed gave up the Awards ceremony and the personal glory, and accompanied me to University Hospital. As the ER doctor’s took the temporary bandage off my forehead blood started to spurt out of the artery. As I lay there wondering if I was going to bleed out, the room started to fill up with several doctors, nurses, and hospital staff…. “Meester Wheetlock, Meester Wheetlock, fantastic run! Bravo! Let us shake your hand. Tell us about your run. How is it possible…?”
I survived, and Ed THRIVED, going on to notch 11 age-group World Records throughout the decade of his 70s. He remains the only person 70+ on the planet to have gone “sub 3”.
For his birthday this Sunday, he’s going over to the nearby Chilly Half Marathon in Burlington, where he’ll run the accompanying 5K, “just comfortably, as a hard workout”. He’s then lined up some indoor track records to chase on March 19th and 20th, before heading for his 2 favourite marathons – Rotterdam on April 10th and Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront on October 16th. There, he hopes to dismantle the current 80+ World Record of 3:39:18set by Australian Robert Horman in Brisbane on May 24, 1998. In Holland, he says with typical nonchalance,
“The plan is to run somewhat conservatively ( I hope I’ve got the required discipline – particularly as I will be somewhat short on training background). I hope I’ll be between 3:20 and 3:30 if all goes well. Then I will have the opportunity to be more aggressive at Toronto Waterfront – somewhere in the 3:10 to 3:20 range. Or, if disaster strikes, I will have a second chance at the Waterfront. That’s the plan.”
When asked about his other goals for his NEXT decade of running, the unassuming Canuck says, “I hope to set some track records both indoors and out. Then there are other road race distances; it could be a busy summer and fall if my knees hold out. After that, I’d just like to keep on running as long as it can.”
And his #1 Tip for the rest of us mere mortals as he re-defines aging and pushes back the frontiers of the impossible…?
“Don’t limit yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you can achieve. And be patient. Patience is important, both for curing running injuries and in races.”
The world will be watching. Excitedly. In awe. And perhaps a little impatiently! Bring it on, Ed, and a VERY Happy Birthday from ALL of us who you inspire.