Septuagenarian sensation Ed Whitlock has quietly nursed a painful case of knee arthritis over the past two years. Now, the 13-time age-group world record holder is back in the racing scene despite one doctor telling him it was “game over” for running. How do you mount a comeback at the age of 78? Michal Kapral visited Whitlock at his home in Milton, Ont. to find out.
It’s an overcast summer day in a quiet neighbourhood in Milton, a town of about 75,000 in the verdant Greenbelt at the foot of southern Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment. An elderly man wearing a brown T-shirt and blue shorts jogs tentatively along the sidewalk on the western edge of town, and after about 50 metres, he stops to walk. An outsider driving past might be impressed to see this frail-looking man with a shock of jaw-length white hair gamely trying to get some exercise. Runners would instantly recognize the figure of Ed Whitlock, whose 13 age-group world-record performances at distances from 1500m to the marathon put him on par with the top handful of elite runners in the world.
After taking most of 2008 off from running because of an arthritic right knee, the 78-year-old is carefully building up his mileage in a bid to regain his form, despite one doctor telling him last year that he would never run again. “This is what I do now,” he explains about his new warmup routine, before resuming a slow run a few blocks from his house. He continues alternating walking and jogging until we cross through the gates of Evergreen Cemetery a few minutes later. Two young women running towards us look over at Whitlock with big smiles. As they pass, one of them points over and says, “Hey, you’re famous.”
Famous doesn’t begin to describe Ed Whitlock’s star status in the world running scene. His 2:52:47 at the age of 69 in the 2000 Columbus Marathon made him the oldest person to break three hours in the marathon. Three years later, after nearly a two-year layoff with arthritis in his left knee, Whitlock became the first person over the age of 70 to run under three hours, clocking a 2:59:10 at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. In 2004, he bettered his own record with the current men’s 70-74 world record, a mind-blowing 2:54:49 at the age of 73. He followed that up with successive 75-79 world records of 3:08:35 in Toronto and 3:04:54 in Rotterdam. Toronto Waterfront Marathon race director Alan Brookes says when Whitlock arrived in Rotterdam in 2005 to run a marathon duel against fellow septuagenarian Joop Ruter, all the elite African runners wanted to meet him. “Their granddad running sub-three hours – it just blew them away,” Brookes says. “And it gives some idea of the magnitude of Ed’s achievements – admired, respected and inspiring awe on a global stage.”
But the jaw-dropping performances were not without their challenges. On top of his battles with arthritis in both knees, Whitlock has struggled with a nagging Achilles injury for most of his life. Beneath his calm demeanour and unstructured, snail-pace training lies what Whitlock calls the “dogged determination” of a man who will not give up a task he has started, and a competitive drive that appears to remain as strong as it was when he competed in cross-country as a teenager in the 1940s.
Born in 1931 in a suburb of London, England, Whitlock showed early talent as a school-age and university track and cross-country runner. His personal-bests of 4:31 for the mile at age 17 and 14:54.4 for three miles were fast times for the day, but when he thinks back to it now, Whitlock says, “I’m convinced I could have run a hell of a lot better than I did.” As a teenager, he raced against some of the biggest names in distance running, including Chris Chataway, who famously crashed to the ground while leading the last turn of the Olympic 5000m final in 1952 (and still managed to pick himself up and finish fifth) and who would break the three-mile world record in 1955. Then there was the time Whitlock beat legendary British runner Gordon Pirie in a cross-country race. “That was a famous occasion for me,” Whitlock says, still grinning about it six decades later. “It was a schools race, and I beat him at a race that was put on by his own club.” Pirie would go on to set five world records and win the British cross-country running championships three times.
Whitlock’s running career, meanwhile, came to an abrupt halt after he graduated with a degree in metals-mining engineering from the University of London’s Imperial College. There was no metals mining in England at the time, so 28 out of the 30 graduates in his program took jobs in British colonies abroad. Whitlock had applied for a position in Rhodesia (which is now the area that includes Zimbabwe and Zambia), but partly due to a delay in paperwork, he ended up at the age of 21 in Sudbury, Ont. Bothered by a chronic Achilles injury and now living in a community with long, cold winters and no other runners, Whitlock stopped running. “My running spirits were at a low ebb,” he says.
Whitlock travelled extensively for his engineering work and focused on raising a family – two sons, Neil and Clive – with wife Brenda. At this point in the story, most accounts of Whitlock’s running career say that he took a 20-year hiatus, but this is not exactly true. When he was 25, Whitlock moved to Toronto from Timmins, Ont. to work at the University of Toronto. Someone he met at the university convinced him to do some training with the Toronto Olympic Club at Varsity Stadium and then compete in a local race around High Park. The race was a disaster, Whitlock says, because a guy who was over 40 beat him. “I thought, ‘If you can’t hold your own against a 40-year-old, what is the world coming to?'” Whitlock didn’t run again for 15 years.
The Master Arrives
If it weren’t for Brenda, Whitlock may never have run again. “My wife went to my son’s sports day at school in Montreal and found out that a local club was looking for a coach, so she volunteered me,” Whitlock recalls. But when the 40-year-old showed up at the club practice, they didn’t seem interested in his coaching. Since he was there already, he decided to jog around the track. “It didn’t feel too bad,” Whitlock says. “And all the teenagers were there looking at me, wondering who this old guy is. Remember, this is before the jogging boom.” Soon after that, the club had a 4x1500m relay race and Whitlock stepped in as a last-minute substitute for an injured runner. He says his 4:40 was “not horrible” for a first effort. “It got going from there,” Whitlock says. “I developed ambition.”
As the masters movement caught on in the early 70s, Whitlock soon had competitive runners in his age bracket to race against and quickly rose through the ranks on the world scene. Fellow age-group ace Diane Palmason of Coquitlam, B.C., remembers watching in awe as Whitlock won the 1500m at the masters world championships in 1979. “He was, and still is, lovely to watch,” Palmason says. “He floats along, hardly seeming to touch the ground. His running form seems to come naturally to him – just another aspect of his talent.” At the masters world championships in 1977, Whitlock entered the 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m and the marathon, finishing third in the 800m and second in the 1500m. “I didn’t do too well in the marathon – seized up a bit,” he says.
Mastering the Marathon
As a cross-country and middle-distance specialist, Whitlock says the marathon wasn’t his main focus. He ran his first marathon with his son Clive in a time of 3:09 and eventually cut that down to a PB of 2:31:23 at age 48. What really got him going in the marathon, he says, was “this thing about the sub-three-hour marathon at 70.” In his mid-60s, with a new goal in his head to break three hours when he turned 70, Whitlock began his now-legendary marathon training program – near-daily two- to three-hour runs around the same 500m loop in Evergreen Cemetery. At a time when just about every competitive runner swore by interval sessions and regular track workouts, Whitlock’s training consisted solely of plodding, unmeasured long runs.
But there was reason to the madness. Whitlock says regular interval training aggravated his irritable Achilles tendon, and this was the main reason he avoided speedwork. Racing didn’t bother the Achilles, so Whitlock worked on his speed simply by doing regular shorter-distance races. In the six months leading up to the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2004, he ran 15 races of 5K-15K and built up his cemetery loop run time to three hours a day. Whitlock considers that 2:54 time at age 73 to be one of his best (“a good effort,” as he describes it in typical understated fashion). According the World Masters Athletics age-grading tables, it equates to an open marathon time of 2:03:57 – faster than the current world record of 2:03:59. “I can’t believe that day,” he says. “I was untroubled. It felt like I could keep running after I crossed the finish line.” The performance is all the more incredible when you consider that Whitlock was hobbled with arthritis in his left knee just three years earlier, which kept him away from running for a year, followed by another year of slow build-up.
Whitlock says his training method works for him, but doesn’t recommend that other runners follow it. “What works for one person may not work for anyone else.” In fact, he’s switched up his own regimen since being diagnosed with another case of arthritis, this time in his right knee. Now he runs in the afternoons in the hopes that his knee will be warmed up from the day’s regular activities before he heads out for his run. He used to start his watch to measure the total time of his run (he doesn’t time his cemetery laps) after he left his house, but now he begins it when he gets to the cemetery, allowing for a very easy jogging and walking warmup before the start of the official run. The arthritis doesn’t usually hurt at all while he’s running – the pain kicks in afterwards, especially when he’s climbing stairs. “I’m trying not to push it when it starts to get sore,” he says. “Playing things sort of by ear.”
The knee starts to bother him when he pushes his runs to over an hour, but Whitlock has still managed to do some races this year – three indoor 3000m races, a 10K in London, Ont., a 13K leg of the Cabot Trail Relay in Nova Scotia and a 5K in Ontario.
Whitlock is not sure if he’ll be able to race marathons again, but he’s hopeful. He battled the exact same condition in his other knee and made a marathon comeback. The first doctor he saw about the current injury was “a typical doctor who was not gung-ho about all of this running stuff,” Whitlock says. “As soon as you have any problems, they say you should quit. She basically told me, ‘It’s game over. You’ll never run again.'” So Whitlock sought a second opinion – this time from Dr. Mark Bayley, a Toronto rehab specialist and avid runner. Whitlock says Dr. Bayley told him his knees were in better shape than his, and that regular running would actually improve the tracking of the arthritic knees and minimize the irritation. “He basically said I should stop being a wimp and get out there and run,” Whitlock says.
“I’m still being cautious, but I’m trying to follow Mark Bayley’s advice,” Whitlock tells me, as he flexes his right knee from his seat on his front porch. After he takes me on a tour of his cemetery loop this morning, he’s planning to top the 50-minute run from two days ago with a 51-minute effort this afternoon. I ask him if he knows the marathon world record for the 80-84 age group. He doesn’t. I ask him about his future ambitions. “Find out what that record is and get it,” he says.
That evening, I get an email from Whitlock:
“Managed to get in my 51 mins,” the email reads. “The world record for M80 is 3:39:18 by an Australian. As with the sub-3 at 70, it should be ‘easily’ achievable, but will anyone who is theoretically capable be able to run a marathon at all when it comes time?”
We’ll find out in a couple of years.