Lessons From an 85-Year-Old Marathoner

    Lessons From an 85-Year-Old Marathoner


    Note: We were saddened to learn that Ed Whitlock passed away on March 13, 2017, from prostate cancer, at the age of 86. He will always be an inspiration to masters athletes.

    Nobody can fully explain 85-year-old runner Ed Whitlock, who last October ran an incredible, sub-four-hour marathon in Toronto, Canada. Whitlock is even a mystery to himself.

    “I do all the wrong things. I don’t pay any particular attention to diet, no cross-training,” he says. “No stretching. I’d break something if I did that.”

    Obviously he has done some things right. Whitlock, who lives outside of Toronto in the Ontario town of Milton, was recently featured in a New York Times story that marveled at his “…unwavering dedication to pit himself against the clock, both the internal one and the one at the finish line.”

    But we here at TMA—and many folks in the running world—know that Whitlock’s recent achievements are far from revelatory. This is a man who ran a two-and-a-half-hour marathon (averaging sub-six-minute miles) at age 48; ran under 2:55 at 73 years old (a 6:40 pace); and at 80 ran just under 3:16. That 2:55 mark is considered freakishly great for a 73-year-old.

    “I don’t get runner’s highs or that kind of thing,” Whitlock told me. “But I do get quiet satisfaction when I’ve raced well.”     

    The Times story reports that Whitlock, even in his ninth decade, has some physiological gifts. Several years ago, researchers at Montreal’s McGill University poked and prodded the British expat and former mining engineer (he’s also been married for some 60 years). Scientists found that Whitlock’s maximum oxygen uptake, or VO2 max, was more than twice that of healthy 80-year-olds. A tested muscle had over 50 percent more “motor units”—which help muscles to fire—than scientists might find in most people around Whitlock’s age.

    Runner’s World has called him “The Whitlock Mystery.”

    But Whitlock, who wonders if he’s losing muscle mass yet at least enjoys the upside of being light on his feet (5-foot-7, about 110 pounds), can still serve as inspiration to us all. For one thing, he gets after it whenever possible

    “I try to run every day,” he told me. “I suppose I have a fair degree of persistence.” Whitlock not only runs—he runs ‘round and ‘round the Milton Evergreen Cemetery, which is near his home. His chosen loop is flat, shady, and measures about one-third of a mile. He and his wife Brenda have already purchased a plot at the cemetery, but Whitlock says that even while running in circles for hours, he doesn’t dwell on death.

    “I think about various things, including past races and planning for future race times,” he says.

    “I think about the people who work there and see me. They probably say, ‘There goes that crazy guy again.’”

    Which brings us to how else Whitlock can motivate those of us who, despite being decades his junior, still complain about our creaks and pains. The holder of multiple world records maintains his sense of humor as well as a sense of wonderment. He’s 85 years old, he’s sometimes sidelined for months at a time (his knees bother him), and yet he still meditates on what’s possible. Maybe the next time you swim, cycle, play golf, or jog, we can meditate on what we might achieve—be it finishing a 10k, or making significant progress in our putting game.

    Whitlock could certainly be forgiven if, despite his God-given talents, he decided to see what’s available on Netflix instead of going out for a run. Instead he generally chooses the latter, and then he dreams and plans.

    “I’d like to try and set some more records on the track,” he told me. “I think that’s pretty realistic.”