(this is Part Two of a lengthy feature on the British-born Canadian phenomenon, Ed Whitlock If you have not read the first part, please go to: http://www.globerunner.org/01/extraordinary-mr-whitlock/)
A year or two prior to the turn of the millennium, Ed Whitlock started seriously considering that he could be the first person over 70 (in his case in March 2001) to run a marathon in less than three hours. In his mid-sixties he had run just over two hours, 52mins in Columbus, Ohio; so he felt that sub-three at 70 was an eminently achievable target.
When we met in London in early December 2016, he said, “There was no reason at all why anybody should not have done it before. I thought that’s neat, it’s the poor man’s version of the four-minute Mile. As time went on, I thought about it more. I went down there again (Ohio) at 68, and ran another 2.52. The next year again, I was 69 and a half, and I ran 2.54, I thought how can you possibly fail? The following year, I signed up to run the London, Ontario Marathon. That was a bad, bad mistake. It was a small race, with just 300-400 people in it, not a difficult course, it follows the river, it’s out and back, but all uphill coming back, a steady grind. I hadn’t been running that well just before, so wasn’t entirely confident. I reached halfway in 1.29, so it was always going to be a real struggle. I ended up 23 seconds over (three hours), and quite surprised that I was that close, because I wasn’t feeling good at halfway, and I was running all by myself, stranded out there, with no help at all, so I didn’t know what to make of that. I was disappointed obviously, but that was the 70 year old record”.
As a prelude to his next attempt on sub-three hours, he went back to the World Masters’ Championships, this time in Brisbane (Australia), and ran the longer track distances of 5000 and 10,000 metres. He won both in world record times, 18.33.38 and 38.04.13, but… “The day after, I travelled back to Canada. That’s an ordeal, a long trip from Brisbane to Hawaii, another long trip Hawaii to Vancouver, then a lay-over, and a three hour trip to Toronto. When I got off the plane in Vancouver, I could hardly walk, my knee had locked up and I didn’t run again for over a year. I thought the three hour jinx has happened again and I was another victim. I sort of got going again after a year. Then, when I was 72 I ran another marathon and that’s when I got under three hours. I ran 2.59, but that wasn’t pretty at all because I badly hit the wall in that race. There’s some really nasty photos where I’m finishing leaning on one side. Not only that my face was all scarred, because I had a broken nose. A week before the race, I was walking to the store, and tripped over nothing and did a face-plant. I ended up with a broken nose and two black eyes, abrasions all over the face and elbows.
“But that was before I became infamous,” he added with a self-deprecating smile, demonstrating that he had lost little of the drole humour for which my countrymen are noted. Indeed, when we had spoken on the phone shortly after he’d arrived at his sister’s in the south-west London suburbs, I was surprised that Whitlock had barely a trace of a Canadian accent, despite his sixty plus years there. In common with many expats, he thinks he sub-consciously reverts to ‘English’ when he comes back to the UK. And in a two hours conversion the following day, apart from one of two inflections such as ‘haf’ for half, you would hardly think he’d ever strayed from Surrey. Also, having only seen race photos of him before we meet, I imagined that with what looked like a long lean frame he would be well over six feet tall. But that leanness is deceptive. He’s an elfin 5’7” (1.70m), and normally weighs in at a scarcely credible 112lbs, or “eight stones” as he obligingly reminds me, in English currency. However, he is mildly worried that he’s lost some considerable weight in the last year. “I’m not sure what that’s about. I’m only seven and a half stones (105lbs) at the moment, but it doesn’t seem to affect me when I’m running”.
This high power-to-weight ratio may go some way to explaining his superlative times. In contrast, I’m 5’11” (1.80m), and by no means overweight at 11 stones (154lbs). Then again, I don’t run three hours every day. Because this is the other, or one of the other extraordinary things about Whitlock. When he was schoolboy, he says he and schoolmates on the cross country team took perverse satisfaction in running as slowly as possible on their once-a-week training runs (with a race on Saturday); and that’s something he has returned to in the last decade or so. Part of the Whitlock legend for the increasing numbers of fans in north America – where his exploits are detailed on running websites – is his daily training regime.
Whenever he’s at home, in Milton, Ontario, some 35 miles down lake, west of Toronto, he tries to run for three hours every day in the local cemetery…. on a mind-numbing circuit of either 400 or 500 metres. For three hours! He claims there are multiple reasons for this. “Up to10 years ago, I used to run on streets. But it’s partly the winter in Canada, some sidewalks get cleared, but some don’t. And motorists are one of reasons I run in the cemetery. I got tired of second-guessing whether they’re going to stop for you to cross a street or not. Then, on a lap of a quarter or third of mile, when it’s cold you don’t have to run against the wind for any length of time. And if there are any icy patches you seen it all before. It’s also shady in summer. Around town I always get into competition with myself; in the cemetery I just jog around, I don’t need to show off or watch the time or count laps. People say, how can you do that, it’s so boring? Everyone to their own idiocy, I say”.
That ‘idiocy’ has taken Whitlock to dozens of world records, including another huge milestone when he reached 80 and, running again up the road in Toronto, he clocked 3.15.50, which translates to 2.02.58 on the age-graded scale. And that’s just one second slower than the current marathon world record set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, in 2014. But despite that achievement, it’s the ‘poor man’s four-minute Mile,’ that 2.54 marathon in 2004 that remains the highlight for Whitlock.
“I was in much better shape than the previous year (2.59.10 at 72). About three months before, I’d run numerous three hour training runs; day after day; for fourteen days in succession, I ran at least three hours a day. Two weeks before (the marathon), I ran a 10k, and did 37 and a half (mins), so knew I was in great shape. I ran almost equal splits in the marathon, just under 1.55 at halfway. I crossed the finish line and felt I could have kept going, whereas the previous year I was about to fall over. I’d like to experience that race again. That’s the race that sticks in my mind”.
Another reason for his visit to London this time was in pursuit of a different type of record. Although he was a member of Walton AC, the prestigious schoolboy race that he won in 1948 and ’49 was a promotion of neighbouring Ranelagh Harriers. Whitlock became good friends with the club secretary there and often turned out in their races, one of which was a cross country match against South London Harriers. Just 68 years later, Whitlock ran in the same fixture in Richmond Park just before Christmas.
Even more unusually, he competed in the schoolboy race fifty years after his first victory. “I was back visiting my sister 15 odd years ago, and thought I’ll go up and see Ranelagh, and said it’d be kind of neat if I ran the schools race on the 50th anniversary of when I won it. That was a year or two later, so I came over again and I ran it. It wasn’t by design, but I actually finished 51st. I was a bit disappointed I couldn’t have come 50th, that would have been really neat”.
What would be even neater is if he came back again to run his next marathon in his birthplace. It’s not often that the London Marathon organisers miss a trick. However, in the last decade, the organisers of the Rotterdam Marathon have twice invited Whitlock over to Europe, to attempt a couple of age-group records; and he has duly obliged. He now feels that he can substantially reduce that 3.56.33 from three months ago, though he will be 86 when London rolls round in April. “It seems when you get to my age, it leaks out faster and faster. I don’t think that was that good a run (in October), my preparation wasn’t the best. Only 12 years ago, I was running an hour faster. I know what I need to do, get in the time, get in a lot of long distance training, if I can do that, I can run well again”.
Whitlock had intended to run indoors later this month, in the Ontario Masters’ series of mini-meets, saying, “I set several records for M85 last spring, but I wasn’t in good shape then, I hope I can improve on them, at 1500, 3000, and the Mile”. But he emailed me last week, to say that a neck and shoulder injury which he already had when we met in London has worsened. So he isn’t training at the moment. He has never shrunk from taking off a considerable time, up to a year in the last decade or so, to heal properly; so though we might be counting the Whitlock years, clearly we can never count him out!
After his latest slap in the face for Joe Jogger, the sub-four in Toronto, one popular US running website ran a headline – Ed Whitlock. Stop it, please! In other words, it’s OK for Usain Bolt to run under 10 seconds for 100 metres every time he laces on his spikes, we expect it, he’s some sort of Superman, and we know we can’t compete. We can’t compete with Ed Whitlock either, but the problem is not only is he masquerading as an ordinary guy, he’s an 85 year old ordinary guy.
Marathon running is going through its second phase (after the 1980s) of being intensely fashionable. It’s on nearly everyone’s bucket-list. As well as the worthy charity runners, there are also a lot of attention-seekers in the big city races. Some are amusing, like the ones dressing up as a waiter and carrying a tray with a water bottle balanced on it for 42+ kilometres; or those donning a deep-sea divers’ suit, and taking six days to complete the course. Or even an astronaut running on a treadmill in space (the things people will do to try to upstage Ed Whitlock, huh?).
Then there are the plain annoying ones, like the paedophile creep Jimmy Saville, who pretended he ran the whole London Marathon on several occasions (brandishing his big cigar), when in reality he just ran the start and the finish. I presume the London organisers who went along with his egotistical subterfuge are now prepared to fess-up that he lied about that as well as about everything else?
Then there are those who claim to be very old, if not very, very old; much older than Ed Whitlock, though light years behind in times. I was at a central European marathon a few years ago when one such character turned up from London with a whole entourage of hangers-on, supervised by two grandsons who could best be described as barrow-boys. I met them again a few weeks later, at a Far East marathon. On both occasions, they whole group of half a dozen had been paid for by the organisers. Nobody I knew in athletics (apart from the credulous race organisers) believed that the guy was as old as the barrow-boys claimed, and those two were bleating about the Guinness Book of Records refusing to accept the unlikely story of their aged party. One athletes’ manager witnessing their charade commented, “This guy should be more like Ed Whitlock. There’s no pantomime with Ed. He pays his entry fee, just turns up, runs his race, and then goes home”.
Like I said, an ordinary guy. Except that he’s not.
(For a lengthier read on an even more extraordinary character, check out my latest book – details elsewhere on this site – QUICKSILVER, The Mercurial Emil Zátopek)