Author’s note: This story was originally published in 2010, when Ed Whitlock was 79. He continued to shatter world age-group records in his 80s, including 1:38:11 for the half marathon and 3:15:54 for the marathon. At age 85, he became the first person in that age group to break 4:00 for the marathon, with a 3:56:33 in October 2016. Whitlock died of prostate cancer five months later at age 86. His 2:58:40 marathon at age 74 makes him the oldest person in history to break 3:00 for the distance.
Any discussion of Ed Whitlock must start with the graveyard.
The Milton Evergreen Cemetery is a typical Victorian take on the topic, a public space with roads and landscaping providing a small urban oasis. The grid pattern of the roads allows several permutations of loops. Towering trees line both sides of some roads. It’s easy to imagine 19th-century families heeding the call of that time to picnic and linger on the grounds. Today, the modern world of Toronto exurb sprawl has encroached. The roar of nearby Highway 401 and an even nearer Walmart plaza are constant, except when they’re drowned out by the whine of a leaf blower or one of the frequent prop planes passing over.
Whitlock lives two and a half blocks from the cemetery, and does all of his training there. Speed work, daily maintenance runs, long runs of up to 3 hours, everything, meted out in loops that take no more than 5 minutes. He leaves his house with his day’s assignment decided and runs loops until his time is up. He doesn’t count loops or time them. He does look at his watch frequently and think, “What is taking so damn long?” The day’s loop varies occasionally, sometimes dictated by the presence of grounds crew or gravediggers. He never runs the full perimeter loop. The last little section on the southwestern side of the cemetery would add another minute or so, but it includes a rise, perhaps 50 yards long, with the steepness of a handicap-accessibility ramp. “I choose not to tackle this hill,” Whitlock explains. “I don’t like hills.”
When at the height of marathon training, Whitlock does cemetery loops for 3 hours a day, every day. He doesn’t do pick-ups or progression runs or marathon-pace work. He doesn’t even stop for water. Just 3 hours a day of what he calls “plodding” or “jogging.”
When plodding, Whitlock runs with a slight hunch and his right shoulder high. He looks around occasionally, but mostly stares at the ground almost directly in front of him. Most of his gear is from the mid 1990s, and most of his training shoes are worn through to the midsole in the outer heel. He has a weathered, angular face, a gracile 115-pound frame and white Prince-Valiant-in-his-dotage hair. The grounds crew could be excused for thinking that, if Whitlock’s not careful, he’ll soon join the cemetery’s residents.
Yet this 78-year-old man is one of the greatest age-group runners ever. In flight, his torso straightens, his limbs align, his chin comes up, and he glides over the ground. He’s run a 5:41 mile in the second half of his eighth decade. He’s run 6:00/mile pace for 5K in his early 70s. After a year away from racing with an arthritic knee, in September he ran a 1:37 half marathon, finishing 304th in a field of 3,411. And then there’s his crowning achievement (so far), a 2:54 marathon at age 73, a time that most runners half that age would be ecstatic to call their own.
When Whitlock was half that age, he thought his competitive days were behind him. He ran a 4:31 mile in high school in his native England and once beat future world record-holder Gordon Pirie in a cross country race. But an Achilles problem that’s with him to this day cut short his university running career. At the age of 21 his mining engineering degree led him to northern Ontario, Canada. “There was no racing scene up there,” Whitlock says, “and with my running the way it was there was no way I was going to be a pioneer.” While Whitlock appreciated the beauty of the area, “I run to race,” he says. “I don’t do it primarily for my health or anything else.” Running was done.
Whitlock settled in Canada, met his future wife of more than 50 years, Brenda, raised two sons. As a youth in south London during World War II, he had lived through weeks of German bombing. During his career, he drew on that experience of waiting out unpleasantries. “I moved paper from one side of the desk to another and went to meetings,” is how he summarizes his professional life.
When Whitlock was 41 and living in Quebec, Brenda was at a school sports day when a teenager told her the running club was looking for a coach. “My wife said, ‘My husband used to run. He knows all about running,’” Whitlock says with a laugh. “A, I don’t know anything about running. B, I have no ambition to be a coach. I’m too selfish. But I had been committed. When I went to practice, nobody showed any interest in me. I would just lean against the fence. I thought I might as well do some jogging around the track. This was quite a sight, because old men of 40 didn’t run in those days. I kept showing up and jogging around and ended up racing again because of that. It just kind of happened.”
Done telling Part 1 of his comeback story, Whitlock smiles, turns his head and eyebrows up, and shoots a “What do you think of that?” look. His stories are frequently punctuated with this admittedly charming gesture. Then it’s easy to picture the man a French tutor called “Monsieur Le Cynic” as an impish teen or the office dry wit. At one point he handed me a Canadian running magazine with an article on him and said, “Here, so you can see what lies I told him.”
So, then, here’s a fact: Whitlock’s return to racing coincided with the advent of the competitive masters scene. The club he trained with concentrated on middle distances on the track. “That’s about all I did through my 40s,” he says, “the 800 and 1500.” (What was that about lies? Whitlock ran his marathon PR of 2:31:23 at age 48.) As it turned out, the first masters world championships were held in Toronto in 1975. Whitlock took fifth in the 800 meters and fourth in the 1500 meters (the latter in a PR of 4:02.5). Two years later in Gothenburg, Sweden, he improved to third in the 800 (in a PR of 1:59.9) and second in the 1500. In 1979, in Hannover, Germany, he won the 1500.
“Having achieved my ambition of a world championship, the incentive leaked out,” Whitlock says. “With the speed work, I was also bothered by an Achilles injury. And I got busy at work. The next world championships were in New Zealand, and I didn’t go. Mainly because of work, I didn’t do much in my 50s. Once I retired, I had time on my hands and got serious again.”
By that point, Whitlock had been living for a decade in his current home of Milton, 30 miles from downtown Toronto. He doesn’t consider it a runner’s paradise. “It’s a battle to run in town,’ Whitlock says. “The drivers seem to attack you on the roads.’ That problem has become worse in recent years, as Milton’s population has quickly exploded from 10,000 to more than 70,000. Strip malls and expediency are definitely winning out over mixed-use planning and pedestrianism. “When I first came here I used to run out in the country toward the Niagara Escarpment, but I got fed up with the dogs,” Whitlock explains. Thus did he find himself gravitating toward the safety of the cemetery.
He also found himself gravitating toward the marathon. “When I started again,” Whitlock says, “my Achilles didn’t seem to like the track training. But distance training didn’t seem to bother it.” Whitlock is a devoted reader of age-group tables. “I realized in my late 60s that this silly objective of being the first person over 70 to get under 3 hours in the marathon was just sitting there waiting for someone. I thought it should have been done long before, but there it was, so I thought I should make an effort at it.”
Less than six months shy of his 70th birthday, Whitlock ran 2:54 at the 2000 Columbus Marathon. “I thought, ‘We’re okay now,” he says. “Maybe foolishly, I decided to try for sub-3 once I was 70 in London, Ontario. There were only about 300 people in the race, and I got hung out to run by myself the last half of the race.” Whitlock missed the mark with an agonizingly close 3:00:23.
“Shortly after that, I started having a problem with my knee,” Whitlock says. “I was off for over a year. I thought I wouldn’t get it done. I started realizing why others hadn’t done it yet.” Through no more aggressive treatment than rest, Whitlock says, “I was finally able to get back to training.” The 2- and 3-hour runs built on each other, and at the 2003 Toronto Marathon, at age 72, Whitlock met his goal with a 2:59:09. The following year, with several months of plodding buoying him, he returned to Toronto and ran 2:54:48. About that race, Whitlock, who is not given to rhapsody about life‘s endeavors, says, “That was a good day. It was never a struggle.”
This seems as good a point as any to supply some data to support your growing suspicion that Whitlock was blessed with extraordinary genes. Sit in his kitchen and listen to him descend stairs, and you would think a teen was about to join you for afternoon tea. Whitlock, who says, “I stay away from doctors, they’re bad people,” last had a physical exam when he was 40. His uncle Arthur was Britain’s oldest man when he died in 2000 at age 108. Whitlock last took an aspirin during World War II.
Of course, all great runners have good genes. What are the Whitlock secrets? There have to be secrets, right?
Only that there are no secrets. “I’m always willing to say what I do,” Whitlock says, “but I don’t know that it would work for any particular person. Everybody has to find out what works for them.”
Interested in finding out if the Whitlock way works for you? Here’s what you do: “I do what not to do to an extreme,’ Whitlock says. “I go out jogging. It’s not fast running, just that I do it for a long time. I don’t follow what typical coaches say about serious runners. No physios, ice baths, massages, tempo runs, heart rate monitors. I have no strong objection to any of that, but I’m not sufficiently organized or ambitious to do all the things you’re supposed to do if you’re serious. The more time you spend fiddlediddling with this and that, the less time there is to run or waste time in other ways.”
Whitlock also has a philosophical reason for stripping running to its essentials. “Running should be a pastime,” he says. “All sports should be a pastime. There shouldn’t be all this professional stuff. I believe that Paula Radcliffe is drug-free, but I do think she pushes the envelope of being a professional runner to the extreme. I don’t mean to single her out, but she’s living an artificial existence. She’s always away from home or sleeping in an altitude chamber. She has this entourage of people constantly around her poking and prodding. That’s so far away from what I do and how I would want to live. Monomania leads to terrible things.
“I really like that film Chariots of Fire. In a minor sort of way that’s the way it is for me, the amateurism of those days. Now, I am inconsistent in that I have cashed checks sent me for running.’ Here Whitlock pauses for the smile and upturned head and aren’t-I-a-bad-boy look. “But I have less objection to winning prize money than receiving money for giving a speech, which I’ve been asked to do. I despair of myself in those situations. I like talking to people, but five minutes later I can’t recall their name or what we talked about. I don’t know how to motivate other people. I never know what to say to people who say, ‘You’re an inspiration.’ What do you say to that? I’m not an inspiring person at all.”
If you’re of Whitlock’s speed and you “go out jogging” for 3 hours a day, you’re doing more than 140 miles per week. There may be no secrets, but there is a mystery: Why the cemetery?
Not five miles from Whitlock’s home is the parking lot for the Kelso Recreation Area. From there you can immediately be on an amazing network of wide trails through a forest and along the Niagara Escarpment. One option from the lot is the Bruce Trail, 800 kilometers long. In town, a bike path cuts through neighborhoods. So, why the cemetery?
“To drive somewhere to run? That would be too ambitious,” Whitlock says. “That would take sufficient organization to find the keys to the car.” Again he flashes his smile and turns up his head. I’m not buying it, and continue to press. He counters that running elsewhere than the cemetery would take too much time. I ask what else he does all day. He mentions the newspaper, the LetsRun message board, and “mucking about with an online stock market account.” I remind him that over the last three days he’s told me that training in the cemetery is “a drudge,” “boring,” “something to be put up with.” For someone who says, “I don’t enjoy training,” why not try to make it more enjoyable? Wouldn’t 3 hours pass more quickly mentally in the forest than in 4-minute loops around a graveyard?
“When I’m running, enjoying nature, that sort of thing, doesn’t seem to be a factor,” he says. “Two hours in a more pleasant setting wouldn’t make the time pass any faster. I would prefer not to run around in small circles day after day, but overall, taking everything into account, it sort of suits me. If it’s windy, I don’t have to face the wind for too long at any one time. If something happens, I can be home immediately. There’s nothing perfect in this world. One always has to make compromises in life. Look at Deena Kastor and those folks in Mammoth Lakes. Living at 8,000 feet might not be perfect, but that’s what they feel is best for them.”
One, as Whitlock might say, starts to realize that one of the greatest age-groupers ever doesn’t really like to run. I ask if his recent flare-up of knee arthritis might lead to a decision to give up racing, and whether he would keep running in such a scenario. “No, I don’t think I would continue to run,” he replies. “I will run only as long as I can race.”
What is one to make of a 78-year-old retiree who chooses to spend hours a day doing something he doesn’t enjoy? Wasn’t that what work was for? Is racing really that compelling?
Whitlock says, “Age-grading tables are a great motivator. My main interest in them is to see if I’m going downhill faster than the tables say I should or see if I can beat the tables.” But then, in another winked-at contradiction, he says, “There are problems with them. I suspect they’re easier than they ought to be on the upper age groups.” Then he sighs, pours himself more tea, and starts talking about the challenges of staying healthy enough to tackle the 80-plus marathon world record of 3:39:18.
To quote Whitlock one last time, “All people are strange in different ways.”
Scott is a veteran running, fitness, and health journalist who has held senior editorial positions at Runner’s World and Running Times.