Ed Whitlock: Marathon Legend

Ed Whitlock who has died aged 86 was a veteran long-distance runner and the first person over 70 to run a marathon in less than three hours.

For many marathon runners simply managing to complete the 26.2 miles is their only goal and in itself is an achievement. For elite runners, finishing the distance in under three hours is the supreme ambition-and Whitlock achieved it at the age of 74.

Edward Whitlock was born in Kingston-upon Thames in the United Kingdom on March 6 1931. He had run as a teenager but gave up when he started work and then took the sport up again in his middle age. As a schoolboy he ran during and just after World War 2. Whitlock was a county-standard cross-country runner and could run 4:31 for the mile, which was impressive but not close to breaking any significant records at the time.

He studied Mining Engineering at the Royal School for mines, Imperial College, London, before moving to Canada and working as a mining engineer in Ontario. An injury sustained at work and coinciding with the move to Canada meant Whitlock gave up running for many years before taking it up again in his forties, and having won the world “masters” 1,500 metres title in 1979, he later described his conversion to marathons as “accidental”.

“My youngest son was into running at that time in school,” he recalled, “and he had been running every day for more than a year at that point without a break. He was determined he was going to run a marathon. He was only 14 then and we did not want to deter him, but he’s an awfully determined character. So reluctantly I ran with him”.

After retiring from work Whitlock set himself the goal of becoming the first person over the age of 70 to run a three-hour marathon. In 2003 at the age of 72 he ran 2:59.10 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. A year later, at the same venue, he knocked more than four minutes off his own record. He set records for the 70 plus, 75 plus and 80 plus divisions for every distance from 1500 metres to the marathon.

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A slim, gaunt figure, with long limbs and a mane of flowing silver hair, Whitlock would routinely glide past club runners more than half a century his junior and offer a cheery wave and a beaming smile-very disconcerting to men in the their thirties. In 2016 he moved into the over 85 plus division and became the first man in that age group to run a marathon in under four hours. Not only did he break the previous record, but he broke it by more than 28 minutes.

Whitlock was not the type of runner to time every practice run, nor did he replace his equipment every year. He raced in worn, but comfortable, 20 year old shoes and trained by running five minute loops around the perimeter of the local cemetery in Toronto, for up to four hours at a time, at what he described as a “plod”.

When it came to races, however, he upped the pace. He broke a string of age-division records, from the 17 minutes 23 seconds he set for a five-kilometre road race when he was in his sixties, to the 3:56.38 he ran at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon at the age of 85. He was not really sure how many records he held.

Whitlock was a phenomenon. He inspired many other elderly athletes and fascinated the sports scientists. One estimate suggested that, adjusted for age, the marathon Whitlock ran in 2 hours 54 minutes when he was 73 would have been the fastest marathon ever run.

Whitlock was modest and self-effacing, despite all the attention and records. “I suppose it’s nice for people to say I inspire them,” he said, “but I am somewhat embarrassed and I don’t know what the appropriate response to that is”.

In his seventies he was involved in a series of laboratory tests, which revealed that he had the fitness levels of a man in his twenties; he had a remarkably high oxygen carrying capacity and had lost considerably less muscle mass than most people of his age. Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic found that Whitlock demonstrated “about as close as you can get to minimal ageing in a human being”.

In December of 2016 he returned to London to run for his old club, the Ranelagh Harriers, in a cross country match against South London Harriers in Richmond Park. Naturally, he was the oldest runner in the race and took great pleasure in regaling the other runners in the pub afterwards; emphasizing that there was nothing special about his diet.

On March 13, this year, Ed Whitlock died of prostate cancer.

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