The secrets of the enduring ancient marathoners

There are seven elite ancient marathoners who have set a marathon age-group world record at age 60 or greater, and in addition, have recorded times ranked within the top 15 in their current age band on multiple occasions spanning more than a decade. These seven elite marathoners with extraordinary staying power are John Gilmour, Eric Ӧstbye, John Keston, Derek Turnbull, Luciano Acquarone, Ed Whitlock and Yoshihisa Hosaka.

John Gilmour (born 1919)

John Gilmour migrated from Scotland to Australia during childhood. He was a keen athlete in his teens but at the outbreak of the war enlisted in the army and became a prisoner of war when the Japanese over-ran Singapore in 1942. He was imprisoned in the notorious Changi prison and subsequently shipped to Japan where he experienced further extreme privation. He suffered permanent loss of much of the sight of both eyes due to malnutrition. His pièce de résistance as a slave labourer was destroying a major Tokyo Steel furnace by contriving to have a heavy naval shell loaded into it. He sustained his spirits with the hope of future athletic achievement and within a year of his return home represented Western Australia in national championships. However, his most memorable performances were achieved in international masters events ranging from 800m to marathon over a 20 year period from his early 50’s to age 70. At age 59 he ran a marathon in 2:38:19. Three years later he set a world M60-65 record of 2:41:07 and subsequently in Perth in 1989 he set a M70-75 world record of 3:03:04. He continued to race and to coach until in his mid-eighties.

His training and racing were characterised by intense determination grounded on the conviction that if he could survive his experiences as a POW he would not be deterred by the challenges of running. His training and coaching repertoire included demanding tempo sessions, though in all spheres he showed generosity of spirit and humility. In the forward of Gilmour’s biography, Robert de Castella wrote: ‘… this book celebrates his achievements and gives us an opportunity to understand how champions can be ordinary people doing the extraordinary.’

Eric Ӧstbye ( 1921 – 2011)

Ӧstbye was born on Norway but moved to Sweden. He dominated Swedish road racing in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, but rarely ran on the track. He set his first age group world marathon record in the 45-50 category at age 47 and subsequently set records in the 50-55; 55-60 and 60-65 categories. Even at age 70 his time of 3:15:57 placed him 10th on the world ‘all time’ list at that time.

In 1968, he was not included in the Swedish team for the Mexico Olympics because he was considered too old at age 47, despite a best time of 2:20:55 that year. It is interesting to note that Mamo Wolde won the Olympic gold with a time of 2:20:26, though the altitude of Mexico City (2250m) must be borne in mind. Ostbye trained according to the principles of Ernst van Aaken. The key feature was daily long slow runs of 30 Km or more, in the low aerobic range, augmented by only a small amount of fast running.   He was also a dedicated vegetarian.

John Keston (born 1924)

Keston is an English actor and singer who travelled to Washington, and thence to Broadway, with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a touring production of the play, Sherlock Holmes, at age 50. He decided to remain in the US.  At age 55 he took up running to overcome high blood pressure. After doing well in some ‘fun runs’ he began to take running more seriously, and at age 64 achieved his fastest marathon time of 2:52:32. He trained with tigerish ferocity, typically doing sessions such as 20x400m. He set his sights on being the first 70 year old to break 3 hours, and with typical determination he raced 20 marathons that year, without achieving his goal. He subsequently accepted ironically that his determination exceeded his sense. He did break Warren Utes’s half-marathon world record with a time of 1:25:36, and the following year he broke Utes’s M70-74 marathon record with a time 3:00:58.  

Then at age 73 he suffered the first of three serious accidents that might have persuaded a less determined man to give up. First, he broke his hip in a bike accident. Then, sixteen months later he broke his left leg when he slipped and fell in icy snow, and a further ten months later, he stubbed his toe on a rock while running seriously injuring his foot and tearing tendons. He resumed running, but perhaps fortunately, guided by his son’s advice he decreased the intensity of training. Similarly to Eric Ӧstbye and Ed Whitlock, he subsequently trained mostly at low intensity for several hours per day, though at an even lower intensity with about half of the distance covered walking in woodland. He loved the outdoors; the sun, the wind and the rain. Typically, he ran for about two hours every third day, and walked for a similar time on each of the intervening two days.   His race times slowed but nonetheless at age 76 he set US national records at 5K and 10K, and he ran a 1500m in 5:47. The following year his marathon time of 3: 19:01 was only about a minute outside Warren Ute’s M75-80 world record, and 5 years later at age 82 his marathon time was 6th in the all-time rankings for the M80-85 category at that time.    

Derek Turnbull (1926-2006)

Derek Turnbull was a New Zealand sheep farmer who dominated the world of veteran distance running from 1977 to 1992. He had been an enthusiastic runner since his teen-age. Despite subsequently down-playing the athletic achievements of his younger days, he had run a half mile in little over 2 minutes, a mile in 4:23, and achieved fourth places in New Zealand three- and six-miles national championships on several occasions. At university, he was awarded an athletics Blue. The tradition of awarding Blues to mark sporting achievement had originated in Oxford and Cambridge, and had been taken up, perhaps with slight tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm, in some antipodean universities. I am wryly amused by the fact that the only surviving tangible memento of my own early athletic achievements is the venerable document recording the Blue awarded to me by Flinders University. My mother had it framed and I have never had the heart to throw it away. But even if in retrospect, a Blue might be seen as a peculiar mark of respect for the venerable universities of the ‘mother country’, it provides me with a tenuous link to Turnbull, while also illustrating that his athletic gifts were recognised when he was a young man.

However, the thing that makes him a world-class athlete was the fact that nearly four decades later at age 60 he broke the M60-65 world marathon record with a time of 2:38:47, in my home town, Adelaide. Five years later, in 1992, he established a M65-70 world marathon record with a time 2:41:57 in London. That record still stands, and is the prize that Yoshihisa Hosaka is aiming to take in Toronto in November this year   In the intervening years,Turnbull ran an 800m in 2:14.53, a 1500m in 4:28.00 at age 62.   He continued to run after suffering a stroke in 2001 but sadly died in 2006 at age 79. Like his countryman, Jack Foster, Turnbull did not follow any specified training plan, but ran across the fields and through the forests on his property, Sherwood farm, as the whim took him. Nonetheless, his whims often dictated a fast pace, and it is probable that his training included a good mixture of easy and fast running. In an obituary published in Running Times in February 2007, Roger Robinson stated that ‘a visit to Sherwood Farm revealed that running how Derek felt in fact produced a perfectly balanced program of long runs, tempo, and fast work’.

Luciano Acquarone (born 1930)

In his youth, Luciano Acquarone focussed on middle distance events, enjoying success at regional level in his native Italy. In his early forties he turned his attention to the marathon, achieving a time of 2:20:21 at age 42, while also continuing to perform well at 5,000m and 10,000m. In his late forties he suffered tendonitis requiring surgery, but then his career blossomed on the world stage in his early 50’s. He set a world 50-55 age group record of 30:05 for the 10000m record in 1981. That year he ran a marathon in 2:28:28, placing him 5th on the world ‘all-time’ list of 50-55 year old marathoners. He continued to flourish, setting a M60-65 world marathon record of 2:38:15 at Turku in 1991, in addition to capturing the M60-65 10,000m world record. Over the subsequent 15 years he continued to post times in the marathon and also at shorter distances that placed him high in the world rankings.  Again at age 75 he achieved another age group world marathon record with a time of 3:10:57.    At 81 he set a European half marathon record and the following years a M80-85 world record at 3000m. Thus Acquarone has performed at elite level as a veteran over a period of 40 years, and has set world records spanning distances from 3000m to marathon, spread over a three decades. It is ironic that, apparently on the basis of a superficial examination of the data, Ross Tucker selected Acquarone to illustrate his proposition that most elite veterans appear at the top of the world ranking for only a brief few years, in support of Tim Noakes’ hypothesis that training and racing at elite level damages the legs. We will return to address that interesting hypothesis subsequently.

Ed Whitlock (born 1931)

I discussed Ed Whitlock and his training in detail my post of August 2nd. Here I will summarise only those features that are especially relevant to the topic of this post and the next.   As a school boy he showed promise of athletic talent, running a mile in 4:31 and notably beating the future world champion distance runner, Gordon Pirie in a cross country race. Unfortunately, an Achilles tendon injury at university contributed to his decision to stop running, and lack of opportunity for racing after he moved to Canada to take up a job as a mining engineer consolidated that decision. He began running again in his forties, focussing mainly track racing with a strong determination to win. His training placed a strong emphasis on demanding interval sessions. At age 48 he ran his best marathon in 2:31:23 after a winter of solid high-volume training and later that year won gold in the 1500m at the M45-49 masters world championships in Hannover with a time of 4:09.

But his greatest achievements as a marathoner came after he shifted to a training program in which the key feature was daily long runs at a very easy pace, spiced up with occasional fartlek-style speed work and frequent races. In the four years from his impressive time of 2:52:02: in the Columbus Ohio marathon, in 1999 at age 68 to his awe-inspiring 2:54:49 at age 73 in the Toronto Waterfront marathon in 2004, he gradually increased the frequency of 3 hour runs.   In the 20 weeks prior to the 2004 Waterfront he did 67 three hour runs, including 18 on consecutive days. Contrary to the almost inevitable year on year decline observed even among elite elderly marathoners, he actually ran faster at 73 than during the Waterfront Marathon the previous year when he became the first man to run a marathon under 3 hours with a time of 2:59:10. It is also noteworthy that his best 1500m time of 5:08,6 at age 73 was less than a second slower than his best at age 72, whereas an increase of about 5 seconds over a year would be expected. Thus, the increased amount of slow running did not harm his speed. He has continued to set world records distances ranging from 3000m to the marathon, including setting the M80-85 marathon world record with a time of 3:15:54 in 2011.

Yoshihisa Hosaka (born 1949)

I discussed the running career of Yoshihisa Hosaka in my post of August 18th and will only give a brief summary here. He was a champion runner at school but during his twenties he focussed on surfing, only returning to running at age 36. Initial success at shorter road races led him eventually to the marathon. He achieved a personal best of 2:25:28 at age 45 and after further refining his training program, set the M60-65 world record with a time of 2:36:30 at the Beppu-Oita Marathon in 2009. As he described in an interview with Brett Larner, his training at that time was based on 5x1Km twice daily at a gradually progressive pace within a total of 32 Km per day.   In the following three years he continued to race well , capturing the M61 and M63 single-age world records, though his marathon time increased at a rate of over 3 minute per year compared with an expected slowing of about 2 minutes per year for an elite runner in his early 60’s. In last year’s Gold Coast marathon he narrowly failed to capture Clive Davies M64 single-age record of 2:42:44 and this year faces the major challenge of capturing Derek Turnbull’s M65-70 record of 2:41:57.  

What do these ancient marathoners share?

First, with the exception of John Keston, all showed evidence of at least a moderate athletic talent in young adult life, but none were of international class at that stage. Gilmour represented his state in national championships in his twenties, within a year of his return for prisoner of war camp; Ӧstbye began to dominate Swedish road racing in his thirties; Turnbull won an athletic Blue at university; Acqualone was a successful middle distance runner at regional level in his twenties; Whitlock famously beat Gordon Pirie in a cross country race as a school boy; and Hosaka was a school-boy champion. Although Keston did not start running until age 55, his immediate success in fun runs made it apparent that he too was gifted.

However the thing that made all seven of these runners great were their performances in their 50’s, 60s, and 70’s and in several instances, in their 80’s.   Their great performances were not confined to the marathon. With the exception of Eric Ӧstbye who rarely ran on the track, all of them have been listed in world masters rankings for 1500m, and several of them set national or world records at 10,000m.  

Thus, even more important than their talent for distance running as young men, was the fact that their performances declined with age at a much slower rate than the average person. This reduced rate of decline applied across the spectrum from 1500m to marathon. Nonetheless, despite a reduced rate of decline from young adult life to middle age, they did all decline. Data from the Master Athletics track and field world rankings indicates that this rate became fairly uniform by the middle years of the seventh decade. At that stage, the rate of their slowing was around 1.5% per year for both marathon and 1500m.

The degree of commonality in these features across all seven athletes suggests at first sight that the type of training did not play a crucial role. All undoubtedly trained consistently and with determination, but the content of their training sessions differed substantially. Ӧstbye, Whitlock and Keston (in his later years) did a high volume of easy running with a small amount of faster training and/or racing over short distances. Turnbull was deliberately more spontaneous in his training but appears to have included a reasonably balanced mixture of training paces. As far as I can gather from the information available to me, Gilmour and Acqualone also included a balanced a mixture of paces. The central feature of Hosaka’s training is 5x1Km intervals twice daily at a gradually progressive pace, within an overall total of 32 Km per day.  

Presented in such broad brush strokes as this it is difficult to reach any conclusion about training other than that a variety of different training programs can lead to success, provided the athlete has a degree of natural talent for running together with a predisposition to age slowly, and the training is consistent. However, I think that a finer grained analysis does allow us to draw some speculative but potentially useful conclusions about how to train, whatever the level of one’s natural talent.

There is a related question that arises from the hypothesis that an athlete can only expect to remain at his/her peak (relative to the WAVA age norms) for a limited number of years on account of the damaging effect of the training and racing required to attain one’s peak. These seven ancient marathoners were selected for this discussion on account of their longevity in the world marathon rankings, and hence do not provide an unbiased sample in which to test that hypothesis. Nonetheless, because they tend to be exceptions to the rule, they do offer interesting insights into the limits to the validity of the hypothesis. Furthermore, a finer grained analysis of features of the training of some of these seven marathoners does provide some clues regarding the way one might train to remain near to one’s peak for longer.

In my next post, I will examine a few of the finer details of the training of these seven athletes that proved pointers toward how to achieve one’s best in middle-age, and how to sustain that peak relative to WAVA age norms into old-age.

4 Responses to “The secrets of the enduring ancient marathoners”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Thanks Canute – that was interesting! I hadn’t heard of Ӧstbye, Keston or Aquarone.
    I wonder if the main reason why these runners are/were able to remain at an elite level over a number of decades into advanced age is because they retained the enthusiasm to train ‘seriously’ and were able to dodge or recover well from injuries?
    P.S. Congratulations on your Blue – that’s quite impressive!

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that enthusiam and determination to keep training consistently probably played a major part in the success of these seven elite masters, but the ability to train consistently in old age is not merely a matter of determination.

      Most people would probably suffer breakdown if they attempted such training. To large extent I suspect that genetic endowment allowed these runners to train so consistently, but the question that really intrigues me is the extent to which the type of training also contributed In my next two posts I attempt to address this question, and then in the subsequent post will describe my own attempts to apply my conclusions with the goal of arresting my current somewhat alarming rate of decline.

  2. How Do World-Class Old Guys Stay in Shape | The Athletic Time Machine Says:

    […] The Secrets of Enduring Ancient Marathoners (August 26) […]

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