The death of Ed Whitlock two weeks ago was a saddening shock. He was undoubtedly the greatest master marathon runner that the world has seen. When adjusted for age, his time of 2:54:48 in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2004 at age 73 is one of the greatest marathon times ever recorded in any age group. He was also a delightful, modest but playfully mischievous character who shared information about his training in a gracious manner. However, he made no claim that what worked for him would work for others.
There is little doubt that individuals differ in the training program that works best for them. Nonetheless, I believe that there are lessons in Ed’s approach to training that apply to most of us. But before seeking to draw any general conclusions, it is necessary to note that it was a unique combination of his genes, training and mental approach that combined to make him the great runner he was.
What made him unique?
As discussed in my previous analysis of what made him great, the fact that he was from a long-living family, including an uncle who lived to age 107, make it likely that he was endowed with genes that predisposed him to longevity both as a runner and in overall health. It is becoming increasingly clear from many sources of evidence that fitness for running is closely associated with fitness for a long life. When tested at the High Performance Specialists clinic in North Toronto shortly before his 70th birthday Ed had a VO2max of 52.8 ml/min/Kg, compared with 35 ml/min/Kg for the average 70 year old. When tested in the lab of Tanya Taivassalo and Russel Hepple at McGill University 11 years later at age 81, he was found to have a VO2max of 54 ml/min/Kg, typical of the value expected in a recreational athlete 50 years younger. But most importantly, there was no evidence of decrease over the 11 year period. VO2max typically decreases by 12% per decade in sedentary individuals in their sixties, and at about half that rate in well trained master athletes.
The physiological testing in Toronto and 11 years later at McGill did not reveal anything freakish about his physiology, apart from his high aerobic capacity. According to the formula derived by Jack Daniels, Ed’s measured VO2max as he approached age 70 would predict a marathon time of 3:01:00. He ran 3:00:33 in London, Ontario, a month or so later. Thus his extraordinary marathon performance in his early 70’s were largely attributable to his aerobic capacity. It is noteworthy that his marathon performances in his early 80’s had deteriorated compared with his performances in his early 70’s despite a sustained aerobic capacity, indicating that he was no longer achieving the performances predicted by Jack Daniels. I suspect that it is likely that deterioration in the resilience of his leg muscles was the main factor in the drop off of his marathon performance over that decade.
Overall, the evidence indicates that the main contribution from his genetic endowment to his extraordinary longevity as a runner was a set of genes that led to a remarkable slowing of the usual deterioration of VO2max with age.
The unexpected shock
Conversely, in light of the link between fitness and longevity, it was an unexpected shock to hear that he had died at age 86, a good age but not an extraordinary one. Unfortunately despite the encouraging fact that maintaining fitness for running increases the probability of a long and healthy life, good overall health does not rule out the possibility of unanticipated disruption of the mechanism governing cellular division in the tissues of the body, causing cells to proliferate malignantly. In Ed’s case, he succumbed to prostate cancer. There is moderately strong evidence that maintaining aerobic fitness increases the body’s defences against cancer via control of the processes of inflammation crucial to tissue health. However, the cellular signalling systems by which the body maintains equilibrium between pro-and anti-inflammatory processes are in delicate balance, making it also possible that excessive exercise might weaken the body’s defences. In an individual case it is difficult to determine just where the balance between protection and harm lies, though one of the most striking features of Ed’s approach to running was his careful attention to the impact that running was having on his body. This made it all the more surprising that he died only a matter of months after taking 28 minutes off the previous world record for the M85+ category, setting a new mark of 3:56:33 in Toronto Waterfront Marathon last October.
In retrospect, there were pointers to the possibility that all was not well even as he completed the Toronto marathon. When compared with the previous M85+ world record, his sub-4 hour time was a spectacular achievement, though I had been anticipating he might achieve an even faster time. He himself had expected better. A photo taken during the race shows him somewhat more gaunt than usual. At that time, it appeared that the likely explanation was that he had struggled to regain full fitness after several injures in the preceding few years.
In an interview for the New York Times in December 2016 he expressed the hope that he would be running well at age 90. However, that interview also revealed the first worrying indicator that all was not well. He admitted that he had lost about 10 lbs in weight in recent months. Over a period of many years he had usually maintained a healthy lean physique with a weight of around 120 lbs and height of 5 feet 7 inches. The tests at the High Performance Specialist clinic in 2000 revealed a body fat proportion of 9.5%. This is probably near ideal for a male marathon runner; but any further decrease in weight might not be healthy. He also revealed in the New York Times interview that he was aware of an increasing loss of muscular strength. In retrospect, the loss of 10 lbs in weight and loss of strength was probably an early sign of the cachexia of malignant disease.
However I do not want to dwell unduly on the sad fact of his untimely death. What are the lessons we can learn from his life and his running? Despite his disarming impishness, he was very attentive to the way in which his body responded to training, and he was very thoughtful about the way in which he trained. The first key component of his training was frequent long slow runs of duration roughly matching his target time for the full marathon: multiple three hours runs each week in his late sixties and early seventies, when he was aiming for a sub-three hour marathon, and frequent 4 hour runs in his mid-eighties as he prepared for a sub 4 hour marathon. During these long runs he deliberately adopted a slow, shuffling gait to minimise stress on his legs. The second key component during his heyday, was fairly regular races, typically over distances of 5 Km or 10 Km, that helped maintain his lithe and powerful stride.
The care he took with his body was demonstrated by his choice of the Evergreen Cemetery, only a short distance from his house in Milton, Ontario, as his training venue. On the short, mainly flat, looping paths of the cemetery he was able to avoid stressful sustained battles against the biting winds of an Ontario winter. In the event of injury, he was able to return to his nearby home with minimal aggravation of this injury. He was not free from injury. Over the years he experienced several lengthy lay-offs on account of knee problems and also other injuries. During recovery from injury, he was patient. He aimed to rebuild his fitness by gradually increasing the duration of this runs. He used the races over 5 and 10 Km to gauge how well prepared he was for a marathon and set his targets appropriately.
Perhaps surprisingly, he denied enjoying running for its own sake. His motivation was the setting of records. He spoke of the boredom of his long training runs, though I wonder how much of this was an expression of the impish delight he took in down-playing what appears to have been a remarkable capacity to sustain his mental equilibrium through long hours of training.
In recent years I have modelled much of my own running on Ed’s training. Perhaps unfortunately I lack the motivating effect of setting world records. Fortunately, I do enjoy running for its own sake. I run contently around a 1 Km loop in local woodland less than a mile from my house for long periods, though not as long as Ed’s 3 and 4 hour runs. I find myself slipping into a relaxed meditative state and sometimes I think of Ed. I will miss him.