A contrast of two extraordinary marathon runners: Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes

Gene Dyke’s 2:55:17 marathon in Toronto last week, at age 70, was only 29 seconds outside Ed Whitlock’s phenomenal 70-74 age-group world record of 2:54:48 set at age 73.  The similarities and differences in their background and training raise interesting issues about the optimum marathon training, and about the way to achieve longevity as a distance runner.

I have discussed Ed’s training and racing here on this site on a number of occasions, using material based on interviews and on his own frequent comments posted on the Let’s Run website.  In my most detailed analysis of his training and reasons for his phenomenal performance, I speculated that not only was he endowed with genes that favoured longevity, but also I considered that a large part of his success was a gradual build-up of training volume after ‘down-time’, and his care to avoid wear and tear on his body.

Insight into Gene’s training and racing can be gleaned from an interview with Erin Fitzgerald published on her blog in 2015; and more recently, from an interview with Gregg Lemos-Stein that was presented in a Cloud259 podcast in April 2018, and from an interview with Sarah Lorge Butler for Runners World shortly after his 2:55:17 marathon in Toronto last week.  One very striking feature is Gene’s amazing ability to cope with huge volumes of running.  On his Strava page he says: ‘I run races from 1 mile to 240 miles. I run on roads, trails, track, and cross country. I run in all kinds of weather. I run a lot.’

But it is informative to take a somewhat broader view of the backgrounds of these two runners and the transitions that led to each of them becoming phenomenal septuagenarians.

School days and beyond into early middle age.

Both were school-boy athletes.   Gene told Erin Fitzgerald that he became interested in running at age 13 because he fancied a girl who lived 3 miles away.  In high school, and subsequently in college, he ran track. In his interview with Greg Lemos-Stein he admitted that he was ‘blown off the track’ at college.  After leaving college he continued to run but he described himself to Erin Fitzgerald as a ‘sometime jogger’ until 1997 when, at age 49, he ran the marathon in his adopted home town, Philadelphia.   He finished injured and did not run again for 6 years. Up to that point, there was little evidence of greatness ahead.

Ed ran both on track and cross country as a school boy in England.  At that stage he was a gifted distance runner but not extraordinary. He ran a mile in 4:31 and on one occasion beat Gordon Pirie in a cross country race.   He gave up running at University due to recurrent Achilles problems.  He moved to Canada after leaving university, and returned to track running in his early forties.  Although his main focus was on the track, he ran the Ottawa marathon in 2:31:23 at age 48, 1979.  This was based on a winter of high mileage base-building in preparation for middle distance track the following summer.   After some speed work on the track, he won the M45 world masters 1500m championship in 4:09.   It was clear by then that he was not only a gifted distance runner, across the spectrum of distances from 1500m to marathon, but was also showing evidence of the ability to withstand ageing.

 

The transition to greatness

Gene Dyke

Gene began running again in 2003 in response to encouragement by a group of friends. In the following 10 years he raced fairly regularly and by age 65 had achieved a creditable marathon best of 3:16.  His training was predominantly high volume at a modest pace.  In 2013 he ran the Toronto marathon, hoping to improve his time but was disappointed to finish in 3:29.  He wondered if age had caught up with him, but decided to have a final attempt to see if he could find a better runner within himself.  He hired a coach, John Goldthorp, who lived in a different suburb of Philadelphia. His coach presented him with a program of mixed content, including some more intense running. A substantial number of his sessions were at a pace faster than marathon pace.  He rose to the challenge. Within 5 months of joining John Goldthorp, he ran 3:09 in Boston.

He nonetheless continued to run ultra-marathons, though these were primarily oriented towards building a base for the marathon.  He has run an amazing 2800 miles per year in the past two years. He runs several 200 mile races per year at an average pace of around 2 miles per hour (3 mph average moving pace).   Typically he runs multiple ultras and then spend eight to 12 weeks converting the fitness from that base training into the speed required for the marathon. Even during this period of sharpening-up he still runs some ultras.  Not uncommonly he runs an ultra within the week preceding a marathon.

In April 2018, a few days after his 70th birthday, he ran a 2:57:43 marathon in Rotterdam.  Eight days later, he ran 3:16:20 in Boston.  He reports that he had felt strong in the final stages in Rotterdam.  While running a creditable time in Boston only 8 days after Rotterdam is a remarkable testimony to his powers of recovery, I am nonetheless inclined to wonder whether or not running Boston so soon after Rotterdam was perhaps pushing his faith in his power of recovery a little too far.  I will return to this speculation later.  Whatever the wisdom of running Boston so soon after Rotterdam, he was clearly in fine fettle 6 months later when he took a further 2 minutes 26 seconds off his personal best with his time of 2:55:17 in Toronto.

Ed Whitlock

In his sixties, Ed developed his own training program without a coach. Whereas previously he had done a lot of speed work on the track, he increased the volume of training, mainly in the sheltered surroundings of a local cemetery. He focused on long slow runs most days of the week. He reduced the speed work, largely relying on occasional fartlek session and frequent races.  He typically ran 30 races over distances of 5k to15 K per year, and used his pace in these races to assess his marathon readiness.

In his frequent long runs, which were typically of 2 to 3 hours in duration he did not measure the distance and purposely kept the speed down.  In contrast to the powerful fluent stride he exhibited during the shorter races, his stride during these long runs was a shuffle, intended to minimise impact forces on his legs.  In 2003 at age 72, he became the first person over the age of 70 to run a sub-three hour marathon when he ran 2:59:09 in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon.  He increased the duration of his long slow runs in the following year. In the 20 weeks prior to his phenomenal performance of 2:54:48 in the 2004 Waterfront Marathon he did 67 three hour runs, including 18 on consecutive days.

During the subsequent 13 years he continued to focus on frequent long slow runs. He increased the duration of his longest runs up to 4 hours.  Nonetheless he continued to race at distances from 1500m to marathon. He set 36 five year age-group world records and in addition, a large number of single year age world records.  Those that are missing from his list largely reflect the occasional years in which he suffered accidental injury or recurrence of the arthritis in his knee.  Whenever he returned to running, he built up his mileage gradually.

However by age 84 his training was limited by pain in the vicinity of his upper thigh and groin     Nonetheless, in October 2017, at age 85 he once again returned to the Toronto Waterfront Marathon to set a world record of 3:56:33 in the 85-89 age group, taking 28 minutes off the previous world record.   When compared with the previous 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 the apparent injury in the preceding year.  Sadly he died of prostate cancer in March 2018, a week after his 86th birthday

In retrospect, there were pointers indicating that all was not well even as he completed the Toronto marathon.  In an interview for the New York Times in December 2016 he admitted that he had lost about 10 lbs in weight in recent months and was aware of increasing loss of muscular strength.  As discussed in greater detail in my post shortly after his death, the loss of 10 lbs in weight and loss of strength was perhaps an early sign of the cachexia of malignant disease.

 

Contrasting strengths

The marathon occupies a special place among distance events.  It demands the ability to sustain a pace not far from lactate threshold for several hours, while also requiring the resilience to withstand the stress on the muscles and connective tissues of the legs arising from the impact at each footfall repeated thirty-thousand fold. Ed and Gene differed in the balance of their natural abilities to handle these twin demands.

Ed’s natural gift was the ability to sustain a pace at or above the lactate threshold.  This natural ability was evident in his performance as a school boy athlete; as a ‘young’ veteran who won the M45 world masters 1500m championship at age 49; and in the multiple world age group records he set across the range of distances from 1500m to marathon in his 70’s and 80’s .  However, to become a great marathoner he needed to develop the resilience required for the marathon. For this he developed his training program with its focus largely on long slow running with a shuffling gait.  He steadily built-up his ability to run for several hours four or more times a week, in the sheltered environment the cemetery within easy reach of his home should any misadventure occur.  He nonetheless maintained his natural capacity to sustain pace at or above lactate threshold well-honed by frequently racing at distances from 5K to 15K.

In contrast, Gene’s strength appears to be remarkable resilience that allows him to run massive distances and to recover quickly.  He had described himself in a mildly disparaging way as a jogger during his young adult life. Racing a marathon at age 49 left him wrecked.   After recommencing running 6 years later, he worked on building his capacity to recover by participating in repeated long distance events.  In this respect his approach bore some similarity to Ed’s, but in contrast to Ed’s care to avoid wear and tear, he was more cavalier.  In part, this might have reflected a tough mental approach.  In his interview with Erin Fitzgerald in 2015, he responded to her question about getting through the tough times: ‘In marathons and beyond, when I have a lot of time to listen to my legs begging me to stop, I think back at them, “This is why I do this.” ‘ His extraordinary ability to recover from prodigious feats of endurance is evidenced by completion of the ‘triple crown’ of three of North America’s iconic 200 mile events in a single year.   In this, mental attitude again played a role. In response to a question from Brenn Jones posted on-line following his interview with Greg Lemos-Stein in 2018, Gene wrote:  ‘With respect to 200’s, the fatigue can get profound, and the sleep deprivation is awful, but the total immersion in stunning scenery and the journey from one point to another, a point that starts out seeming an unfathomable distance away, will haunt you forever, but only in the very best way.’   In the past two years he has not only run 2800 miles each year, but those massive mileages included 1300 miles of racing per year.  While systematic build-up and mental attitude no doubt played a role, it is almost certain that Gene was endowed with a remarkable natural gift that allowed his body to adapt to these prodigious demands.

However, to become a great marathoner he needed not only resilience, but also the capacity to sustain paces in vicinity of lactate threshold.   To address this need his coach John Goldthorp   introduced running at marathon pace or faster into his program five years ago.  Within five months he was transformed from a mid-pack marathoner to an elite.

 

Longevity

Ed and Gene have followed different paths to achieving a sub-three hour marathon in their early 70’s.   What does the future hold for Gene?

Ed remained on the pinnacle of veteran distance running for a total of 18 years from his 2:51 marathon at Columbus Ohio in 1990 at age 68, until his 3:56:38 in Toronto in 2017 at age 85, shortly before his death a few months later. It is very likely that a combination of good genes and the care with which he avoided wear and tear on his body played a large part in this.   But it is noteworthy that in absolute terms he was not on a pinnacle in his early 70’s; in fact Ed was actually on a descending ridge rather than a peak during those years, albeit a ridge higher than any other runner had traversed.  He was merely managing to hold the inevitable age-related decline at bay much more successfully than any person before him.   He had shown a striking up-turn in performance between age 70 and 73, taking more than 5 minutes off his performance over those three years, but this was due in part to a relatively poor performance at age 70 (though nonetheless an age group world record at the time).

Gene, in contrast, is on an ascending ridge. His 2:55:17 in Toronto in October was a life-time personal best.  It remains to be seen whether in fact he has actually reached his personal summit.  However the fact that he finished so strongly in Rotterdam in March and might possibly have done better in Toronto if he had not slightly misjudged his pace in the earlier stages, indicates that he is capable of an even faster time.  I think the odds are in favour of continuing improvement over the next few years.

How Gene fares in the longer term future might tell us something important about the feats of endurance the human body can achieve with a lucky set of genes and an effective approach to training.   As I have discussed on this site over the past few years, there is quite strong evidence that in at least some individuals, extreme endurance activities are associated with long term damage to the body. There is an increased risk of heart rhythm disturbances and possibly calcification of coronary arteries.   The mechanism probably involves chronic inflammation induced by repeated stress.

However, there is some evidence that the damage can be alleviated by a careful build up.  Weakening of the right side of the heart after a marathon is less likely in those who have trained adequately.    That evidence is entirely consistent with the common-place observation that an excessive increase in training load can leave us with dramatic DOMS lasting several days, whereas if we build up gradually we can minimize DOMS.  This reflects the fact that acute inflammation is body’s natural mechanism for repairing damage; it is the mechanism by which many of the benefits of training are achieved.  But if the stress is prolonged, acute inflammation can become chronic, leading to persisting damage.  The art of training is harnessing acute inflammation without precipitating chronic inflammation.

Gene emphasizes that he has trained his body to recover well by regularly challenging it.  To my mind, the challenges to which he subjects his body go far beyond what most of us could cope with. Racing in the Boston marathon only 8 days after his herculean performance in Rotterdam at age 70 seemed to me to be risky.   It appears that the combination of his genes and his training have given him a unique capacity to recover and perhaps also to withstand the ageing process.  His progress over the past five years already challenges us to re-appraise what is possible for an elderly runner.   If indeed he continues to defy the ageing process for another decade or more, his example will justify a radical re-appraisal.

Although the genes that govern ageing are only poorly understood, it does appear that a very large number of genes each contribute a small amount to the process. Therefore whatever genetic advantage Gene has is likely to come from a combination of many favourable genetic variations that place him as the extreme of a continuous spectrum, rather than as the result of a rare single genetic variation that has placed him in a unique category.   If he is merely at the far end of a genetic spectrum along which most of us lie, one might expect that many of us might benefit to at least some extent, from more determined efforts to build up our resilience.   If however his brilliance fades quickly, his meteoric rise will carry the warning that the more cautious path of Ed Whitlock might be a better approach to maximizing longevity as a runner.

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6 Responses to “A contrast of two extraordinary marathon runners: Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Interesting post Canute. I think it shows that two talented runners can train differently and reach world record level for their age in their seventies. And perhaps that training needs to match the personality of the runner, Dykes appearing to be more cavalier than Whitlock. Gene’s powers of recovery are amazing — a good example would be the US T&F Masters Championships in July, winning all 3 races, 19:31 for 5000m on Thursday, 40:28 for 10000m on Saturday and 5:16.77 for 1500m on Sunday. Notable that in the 1500m he finished ahead of a speed/intervals type runner. I think he’ll beat Whitlock’s WR, having perhaps a shoe advantage, Vaporfly 4% vrs Whitlock’s ‘old and trusted’ shoes. Gene’s enthusiasm as well as his dedicated training is inspiring. I’m looking forward to following his progress over the coming years.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen
      Thanks. I agree that the evidence indicates that different training approaches work for different athletes depending on their mental make up and their natural strengths. Nonetheless in my next post i will emphasize the possible importance of the similarities between their training.

      With regard to Vaporfly shoes, it appears that they do make a difference of a few percent and that few percent might make the difference as to who holds the world record for the 70-74 age group in the near future. Nonetheless, I think the really amazing things about Gene Dykes are the fact that he has achieved life-time personal best performances at age 70 and that he has such an amazing capacity for recovery. The intriguing question is the extent to which capacity for recovery is trainable.

  2. Ewen Says:

    Looking forward to that post Canute. I’d like to improve my powers of recovery, so if it’s trainable I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject.

  3. JXH Says:

    Canute, great post. As you researched Gene Dyke’s running background did you see what his time was in the marathon he ran at 49?

    • canute1 Says:

      JXH Thanks for your comment. I am afraid I do not know his time in the Philadelphia marathon when he was aged 49..

  4. padraigjapan Says:

    Brilliant article as always! Thanks!

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