Archive for December, 2018

The similarities of two extraordinary marathon runners: Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes

December 21, 2018

In my previous post, I emphasized the differences between Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes, undoubtedly the two greatest elderly marathon runners ever.   Since that post, Gene has captured Ed’s M70 world marathon record, though they still stand should to shoulder in the Pantheon of distance runners.

[Edit: as noted by Ewen in the comment below, Gene’s record has not been ratified by IAAF. Gene wrote on his Facebook page on 22nd Dec 2018:  ‘although the Jacksonville Marathon is certified by the USATF, the race was not sanctioned by the USATF, and both must be valid for recognition of records by USATF/IAAF…..I am still proud of what I’ve accomplished – it just looks like it’s not going to be “official”. That said, I still have four more years to do it right, and, who knows, that might happen sooner than you think!]

In my previous post I emphasized that the two essential requirements for a marathon runner are the ability to sustain a pace in the vicinity of lactate threshold for a period of several hours, and the resilience required to withstand the damaging effects of impact forces generated by more than 30 thousand footfalls.  Examination of their early running careers and the process of transition to marathon greatness in their seventies reveals different routes to a similar outcome.  In this post, I will focus on the way in which their differing approaches to training allowed them to achieve a similar outcome in their early seventies despite differing natural endowments.

 

Ed Whitlock

Ed was gifted with an impressive ability to sustain pace in the vicinity of lactate threshold throughout his running career.  As a ‘young’ masters athlete he employed a periodized approach, building a base with a high volume of running in the winter and focusing of fairly intense speed work on the track in spring and summer. He won the M45 world masters 1500m championship in 4:09 at age 49. However, he only achieved greatness as a marathoner after developing a training program based on multiple long runs of several hours duration each week.  I have described his training is detail in several of my preceding posts.   He designed this program in a manner that minimised wear and tear on his body, most notably by adopting a shuffling gate that minimised the impact at foot fall.  Nonetheless, the duration of his long runs necessarily entailed many thousands of impacts, and it is reasonable to conclude the almost daily repetition of these long runs developed the resilience required for elite marathoning.  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 in 2003 at age 72.  The following year in Toronto, he utterly shattered his previous M70 marathon world record with a time of 2:54:48.   Over a period of 15 years he set 36 world records across the age range 70 to 85, including distances from 1500m to marathon.

 

Gene Dykes

In contrast, although Gene was a runner for most of his life since early teenage, it was not until his sixties that he exhibited any signs indicating the possibility of future greatness.  In his late fifties and through his sixties he ran long distances in training, mostly at modest pace.   At that stage, he was showing signs of noteworthy, but not extraordinary, resilience. He further developed this resilience by running ultras.  However it was the inclusion of faster sessions in his training program after engaging John Goldthorp as his coach 5 years ago, that allowed him to develop the ability to sustain a pace near lactate threshold,

In a post on the Slowtwitch thread in October 2018 Gene described a typical week as:

2 recovery runs of 6 miles (8:00-9:00 pace)

2 general aerobic runs of 10-16 miles (7:00-8:00 pace)

1 fast paced workout (some kind of intervals from 30 seconds to many miles in the 6:10 to 6:40 range)

1 Long Run (RR pace, picking it up in the last few miles)

He also races most weekends.  Earlier this year, he ran demanding long races (mainly marathons or ultras) on 12 consecutive weekends. He sometimes runs an ultra on the Saturday and a marathon on the Sunday.

He became the second 70 year old to break 3 hours for the marathon when he recorded 2:57:43 in Rotterdam in April 2018, a few days after his 70th birthday.  Subsequently, he recorded 2:55:18 in the Toronto Waterside marathon in October, 30 sec outside Ed’s M70 world record.  Gene ran the Viste Verde 50Km ultra on Saturday 1st December; the California International Marathon on 2nd December, and then less than two weeks later, he ran 2:54:23 in Jacksonville, Florida, taking 25 seconds off Ed’s M70 world record (2:54:48).   As Ed had run that time at age 73, he still holds the single year age world record for a 73 year old, but he no longer stands alone, head and shoulders above all other elderly marathoners.

 

Two colossi astride the running world

Ed and Gene are the only two 70 year-olds to break 3 hours for the marathon and jointly stand as colossi of the masters running world, towering above all other masters distance runners. They share both remarkable resilience and also remarkable ability to maintain near-tempo pace for several hours.  Both run/ran huge distances in training; both included/include an impressive amount of demanding racing in their annual calendar.  Their similarities are perhaps more striking than their differences.

Nonetheless, in looking towards the future, it is worth reiterating the differences in the paths they have followed.  Ed was endowed with greater natural speed. There is no reason to anticipate that Gene will ever seriously threaten Ed’s many masters world records in the shorter distance events.  Ed became great by adding long slow training to his previous intense training.  On the other hand, Gene became great by adding intense training to his previous high volume training.  Gene’s ability to recover from intense training and frequent demanding racing is phenomenal.

Gene is improving in absolute terms at age 70.   His 2:54:23 marathon in Jacksonville a week ago is his life-time fastest marathon.  In contrast Ed ran his personal best marathon of 2:31:23 at age 48.   Ed was already declining in absolute terms by the time he achieved colossal status as a masters marathoner. Nonetheless, despite declining in absolute terms, he continued to take major chunks off master’s world records until age 85, a few months before his untimely death.

The fascinating questions at this stage are:  for how much longer will Gene continue to improve in absolute terms; and will he still be breaking Ed’s records at age 85?

My belief is that the odds are against Gene enjoying the same longevity as a record-breaking marathoner as Ed, but that is a very debateable issue. I had promised in my previous post that I would review the evidence regarding the optimum training strategy for achieving longevity.   That will definitely be the topic of my next post.

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