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

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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9 Responses to “The similarities of two extraordinary marathon runners: Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Thanks again Canute. I’m enjoying this series of posts. In absolute terms I think there’s further improvement there for Gene, perhaps getting close to the 2:50 barrier. He certainly has the enthusiasm and handles the demanding schedule well. Did you see that his record is in doubt as Jacksonville wasn’t USATF sanctioned even though the course distance was USATF certified? By the way, you’ve typed ‘Greg’ in the title of this post. Season’s greetings and all the best for 2019.
    Cheers, Ewen.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen

      Thanks for your comment and for pointing out the spelling error, which I have corrected. Greg Dyke is a UK media person (BBC director for several years, and other things). I hope Gene’s record is certified, though if not I suspect it will spur him to another attempt on the record soon. However we cannot take it for granted it will be easy – the cramp in the final stages in Jacksonville cost him more than half a minute. It indicates that if all goes well he is capable of sub 2:54, but the cramp also indicates that you can never take things for granted in a marathon.

      Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year

  2. Podobnosti dvoch mimoriadnych maratónskych bežcov: Ed Whitlock a Gene Dykes – Paleolit Says:

    […] decembra 2018 Zdroj:Canute´s efficient Runing Site:The similarities of two extraordinary marathon runners: Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes Preklad:Ing.Imrich […]

  3. Ed and Gene’s genes? How do genes contribute to the longevity of a distance runner? | Canute's Efficient Running Site Says:

    […] 3 hours at age 70 or more.  In my recent posts I have outlined their athletic careers (here and here).   What can we learn from them?  There is nothing we can do to change our own genetic […]

  4. Tyson Park Says:

    On 3-24-2019 at Los Angeles Marathon which I ran, Frank Meza, age of 70, ran for 2:53.10. It is 1. 38 second faster than Ed Whitlock. The course is not flat and weather was warm. the elite winner ran for 2:11+.

    • LA Runner Says:

      Frank is a cheat. Letsrun found the evidence and MI guy wrote it up.
      https://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=9307635&page=67

      • canute1 Says:

        As stated in my response in the comments section of my post on ED and Genes genes (Jan 2019), I have continued to seek evidence regarding the training of Frank Meza but have not been able to find anything positive. I have been cautious in my judgement about the information based on unusual split times and lack of race photos, presented on the Letsrun forum, as it is inconclusive. However the analysis presented on the Marathon Investigation site does present stronger evidence based on careful analysis of a photo that appears to show Frank entering the LA race from the sidewalk. The author, Derek Murphy, asked Frank for his explanation. Frank’s own explanation that he left the course to pee is not supported by other evidence from the continuous series of photos taken automatically at 1 second intervals. Derek does not draw a definitive conclusion, but leaves us to make our own interpretation of the evidence.

        https://www.marathoninvestigation.com/2019/05/dr-frank-meza-facing-scrutiny-after-record-breaking-marathons.html.

        Edit July 2nd, 2019: AS pointed out by Anthony Spellini in his comment below, the LA marathon organizers disqualified Frank Mesa on 28th June after careful examination of evidence from video cameras and eye witnesses. They concluded that there was decisive evidence that he re-entered the marathon course at a different point from the location where he left it. This is a disappointing story. For now, Ed Whitlock and Gene Dykes stand alone as people who have run a marathon in less than 3 hours at age 70 or greater. The fact that Ed and Gene have done it starting from different backgrounds and using different training routines confirms that this superlative achieve is not superhuman, but as with the sub 4-minute mile, even once the barrier has been broken, it remains a challenge that requires extraordinary talent and effort.

  5. Anthony Spellini Says:

    Frank Meza was disqualified from LA Marathon 2019. https://www.lamarathon.com/news/disqualification-notice

    • tysonparklaw Says:

      Thank Anthony for the disqualification of Dr. Meza. Initially, I thought he ran a new record. He was my son high school voluntary cross country coach and knew him well enough. He fooled me too. At Boston Marathon I told Gene Dykes about my past acquaintance with him. He asked me to help contact him. I feel like a guilty party.
      I found Frank had done more than once. I owe an apology to Canute for my past posts regarding Frank cheats. I love to read your posts so much. Thank you!

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