Ed Whitlock, the Canadian runner who rewrote the 70+ record books and forever altered conceptions of human endurance performance in older age, died on Monday in Toronto, not far from his home in Milton, Ontario. Whitlock was 86. A statement released by family listed the cause of death as prostate cancer.
In 2003, at 72, Whitlock became the first person 70 or older to break 3:00 in the marathon, with a 2:59:10 at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. A year later, at 73, he lowered that 70+ best to 2:54:49. Over the ensuing years, Whitlock set age-group marks in the 70+, 75+, 80+, and 85+ age groups at distances from 1500 meters up through the marathon. Just last October, at 85, he ran 3:56:33 at the Toronto Marathon, becoming the first in his age group to break 4:00 and taking 28 minutes off the previous 85+ record.
Whitlock was renown for his modesty and simplicity. He once told Running Times, “I never know what to say to people who say, ‘You’re an inspiration.’ What do you say to that? I’m not an inspiring person at all.” The legions of runners who cheered his every race argued otherwise.
As for simplicity, Whitlock did practically all of his training in 5-minute perimeter loops of the Milton Evergreeen Cemetery, a short jog from his house. When asked why he chose that venue for training runs of up to four hours, Whitlock replied, “I would prefer not to run around in small circles day after day, but overall, taking everything into account, it sort of suits me. If it’s windy, I don’t have to face the wind for too long at any one time. If something happens, I can be home immediately. There’s nothing perfect in this world.”
For students of late-life athletic potential, Whitlock was an endlessly fascinating subject. His training consisted entirely of running at what he called a plod, but often for hours, day after day. Before his 2:54 at age 73, he said he did several 3-hour runs each week. Even accounting for doing those runs at a “plod,” he would have topped out at more than 100 miles per week. With the goal of breaking 4:00 at the Toronto Marathon last fall, Whitlock started doing 4-hour runs.
Whitlock also defied convention, especially for older runners, in his approach to non-running activities, in that he did no stretching, strength training, or cross training. When he was injured, he simply stopped running until he felt able to resume his high-volume training. He followed no special diet, other than to eat enough to keep his weight up. Whitlock mostly ran in old shoes he’d won at races or had otherwise received; he said the racing flats he wore to break 4:00 at Toronto were 15 years old.
Whitlock’s late-life career as a marathoner was his third stint as a runner. He ran a 4:31 mile in high school in his native England and once beat future world record-holder Gordon Pirie in a cross country race. He ran little in college because of an Achilles injury, and quit running when he moved to Ontario at age 21 to work as a mining engineer. He resumed running at age 41 and was a world-class masters runner at 800 and 1500 meters. After winning the world masters 1500 title in 1979, he lost the incentive to train, and again stopped running.
After retiring, Whitlock took up running again at the urging of his sons. Then, Whitlock said, “I realized in my late 60s that this silly objective of being the first person over 70 to get under 3:00 in the marathon was just sitting there waiting for someone. I thought it should have been done long before, but there it was, so I thought I should make an effort at it.”