The Curious Case of Ed Whitlock (The Long Run 2012 Jan)

edHard to believe, but it’s the season when Father Time ushers in Baby New Year and we raise the annual question, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Happy New Year, runners and resolutionists!

For all who come to these pages for inspiration, especially at this time of the year, have I got a story for you. The Father Time/Baby New Year motif that one finds often in editorial cartoons at New Years is a fitting way of introducing someone I’d like you to meet. Ed Whitlock of Milton, Ontario, is the 5’7”,115 pound embodiment of Father Time and Baby New Year rolled into one. Benjamin Button and his grave-to-cradle journey had nothing on Ed Whitlock, octogenarian cross-country superstar. Ecclesiastes says that, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.” For Ed Whitlock and running, that season has been so long you’d think someone forgot to start the timer on his running career. Oh sure, lots of folks over 70 quip about being in their second childhoods. But only one of them has ever backed the claim with sub 3-hour marathons. (Your editor didn’t miss a typo; the statement is true and has been verified on multiple occasions by World Masters Athletics and the Association of Road Race Statisticians.) Since turning 70, Ed’s best sub-3 outing was a Ripley’s-worthy 2:54:48 at 73 years of age! Moreover, Ed Whitlock has rewritten the over-70 record book in every long-distance running category, turning in jaw-dropping performances of 37:33 in the men’s 70-74 10k and 19:07 in the men’s 75-79 5k (times that elude many fit runners in their 20s and 30s). Now 80, and 4 years beyond the life expectancy of a North American male (an uncle of Ed’s lived to be 108!), Ed has already smashed the men’s 80-84 marathon record with a time of 3:15:54. That’s nearly 25 minutes faster than any person over 80 had ever run a marathon before. Ed also owns a pending time of 20:58 in the men’s 80-84 5k. Arguably, Whitlock dominates his field as no athlete has ever dominated his or her field. In masters running, Ed has no peer within a decade of his age. In fact, Whitlock is, relatively speaking, among the most athletic people on the planet; on an age-graded basis, Ed has turned in marathon performances equivalent to just over 2 hours and 3 minutes, suggesting a slightly better relative performance than the 2:03:38 of the current marathon world-record holder, a 26 year old Kenyan man.

So who is this octogenarian superhero? Anyone who knew Whitlock at the end of his collegiate cross-country career in the early 1950s might have speculated that Ed had been holding something back. But surely nobody could have guessed that it would take him 50 years to unlock his potential. A solid collegiate runner, Whitlock still fell decidedly short of world class. That fact and a nagging Achilles injury (which he still nurses to this day) compelled Ed to abandon running throughout his 20s and 30s. In his 40s Whitlock seems to have briefly and grudgingly flirted with running again, before giving it up (seemingly for good) in his 50s. In his late 60s the retired mining engineer had a change of heart and began his running career in earnest—proving that it really is never too late.

While Ed at 80 may run like a fit man half his age, he doesn’t look much like one. With limp, snow-white hair and gaunt face, Whitlock looks like the grandfather he is. Come to think of it, the Milton resident looks a little like Father Time with a shave. Until he runs, that is; then he’s more like an age-progressed Baby New Year. Known for superior form, Ed is a model of running efficiency. This is undoubtedly a clue to his success. But there has to be more—much more. Reading up on Ed, I’ve discovered that the man is served by a mind-warping immunity to boredom. I shudder to think of Ed’s decades-long, unvarying routine of logging up to 140 (no, the 1 is not a typo!) solitary miles a week in 5 minute loops around a cemetery in his neighborhood. (Whitlock resists waxing philosophical about literally running circles around contemporaries who have shuffled off this mortal coil.) It’s a little easier to swallow the drudgery of Ed’s routine if one can imagine his slipping into a trance and going to some inner sanctum or happy place on his three-hour cemetery rounds. But that would be our consolation, not Ed’s. And this brings us to the real kicker about Ed. According to his biographers, the man loathes training, experiences no runners high, and suffers for the end of every training run. What on earth compels him, then? What happened to, “Love what you do. Do what you love”? Well, what Whitlock seems to love (in addition to his wife of 50 years and his family) is racing and setting world records. Ed is an unapologetic champion of competition (a concept that frequently draws criticism from modern psychologists and educationalists). Without races and the opportunity to set verifiable world records, Whitlock claims he wouldn’t even run. Though uncomfortable with fame—even the light yoke of the elite runner’s fame—Ed seems conscious of his role as a gerontological revisionist and a pioneer of human achievement. Ed joins the likes of John Glenn (77 year old astronaut), Yuichiro Miura (75 year old Everest climber), Betty White (irreverent octogenarian comedienne), and Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski (septuagenarian tough guy from the film Gran Torino) in a rogue campaign to re-brand the third-millennium senior citizen. Here’s hoping Ed Whitlock is one auld acquaintance you’ll not soon forget.


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