Are Two-Faced Runners Pulling A Fast One?

old+runnersLike flotsam that won’t go out to sea, vinyl LPs are back again whether we like it or not. And they’re not the only throwback performing improbably well these days. With a pair of running shoes and Internet access, jogging boomers are too. With Al Gore’s “invention” at their fingertips, the results page of the next masters track meet can be rewritten to read like Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Stay with me, and I’ll explain.

As an unapologetic runner, I’m not usually quick to cast a cold eye on my sport and on those who fill out its roster, but in this uncharacteristic essay I see that an ego-salving practice takes its share of heat. If you’ve ever participated in roasting an old friend, you’ll know how to take this piece: with more than a grain of salt in the baste.

Making aging boomers feel better about aging is more than a cottage industry in Western culture. Peer into the driver’s seat of a Western nation’s economy, and you’ll see who’s well-heeled foot is on the accelerator: a graying boomer who’s forgotten to switch the turn-signal off. From sports cars to cosmetic surgery, boomers refuse to go gentle into that good night. And why should they when they’ve got the clout and the capital to keep turning the tables to whatever side suites them best?

The aging are quick to remind us that age is just a number. And in the case of aging runners, they hasten to add that it’s actually two numbers. One of these numbers–their age-adjusted time–has literally been calculated to make them feel better about aging. And again, why not? If boomers invented the jogging boom to stay young, is it any wonder that it’s still keeping them artificially ageless today? Jogging seemed innocent enough. Who knew it was really a Patrick Nagel-esque portrait of Dorian Gray fabricated to absorb year upon year of entropy while joggers in striped knee-socks project (or at least harbor) the illusion of conserving energy like some perpetual-motion machine they bought at The Sharper Image?

Age-adjusted times have become the funny money of the running world. It’s the idealized portrait that gives the counterfeit away. What began as an algorithm in the brains of white-coated sports science wizards has become common coin on a dozen Web calculators. For Me generation runners, the best weapon in the war against aging may be to keep denying it–even when the writing is on the wall (or wherever a given race’s results are posted). The next best weapon may be having recourse to a number that makes that denial plausible. Who needs cosmetic operations when arithmetic operations cost nothing and carry no risk of infection?

For the runner not yet in his or her second childhood, I’ll explain how it works: a 65-year-old man runs a 10k in 50:00, and the calculator tells him it’s like a 30-year-old man’s running a 10k in 38:27. A sub-40 minute 10k! Go figure. As running super foods go, I’ll put cooked data up against chia seeds any day of the week.

Here’s an additional example. At her present age of 62, race bandit Rosie Ruiz would need to run a time of 3:33:36 to match her 1980 Boston Marathon “winning” time of 2:31:56. I’ll bet that even with the aid of age-adjusting, she’d still need a lift.

Imagine what would happen if the majority of races began adopting an age-adjusted format. With an age-adjusted time following one’s name, it would be hard not to cut a fine figure. But this bonfire of the vanities could have an unintended victim. With age-adjusted times, age-group awards would become moot, signaling hard times ahead for the plastic trophy industry. If a 59-year-old’s age-adjusted 16:15 5k (a very respectable 20:02 in reality) is better than a 26-year-old’s actual 16:20 5k, the 59-year-old “wins” the race outright, never mind that the 59-year-old was too far behind the 26-year-old to see him finish. (I knew there had to be a practical use for imaginary numbers.) Three trophies for each gender, and race announcers could stop going hoarse calling out 30 names, half of which they’ll never be able to pronounce.

It used to be thought that nothing short of cryonics would enable a man to run a 4:30 mile in 1982 and again in 2015. That was before boomers discovered the one weird trick to running faster: live long enough and any mile you can slog through is world class. Doesn’t this make some centuries-old Methuselah, and not Roger Bannister, the first sub 4-minute miler?

old-woman-yong-woman-optical-illusionAnother way to look at age-adjusted times is to envision the famous ambiguous line-drawing that represents either the portrait of a young or of an aged woman depending on one’s viewpoint. Once a brain has learned to see both faces, it may switch from the old to the young and back again with ease. But why would it want to?

If I’ve been a little hard on boomers, I have an excuse. You see, I myself am approaching the age where, I’m told, I can get away with more. And now it’s time to fess up. I’ve used the age-adjusted calculator. Stick with running long enough and you will too. Heck, stick with running long enough, and your “29 and holding” will break the calculator! Flattery may not get flatterers everywhere, but it may get aging runners to keep lacing up. Eventually the sobering numbers may find every running lifer reaching for something with which to spike his drink; think of it as a little splash to keep the cocktail party interesting as the evening winds down.

Before getting the hang of it, an age-adjusted runner may feel like Alice in the Red Queen’s race. “Here,” the Red Queen says, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Run as hard as one can for decades, and one’s age-adjusted times remain roughly the same. Or do they? In the past 12 years, this aging runner has lost a little over a minute in the 5k. And at the same time, using the age-adjusted calculator, I’ve “gained” a minute at the same distance. How’s that for saving face? And how’s that even possible? It looks like someone thought to slip the Ghost of Christmas Future into the machine. Maybe jogging boomers planned the calculator to be a kind of time capsule, a medium through which to reconnect with hopes they deferred while Cocoon was playing to packed theaters. Who said the aging population doesn’t know how to use the Internet?

To loosely paraphrase Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli, there are lies, damn lies, and age-adjusted times. Even octogenarian running phenomenon Ed Whitlock, whose age-adjusted times place him on par with the world’s best marathoners, is on record as saying that he suspects there’s something wrong with the age-adjusted tables.

Defenders of the calculator tell me that while spending a good portion of the past 12 years running, I’ve improved my running economy. (Weren’t we saying something like that about the Ford Pinto just before it was recalled?) It’s going to take a better argument than that to buy off the skeptic in me. Calculating equivalent times as a thought experiment to amuse oneself and one’s running buddies is one thing, but parleying them into a token of running “progress” veers uncomfortably close to pulling a fast one.

What the age-adjusted calculator does is create a pocket universe of decreasing entropy in a real universe where things, as a matter of course, fall apart (resulting in the sort of paradox that Doctor Who wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot sonic screwdriver). In thermodynamics, the lost entropy always creates chaos somewhere else; it’s the law (think of Dorian’s ageless low entropy and of the accumulating havoc wreaked on his portrait). But where, in the case of an “improving” age-adjusted runner, does the chaos end up?

Could it be that while we’re running “better” than we did in 1982, the truth is taking a beating?


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.