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Mike Rowbottom: No ‘Fiddle-Diddling’ for Ed Whitlock, the 85-Year-Old Marathon Wunderkind

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Ed Whitlock currently holds more than 80 age-group world records from 1500 meters to the marathon. Photo: VICTOR SAILER, runnersworld.com

If Ed Whitlock can carry on as he is for another 15 years, he will become the fastest 100-year-old marathon runner in history.It’s a big if, granted; but given this man’s extraordinary late-blooming running career surely not an insuperable if…

Whitlock, London-born but a long-time Canadian citizen, was feeling his age on Monday this week – his age being 85 years 225 days – as he complained of legs that were “very, very stiff.”

Then again he had every reason to be stiff given that, the previous day, in his first marathon for three years, he had taken almost 40 minutes off the men’s 85-89 age group marathon world record – his time of 3 hours 56min 33sec eclipsing the previous mark of 4:34:55 set in 2004.

On first listening to the video clip of him at the finish line of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Sunday (October 16), I heard him say that he thought he was going to throw up. On second listening I realized he had thought nothing of the kind.

“I thought I was going to slow up so much that I was going to be quite a bit over four hours,” he said. “I was kind of relieved when I got to the finish and realised I had a chance.”

The wording suggests a Canadian, but the accent retains strong traces of Whitlock’s British origins; indeed, if you shut your eyes it could almost be his British contemporary Chris Chataway speaking.

You don’t have to have run a marathon to recognize the extraordinary quality of Sunday’s achievement – but it probably helps. Having tried hard and failed to beat four hours for a marathon a few years ago I can still remember the fatalism of the final few miles as the target, so far as my muddled mind could calculate as I drove my leaden legs on, had become remote as the Inca city of Choquequirao.

For a man more than 30 years older to be negotiating that numbing territory with such sprightliness and old-school elan seems almost indecent.

But Whitlock has the advantage of real running talent. Like many another, he has arrived at road running in general, and marathon running in particular, in later years, having been a high achiever on the track and across country in his youth.

In 1948 and 1949 he won the Ranelagh Harriers and South London Harriers inter schools cross country races. He was also University of London champion at cross country and three miles on the track.

But Whitlock’s garlanded athletics career came to a halt after he moved to Canada to pursue an engineering career having graduated from Imperial College, and he did not resume it until he was in his forties.

Although he ran a marathon in 2:31:23 aged 48, his second athletics career was mostly devoted to the track, where he ran 1min 59.9sec for the 800 meters and 4:02.5 for the 1500m. It was not until he retired, aged 60, that he devoted himself seriously to road running.

The list of his achievements in the last 25 years is formidable. In 2003, aged 72, he became the first man over 70 to beat three hours for the marathon, clocking 2:59:09 in Toronto. The following year he lowered the age group record to 2:54:49 and in 2005, aged 74, he became the oldest man to beat three hours for the marathon, clocking 2:58:40.

In 2006 he set the world record for the 75-79 age group with a time of 3:08:35, again at Toronto, and the following year at the Rotterdam Marathon he lowered that mark to 3:04:54 on a day when the marathon was stopped after three-and-a-half hours because of high temperature.

On September 26, 2010, Whitlock ran the Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon in 1:34:23.

After turning 80, Whitlock improved the marathon world record for his age category by almost 15 minutes to 3:25:43 at the 2011 Rotterdam Marathon and lowered that to 3:15:54 in his home town six months later.

Whitlock also competes on the track, where, as of 2012, he held 15 world age group records ranging in distance from 1500m  to 10,000m and age groups 65+, 70+, 75+, 80+ and 85+.

So is Ed Whitlock as famous as Madge Sharples?  The game Glaswegian who ran her first marathon aged 64 in the inaugural London Marathon of 1981 became a regularly featured character in the BBC coverage as she went on to complete many more of the London races as part of a half-century of marathons before injury called a halt to all the fun.

Put it this way. Whitlock is as celebrated in Toronto as Sharples – who died in 2000 aged 83 – was in London.

The day after his latest marathon effort, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that his phone was constantly busy with well-wishers’ messages and interview requests from media outlets including CNN and The Times of London.

“After I finished and later in the day on Sunday I was okay, but I am not feeling too good today,” Ed told the Globe and Mail. “I am stiff, and not moving too well. I have so many aches and pains, I have kind of lost track where.”

Pathetic. Pull yourself together man! You’ve got another 15 years to go before you can knock Fauja Singh off his perch!

At the Toronto Waterfront Marathon of 2011, in which the 80-year-old Whitlock had tooled round in 3.:15, this remarkable British Sikh of Punjabi Indian descent became the first centenarian to finish a marathon. He took 8:11:06 to do so, but having been delayed for almost 15 minutes before crossing the start line his official timing was 8:25:17.

Two years later, just short of his 102nd birthday, Fauja Singh took the risky decision to rest on his running laurels after taking part in the Hong Kong marathon 10 kilometer run.

So there’s the big target, Ed. But in the meantime you can concentrate on sweeping away all marathon records through the late 80s and 90s. After all, you are already the fastest ever for 12 different years between the ages of 68 and 85.

In the meantime, here are three more inimitable details about Ed Whitlock.

Item one – he trains by running for hours on end around a cemetery 100 yards from his home in Milton, half-an-hour south-west of Toronto.

Item two – He keeps his best pair of Brooks running shoes for racing. “I would think I have had them for at least 20 years, but I can’t say for sure,” he told the Globe and Mail.

Item three – six years ago he told Runner’s World magazine: “I don’t follow what typical coaches say about serious runners. No physios, ice baths, massages, tempo runs, heart rate monitors.

“I have not strong objections to any of that, but I’m not sufficiently organised or ambitious to do all the things you’re supposed to do if you’re serious. The more time you spend fiddle-diddling with this and that, the less time there is to run or waste time in other ways.”

Glorious.

By Mike Rowbottom

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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