Ed Whitlock wows writer from Montreal Gazette (as she should be)
In a story this week in the Montreal Gazette, M80 distance god Ed Whitlock gets his latest due. Under the headlines “Running ahead of his peers/At 80, Marathon star Ed Whitlock offers proof of what researchers call ‘exceptionally successful aging’,” Jill Barker writes: “Getting slower doesn’t bother Whitlock, who has no immediate plans to hang up his running shoes for good. In fact, he’s hoping to bring down his marathon time under 3:20, which he believes is possible provided that his knees don’t give him trouble and he can put in the training hours. Under 3:20 at 80 years of age? Are you kidding me?” Get used to it, Jill. Wait till he goes sub-4 at 90!
Here’s the story, in case the link goes buh-bye:
Ed Whitlock’s 3: 25.43 marathon finish this February in Rotterdam wowed the running community. His time puts him somewhere in the top nine per cent of marathoners – which in itself is pretty impressive. But the fact that Whitlock is 80 years old makes the feat downright spectacular.
It’s not the first time Whitlock, who lives in Milton, Ont., has turned in an impressive finish. At 73 he ran a sub-three-hour marathon in 2: 54.48 – a time achieved by less than three per cent of runners of any age (4: 35.41 is the average marathon time).
After his most recent marathon finish, Runner’s World quoted Whitlock as saying that he thinks good genes and dogged determination are the secrets to his success. And while that may help, you have to wonder if Whitlock has some kind of physiological edge. Or are we guilty of underestimating the athletic potential of older athletes?
According to Russell Hepple, an exercise physiologist from McGill’s department of kinesiology and physical education who specializes in aging, Whitlock’s accomplishments are indeed unique. He is one of a handful of older exercisers who are rewriting the book on theories of aging and exercise.
“If I knew why, I would bottle this and make billions,” Hepple said when questioned about Whitlock’s performance. “But the reality is we do not know what it is about the biology of people who age better than most that gives them this advantage.”
The study of active older adults is in its infancy, mainly because it’s a relatively new phenomenon. What is known is that exercise, particularly intense exercise, slows some of the physiological markers typically associated with aging.
Whitlock says he trains by putting in daily long runs. He doesn’t time the runs, nor does he do any speed work. He just puts one foot in front of the other at a comfortable pace. “Before my best marathons I ran a lot of three-hour runs, which I like to string together day after day,” Whitlock said in a telephone interview. “In a six-week training period I usually only miss two or three days.”
Hepple says intense exercise helps some older exercisers stay healthy – maintaining good cardiac and metabolic function, lowering cancer risk, keeping bones and muscles strong and reducing the risk of dementia. Researchers have called this phenomenon “exceptionally successful aging.”
“In my view, however, it is not the exercise regimen that makes (Whitlock) special,” Hepple said. “What makes Ed special is that he is still able to train this way at a much more advanced age than most. His body obviously allows him to maintain this training regimen, and he has the cognitive ‘drive’ to want to continue to train hard.”
Whitlock has been at this a long time. He started out as a middle-distance runner when he was in school, where he says he had “a fair amount of success.” He was in his 40s when he ran his first 42-kilometre race, and posted his best time of 2: 31.23 at age 48. He runs, on average, one marathon a year (sometimes as many as three, and sometimes a few years will go by without a single entry in the marathon circuit). He also competes in a number of 3,000-metre events, which he says are much easier on his body than going the full 42-kilometre distance.
This brings us to the topic of injuries, which Whitlock has suffered from time to time. He has an Achilles tendon that acts up on occasion, as well as knees that have disrupted his training on and off during the past few years.
“I’m not injured often, but when I am it tends to stick around for a long time,” said Whitlock.
Yet despite a few aches and pains, he keeps at it, gently slowing but still maintaining a running regime and performance level that humbles runners half his age.
Which begs the question: What does one have to do to be like Ed?
“It is too late,” Hepple said. “We would have had to modify your DNA shortly after fertilization – and that assumes we know what is special about his genetic composition, which is not the case. … The huge numbers of former athletes who try to train like they used to only to fail because of injury shows that Ed is special.”
Clearly, Whitlock at 80 is slower than he was in his 70s, but that’s probably the only thing about him that is typical. Statistics obtained from several elite senior athletic events suggest that performance declines approximately 3.4 per cent per year over 35 years of competition. This decline occurs slowly from 50 to 75 years of age and dramatically after 75.
Most of the decrease in performance is related to diminished aerobic power, but it’s also likely that a decrease in joint mobility, reaction time, muscle mass, strength, and a longer time for recovery contributes to the slowing down of aging runners.
Getting slower doesn’t bother Whitlock, who has no immediate plans to hang up his running shoes for good. In fact, he’s hoping to bring down his marathon time under 3: 20.00, which he believes is possible provided that his knees don’t give him trouble and he can put in the training hours.
Under 3: 20.00 at 80 years of age? Are you kidding me?
“Ed is a sobering reminder that we are not all created equal,” Hepple said.