Archive for January, 2011




Roger Robinson

Roger Robinson (photo courtesy of Robert Cross Image Services)

During the last two years, I have had opportunities to watch and talk with two of the world’s outstanding over-70 runners, Ed Whitlock (79) of Milton, Ontario, and Norman Goluskin (71) of New Paltz, New York, USA. I saw Ed battle it out with much younger runners in the 5K at the Great Raisin River Footrace in Williamstown, Ontario, in August 2010, and then in September rewrite the world record for the half-marathon with 1:34:27 at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront.  With Norman, I was at the trackside or on my bike through much of 2009 as he trained for the world masters track championships in Finland that year. They are very different in background, Ed an immigrant to Canada from England, a retired mining engineer, and Norman is an American of Russian ancestry, retired from a New York advertising business. What they have in common is that they are both extraordinary runners. What they truly have in common is the stride of a 20-yearold.

Whitlock has a high knee lift and springy lope amazing in a runner that age, and the best way to describe Goluskin is that when he runs, especially on the track, he is a dead ringer for Lasse Viren (younger readers, try Olympics 1972 and 1976 on YouTube). Most old runners shuffle and patter and wince. The stride gets shorter by the decade. Someone once said “old runners look as if they are afraid of when their foot hits the ground.” Exactly right. If your knee hurts like mine did in my last 15 years of running, every foot-strike means acute pain, so you don’t go higher off the ground than you have to. So the main secrets of running well in later life are to have good genetics and stay clear of injury. Beyond those, well, let’s say the science of elder running is in its infancy. From conversations with Ed, and a year of mentoring Norm, I have formed a few tentative ideas. What follows is offered as a beginning.

Two years ago, when he was 69, Norman, a friend who lives in the town of New Paltz, where I live in the American summers, asked me to coach him. He has been a good runner for three decades, but he felt he had never really raced to his potential, too often burning himself out in training. He is an intelligent and interesting man, who in retirement puts money and energy into philanthropic work, especially for the environment and for the New York Road Runners Foundation (a wonderful kids’ running charity). So I agreed, on my usual condition: that he would aim at something significant, not just local races. Norm likes track, so we chose the World Masters Championships in Finland, August 2009, with the 70-74 10,000 the main objective.

The first thing I told him was that there is no consensus and very little literature on how to train elite over-70 runners. Bruce Tulloh has published “running over 40,” Kathrine Switzer “women over 40,” and Rich Benyo “running over 50,” all excellent, but the only book out there if you keep running competitively past 60 is Running in the Zone, a Handbook for Seasoned Athletes edited by Steve King and Dan Cumming. It’s full of good short articles by different authors, including a section on “The Competition Zone,” but does not offer any overview.

“John Keston runs every third day, and does long walks in between. Ed Whitlock runs round and round a cemetery, every day. Derek Turnbull used to lollop off into the Southland bush, refusing to admit he had any system. Helen Klein runs and runs, up to 100 miles at a time. There is no agreement, no precedent,” I told Norman. So I did what I always do – work to the runner’s strengths, and shape a long-term strategy that would lay a base and then build race-pace quality. Norman logged base miles for six months over the winter after he turned 70, including weekly long runs, under strict orders from me not to get lured into anything intense. Basic Lydiard.

In the spring, early April, four months out from the race in early August, the story started. I put Norman on to the basic of my own competitive years, long repetitions. They served me well from age 23 to 55, so it seemed reasonable to try them at 70. I preferred them as timed repetitions on a “free range” basis, rather than round and round the track. So, as readers of my book “Heroes and Sparrows” will know, I called them “sausages,” as an analogy for a string of bulges with shorter recovery periods. I recommend two variants each week, one day a week 400s or similar, to develop speed a little faster than race pace, and one day a week longer reps – 3 mins, 5 mins, 10 mins, whatever – at 10K race pace, learning to sustain that pace for 40 minutes. With Norman, both sessions started light in April and built up progressively.

The basic Robinson principle for the long rep session is “quantity of quality.” That is, if you’re going to try to race for 40 minutes, you need in one session a week to build up to hold race pace for 40 minutes (as, say, 4 x 10 or 8 x 5 minutes). I saw no reason why that basic principle should be any different for a 70-year-old. If he was going to race for 40 minutes, he needed to be trained for 40 minutes. Otherwise the last 15 minutes would be misery. The difference with a 70-year-old was how to get there. I knew my own aging body. I knew that a hard 2-hour bike ride now takes me 3 hours – two hours to ride, one hour to nap afterwards. So the other basic principle in coaching Norman was recovery. I specified usually two or three very easy days between sessions, something he had never done before. He had been what I call a daily 75% trainer, which I believe trains you to race at 75%. So there were many easy days, but rarely a day off running completely. The body thrives on habit.

When I was helping another friend, John Barrington, of Wellington, New Zealand, train to run the New York marathon at age 70, John became convinced by a book that he should take frequent days off. Afterwards, he believed that decision cost him his aim of breaking 3:30. Even easy days contribute. There is no such thing as junk miles. Anyway, Norman got ample easy days. I gave him ample recovery, too during the actual repetition sessions. Instead of (say) 60 seconds recovery between 400s, I gave him a full slow lap of walking and jogging, as much as 3 or 4 minutes if he wanted it. Speed of recovery didn’t seem to be as important as getting the work done at a high level. On the longer repetition sessions, I gave him as much as 6 to 10 minutes of walking and jogging recovery between efforts. I persuaded him to do those off the track, to make him less lap-time obsessed, so we were out on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail a long time some days, Norm slaving away while I smirked alongside on my bike.

“I’m a Russian peasant – I’m very obedient andI can work hard,” Norm used to say. Perhaps he was thinking privately about The Revolution. It was of course more complicated than this brief description. There are always adjustments to be made day by day. Norman hit a slightly bad patch in June, so I gave him a very light week and trimmed a little off the remaining biggest sessions. That ensured the upward curve of fitness continued as the work still increased. Halfway through the programme he ran a 10K road comfortably in 44 minutes, his best in recent years. He easily beat runners who had previously matched or beaten him. His last full 400 session was 86, 85, 85, 85, 85, 84, his best for five years or more, and impressive indeed for a 70-year-old. His last longer session, in the sharpening phase, was equally good, 24 minutes total in a mix of 6s and 3s. He was flying. He was fulfilling the title I had put on my file of notes about his training: “Norman Conquest.”

“Norm’s going to get a medal in Finland. He’s good for close to 20:00 for 5000 and sub-41 10,000,” I told my wife Kathrine Switzer. Norman was and is convinced that he was in the best racing form of his life. Not as fast as when he was 45, of course, but stronger and sharper, more ready to race.

“I was giving 100 percent in those sessions and knew I could give 100 percent in the race,” he told me as we reminisced this week. The story doesn’t have a happy ending. Norman didn’t conquer. He bombed miserably in Finland, both races. We were devastated and bewildered. (I got the news while in Christchurch, New Zealand, to watch the national cross-country championships, and will long remember the sinking disappointment.) Local running gossip around New Paltz castigated me for having “peaked him too soon.” I wondered if Norm deep-down was some kind of head-case who cracked in competition. Two weeks later, still unable to run at any effort, he saw a doctor, and phoned me.

“I’ve got Lyme disease. The tests show I’ve had it four weeks,” he said. Lyme is a vicious bacterial infection (spirochete borreliosis) that comes from deer-ticks, and is worryingly common in the Hudson Valley area. It was terrible news. But never has a diagnosis of Lyme brought two men such relief. We almost cheered. The blame lay not with my coaching or his racing, but a nasty little nearly invisible tick that probably got on him when he was gardening (a pursuit I have always considered life-threatening).

Those last sessions, when the disease was coming on, were during the tapering phase so just short of maximum effort. They showed how super-fit he was. But the races showed how strong the infection was. A year later he still had Lyme and couldn’t run at any real effort. He went on a heavier course of antibiotics, and his latest message told me he is running normally at last, at least on the treadmill, where he has at last done repetition miles at under 8 minutes again. (It’s a harsh snowy winter in New Paltz, so naturally I am in New Zealand where it’s summer. Some of us acquire wisdom with age, even if we can’t still run.) It’s too soon for commitments, but if Norm has really recovered fully, he may race the 2011 World Masters Championships in Sacramento, CA, and I will be back on my bike alongside him through the US summer. If he is up for it, the programme will be the same mix, base miles then systematic race preparation based on long repetitions, building up to a total of 40 minutes’ race-pace work; all tempered by ample recovery during and between sessions. He is about to start on the base.

I met Ed Whitlock properly for the first time in 2010, on two occasions. Previously I had only interviewed him for the radio coverage of a race. We hit it off , especially after discovering that we spent most of our childhood less than 3K from each other in the adjacent outer southwest London suburbs of Malden Manor (me) and Tolworth (Ed). We both dodged flying bombs, rode bikes on the Kingston By-pass, and went to “Saturday morning pictures” at the Tolworth Odeon. We even won, a few years apart, the same inter-schools cross-country trophy, the South London Harriers “Moates Cup.”

On his training as the world’s greatest-ever 70-plus runner (first 70-plus to break 3 hours for the marathon), Ed was more elusive than on these memories of boyhood. He is reticent, with a laconic wit, and reluctant to be a celebrity. He knocked down my two main theories about elder training with one stroke. “No, I don’t take any rest. And I never do fast work,” he said.

But as our chat went along, he recalled how he had backed off for a year or two before he turned 70, so as to be fresh to train and race at peak that year, and intimated that he is doing the same now, in preparation for turning 80. OK, if that’s not “taking rest,” it is shaping your programme so that sometimes you do more fast running than at others, so you are not always at the same level of effort, and can peak when it matters despite the effects of age. So it’s much the same thing.

Elaborating on fast repetitions, what Ed went on to say was “No, I never do speed-work. I don’t enjoy it. I haven’t done any speed-work for three years.” Which means, as I quietly calculated, without saying so, that he was still doing something that could count as speed-work up to age 76. So did legendary New Zealander Derek Turnbull when I last ran with him in his late sixties.

“I don’t know about all this aerobic/anaerobic stuff. I just run how I feel,” Derek always insisted. But when you were bowling along at 45-minute 10K pace on the trails around Sherwood Farm, Derek would squint ahead with that farmer’s gaze and ask casually, “Feel like rattlin yer dags to that gate?” and take off at 70-second 400 pace or better. (Rattle your dags is kiwi farmer language for move fast.) But no, he didn’t do speed work. Nor does Ed in his Ontario cemetery – not since he was 76. “I use races to get fit,” he told me, and he did just that, using that 5k to sharpen for a World record half marathon on September 26 (1:34:24).

As I said, this is a tentative beginning on a largely unexplored subject. My experience with Norman Goluskin suggests that the basic principles for elder elite runners are the same as for any age, but that the older you get the more recovery is needed at every point. Ed Whitlock resists such a generalization, but on close inspection is not so far from it as he modestly suggests.

We need proper research into training competitive older runners, and a lot more evidence from the field. Someone should collate and analyze the training of top over-70 runners more systematically than I have done in this personaI piece. The wider lessons for health at advanced ages could be significant. I apologize for the lack of women elites in my discussion. Diane Palmason could contribute expertly, and New Zealanders need look no further than the still-phenomenal Bernie Portenski of Wellington, who is year by year rewriting the book on women’s over-60 standards. Bernie is a memorable character (as older elites tend to be). Imagine a future when all the women runners over-80, copying their record-breaking heroine, have husky voices, rasping breath, flying hair, and wear pink gloves. I only hope I’m around to interview her.

Roger Robinson’s books on running and on literature (and on running in literature) are available signed at special author’s prices on His column “Footsteps,” on the history of running, is monthly in Running Times. “Roger on Running,” on the modern sport, is monthly in the Running Times Web-only edition, at

This article in different form originally appeared in “On the Run,” New Zealand, the magazine of the Wellington Scottish Athletics Club. It is © Roger Robinson