Archive for March, 2013



Roger Robinson

One of the greatest supporters of this blog is Roger Robinson, an original contributor to Running in the Zone: A Handbook for Seasoned Athletes. The following is a rather recent article published in Running Times, and reproduced here with permission. Roger is both a scholar and runner. Now retired, he enjoyed a career in academia combining his love of literature and history. To our great fortune, Roger found a way to combine his not insignificant skills at running (he still holds the Masters Record for the Vancouver Marathon at 2:18:42) with his obvious abilities to write. The result has been a good many columns like the one reproduced here as well as his landmark “Heroes and Sparrows – A Celebration of Running” and “26.2 Marathon Stories” co-written with his wife and epic contributor to the world of modern running, Kathrine Switzer.


New Research on Older Runners

The Whitlock Mystery may soon be solved


March 20, 2013


The achievements of the best older runners have long been a mystery. Ed Whitlock’s 2:54:48 marathon at age 73, his 3:15:54 at age 80, and recent 1:38:59 half-marathon at age 81, are simply awe-inspiring – and inexplicable. How can a man of 81 bound along with the fluent stride of a gazelle? How can he keep the cardiac and vascular condition needed for running at such a pace? How can he breathe at 7-minute miles when most men his age puff and gasp to get upstairs? Clive Davies, Derek Turnbull, and John Keston (and see below for Ron Robertson) are others who went past 70 with a spring in their stride that most of the population loses by 40. We don’t understand how they did it.

When I agreed to advise my friend Norman Goluskin, who recently contributed to the Central Park Track Club’s world over-70 record for 4 x 800m, the first thing I said was there’s no literature, no science, no consistent coaching precedent for how to train at that age and that competitive level. We are an experiment in process, I warned him. I compiled a range of best practice advice for an article in Running Times, Keeping the fire of youth: New ideas for older runners, February 2012, which produced useful pragmatic guidance through this uncharted territory. Although there is ample research, led originally by the runner-gerontologist Walter Borz, to confirm the benefits of exercise for older people, there has been no scientific analysis of the sources of elite performance.

Competitive sport for the older age-groups is new. Never before has such incentive existed for people over 70 to develop and demonstrate their physical ability in a measurable context. A Whitlock marathon is way beyond line dancing. Every time he steps on the road or track, he lays down a completely new body of potential evidence about the human aging process. If we knew how he functions, we could surely understand better what aspects of senescence can be resisted or delayed. It’s a magnificent opportunity for someone to research a vital but neglected field.

That opportunity is now being taken. It started when Dr Tanja Taivassalo, a research kinesiologist at McGill University, traveled from Montreal to Finland to watch her father Keijo Taivassalo run the 70-plus marathon in the world masters championships. A specialist in genetic mitochondrial disease (cellular debilitation), she was fascinated by the extraordinary performances she saw by athletes as old as the Vancouver all-rounder Olga Kotelko. At 92, Kotelko still includes triple jump, javelin, shot, and 400m in her repertoire, and set eight world records at Helsinki.

Taivassalo and her McGill colleague Dr Russell Hepple won research funding[i] for a project to study the factors behind the performances of Kotelko and others, who include the 80+ hurdler and middle distance runner Earl Fee, and distance runners Whitlock and Betty (BJ) McHugh, also of Vancouver. McHugh’s latest world record was a 5:12:03 at the Honolulu Marathon at age 85, running with her son and adult grand-daughter. (That generational trifecta may also be unique.)

“We have nearly equal numbers of middle/long distance runners versus sprinters/power athletes. We are trying to identify what cellular and likely genetic factors predispose some individuals to a superior process of aging, as characterised by less physical and cognitive decline,” Hepple told me from McGill.

Hepple and Taivassalo both specialise in the biological and physiological study of muscle, so their research project focuses on analysis of muscle samples.

“We’ll be looking at aspects of mitochondrial function that determine energy production, regulation of cell death, and muscle atrophy. We’ll also expose growing muscle cells of non-athletes to the blood serum from the masters athletes to see if they regenerate better,” Taivassalo told the “Montreal Gazette.”

Qualifying for the study is as tough as making the podium at the world championships. All but one of the fourteen athletes selected so far are in the top three of their event internationally. The aim is to test twenty in all, along with twenty non-athletes as a control group. It’s restricted to over-75s.

“That’s when the frailty of muscles becomes exposed,” said Taivassalo.

Other factors in prolonging high-level performance are also being covered, with collaboration from other researchers. Aerobic capacity, bone density, fat/lean body composition, and endurance are measured, along with heart and brain imaging.

“We are including some cognitive evaluation through another investigator,” said Hepple. Another recent study showed that atrophy of the brain is much reduced in subjects who exercise vigorously.

Taivassalo is a runner, as well as daughter of a runner (Keijo was fourth at the world champs), and Hepple is a former runner who now swims competitively. So they understand competitive physical exercise, although they are nowhere near the age of their subjects. Their laboratory work should be complete by the end of April, and they hope to finish analyzing the data for publication in summer 2013.

This research is significant far beyond running. Writers like me are always enthusing that Whitlock (or Jack Foster, Norm Green, Marion Irvine, Shirley Matson, Helen Klein, and others) have redefined what it means to grow old. But no one has ever been able say exactly what that redefinition consists of. Whitlock told me the laboratory work included VO2max testing, but he was characteristically reticent about his performance.

“Good at some things, not so good at others,” he said.

Perhaps some of the Whitlock mystery will soon be explained. It will like learning how Galdalf does it.

An equally revealing scientific specimen, if they could get him to Montreal, would be New Zealander Ron Robertson, now 72, who has been breaking Whitlock’s track records as he moves through the age-groups. Long, long ago, I was rival of Ron’s. Now I’m an envious admirer. He doesn’t race in America, so is not as well known as he deserves, despite winning the IAAF award for the world’s outstanding master athlete last year, and getting his photo taken all over Monaco with Usain Bolt.

I caught up with Robertson at the New Zealand masters championships this month. As usual, he has been living quietly in his small home town of Gisborne, out on the North Island’s sunny east coast, where he used to have his own business as a builder, and then owned an orchard. After a long silence, he emerged in 2011 to break three world over-70 records at the world masters champs in Sacramento (4:52.95 1500m; 18:15.53 5,000m; 7:10.03 2,000m steeplechase). No one was more surprised than Robertson.

“I didn’t run for eight years. I sold the orchard, and was busy building a new house. I did some cycling, and golf, but I was only average. It was my wife Yvonne who suggested I get back to running, and one day I said to her, ‘I’m going to have another crack.’ It was a late decision to go to Sacramento. Training went well, with one-hour tempo runs on the hills. There was a 20-year-old girl who arrived in Gisborne, and she got all the old guys out, a large group doing 3-minute intervals. But I hadn’t set foot on a track, so I only expected top three at best. The world records were a surprise. It was a good moment when Ed Whitlock came and sat down by me after I’d broken his 5,000m record. He got the over-80, so he lost one and gained one,” Robertson said.

Robertson was the unquestioned star of those championships, which earned him the IAAF award, and state honors (New Zealand Order of Merit).

“It wasn’t a bad idea, coming back,” he reflected.

Tall and powerful, at full racing stride he still looks thirty years younger than he is. A zestful competitor, he seems always able to rise to the challenge of top-level races. His defeat of Mexican Antonio Villanueva over 10,000m in the world over-50 championships in Turku in 1991 is still remembered as one of the great masters races of all time, both going well under the world record (Robertson 31:10). Yet even with 15 age-group world records over the years, he is far from dedicated to the sport.

“I’m busy again, building and renovating houses for my son and daughter, and I’m struggling for motivation for hard training. Some of the Gisborne guys are going to Porto Allegre [world masters championships in Brazil, October 2013] but my running is on and off. I’ll see.” He did show a twitch of interest when I asked about the world masters games in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2017, perhaps calculating that he will be in yet another age-group then.

If the McGill researchers took muscle samples from Robertson, I don’t know what they’d find. No fat, anyway. What is it that powers the pace and passion of one of the world’s best runners? How has he kept so much of that power into his seventies? It would be good to know.

Footnote: Even leading senior athletes can be subject to some of the fallibilities of age. At the New Zealand masters championships, I listened to a vigorous discussion between two upper age-group 10,000m contenders, tough runner talk about how hard and tactical their race had been. They sounded just like two competitive 25-year-olds – except that they couldn’t remember the names of any of the other runners.

[i] Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

 Editor’s Note: I am pleased to say that I know some of the individuals to which Roger refers in this article and several others who may become part of the research as they soon enter and compete in this rarified ‘Zone’ of athletic endeavour. I am also pleased to say that I personally own both of the books noted in the introduction and while I had read the original “Heroes and Sparrows”, what I own is the 25th Anniversary Edition. Roger elected to add to rather than change anything from the original, so we do find a few asides regarding the original thoughts as expressed and a perspective on how some of his musings and predictions have turned out. I was personally amazed at just how well Roger ‘saw’ the future as he penned the original back in 1986.


Running in the Zone: A Handbook for Seasoned Athletes is now available in e-book format.



What? Where?  No worries, it’s just me, Marathon Maniac #6837.

Actually, I qualified to be a One Star Maniac almost five years ago, but based on some of the Maniacs I know personally, was just a bit reluctant (I think the proper term is intimidated) to consider myself worthy of their exalted company. One in particular and a contributor to the Running in the Zone book, Bob Dolphin, has hundreds of marathons and ultras under his shoes. When I did my qualifying string of three in under 90 days, the last of the three was just #10 of my career. Definitely seemed unworthy.

BUT, there are all kinds of Marathon Maniacs and sheer volume is not the only qualification. You can technically be a Bronze Level or One Star Maniac with your first two marathons as long as you run them within 16 days, or your first three if you do them in no more than 90 days. Run those first two back to back on the same weekend and you are instanly qualified at the Four Star or Iridium Level. Some newer friends and (now) fellow Maniacs have lately been prodding me to apply/join, so this week I did. I am now at 16 marathons, soon to be 17 after I run the Eugene Marathon on April 28. I guess that is more than the “average bear”, to quote the greatest bear of all, Yogi.

I’m not sure my busted up body can stand the strain of doing what it would take to advance from the base level, but I did that fair and square in 2008, so why not proudly yet humbly step up and take my place with this group? I am looking forward to my first race as a certified Maniac. Won’t have to wait long. Once you are a member, you can access certain members only parts of the Marathon Maniac web site. That has allowed me to learn that I will be far from alone when I hit the streets of Eugene on April 28.

Maui Sept 2008

I must admit I am kind of thinking of trying a ‘trick’ used by most of the Maniacs when they want to string together a series of marathons, namely using the last race as the ‘long run’ of your training for the next event. Done right, it seems you can probably set out a nicely spaced pattern that would let you run a marathon at least once a month, at least for a period of time. In truth, it is more or less what I did back in 2008 when I actually qualified for the base level.  Specifically, that time I ran the Maui Marathon in September as the first event. I knew it would be hot and probably humid (turned out hotter and ‘humider’ even than expected), so intended to just enjoy the experience with low expectation for time.

Victoria Marathon Oct 2008

That worked fairly well, so about one month later I ran the Royal Victoria Marathon with a touch more purpose. Unfortunately, that was also when I first tried marathoning as a contact sport. Huh? OK, in a nutshell, just after passing half way in what was a very satisfying time/pace I got knocked flat on my butt by an overenthusiastic water station volunteer. At first I wasn’t even sure I could get up let alone run on. But, run on I did although I quickly started to seize up and feel the impact. I finished and the time was so-so to OK.

CIM Finish Area Dec 2008

My real goal that year was to go to Sacramento for the California International Marathon and a shot at the Boston Qualifier I have been chasing forever. Now technically, CIM was a bit more than the four weeks or month of my theory. Whatever, although I did not achieve the BQ, it turned out to be one of the best times I had done in years.

I’ve been thinking of trying that kind of sequence again, Marathon Maniacs notwithstanding, and was talking to our Forerunners Clinic coach, Carey Nelson about it. Carey is a Canadian Olympian (5,000m and marathon), still runs and apparently loves the strategy and theory of running as much as the doing. He was all over the idea and suggested a plan where you would do just such a string of three or four marathons, but that you would set it up so you would intentionally run the first some 20 minutes or so slower than your anticipated optimum target time. The next would be 10 minutes slower and then the third (or fourth) would be intended to be at your target pace and time. It seemed like a swell idea until I started trying to find a suitable sequence of races that would meet both my general plan and budget.  Let’s just say it is still a work in progress, and because I have some other ideas in mind around Eugene, have no intention of purposely running it twenty minutes slower than I think I can. I have identified a potential series of runs starting in September. Stay tuned for more on that. We shall see what we shall see.

In the meantime, I intend to enjoy my early days as a Marathon Maniac. I will be proud to wear my Maniac shirt once it arrives and even to withstand the clever yet scurilous comments of my (envious) friends who just wish they were Marathon Maniacs!  Hey, maybe some of them are and just don’t know it!  If YOU aren’t sure, check out the Marathon Maniacs Criteria.


 Running In The Zone: A Handbook For Seasoned Athletes is now available in e-book format.