WE LOST A LEGEND – RIP ED WHITLOCK

03.16.2017
Ed Whitlock at 2016 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

Ed Whitlock at 2016 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. (From STWM web gallery)

I suppose I was no more or less shocked than anyone else when we heard the news on the morning of March 13, 2017, that the inspirational Ed Whitlock had died. But, shocked I was. Many on social media posted things like: “I thought he was immortal!” An easy mistake to make, no doubt, about one so vigorous.

Ed had just banked a couple of new world records as recently at Oct/Nov of 2016. Had he dropped over with heart failure or something like that, I guess we could understand how he could run so well in October/November and be gone from us in March. In fact, he died of prostate cancer according to his family.

When a man of 85 (when he set the records) or 86 (his birthday was just a week before his demise), sets a running record there might be a tendency among the unfamiliar to think ‘OK, but at that age, he probably just had to show up’.  As all we runners know, that is definitely not the case! Even at that age, his performances on road and track would challenge people half his age. More on that later. To be clear, his marathon time in mid-October at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (one of his favourite races) was 3:56:33. Under FOUR hours, at age 85, pushing 86. The average finish time (male) for marathon is now somewhere around 4:20, just in case you were wondering.

When I heard the shocking news, my first instinct was to rush to my computer and write a tribute, but then I changed my mind. I did post a couple of heartfelt thoughts on social media and ‘shared’ one of the well written tributes. However, I thought it might be better to take a little time and be more thoughtful about exactly what I wanted to say. I did not know Ed personally and had not even met him, but like so many others I followed his exploits rather closely and with more than a little awe. Like so many others, I feel like I knew him.

I’m pretty sure that Ed inspired any runner who had heard of him and his achievements. There is no doubt he impressed and inspired the ‘seasoned‘ athletes among us! This is where I want to start, because Ed Whitlock’s achievements and records are so very hard to comprehend in their true context. Why? Because they are as extraordinary as you could imagine. The last time he raced, he was 85, so let’s start there.

His last race was a not often run 15K distance. I will just skip by it even though it was his last race and a world age group record. The distance is seldom run and times would need to be explained, whereas with marathons there is a more universal recognition of relative performance.

That brings us to October 16, 2016 and the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon where Ed recorded that 3:56:33 World Age Group Record. Why you must be amazed at this time, which a lot of decent marathoners can accomplish, is because he was 85, nearly 86, when he did it. Think about it. Ed Whitlock was several years older than average Canadian male life expectancy AND he was running marathons! As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a great fan and proponent of age grading. Looking at Whitlock’s time through that lens, we find his time grades to 2:05:09 (according to the World Masters Athletics calculator). Yes!  Now I think I’ve got your attention.

Ed said he had a bad patch in the middle of the race, but then got it back. He also said he was not as well trained as he generally likes to be and with his usual training regimen, could have possibly gone a bit faster. Turning this thing around the other way, the current World Record marathon time is 2:02:57. Using age grading in a theoretical exercise to see how that translates to the necessary performance for Ed to equal that World Record, his time would have had to be 3:52:24. In other words and in theory, he was 4:09 (raw time) off matching the world’s best marathon performance. And that, with a ‘bad patch’ around half way.

He did not consider it his best race. No, that was the time he recorded at age 73 when he went Sub-3 with a time of 2:54:59. The number of people who could achieve that result, at any age, is quite small, let alone any masters runner, and of course NO runner in his/her eighth decade! The graded time comes out to be 2:02:54, or faster than the current World Record. Oh yes, and run about 12 years ago. Today, we speculate on a possible Sub-2 marathon, so I did the same calculation with his time at 73. Ed would have had to run a raw time of 2:50:50 to grade to 1:59:59. Funny enough, the raw deficit is also 4:09.

As noted, I wanted to do something a little different to pay tribute, so started researching facts and information about Ed Whitlock and his running history. It isn’t that hard to find, but as I dug up the bits and pieces it started sounding like ME!

OK, OK, Hang on!  It’s TRUE! (Well, up to a point.) I also have to say that the comparison is done with all humility and respect, and with a recognition that what follows might apply to a whole LOT of us. In so many ways and up to a point, Ed Whitlock was a bit of an ‘everyman’, up to a point.

Like a lot of people, including me, he started running as a kid in school, then shut it down when he got all grown up and educated and responsible. Yep. That’s me.

Later in life (into his 40s) he started up again with his running. Check. Me too.

He ran his first marathon at age 44 (this statistic is a bit mixed, but he claims not to keep any accurate records on his career, so it was a third party that contributed the age).  Again, pretty close. My first marathon was when I was 43. And, while his first (3:09) was a bit faster than my first (3:24), they weren’t all that different. Of course, his second at age 48 was his fastest ever at 2:31! I’m suuuure I could have done something similar, but I didn’t run my second until 12 years after the first and by then I was 55 and my time had floated over 4 hours.

NO, please don’t go look up Ed Whitlock’s time at 55!! Of course I’m just kidding about being able to come close to his time at age 48. What does seem similar is that there was a gap of four years between his first and second, reflecting possibly two common things: no particular urgency to run number two and the fact that in those days, marathons were not that easy to find and the time to train properly for them, even harder.

I didn’t intentionally wait 12 years. Life got in the way. I did start training a couple of times, but could never get to the start line. Whitlock apparently did, some 40 odd times in total, but once again, by his own statement, he didn’t recall exactly how many. That is where we differ in a big way! I know EXACTLY  how many I’ve done and could probably give a narrative of every one of them, kind of like the golfers that can remember what they did on the green at the 16th at Augusta in the Third Round of the 1991 Masters. Thankfully for you, I won’t. The parallel to the rest of us is that he only averaged about one per year from age 44 to 85. Among those of us who love running marathons, that is not a huge production rate. However, most of us don’t run for 40-45 years. I am personally at 33 years now, 29 years from the time of my first marathon. All I am saying is that even though he may have racked up something around 42, Ed Whitlock was not obsessed about running marathons. No, there were so many other distances where he could dominate the world in general, that he had to share himself around! And, there’s a point of difference, most of us (especially me) never have that problem.

In an interview he gave just after his last Toronto Waterfront Marathon he said he had never run Boston. Wow, what a coincidence – me too!  (OK, so there is a difference. He doesn’t like point to point races and never really wanted to run Boston. Me, I couldn’t care what kind of course it is, ever since I realized I wanted to run Boston, I have been unable to qualify.)

With the exception that at 72 I am still going, it seems that any kind of parallels have now been exhausted!

OH NO! There is one more. In discussing his most recent record in Toronto in October, he said he thought maybe his ‘bad patch’ there in the middle was a result of ‘going out too fast’.  Now tell me, who cannot relate to that??? Check!  Me too – in almost every race I’ve ever done.

So really, Ed Whitlock was a lot like the rest of us, well except for that one thing that he could run like stink! Perhaps it is why I’ve gone on with this silly personal comparison. As awesome as his record is, we mere mortals can actually relate to him.

Mr. Whitlock could obviously have run Boston anytime he wanted. Just to make that point clear, the current M18-34 BQ is 3:05. Pretty much through until he was 75, Ed could have met that standard including the ‘fastest first’ provision. And, until the recent chopping off of 5:59 from all BQ standards, his performance at the Toronto race last October would have easily qualified him in the M60-64, or a division more than 20 years his junior. As it was, with the actual standard of today, he only missed by about a minute or so.

BUT, Whitlock never ran Boston. He didn’t like point to point races. I probably should hate him for that, but I find a delicious irony in it! Also, there is a kind of clarity of mind and purpose. I’m sure he knew he could run it anytime, but he found no need to do so. There is a kind of integrity in that, from the perspective that he didn’t need to and didn’t want to and was not dragged along by it being the thing you must do, because everyone else wants to do it.

I began to wonder if Ed Whitlock was a true elite marathoner in terms of numbers of marathons run. Most of the world’s best only do a couple a year. If his first marathon was around 44 and his last at 85, pushing 86, then he has been doing them for over 40 years. When asked ‘how many?’, as noted above, he figured about 40 marathons, maybe just over, like 41-42. That stuff just wasn’t important to him. He did allow, and it is an easy calculation, that he averaged about ONE per year. WOW!  I just realized that I have done something he didn’t and couldn’t have, I qualified to be a Marathon Maniac and not JUST a Maniac but a Silver or Level 2 Maniac. Considering his training volume, I guess he could have done that anytime he wanted, but that was not his focus. By his own admission, he liked to break records.

His performances (no one-trick pony our Ed, he ran track distances through the marathon) speak for themselves, and loudly. But, his personality and humble attitude endeared him to the whole running community.

More than one analyst, including RITZ contributor Roger Robinson, hold suspicions that Whitlock may not have been human. Roger, has gone so far as to posit that his mother may have been abducted by aliens nine months before his birth, and well, you know………………….  Some, more scientific searchers of the truth, actually turned him into a lab rat for a time; poking, prodding, sampling and testing him. I won’t go into all the things they learned, but not surprisingly they determined that he was performing as if a much, much younger man! Had they just asked, we runners could have saved them a lot of time, but I guess they wanted to put real physiological numbers on it. Let’s just say those numbers were pretty amazing.

There was nothing ‘normal’ about our friend Ed, when it came to running at the level he did. He trained to the simplest possible routine. He had no special dietary secrets (unless eating everything is a secret). He had no coach and no special routines. I suppose there was a bit of Forrest Gump in him – he just ran. If he got injured he stopped until it healed. (Now, why didn’t I think of that??) His normal training run was at a comfortable pace for 3-3.5 hours, but he carried no timing or pacing device and used a relatively short loop route around a local graveyard. Apparently, he didn’t want to know if he was going fast or slow or if it was a good run or not. He once told Roger Robinson that he did no speed work, however given the amount of racing he would do at shorter distances, Roger was not 100% sold on that claim. But, in the sense that he went out to do a workout such as the “pyramids” in my schedule for this week, nope, not so much.

You can’t argue with his success. At 48 he ran 2:31. That was 1975. If you were to assume his best days, at least in theory, would have been some 15 years earlier, you have to wonder what he might have done around 1960. OK, I have to wonder. Apparently it wasn’t that important to him.  Again I consulted the age grading calculator. A time of 2:31 at age 48 grades to 2:17(ish). At the time, the World Record was 2:15:16 held by the legendary Abebe Bikila.  I cited the time to the second because the previous record was 2:15:17 and the one after was 2:15:15 (over a span of about 5 years). In other words, at least in theory, Ed Whitlock might have been ‘right there’. As an FYI point, the WMA calculator is an equation that allows you to decimalize age and to enter exact age rather than nominal age. For instance, Whitlock was 85 when he ran Toronto, but he was 85.67 if you get accurate about it, and as he said in an interview after the race, even six months, at his age, is a huge amount of time. As he put it, his speed would be ‘leaking away’ rather rapidly. I know neither how many seconds his 2:31 included, nor whether he ran it the day after his birthday or the day before (or whatever). Thus, the calculated time is expressed as 2:17(ish). It could easily have been in the 2:16s.

Since I began writing this, a few days have passed and the ‘news’ articles have slowed down. I’m sure the tributes will continue for a good long time yet. Although you never know for certain, there is a pretty good chance that we won’t see another ‘Ed Whitlock’ for some time to come, if ever. Remember that as he went from one age to the next, he didn’t just break the previous record, he made a shambles of it. His time in Toronto was some 30 minutes better than the previous best. Of course, while there may be another fleet-footed older gent come along, it can be said with absolute certainty that there will never be another Ed Whitlock. He was clearly one of a kind. He will be remembered and he will always be an inspiration.

[Editor’s Comment: I hope nobody is offended by my slightly light-hearted approach. I truly believe in celebrating life well lived rather than mourning the loss. I want to remember Ed Whitlock’s life as a runner, not his death. There is nothing unique about death. Sooner or later, we are all going to do it. The real issue is what we did with those years between being born and when the end finally comes. The example of Ed Whitlock is something to which we can all aspire. I know I do.]

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