In October this year, 85-year-old Ed Whitlock completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 3 hours 56 minutes 34 seconds to become the oldest person to run 26.2 miles under four hours. This was not the first milestone of his incredible running career.In 2004 in Toronto, Whitlock ran 2:54:48 at age 73 in what is widely considered his greatest masters race. Whitlock has set dozens of other age-group records from the metric mile to the marathon and his remarkable achievements are making scientists reassess their approach to aging.
“He’s about as close as you can get to minimal aging in a human individual,” Dr. Michael Joyner, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic who has studied performance and aging, told the New York Times.
Whitlock exhibits unorthodox habits for a runner. For starters, he trains alone in the Milton Evergreen Cemetery near his home outside Toronto. He runs laps for three or three and a half hours at a time, unbothered by traffic or by the somber surroundings or by modern theories and training gadgets.
At the Toronto Marathon, he raced in 15-year-old shoes and a singlet that was 20 or 30 years old. He has no coach and follows no special diet. He does not chart his mileage or wear a heart-rate monitor. He takes no ice baths, gets no massages. He shovels snow in the winter and gardens in the summer but lifts no weights, does no situps or push-ups. He avoids stretching, except on the day of a race. He takes no medication, only a supplement that may or may not help his knees.
What he does possess is a slight build: He is 5 feet 7 inches and weighs 110 to 112 pounds. He also has an enormous oxygen-carrying capacity; an uncommon retention of muscle mass for someone his age, a floating gait, and an unwavering dedication to pit himself against the clock, both the internal one and the one at the finish line.
“I believe people can do far more than they think they can,” said Whitlock, a retired mining engineer who was born in greater London and speaks with British self-deprecation. “You have to be idiot enough to try it.”
Beyond his extraordinary self-motivation, Whitlock is blessed with unusual genes. Four years ago, at 81, he underwent a battery of physiological and cognitive tests at McGill University in Montreal. One of the tests measured his VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen that can be consumed and used by the muscles during exercise. It is measured in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute. The higher the number, the greater a person’s aerobic fitness.
A top Olympic-level cross-country skier might have a VO2 max of 90, compared to 20 for those living independently in their 80s. Mr. Whitlock’s score was an exceptional 54. That is roughly equivalent to someone of college age who is a recreational athlete, said Russell Hepple, an exercise physiologist who performed the tests on Whitlock at McGill with his colleague and wife, Tanja Taivassalo.
A VO2 max reading of 54 appears to be unsurpassed for people tested in their 80s, said Scott Trappe, the director of the human-performance laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., who has studied Swedish cross-country skiers who continued to perform at high levels into their 80s and early 90s, including the 1948 Olympic champion Martin Lundstrom.
“There’s nothing higher than that in the literature,” Trappe said of Whitlock. “It’s phenomenal physiology.”
At McGill, Whitlock also underwent imaging and biopsy testing of his muscles. The smallest functional entity of muscle is called a motor unit, which consists of a neuron and the muscle fibers it activates. The number of functioning motor units declines with age.
For example, a healthy young adult has about 160 motor units in the shin muscle, called the tibialis anterior, which helps lift the toes. In an octogenarian, that number could have declined to about 60 motor units, Hepple said, but Whitlock retained “closer to 100.”
This preservation might largely be explained, he said, by a chronically elevated level of circulating chemicals, called neurotrophins, which protect and nurture neurons, helping them survive.
“That’s a big advantage,” said Hepple, who has recently moved to the University of Florida and is continuing to analyze his study of Whitlock and other aging athletes. “If you have more motor units, in the context of age, that would be reflected in better maintenance of muscle mass, which in turn would translate into better strength.”
A photograph of Whitlock running in his early 20s shows a physique remarkably similar to his octogenarian build, Hepple said.
“It really is an astounding picture,” he said. “Normally a person of Ed’s age might lose a third to 40 percent of their muscle mass over that span. For him to have more or less the same mass as he had in his 20s, that’s really something.”
Joyner said that other factors may have contributed to Whitlock's endurance beyond genetics. Athletes who remain highly active as they age “haven’t killed off their inner 13-year-old,” Joyner said. He described them, in general, as curious, relatively unconstrained and full of “physical and emotional vigor,” not so different from the older aunt or uncle who insists on shooting squirt guns at family reunions.
“There are biological factors; I’m not naïve about that,” Joyner said. “But the message with these people is not that they’re freaks. It is that a whole lot of aging, with a bit of luck, is under some volitional control.”
“For a guy who looks like a 10-mile-an-hour wind could blow him down, Ed just keeps going and going, setting his own path and records and no one can come close to them,” said Amby Burfoot, the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and a longtime editor at Runner’s World magazine.
“When you get to my age, the rate of deterioration is accelerating,” Whitlock said. “I’m sure every year, every six months, make a difference. I don’t seem to be able to consistently train. Whether that’s a permanent situation, I’m hoping not.”
The next looming marathon record is for age 90 and beyond. Fauja Singh of England ran 5:40:04 at the purported age of 92 in 2003, but his mark has not been ratified because he has been unable to produce a birth certificate. Otherwise, statisticians list the age-group record variously as 6:35:47 or 6:46:34.
“We’ll see if I’m running when I’m 90,” Whitlock said. “You never really know if you’ve run your last race or not. I think I do have longevity in my genes” — an uncle lived to 107, he said — “but you never know, you might get hit by a bus.”
As a schoolboy in London in the 1940s, Whitlock said, he ran a mile in 4:34. He later belonged to the same running club, Walton Athletic, as did Chris Chataway, who paced Roger Bannister to the first sub-four minute mile, in 1954, and Alan Turing, the mathematician who broke Germany’s Enigma code in World War II.
Whitlock’s running career ebbed late in college when he sustained an injury to the Achilles’ tendon in his right foot. Upon graduating in 1952 from the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College in London, he emigrated to Canada, north of Toronto, and did not run for nearly two decades, until he was 41.
“No one was running there at the time,” he said. “I was in no mood to be a pioneer.”
He kept in reasonable shape by refereeing soccer matches, cycling and walking. Whitlock’s long layoff from running, scientists said, probably saved wear and tear on his joints. He has also taken a year off three times to recover from aching knees. “He knows when to rest,” said Ed Young, a co-founder of the Association of Road Racing Statisticians.
Whitlock’s first marathon came in 1975, at age 44, out of parental concern. His youngest son, Clive, 14 at the time, had run every day for a year and wanted to attempt a marathon. “We did our best to try to persuade him out of that,” Whitlock said. “He was not to be denied.”
Father and son ran in 3:09, and four years later, at 48, Whitlock ran his fastest marathon, in 2:31. He became more devoted to the event after retiring and attempting to become the first person 70 or older to run 26 miles 385 yards under three hours.
Asked why he kept running, Whitlock candidly said he enjoyed setting records and receiving attention. His approach remains pragmatic. He does not experience a runner’s high, he said, and does not run for his health. He finds training to be drudgery and even racing brings as much apprehension as joy.
“The real feeling of enjoyment,” he said, “is getting across the finish line and finding out that you’ve done O.K.”