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85YearOld Marathoner Is So Fast That Even Scientists Marvel


18 / 20
The New York Times
By JER LONGMAN
4 hours ago

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Ian Willms for The New York Times Whitlock at his home in Milton, Ontario. Well see if Im running
when Im 90, Whitlock said.

MILTON, Ontario It was a day for talking, not running. Snow was piled along the streets. The driveway was icy. Ed
Whitlocks shoulder hurt. His face had been puffy. He did not feel well enough for the cemetery.

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Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press Whitlock training in 2012. He has no coach,
follows no special diet, does not chart his mileage, takes no ice baths and avoids stretching, except the day
of a race.

At a visitors urging, Whitlock showed his display of novelty trophies. A beer can for winning a series of races as a 60
yearold. Theres still beer inside! A coffee mug for becoming the first and still only person older than 70 to run a
marathon in under three hours. A baseball for throwing out the first pitch at a minor league game.

Ian Willms for The New York Times A beer can is among the trophies Whitlock has brought home over
the years.

It bounced three times to the catcher, Whitlock said a few days before Christmas. My arm is terrible.

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Ken Faught/Toronto Star, via Getty Images In 2004 in Toronto, Whitlock ran 2:54:48 at age 73 in what is
widely considered his greatest masters race.

It is not his arm, but his legs and lungs that have made him a scientific marvel and octogenarian phenom. In October, at
85, he set his latest distancerunning record, completing the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 3 hours 56 minutes 34
seconds and becoming the oldest person to run 26.2 miles in under four hours.

Ian Willms for The New York Times Photographs of Whitlock. For a guy who looks like a 10milean
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

Having set dozens of agegroup records from the metric mile to the marathon, Whitlock remains at the forefront
among older athletes who have led scientists to reassess the possibilities of aging and performance.

Hes about as close as you can get to minimal aging in a human individual, said Dr. Michael Joyner, a researcher at
the Mayo Clinic who has studied performance and aging.

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Whitlocks career has been as unorthodox as it is remarkable. 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 the eternal inhabitants or the modern theories and gadgets of training.

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At the Toronto Marathon, he raced in 15yearold shoes and a singlet that was 20 or 30 years old. He has no coach. He
follows no special diet. He does not chart his mileage. He wears no heartrate 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 pushups.
He avoids stretching, except 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
oxygencarrying 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 selfdeprecation. You have to be idiot enough to try it.

Four years ago, at 81, Whitlock 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 persons aerobic fitness.

A top Olympiclevel crosscountry skier might have a VO2 max of 90, compared to 20 for those living independently in
their 80s. Mr. Whitlocks 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 humanperformance laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., who has studied Swedish crosscountry
skiers who continued to perform at high levels into their 80s and early 90s, including the 1948 Olympic champion
Martin Lundstrom.

Theres nothing higher than that in the literature, Trappe said of Whitlock. Its phenomenal physiology.

At McGill, Whitlock also underwent imaging and biopsy testing of his muscles. The smallest functional entity of muscle
iscalled 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.

Thats 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.

Even though Whitlocks Prince Valiant hair has long grown white and thin, a photograph of him 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 Eds 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, thats really something.

Beyond genetics, there are other factors that surely have contributed to Whitlocks stunning endurance, said Joyner of
the Mayo Clinic.

He compared Whitlock to Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic marathon champion who has continued to run
subthree hour marathons into her late 50s and has said she will attempt the extraordinary feat into her 60s.

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Neither Whitlock nor Benoit Samuelson could be considered extroverts. Yet athletes like them who remain highly active
as they age havent killed off their inner 13yearold, 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; Im not nave about that, Joyner said. But the message with these people is not that
theyre freaks. It is that a whole lot of aging, with a bit of luck, is under some volitional control.

Inevitably, though, even Whitlock has made some concessions to growing older. His weight before the Toronto
Waterfront Marathon in October dropped to 105 pounds, and he wonders whether he is experiencing some muscle
wasting.

His marathon time at age 85, 3:56:34, is more than an hour slower than the 2:54:48 he ran in Toronto at age 73 in what
is widely considered his greatest masters race.

Adjusted for age, that race was the equivalent of a runner in his prime completing a marathon in 2:04:48, which is less
than two minutes off the current world record of 2:02:57. Writing in The New York Times, the running journalist Marc
Bloom said that Whitlocks performance in 2004 may have made him the worlds best athlete for his age.

For that startling race, Whitlocks training log showed that he did 43 training runs of three hours apiece. He did not
measure the distance, but his speed at the time suggested that a threehour run could cover more than 20 miles,
perhaps as many as 22 or 23, not much shorter than the distance of a full marathon.

I was much better prepared for that race than I have ever been before or since, Whitlock said.

In 2016, he set another flurry of agegroup records, including a half marathon run in 1:50.47. But there were also more
frequent interruptions in training aches in his shoulder, knee, hip and groin. He was limited to 16 training runs of
three hours for the most recent Toronto Marathon. His race pace of 9:01 per mile, while impressive, was nearly two and
a half minutes slower than the 6:40 pace he ran at 73.

When you get to my age, the rate of deterioration is accelerating, Whitlock said. Im sure every year, every six
months,
make a difference. I dont seem to be able to consistently train. Whether thats a permanent situation, Im
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 agegroup record variously as 6:35:47 or 6:46:34.

Well see if Im running when Im 90, Whitlock said. You never really know if youve 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 subfour minute mile, in 1954, and
Alan Turing, the mathematician who broke Germanys Enigma code in World War II.

Whitlocks 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. Whitlocks 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 cofounder of the Association of Road Racing Statisticians.

Whitlocks 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,
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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. In running and exercise science circles, he has become a rock star, Trappe said

Amby Burfoot, the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and a longtime editor at Runners World magazine who
continues to run at 70, said, For a guy who looks like a 10mileanhour 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.

Asked why he kept running, Whitlock candidly said he enjoyed setting records and receiving attention. His approach
remains pragmatic. He does not experience a runners 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 youve done O.K.

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