Running Out of Time

Send to friendSend to friend
What keeps Ed Whitlock going?
Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Ed Whitlock, surely one of the greatest athletes of the last thirty years, is not a superhumanly fit long-distance runner in the way these things are traditionally measured—VO2 max and the like. But he is a crazily efficient runner, with a metronomic gait and a crack metabolic mechanism for converting grilled cheese sandwiches into energy for muscles. He is built like a heron—110 pounds on a five-foot-seven frame—and the striations on his quadriceps and hamstrings call to mind the Illustrated Man in children’s science books. He looks as if he could run on a watch battery.

Ed Whitlock

Early one morning this past June, at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, a criminally small crowd gathered to see all these faculties on display. Into a stiff wind out of the south that messed with his pace but could not touch the consistency of his stride, Whitlock was in the process of shaving more than two full minutes off the best time ever recorded for his age group in the 10,000 metres at the World Masters Athletics Championships. He was barely sweating, but then he almost never does. The only stray joules of energy he expended were from turning his shoulder to blow by the guys he was lapping.

Ed Whitlock is eighty years old. If you know of him, it may be for one of two reasons, the first being a race he ran
seven years ago, which is widely considered one of the greatest performances in the history of track and field (until he broke through another barrier just recently; but we’ll come to that). Seven years ago, at age seventy-three, he breasted the tape at the Toronto Marathon in 2:54:49. If we “age-grade” that time—adjust it, that is, against the predictable decline in speed as we get older—it was the equivalent of a twenty-five-year-old running 2:04.

Time is a character in the lives of track athletes, in the way that place is often said to be a character in great films. But when the story of Ed Whitlock is eventually, definitively written, it may be his relationship with time that will be central. Everyone talks about time when they talk about Whitlock, but he hardly ever thinks about time himself. He wears a watch—it dangles on his wrist like a bracelet because the last hole in the strap still isn’t tight enough to secure it around his broomhandle wrist—but he rarely looks at it. He refers to it on long runs only because he likes to know how long he’s been gone from the house, so as to gauge when it’s time to stop running and come home for a meal.

Whitlock’s chief insight about time is this: To go super-fast, it’s useful to spend many, many hours going super-slow. His training regime consists of going out every day, rain or shine, and churning laps around the local cemetery in his hometown of Milton, Ontario. He’s out there for hours. The impression to passing motorists is that of a terminally restless white-haired ghost, a Banquo in sneakers. He never counts the laps. And he never tells people he’s going out “for a run.”

Whitlock circles the cemetery at a pace of close to ten minutes a mile—at that speed, he maintains, you’re jogging.
All that training is like punching a clock, paying in road-hours, which he will withdraw at a later date with a sterling performance. “It takes people a long time to put in what they expect to get out,” he told me this summer, in soft measured tones still stamped with the Britain of his youth, over sandwiches and coffee at a Sacramento diner. At the starting gun Whitlock doesn’t really think about going fast. He just starts running, and his body, duly prepared, does the rest. “Ed’s take,” says Earl Fee, a middle-distance man who is North America’s best octogenarian runner not named Ed Whitlock, “is you can sort of stay ahead of aging by putting in disproportionately more miles. You just hit it with volume.” Whitlock cashes in mileage like food stamps. If you get this philosophy right you hit the finish line with pennies left over—as he did in his 2:54 marathon in Toronto. “I could have kept running,” he told me.

For how long? I asked him. He shrugged.

To most modern athletes (for whom short-burst hard training is all the rage), it seems impossible to reconcile—practicing at a pace slow enough to carry a breakfast tray without spilling the cereal, and then suddenly booking it thirty-five per cent faster on race day. But no other way really makes sense to Whitlock, for whom nagging injuries have prevented more high-intensity training. You just have to race frequently enough, he has learned, so that the body remembers what high gear feels like, and likes the feeling.

Nor does Whitlock pay attention to the numbers, which would also probably be hard for most younger athletes to accept. If this seems strange for a retired mining engineer, well, it’s just one of many anomalous things about him. In a race he knows he’s supposed to go fast. And in training he knows he’s supposed to go slow. That’s it. Very often in distance races, competitors running alongside him will double-take: “Hey, I recognize you! What pace are we doing?” The response is usually: “I have no idea.”

To be eighty years old is to experience the passage of time differently than those younger than you (meaning, just about everyone). Time really does speed up—subjectively speaking—as we age. There are several theories about why this is. One has to do with ratios: as we age, each passing minute is an ever-smaller percentage of our life—so each minute feels smaller, shorter, more swiftly dispatched. New research suggests, however, that the effect might also have to do with how experience and memories are processed. As the world offers up fewer and fewer surprises, the brain writes less and less down, and time just slides by. Not to mention that perceptual acuity dulls, and minor changes in our environment go undetected. Old folks are on an increasingly lazy ride down a quickening river.

But time rarely seems to “fly by” for Whitlock. Most of us tweak our own sense of speed relative to the world around us in one way or another. Coffee drinkers speed themselves up. Runners often enjoy the natural cannaboids of the “runner’s high,” which slows them down. Whitlock is a coffee drinker who runs. But he drinks coffee solely for the taste; caffeine doesn’t seem to affect him. As for the much-touted runner’s high, Whitlock wouldn’t know: he’s never experienced it. He does not slow down or speed up relative to the world. He is metronomic.

Where, then, does his mind go on those long, long outings? It’s often assumed that distance runners need a kind of mental strategy or a mantra, if only to distract them from the boredom and the pain. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, a dogged marathoner, answered the question in a recent memoir.  “I run in a void,” he wrote, before correcting himself. “I run in order to acquire a void.” In other words, he is not mulching plot points for his next novel, at least not consciously. He is just…running, a little bit outside of his body, outside of time. Running has calcified into habit and become something he has to do, as non-negotiable as breathing.

That’s been Whitlock’s experience, too. He doesn’t think of anything transcendental when he runs. His mind is not seeking meaning, not lost in mindless pop culture, not wallowing in quotidian housekeeping. He is occupied by the present as it renews itself, although it would be a mistake to view this as Zen bliss. “I don’t really enjoy the long runs,” he admits. “They’re a drudge. Mostly, I think that every minute it’s closer to being over.”

In Sacramento, IN the lobby of his hotel, a coach buttonholed Whitlock. She was wearing a hologram bracelet she’d purchased at the Wellness Fair out by the stadium. “It’s actually sending messages into the brain!” she said, offering it up for inspection. Whitlock turned it over a couple of times and handed it back. “My brain can’t handle any more messages,” he deadpanned.

Runners in general, and masters runners in particular, are notorious for tweaking their diet and workout regime and sleep patterns and just about everything else, asniff for a slight edge. Whitlock doesn’t tweak anything. There’s no cross training, no visualization, no weights, no hornet juice, no oxygenating socks. He doesn’t replace his runners every 900 kilometres, as the shoe companies recommend, because, he says, “I don’t even know how far I’ve gone.” Most touted advancements are fads, and you can’t know in advance if a fad is going to stand the test of time. And if we had the patience to wait it out, well, it wouldn’t be a fad. Whitlock himself is the test of time.

Unlike Earl Fee, who maintains that his secret consists in “aging more slowly than the other guy”—and indeed Fee does look freakishly Adonis-like from the neck down—time has taken its pound of flesh from Ed Whitlock. He looks eighty. Delicate veins in his eyelids spider through paper-thin skin, and hounddog bags rest beneath, giving his face a default sadness. He may have an unstoppable engine, but the chassis is wearing. Parts are grinding down: one Achilles tendon and both knees are close to shot. Recently a joint specialist told him his running days were over. Whitlock sought a second opinion from another doctor who was a runner. He told Whitlock only that his blood pressure was too high, but that he could also start to consider the option of replacing those knees. Whitlock said he didn’t want to be a burden on the medical system. “I think you’ve paid in sufficiently,” the doctor said. They compromised, and Whitlock laid down twenty dollars for a supply of glucosamine. Maybe it would help buy him another year of immortality.

Or one more great race. In October of 2011, Whitlock, at age eighty, completed the Toronto Marathon in a time of 3:15:54, which age-grades out to 2:02:10. You guessed it—the fastest marathon ever run.