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Oct 1, 2003
RUNNING COMMENTARY 486
September 28th was one of the greatest days ever for marathoners. The 2:05 barrier fell twice in the same race, to Kenyans Paul Tergat (2:04:55) and Sammy Korir (2:04:56). Andres Espinoza of Mexico ran the first sub-2:10 for masters, by a lot, with 2:08:46.
Yet none of them provided my greatest thrill that Sunday. I cheered louder for someone else who went where no marathoner has gone before: Ed Whitlock.
The Canadian first caught my attention three years ago, not so much for how fast he races but for how simply he trains. He's low-key and low-tech in an increasingly -- and he might say needlessly -- complex sport.
When I first wrote about Ed, he had become the oldest marathoner to break three hours -- with 2:52:50 at age 69. The wait for him to run sub-three at 70-plus wouldn't be long, or so it seemed then.
His first try, soon after turning 70, fell a tantalizing 25 seconds short. That could have been his last try.
Injuries come easily and heal slowly at this age, even for superstars -- or maybe especially for these runners who race the hardest. Ed had a knee problem that caused his 71st and 72nd birthdays to pass without another marathon.
"Time is not on my side," he said recently. "But I am beginning to have hopes again."
Finally he could train again. "I started last winter with 10-minute runs, each week adding four or five minutes for each day's run and gradually building up," he said.
By summer Ed was back to normal running, which is to say normally simple. A 2001 story by Michael McGowan introduced me to those practices.
McGowan wrote in Saturday Night, a Canadian magazine. "Ed Whitlock doesn't eat a special diet, take vitamin pills, monitor his weight, do push-ups, sit-ups or visualization exercises, wear a Walkman, stretch, carry a water bottle or do much of anything besides run. His training regime is staggeringly simple. Running at a [nine-minute-mile] pace he considers a glorified shuffle, Whitlock's only goal is 'to go out there and put in the time'."
Ed ran two hours most days, all around a three-laps-per-mile cemetery. He avoided the streets where "cars tend to aim at you, whereas in the cemetery they're a more docile lot."
He added that on the streets "I always start speeding up," while in the graveyard his "only objective is that I have to go out for two hours, so I might as well take it easy." He sped up where it counted -- in the races he ran 25 to 30 times a year.
Ed's runs reached two hours again this July. "Since then I also got in some longer ones -- a few at three hours, pretty well all LSD and all on my small cemetery loop," he told me.
He reported racing 19 times since March, at distances of 1500 meters to a half-marathon. These again made him "race-tough" in ways that standard speed training might not.
"My Crim race at 1:02:25 [6:15 pace for 10 miles] in late August gave me cause for optimism," he said before running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon on September 28th. "I would have wished for another month of preparation, but hopefully everything will go well."
It did. He ran 2:59:08 at an age closer to his 73rd birthday than his 72nd.
As soon as this news reached me, I told him by e-mail how thrilling it was. He responded immediately, saying he felt "great relief at doing it, finally. That time was never in the bag until I crossed the finish line. I think this fall was my last realistic shot at it."