[Paleopsych] NYT: At 73, Marathoner Runs as if He's Stopped the Clock

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Sports > Other Sports > At 73, Marathoner Runs as if He's Stopped the Clock

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February 12, 2005


    Ed Whitlock, a 73-year-old Canadian marathoner who may be the world's
    best athlete for his age, rotates his running shoes like the tires of
    a car. "I have 10 pairs that I alternate," he said. "That way they
    don't wear out."

    Neither does Whitlock, who lives in Milton, Ontario, a Toronto suburb.
    He trains up to three hours a day, about 23 miles, close to the
    marathon distance of 26 miles 385 yards, and more than 100 miles a

    Most Olympic marathoners do less. But Whitlock has been heralded like
    an Olympic champion since running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon last
    September in 2 hours 54 minutes 49 seconds.

    He was 26th among 1,690 finishers and shattered his own world record
    for a runner 70 or older by more than four minutes. The previous year,
    in the same race, Whitlock ran 2:59:10, becoming the first person 70
    or older to break three hours in a marathon.

    "Ed is pushing the limits, like Roger Bannister breaking the
    four-minute mile," said Bill Rodgers, 57, who won the Boston and the
    New York City marathons four times each. "I think he should slow down
    and have some respect for us youngsters."

    Although Whitlock shuns publicity, his renown has spread, and, for the
    first time, an effective match race between 70-plus runners is planned
    at a major marathon. On April 10 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands,
    Whitlock will race against Joop Ruter, a 71-year-old Dutchman who ran
    3:02:49 last year at Rotterdam.

    Their achievements come against a backdrop of growing sports
    participation among older people. Among the United States' 400,000
    marathon finishers in 2003, about 500 were 70 or older, compared with
    about 100 a decade ago, said Ryan Lamppa of the Road Running
    Information Center in Santa Barbara, Calif.

    For many of the active elderly, 70 may be the new 50. A recent study
    sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the most comprehensive
    look at the healthy aging of the human heart, says that older people
    can achieve more health and fitness gains from exercise than
    previously thought.

    The study also sheds light on Whitlock's ability to run a pace of 6:40
    a mile for 26.2 miles at 73.

    Dr. Benjamin D. Levine, a cardiologist at the University of Texas
    Southwestern Medical Center and Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, found
    that a group of people with an average age of 70 who had started
    exercising in midlife - as Whitlock did at age 41 - and kept it up had
    "hearts indistinguishable from healthy 30-year-olds."

    Instead of the heart shrinking and stiffening with age, as it does in
    sedentary people, and impairing performance, Levine said, those
    trained 70-year-olds had larger, more elastic heart muscles. The
    findings were reported in the journal Circulation last September.

    Exercise, Levine said, would enable someone like Whitlock, who had
    trained for years, to pump more blood, to feed the working muscles
    with oxygen levels associated with younger athletes.

    A colleague of Levine's at Southwestern, Peter Snell, an exercise
    physiologist, said Whitlock's marathon pace required a level of oxygen
    consumption that is "what you'd expect for someone around 40 who's a
    very good runner."

    Whitlock does not consider himself unique, however.

    "People underestimate what old people can accomplish," he said in a
    telephone interview. "Old people are the worst in that respect. They
    let themselves be inhibited by age."

    Unlike most younger stars, Whitlock has no team, coach, training
    partners, massage therapist, nutritionist, sports psychologist, shoe
    contract or high-altitude training camp. He does no stretching
    exercises or weight training. He has no special diet.

    Whitlock, who is 5 feet 7 and 112 pounds, does all of his training in
    a cemetery. He covers a third-of-a-mile loop on a paved path. He does
    not count laps, stopping when, for example, his watch indicates three
    hours. He said he would not run on roads because drivers aim at him.

    Whitlock's 2:54:49 would have placed him 306th in the 2004 New York
    City Marathon, or among the top 1 percent of the 33,000 finishers. At
    New York, only 480 runners broke three hours, the gold standard of
    marathon excellence and a time few runners beyond middle age approach.
    Last year, the second-fastest 70-or-older marathoner in North America
    ran 3:24:28.

    Yet Whitlock may run faster. The Toronto marathon race director, Alan
    Brookes, said Whitlock crossed the finish line in his 2:54 effort
    "looking fresh as a daisy."

    A native of London, Whitlock was an excellent school and university
    runner but said he lacked coaching and motivation. He stopped running
    in 1952 when he moved to Canada to pursue an engineering career. While
    working all over Canada, and with a wife and two sons, he did not run
    for 20 years, resuming in 1972 after connecting with a running club.

    The long break may account for his current success, say experts who
    have observed injuries that can stem from lifelong running intensity.

    "The layoff probably saved Whitlock a lot of arthritic effects that
    impair performance," said David Costill of Ball State University, an
    exercise physiologist who has done an ongoing study that has tracked
    top runners for decades. "In the runners we've studied, some for 40
    years, cardiac output and muscle mass decline. Those losses represent
    the aging process."

    Costill's subjects are premier athletes like Ken Sparks, 60, who had
    trained intensely since college and once held masters records, running
    a 2:33 marathon at age 53. But he has not competed in seven years.

    "I had surgery on both knees," said Sparks, an exercise physiologist
    at Cleveland State University. "The cartilage was worn out from
    constant running and had to be removed."

    Whitlock attributes his success to good genes. He ran his first two
    marathons in the 1970's with his son, then a teenager, and recorded
    his best time, 2:31:23, in 1979, when he still considered the marathon
    "a dalliance." Whitlock focused on shorter distances, winning five
    world masters track titles at 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, from
    1979 to 2001.

    By doing middle distances, Whitlock has nurtured his speed, which
    complements his long training runs. Last year, he ran 15 races at 5,
    10 and 15 kilometers in the six months leading up to Toronto.

    This winter, using the same approach for Rotterdam, Whitlock has been
    doing indoor track races while logging more than 100 miles a week.

    He faces a formidable challenge against Ruter, who took up running at
    51 and has run 11 marathons.

    "I've never run head to head against anyone in a marathon," said
    Whitlock, who has run about 30 of the events.

    Rotterdam, known for its fast course, has produced a number of world
    records. Race organizers hope the excitement will spur Whitlock or
    Ruter to another record, and they are offering prize money in the
    70-plus category.

    Unlike Whitlock, Ruter has a team, runs on park trails and gets
    massages. In an e-mail interview through a translator, Ruter said that
    after his 3:02:49 last year, he celebrated by drinking and dancing at
    a pub.

    "I will run against Whitlock as though I am a youngster," Ruter said.
    "I will give him the race of his life."

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