Run Fast, Die Old: The Legend of Ed Whitlock

Ed Whitlock celebrates finishing the Toronto Marathon, Sept 26th, 2010. Credit: Colin McConnell / Toronto Star / Getty Images

The history of running is the history of legends who died young: Pheidippides, the ancient Greek who sprinted to Athens in 490 B.C., promptly dropped dead and gifted us the idea of the marathon; Steve Prefontaine, the mustachioed, balls-out American who was killed in a car crash at the age of 24; Sammy Wanjiru, the Kenyan who by 23 had won four major marathons — London, the Olympics, Chicago (twice) — then died a year later after falling from a balcony. Their myths are great because of their mystery: Who were they in their short lives? What might they have become? Would our faith and fandom have been justified? The power of their stories lay in their unknowable potential.

Ed Whitlock, who died Monday in Toronto, was not that kind of legend. In fact, he was the opposite. Whitlock was old, and famously so. He was 85 last October when he ran the Toronto Marathon in 3:56:33, becoming the first person in his age group ever to finish under four hours. He was 72 when he finished a marathon in 2:59:10, then cut more than four minutes off that time the following year. His 5K time at age 75 was 90 seconds faster than my own personal best, set when I was several decades younger than he. And those are just a handful of the 22 world records he began setting when he was in his sixties.

Yet the records were merely the outward markers of a legend, one that was deepened by the extraordinary ordinariness of his running life. Whitlock’s shoes were by any standard ancient, often prizes he’d won in races — the racing flats he finished Toronto in last fall were supposedly 15 years old. His training routine was unexceptional. He’d run plodding loops of a cemetery near his house that took five minutes each, and he’d run them for hours. He ate nothing special. He even quit running twice, first at age 21 (Achilles issues) and again in his mid-forties. 

“I do what not to do to an extreme,” Whitlock told Runner’s World back in 2010. “I go out jogging. It's not fast running, just that I do it for a long time. I don't follow what typical coaches say about serious runners. No physios, ice baths, massages, tempo runs, heart rate monitors.”

What he did have, according to a New York Times story on the scientists studying Whitlock’s abilities, were a high VO2 max (54), a thin build (5-foot-7, 110 pounds), and good genes. More important, said one scientist, Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, was Whitlock’s “physical and emotional vigor,” an attitude of curiosity and joy that kept him going (and going) deep into old age.

For those of us in need of inspiration, Whitlock’s is an attractive legend: run how you like, when you like, and maintain your inner child, and you can fulfill every drop of your god-given potential. What more can any of us ask for? We can’t be Prefontaines, or Kiplagats, or Rupps — we weren’t born like that. We are the runners we are, and all we can hope for is to run as well as we can for as long as we can, until we can’t run anymore.

But when will that race end, and what do we want the finish line to be? Do we want to go out like Pheidippides, or like Jim Fixx, the 1970s and ‘80s jogging evangelist who had a heart attack while on a run? Or does it suit our own personal legends better to be taken out by something unrelated — something that, even as it worsens, still lets us lace up our shoes from time to time?

That’s how it was for Whitlock, who died from, of all things, prostate cancer — one of those illnesses you can outrun for a long time, though never long enough. He certainly seemed to think he could keep going.

“We’ll see if I’m running when I’m 90,” Whitlock told the Times in December, when he must have known his diagnosis. “You never really know if you’ve run your last race or not. I think I do have longevity in my genes, but you never know, you might get hit by a bus.”