MILTON, Ont. – The peace and quiet of Evergreen Cemetery has been the backdrop of Ed Whitlock’s illustrious running career for more than a decade.
The 81-year-old multi-world record-holder covers the same short looping trail, round and round for up to three hours a day, past the carefully tended headstones, under the sweeping canopy of maple trees.
His choice of training venue is purely for practical reasons. It’s a quick two-block walk from his home. The thick trees provide natural shade. The road is never crowded. And the drivers, he’ll tell you, are a docile lot — “they don’t tend to attack you like might do in town.”
“It’s just convenient,” Whitlock said of the 10-hectare lot.
Whitlock has been turning back the aging odometer and shattering age-class distance records for years. He owns 15 age-class world track and field records, three world marathon records plus a couple dozen “unofficial” world road-racing records.
He ran two hours 54 minutes 48 seconds when he was 73 — a time that, if age-graded, is considered by many to be the fastest marathon ever run.
And he’ll be gunning for yet another world mark, for 81-year-olds, at Sunday’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
Whitlock needs to run sub-3:45, but said he isn’t as well-prepared as he’d like. He was sidelined for three months last winter when he fell down the steps of his house, a tidy 1946 home with a lush vegetable garden in back, set off a quiet side street in Milton.
His knees have also been acting up. Arthritis began to creep in several years ago, forcing him to take off first a year with one knee, then a year with the other.
“(Doctors) told me five years ago I couldn’t run anymore. They said your running days are over. But they weren’t,” Whitlock said.
He’s just recently worked back up to his full three-hour cemetery runs, where the dapper 115-pound Englishman — with his white pageboy hair that hangs nearly to his shoulders — is a familiar fixture. He bobs quietly past the headstones, some of which are new and adorned with flowers and others so old and weathered they’re barely readable on the site that saw its first burial in 1881.
The groundskeepers greet him with a friendly wave.
“I think I could get a job here if I had any spare time,” he said, laughing.
Whitlock is not your typical high-performance runner. He doesn’t watch what he eats. He doesn’t ice after workouts or do ab work or yoga or even stretch. He has no shoe sponsor — he does have a several pairs of runners piled under a wicker chair on his front porch.
Whitlock sums up his training program as “desultory.” The former mining engineer has no idea how much ground he covers or how fast he’s running. His watch, which hangs from his thin wrist like a bracelet, is there simply to let him know when three hours is up.
“My training is very uncomplicated, I just come round to the cemetery every day and run around here as long as I can,” he said. “It’s a relatively small circle (maybe 600 metres) around the cemetery, and I don’t count the number of laps, and I don’t time them.”
His unorthodox approach is obviously working. He ran 3.15:54 in blustery conditions at last year’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon, a time that would be the envy of many runners half his age.
Last month, he set an age-class half-marathon world mark, running 1:38.57 in Milton.
“He’s very good, he’s redefining how we understand how aging affects the body,” said Dave Scott-Thomas, coach of Canadian Olympic marathoners Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis. “And attitudinal — he’s still with it, he’s still sharp. He’s not acquiescing to the norm. He’s over 80 and he’s running times that would still qualify for him for Boston as an open runner.”
Whitlock grew up in London and moved to Canada following university. He ran in his teens and then rediscovered the sport in his 40s when he volunteered to coach with a track club just outside Montreal. He’s often wondered how far he could have gone in the sport had he had proper coaching in his youth.
Neither of his two sons — Clive and Neil, both in their early-50s — are serious runners. His wife Brenda also has no interest in the sport.
“No, she’s got more sense,” Whitlock said, laughing. “Got to have one sensible person in the family.”
Whitlock himself professes no undying love for the solitary training that comes with being a long distance runner. There’s no runner’s high when he’s out in the cemetery. He says his biggest challenge is boredom. He’ll skip training runs for family commitments, and doesn’t like to run in the rain.
“I don’t particularly enjoy this daily drudge, it’s something that has to be done if you want to run well,” Whitlock said. “I suppose it’s the sense of satisfaction to be able to keep going for one thing.
“And to run well, for another (reason). I suppose I’m results-oriented, I’m mainly running for certain times in races, setting records, that sort of thing is what gives me my satisfaction I guess. And I find for me the more running I do the better I’ll race. That’s the incentive.”
The label “role model” does not sit well — although the regular fixture at road races is often told he’s just that.
“I don’t look upon myself as that. I never know how to respond to that. I don’t know, what can one say?” he said, with a shrug.
Like it or not, he has become a sort of poster boy for defying the aging odds. He’ll travel to Montreal next month to be “poked and prodded” as part of an ongoing study on aging at McGill University that includes fellow Canadian senior track stars Olga Kotelko, who’s 93, and Christa Bortignon, who’s 75.
Whitlock chalks up his longevity mostly to good genes, saying he had an uncle who lived to be 106.
And Whitlock doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
“I’ll do it for as long as I can,” he said.