“When you get to my age, the rate of deterioration is accelerating,” Whitlock said. “I’m sure every year, every six months, make a difference. I don’t seem to be able to consistently train. Whether that’s a permanent situation, I’m hoping not.”
The next looming marathon record is for age 90 and beyond. Fauja Singh of England ran 5:40:04 at the purported age of 92 in 2003, but his mark has not been ratified because he has been unable to produce a birth certificate. Otherwise, statisticians list the age-group record variously as 6:35:47 or 6:46:34.
“We’ll see if I’m running when I’m 90,” Whitlock said. “You never really know if you’ve run your last race or not. I think I do have longevity in my genes” — an uncle lived to 107, he said — “but you never know, you might get hit by a bus.”
As a schoolboy in London in the 1940s, Whitlock said, he ran a mile in 4:34. He later belonged to the same running club, Walton Athletic, as did Chris Chataway, who paced Roger Bannister to the first sub-four minute mile, in 1954, and Alan Turing, the mathematician who broke Germany’s Enigma code in World War II.
Whitlock’s running career ebbed late in college when he sustained an injury to the Achilles’ tendon in his right foot. Upon graduating in 1952 from the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College in London, he emigrated to Canada, north of Toronto, and did not run for nearly two decades, until he was 41.
“No one was running there at the time,” he said. “I was in no mood to be a pioneer.”
He kept in reasonable shape by refereeing soccer matches, cycling and walking. Whitlock’s long layoff from running, scientists said, probably saved wear and tear on his joints. He has also taken a year off three times to recover from aching knees.
“He knows when to rest,” said Ed Young, a co-founder of the Association of Road Racing Statisticians.
Whitlock’s first marathon came in 1975, at age 44, out of parental concern. His youngest son, Clive, 14 at the time, had run every day for a year and wanted to attempt a marathon. “We did our best to try to persuade him out of that,” Whitlock said. “He was not to be denied.”
Father and son ran in 3:09, and four years later, at 48, Whitlock ran his fastest marathon, in 2:31. He became more devoted to the event after retiring and attempting to become the first person 70 or older to run 26 miles 385 yards under three hours. In running and exercise science circles, he has become “a rock star,” Trappe said
Amby Burfoot, the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and a longtime editor at Runner’s World magazine who continues to run at 70, said, “For a guy who looks like a 10-mile-an-hour wind could blow him down, Ed just keeps going and going, setting his own path and records and no one can come close to them.”
Asked why he kept running, Whitlock candidly said he enjoyed setting records and receiving attention. His approach remains pragmatic. He does not experience a runner’s high, he said, and does not run for his health. He finds training to be drudgery and even racing brings as much apprehension as joy.
“The real feeling of enjoyment,” he said, “is getting across the finish line and finding out that you’ve done O.K.”