The Ath­letes De­fy­ing Time

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It’s the sort of post-marathon mus­ing you might ex­pect to hear from any well-trained marathon fin­isher any­where in the world. But this isn’t a keen 30-some­thing la­ment­ing a mist­imed ta­per. Ed Whit­lock is five years short of his 90th birth­day.

The Bri­tish-born Cana­dian na­tional used to sur­prise com­peti­tors in races, re­call­ing be­muse­ment and frus­tra­tion on fel­low run­ners’ faces as he eased his slight frame past them.

Not any more. Now he’s too well known – his ‘no­to­ri­ety’, as he calls it, built on a series of in­cred­i­ble age­group records from the mile to the marathon. Whit­lock is still the only sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian to have run the lat­ter dis­tance in under three hours (2:55, when he was 73, for the record). And in the Toronto Wa­ter­front Marathon in Oc­to­ber last year, aged 85, he be­came the old­est per­son to run a marathon in under four hours. Though, as we know, Whit­lock be­lieves it could and should have been a lot quicker.

‘Run­ners come up and say, “You're an in­spi­ra­tion” and I never know how to re­spond,’ says Whit­lock. ‘I don't see my­self as any­thing par­tic­u­larly spe­cial. I’m per­plexed by all the at­ten­tion, re­ally.’

That drive for self-im­prove­ment is some­thing Whit­lock shares with 73-year-old Lavinia Petrie, an­other su­per­star of the Masters scene – the series of age-com­part­men­talised na­tional and in­ter­na­tional races for run­ners aged 35 and up­wards. A nat­u­ralised Aus­tralian, who moved Down Under from Bri­tain in the 1960s, Petrie has shown a Bolt-es­que dom­i­nance of the W70 cat­e­gory (women aged 70-74) in re­cent years. Five golds from five events, across track, road and cross-coun­try, at the 2015 World Masters Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships in Lyon. Then, at the same cham­pi­onships the fol­low­ing year, in Perth, vic­tory in the same five events, each in a quicker time than the year be­fore. Like a Mar­garet River caber­net sau­vi­gnon, the Melbourne-based pen­sioner is im­prov­ing with age.

Among the world records she cur­rently holds in the cat­e­gory are 44:09 for 10K, set in 2014. When she broke the world half­marathon record in Bendigo, Vic­to­ria, the same year, it was by a mar­gin of nearly three min­utes – a time of 1:37:38. ‘It’s got to the stage where ev­ery time I step out, peo­ple ex­pect a world record. I feel in­side my body that I can im­prove on what I’ve done so far. The per­fect race is still ahead of me,’ she says.

Petrie is keep­ing a wary eye on An­gela Cop­son, though. This month [April], the Northamp­ton­shire run­ner who, was fea­tured as one of our Heroes of Run­ning ear­lier this year (RW, Feb 2017) turns 70, mov­ing the Mel­bur­nian’s suite of records into her sights. Cop­son al­ready holds the Bri­tish marathon record for both the W60 (3:14:51) and W65 (3:17:10) cat­e­gories, and last year be­came the

‘If the con­di­tions and my prepa­ra­tion had been ideal, and if I had paced the race bet­ter, I could have run a lot faster – per­haps even 20 min­utes faster. That would have brought me under three and a half hours,’ says ED WHIT­LOCK.

old­est woman to run the dis­tance in under 3:30 at the Greater Manch­ester Marathon (her time was 3:24:54). ‘She’s prob­a­bly go­ing to smash all my records,’ says Petrie.

You’d think this trio is at the ex­treme end of the masters run­ning scale, but all are com­par­a­tive whip­per­snap­pers mea­sured with

Bob Mca­dam. In Novem­ber last year, the 96-year-old smashed the world 5K record for his age group – 95-99-yearolds – hav­ing pre­pared for the race by train­ing on the tread­mill at his re­tire­ment home in Colorado, US. Mca­dam’s time of 48:19 was al­most two min­utes faster than any­one his vin­tage had ever run.

One young girl posed for a selfie with the for­mer gym teacher at the fin­ish; when he was her age, the Sec­ond World War was yet to break out. Yet, as with Whit­lock, it was nag­ging dis­sat­is­fac­tion that took hold at the fin­ish line. ‘I walked bits of it. I know I can do bet­ter. Maybe get it down to 45 min­utes,’ he says.

A year older than Mca­dam is the ev­er­green Charles

Eug­ster, a dap­per re­tired den­tal sur­geon who took up sprint­ing at the not es­pe­cially com­mon age of 95. He holds the M95 world 200m in­door record (54.77) and out­door 400m record (2:21.46), and var­i­ous Bri­tish and Euro­pean records in the age group. His to­tal haul of Masters golds is 46 (and he’s a pro­lific rower to boot). As the ti­tle of his book, re­leased ear­lier this year, puts it: age is just a num­ber.

Still, even Mca­dam and Eug­ster seem youth­ful when mea­sured against Fauja Singh, 105. Though he ran as a young man the Lon­don-based ‘Tur­baned Tornado’ was 88 when he re­turned to the sport, fa­mously dressed in train­ers and a three-piece suit when he turned up for train­ing on day one with coach Har­man­der Singh. The Redbridge-based Sikh quickly moved to marathons and at the age of 92 ran his PB of 5:40:04 in Toronto. It’s still, by a sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin, the quick­est marathon by a nona­ge­nar­ian in his­tory. His last marathon was Lon­don in 2012, when he was 101. It took him 7:49. Is this a record for a cen­te­nar­ian? ‘He’s the only one who’s ever done it,’ says Har­man­der, who has com­pleted 100 marathons him­self. ‘For Fauja, it’s all about the pos­i­tive mind­set. He’s an in­spi­ra­tion. He al­ways says, “The mo­ment you think you’re old, you've had it.”’

DIANE AYKROYD ‘After you’ve done a race you feel you have achieved some­thing and it sets you up for the rest of the day’

Greys’ anatomy

You may as­sume that the above are mere out­liers – sin­gu­larly driven in­di­vid­u­als blessed with ex­trav­a­gant phys­i­o­log­i­cal gifts that work to defy the nat­u­ral age­ing process. But that would be to ig­nore a wider trend that’s in play here: that of the soar­ing pop­u­lar­ity of run­ning among the older de­mo­graph­ics. Over the past 10 years the run­ning bell­wether that is the Lon­don Marathon has seen a marked in­crease in the num­ber of fin­ish­ers in its up­per age cat­e­gories: 20 per cent more run­ners in the 60-69 cat­e­gory; 36 per cent more in its 70-79 group; 50 per cent more aged 80+. Like­wise, the New York Marathon. In 1997 there were just over 900 fin­ish­ers aged 60+. By last year that fig­ure had swollen to 2,417, ac­count­ing for nearly five per cent of the to­tal field.

Of course, it’s not just marathons. With its free, weekly timed 5K events, Parkrun has be­come a global phe­nom­e­non, and the older de­mo­graphic is do­ing more than its fair share to drive that ex­po­nen­tial growth. In 2004, the year the series was launched, there were 10 runs recorded by those in the over-60s bracket, and zero by those aged 70+. Last year, the fig­ures were 528,443 and 95,186, re­spec­tively. Get­ting over­taken by a sprightly pen­sioner used to be the jok­ingly self-dep­re­ca­tory aside of the en­thu­si­as­tic am­a­teur run­ner; these days, it’s an ever-present dan­ger.

So with this mo­bil­i­sa­tion of a ‘grey army’ in run­ning, are we see­ing a re­defin­ing of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween age and ath­letic per­for­mance?

Plenty of el­derly run­ners, such as Whit­lock and Mca­dam, ran or were su­per-fit via other sports in their youth and are sim­ply find­ing the time in later life to once again pur­sue their pas­sion. But it seems many other old-timers are re­cent first timers, tak­ing up run­ning for the first time in their In­dian Sum­mer years. They have the zeal of the con­vert and a body that, in terms of miles run, at least, is still rel­a­tively young; think vin­tage Mercedes with just a few hun­dred miles on the clock.

The old­est run­ner in last year’s Lon­don Marathon, 88-year-old Iva Barr, only took up run­ning aged 55. Diane Aykroyd, from Brad­ford, West York­shire, was two years older when she first laced up a pair of train­ers in anger. It started when she used to go to watch her daugh­ter com­pet­ing in 10K races. A ba­sic in­tro­duc­tory train­ing plan was writ­ten out for her: run a minute, walk a minute. ‘I couldn’t even run a minute the first time I tried,’ she re­calls.

As we go to press, the 68-year-old grand­mother will be lin­ing up in her 336th Parkrun – an­other step on her way to her tar­get of 500. ‘I some­times run with my grand­chil­dren,’ says Aykroyd. ‘As they pass me they usu­ally say “Go on, Grandma”. I call my­self an old codger but I en­joy the achieve­ment and all the ben­e­fits it brings. I feel en­er­gised. After you’ve done a race, or just been out for a run, you feel you’ve achieved some­thing and it sets you up for the rest of the day. I’m con­vinced it’s keep­ing me fit­ter and health­ier.’

It cer­tainly is. A wealth of sci­en­tific re­search now points to the bat­tery of ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise for older de­mo­graph­ics, from re­duced mor­tal­ity rates and in­creased life ex­pectancy to longer dis­abil­ity-free life. Aer­o­bic en­durance train­ing keeps the heart and car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem tick­ing over, but run­ning also boosts lig­a­ment and ten­don func­tion, and in­creases bone den­sity and mus­cle re­ten­tion – all of which pro­long mo­bil­ity.

And the risks? ‘The data shows that, pre­sum­ing there are no un­der­ly­ing con­di­tions, al­most any age group can do high-in­ten­sity train­ing,’ says Dr Michael Joyner, one of the world’s lead­ing ex­perts on hu­man per­for­mance and ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy. ‘The key is to avoid the ‘square wave’ – es­sen­tially, go­ing from no ex­er­cise to high in­ten­sity.’ He sees age­ing as far more vo­li­tional than we tend to be­lieve. ‘As hu­mans we do our­selves a dis­ser­vice by ac­cept­ing frailty with age­ing as in­evitable,’ he says. ‘Peo­ple such as Ed Whit­lock are prov­ing that the hu­man body is much more re­silient than we give it credit for.’

In­deed, an ar­ti­cle on age­ing and ex­er­cise among the over-65s pub­lished in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can academy of or­tho­pe­dic

Sur­geons con­cluded that ‘a lot of the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion we see with age­ing can be at­trib­uted to a more seden­tary life­style in­stead of age­ing it­self. An in­creas­ing amount of ev­i­dence demon­strates that we can mod­u­late age-re­lated de­cline in the mus­cu­loskele­tal sys­tem.’

Age, no limits

Call it cud­dly in­clu­sive­ness, call it com­mer­cial im­per­a­tive, but races are cer­tainly do­ing their part to open doors to more se­nior run­ners. The Great Run Com­pany, which stages sev­eral dozen mass-par­tic­i­pa­tion events, cater­ing for 300,000 par­tic­i­pants ev­ery year, has an avowed open-to-all ethos and doesn’t set an up­per age limit. Its old­est recorded fe­male com­peti­tor is 94, and male, 95. ‘Run­ning into your twi­light years is a trend we have al­ways em­braced and will con­tinue to do so,’ says spokes­woman Ni­cola Hed­ley. The New York Marathon is equally pros­e­niors. ‘I’m al­ways in awe of our in­spi­ra­tional older run­ners,’ says Race Di­rec­tor Peter Ci­ac­cia. ‘We are thrilled they have dis­cov­ered the trans­for­ma­tive power of run­ning.’ The Lon­don Marathon op­er­ates a Good For Age in­cen­tive for UK res­i­dents. A 60-64 man who runs sub-3:45 or a woman of that age who runs sub-4:30, for ex­am­ple, would get an au­to­matic place. Aged over 76? If you can run 5:30 (men) or 6.30 (women), you’re in.

Age group cat­e­gori­sa­tion in races is ob­vi­ously noth­ing new. But it has be­come more de­fined, and the re­sults more clearly and quickly dis­played, lev­el­ling the de­mo­graphic play­ing field, set­ting tan­gi­ble tar­gets for ev­er­more par­tic­i­pants and bring­ing an over­all spike in per­for­mance. Parkrun leads the way on this, post­ing on­line re­sults swiftly after events, with run­ners able to see not only where they come in their age cat­e­gory but also, via a per­cent­age, how they measure up against the global record for their age group.

On New Year’s Day in Toot­ing, south Lon­don, Mau­reen Laney ran the 5K race in 21:31. This placed her sev­enth on the day, but the age-graded per­cent­age she re­ceived as a 60-64year-old run­ner high­lighted just what an ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance it re­ally was: 92.8 per cent. The race win­ner, by con­trast, only scored 71.32 per cent in the 30-34 age cat­e­gory.

‘I’m usu­ally over 50 per cent, which is what I aim for,’ says Diane Aykroyd. ‘I’d love to get over 60 per cent but life just gets in the way. I’m look­ing for­ward to mov­ing up into the 70-75 age group soon; then my per­cent­ages should rise.’

Parkrun’s high­est recorded per­cent­age? That re­mark­able man Fauja Singh, with a mind-bend­ing (both math­e­mat­i­cally and ath­let­i­cally) 179 per cent for his 38:34 fin­ish­ing time in March 2012. ED WHIT­LOCK ‘ To some ex­tent it’s a mind game. I think that older peo­ple can do much, much more than they think they can’

All of which raises the ques­tion: just what is pos­si­ble of an age­ing body, if it is man­aged cor­rectly? Will run­ning records con­tinue to fall, or is there a ‘grey ceil­ing’ – a fi­nite level of per­for­mance for any given age group?

Re­search pub­lished in the Jour­nal of­strengthand­con­di­tion­ing

Re­search found that run­ning per­for­mance is linked to three key phys­i­o­log­i­cal fac­tors: max­i­mal aer­o­bic ca­pac­ity, or VO2 max; lac­tate thresh­old; and run­ning econ­omy, or ef­fi­ciency. The last of these doesn’t have to change sig­nif­i­cantly with age; a high vol­ume of run­ning is enough to en­sure run­ning econ­omy is main­tained. In short, if you’re get­ting the miles in, you’ll be able to con­tinue to do so – some­thing Whit­lock has dis­cov­ered. ‘It’s strange,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t re­ally get harder ev­ery year. When I’m run­ning it doesn’t feel that

much dif­fer­ent to how it did when I was much, much younger.’

VO2 max, mean­while, typ­i­cally de­creases by one per cent a year after the age of 20 – but even that's not in­evitable. ‘Some of the re­search shows that you can cut that rate of de­cline by 50 per cent if you main­tain a vig­or­ous ex­er­cise pro­gramme, so that’s very en­cour­ag­ing,’ says Dr Bar­bara Bush­man, a pro­fes­sor of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy at Mis­souri State Univer­sity. ‘We have stud­ies of older peo­ple who’ve main­tained their train­ing pro­grammes, and their VO2 max can be higher than that of a younger per­son who's seden­tary.’

Dr Bush­man be­lieves that se­nior run­ners are far from reach­ing the peak of the per­for­mance arc. ‘There are records that have been bro­ken in younger ages that at one point we thought never would be. I re­ally don’t see why that shouldn’t be the case fur­ther up the age group spec­trum. It’s all rel­a­tive. The key is to en­sure that aer­o­bic ex­er­cise is matched by mus­cu­lar fit­ness train­ing – and to not just jump into it but to take the steps along the way. Not to say ‘We want to get back to how we were 10 or 20 years ago – and we want to do it this week.’

Time, and time again

Sadly, we can’t pre­tend that run­ning of­fers an elixir for eter­nal youth. In­con­tro­vert­ibly, with age comes de­cline – beat­ing both the stop­watch and the body clock is, ul­ti­mately, im­pos­si­ble. Mus­cle mass falls away (at roughly 30 per cent per decade once you hit 70), sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to in­jury in­creases, and per­for­mance drops off. Mir­ror­ing the de­crease in VO2 max, a run­ner's av­er­age speed in dis­tance races drops by around one per cent a year from your early 20s – which can be as frus­trat­ing in one’s se­nior years, as it would be for some­one far younger. As the 20th­cen­tury French philoso­pher and Je­suit priest Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin put it, ‘Grow­ing old is like be­ing in­creas­ingly pe­nalised for a crime you haven’t com­mit­ted.’

‘Ev­ery few months that go by at this age you’re los­ing some po­ten­tial,’ ad­mits Whit­lock, cur­rently at home on the out­skirts of Toronto nurs­ing a neck in­jury. ‘My goals tend to be short-term now. They’re more hopes than ob­jec­tives. You never know – even when you’re young, and more so when you’re old – whether you’ve run your last race.’

But Whit­lock is not given to self­pity (pre­sum­ably the sheer vol­ume of en­dor­phins in his sys­tem has some­thing to do with that) and ul­ti­mately be­lieves that the key is for oth­ers to em­brace the shift in at­ti­tude and per­cep­tion of what can be achieved by older run­ners. ‘To some ex­tent it’s a mind game,’ he says. ‘I think older peo­ple can do much, much more than they think they can do – and than other peo­ple think they can do.’

He has, of course, put his miles where his mouth is and cites him­self as an ex­am­ple. ‘I took up run­ning again in my 40s and I went to this teenage run­ning club. When I got there I started jog­ging around the track and they’d clearly never seen an old man run be­fore – this was be­fore the jog­ging boom started; you didn’t see all these peo­ple on the streets the way you do now. They didn’t seem to un­der­stand how any­one that old could run. That was 45 years ago. I’ve done a lot of miles since then.’

Cru­cially, Whit­lock be­lieves that he’s not a spe­cial case, and that there are many, many other older run­ners out there with huge po­ten­tial to ful­fill. ‘I’m still the only per­son over 70 to have run a marathon in less than three hours and I'm re­ally sur­prised at that,’ he says. ‘I re­ally think that it is an achiev­able record for a de­cent marathon run­ner.’

With a wider per­spec­tive on age­ing and ath­leti­cism, Dr Joyner be­lieves that tech­nol­ogy, and our reliance on it, has seen us ‘en­gage in vast in­di­vid­ual and learned cul­tural help­less­ness’. In essence that, in ex­is­ten­tial terms, we’re all ta­per­ing too soon.

‘I think that peo­ple should wake up ev­ery day and re­mind them­selves of the words of US bas­ket­ball coach John Wooden: “Do not per­mit what you can­not do to in­ter­fere with what you can do.” I think healthy age­ing is the way to go and there’s ev­i­dence that many in­di­vid­u­als who’ve been phys­i­cally ac­tive live longer and then die after a brief ill­ness as op­posed to dwin­dling. And if you speak to peo­ple in their 60s and 70s, that’s ex­actly what they want to do.’

It’s cer­tainly very dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Ed Whit­lock dwin­dling. He’s still got many more run­ning mile­stones that he is de­ter­mined to reach. ‘I don’t know whether I’ll con­tinue run­ning un­til I draw my very last breath,’ he says, with a wry chuckle. ‘But I rather think that might just be a good way to go.’

(Far left) Bob Mca­dam (96) with trainer Gina Muaau dur­ing the Turkey Day 5K in High­lands Ranch, Colorado, in De­cem­ber last year, when he set a world record for his age group; ( left) Ed Whit­lock (85). After his record­break­ing marathon last year he was asked by the Toronto Sun how he felt: ‘Not too bad. No dif­fer­ent re­ally than how I felt after marathons in the past. My legs are a bit stiff.’

(Above) Charles Eug­ster, the 97-year- old who took up ex­er­cise when he was 85: ‘I looked in the mir­ror one morn­ing and I didn’t like what I saw.’ These days he trains three or four times a week; ( left) Fauja Singh, who makes even Eug­ster look like a young­ster. Of run­ning marathons he has said: ‘The first 20 miles are not dif­fi­cult. As for the last six miles, I run while talk­ing to God.’

(Top to bot­tom) Iva Barr: the 88-year- old was the old­est run­ner in last year’s Lon­don Marathon. She also ran the first Lon­don Marathon, in 1981; An­gela Cop­son (70) – the RW Hero of Run­ning who just seems to be get­ting started; and Lavinia Petrie, the 73-year- old who reck­ons Cop­son will even­tu­ally ‘smash’ all her records.

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