CAN YOU OUTRUN AGE?
The Athletes Defying Time
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’
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.