There has been a tremendous outpouring of admiration for Ed Whitlock, the 86-year-old marathon runner who died Monday from complications with prostate cancer. But when Ed died, we didn’t “grieve,” exactly. Because no one who knew Ed would associate that word with him—someone whose fun-loving good nature colored everything that he did.
Born outside London in 1931, Whitlock cut his teeth racing in Canada, where the retired mining engineer rewrote the world’s record books for master’s runners, peaking in his domination once he reached 70 years old. Ed didn’t take things too seriously. He was a no-nonsense runner who held 25 master’s records, meaning he was a real runner and not someone who dabbled in the sport. What Ed did in his sneakers had never been done before, and may never be matched. He ran a 2:54 marathon at 73, which is arguably the greatest running achievement of all time. The fastest marathoners are all somewhat equal: they all run around 2:03, and the fastest time ever changes only slightly and every so often. No 73-year-old has ever come close to running as fast as Ed.
That made him a bit of a celebrity. At the Rotterdam Marathon, the East African runners all clamoured to Ed’s side for an autograph. They’d never fathomed that someone old enough to be a grandpa could break three hours. Ed did it three times in his 70s and then, at 85, he could still break four hours.
However, that’s not really what made Ed special. Records rise and fall every day. Ed just had a way about him. He wore suits to race expos when everyone else wore sweatpants. He had long, flowing white hair, and a gift for unexpected responses. He carried himself like the wise old gentleman of the sport: with a smile, with humor, with grace.
He didn’t have any particular method. He ran around the cemetery near his home for three hours because that’s how long he figured the marathon would take him. As he aged, he updated his training runs. He would do four hours of the same old loop, because he knew he was getting slower.
Ed ate whatever he wanted. And he enjoyed the odd glass of wine. And he couldn’t care less about shoes. Most of the records he broke were in sneakers older than some of the kids on the race course. That wasn’t because there weren’t offers. I once told the Canadian Brooks representative that Ed wore an old pair of Brooks, and she tried to give him something new. He wasn’t interested. Ed was set in his ways.
That’s not to say that Ed was stubborn. He was generous with his time. If you were willing to make the drive out to where he lived in Milton, Ontario, Ed would sit with you in his neat little Norman Rockwell home. I did it many times. I can still see the coffee pot on. Newspapers strewn on the dining room table, where a half puzzle sat a work-in-process, something he enjoyed doing with Brenda, his wife. I once asked Ed about the secret to a happy marriage.
“It probably helps that I go out like a bloody fool and run for something like three hours every day,” he said.
He was always a little guy, frail and skinny, and he looked old. He’d spent a lot of time in the sun and he’d had numerous nagging injuries over the years. A few years ago, before a fall marathon, Ed slipped while getting his newspaper on his front stairs and hurt his hip. But he always recovered. He took his time. In the end, he always kept running. Who runs the marathon at 85 in October and then dies at 86 in March? Probably a runner who knows how to live.
That’s what I’ll miss most about Ed. Covering running, and covering it for years, there are only so many things I can write about stretching your hamstrings. After a while, who cares about how to run your fastest half marathon? It’s the people who make the sport exciting. In Canada, where our running stars aren’t treated like professional athletes—where even our Olympians need day jobs—there’s not a whole lot of ego. I think a lot of our greatest runners learned that from Ed. Running keeps you humble. Keeps you curious. Keeps you active. Keeps you alive. There will never be another Ed Whitlock. But I think he’ll shine like a light in the eye of every single one of us who runs.
Ben Kaplan is the General Manager of Canada’s iRun magazine and the author of Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now: a Rogue’s Guide to the Marathon.