85-Year-Old Marathoner’s Speed is a Surprise for Even Scientists

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In October, at 85, Ed Whitlock set his latest distance-running record, completing the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 3 hours 56 minutes 34 seconds and becoming the oldest person to run 26.2 miles in under four hours.

“He’s about as close as you can get to minimal aging in a human individual,” said Dr. Michael Joyner, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic who has studied performance and aging.

85 year old marathoner

His marathon time at age 85, 3:56:34, is more than an hour slower than the 2:54:48 he ran in Toronto at age 73 in what is widely considered his greatest masters race.

Adjusted for age, that race was the equivalent of a runner in his prime completing a marathon in 2:04:48, which is less than two minutes off the current world record of 2:02:57. Whitlock’s performance in 2004 may have made him “the world’s best athlete for his age.”

His running secrets will surprise you:

  • Raced in a 15-year-old shoes and a singlet that was 20 or 30 years old
  • No coach
  • Follows no special diet
  • Does not chart his mileage
  • Wears no heart-rate monitor
  • Takes no ice baths, gets no massages
  • Shovels snow in the winter and gardens in the summer but lifts no weights, does no situps or push-ups
  • Avoids stretching, except the day of a race
  • Takes no medication, only a supplement that may or may not help his knees.

85 year old marathoner

What he does possess is a slight build: He is 5 feet 7 inches and weighs 110 to 112 pounds. He also has an enormous oxygen-carrying capacity; an uncommon retention of muscle mass for someone his age; a floating gait; and an unwavering dedication to pit himself against the clock, both the internal one and the one at the finish line.

“I believe people can do far more than they think they can,” said Whitlock.

Why scientists are surprised?

85 year old marathoner

  1. VO2 Max: A top Olympic-level cross-country skier might have a VO2 max of 90, compared to 20 for those living independently in their 80s. Mr. Whitlock’s score was an exceptional 54. That is roughly equivalent to someone of college age who is a recreational athlete
  2. Motor Units: A healthy young adult has about 160 motor units in the shin muscle, called the tibialis anterior, which helps lift the toes. In an octogenarian, that number could have declined to about 60 motor units, Hepple said, but Whitlock retained “closer to 100.”

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.”

85 year old marathoner