“Where have all the heroes gone? They’ve gone with the simplicities and the pieties and the easy answers of another era. But that may not be all bad … not if our lack of such easy heroes can be an indication of the maturity of our age: a realization that every man has come into his own and has the capacity of making a success of his own life, of being able to say, ‘I have found my hero and he is me.'” – George Sheehan
Like many others, I was surprised and saddened to read that Ed Whitlock had died; he passed away on March 13, one week after celebrating his 86th birthday. I guess I was surprised because only a few months before, Whitlock had run a marathon in 3:56:38 to establish yet another single age record for that distance. Then, at the end of December, he was the subject of a long profile in the New York Times, that cited Whitlock’s remarkable accomplishments into his 80s, and noted that researchers were studying him for clues about the aging process, including how to slow it down.
The article speculated about Whitlock breaking more records in the future, including the marathon record for 90 year olds. Whitlock himself struck a more cautious note, saying that he’d have to see whether he was still running at age 90. I remember thinking that — after “only” running 3:56, he probably wasn’t too happy about slowing down so much over the past few years, even if that time seemed impressive to the rest of the world.
I had no idea, nor apparently did most of the running world, that he had advanced prostate cancer. I should know better by now that runners aren’t immortal, even those who seem to defy Father Time. But I assumed that running a marathon — even if it was much slower than he wanted — meant that all was well, that the runner had many years and many miles left.
Since he died, I’ve read several tributes to Whitlock, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what he represented to me. Almost every obituary of the man begins with the marathons, specifically, the single age marathon records he set after reaching most people’s retirement age. Those records, spread out from his late 60s to his mid 80s, are like Himilayan peaks extending not across geography but across the years; and among them all, none higher than the 2:54:48 he ran at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2004 at age 73 years and 204 days.
Of course, Whitlock didn’t just run marathons. He holds or held numerous age group records for distances from 5K to the marathon, road and track indoor and outdoor. In his youth, he was a good but not spectacular schools runner and club runner (It’s mind-boggling to think that he ran in the same club as Chris Chataway, and participated in a road relay with Alan Turing). But somehow, as we contemplate his career, his early running life fades away, and we always come back to those marathon times (3:15:53 at age 80!) and shake our heads in disbelief.
According to some of the remembrances, Whitlock was never very comfortable being considered an inspiration or a hero. Out of modesty or self-deprecation he down-played his own uniqueness: “I believe people can do far more than they think they can,” he said, [but] “You have to be idiot enough to try it.”
I think that for most of the running community, Ed Whitlock was treasured not only for his ability to run elite age-group times — few of us can dream of even approaching his records — but for his acceptance of the task of training, which was neither romantic nor mystical, but nevertheless fulfilling. He kept it simple, admitted it was tedious, and simply carried on for as long as he could.
So was he a hero?
When I was young, my heroes were athletes in their 20’s and 30’s setting world records and winning championships. When I was in my 20’s and 30’s, all my heroes seemed to have disappeared, replaced (partially) by those I admired and envied for being far faster than I would ever be. As I grew older and slower, I became more appreciative of those who resisted the urge to pack it in, and who remained hard-working and competitive in spite of the slow and inexorable decline.
I think those people — Larry Olson, John Barbour, Sumner Brown, among others — might not have been my heroes, but they did keep me from falling into the trap of idolizing too much my younger running self — the person who used to be able to crush difficult workouts and run back-to-back races at the front of the local pack. Old age should not seek heroes in the pages of faded running logs.
Remembering Ed Whitlock, I’m reminded that what we really want are examples, not necessarily heroes, as we continue to run with bodies that no longer respond willingly to our every command. As George Sheehan wrote, life is about being your own hero, and that is about the present moment, about striving to be better today than you were yesterday – better in the races I run, the things I write, each day that I live.
After his own peak experience, being named AAU runner of the year and finishing in the top third of the field at the National Marathon Championships, Sheehan wrote these words:
“What do I do now? More of the same, only better. Run another and learn that much more about myself and the world and Who made me. No matter how well it has been done, it can still be done better. No matter how fast the race, it can still be run faster…”
Ed Whitlock ran 2:54 at age 73, a masterpiece, but then he kept running. Until he died, he continued striving to be the hero of his own life, and whether he meant to or not, that is what continues to inspire us.
I never met Ed Whitlock, but my friend (and another age-group inspiration) Gordon MacFarland did, and posted a thought-provoking piece about his Whitlock’s example and legacy: Ed Whitlock – Last Lap.