Ed Whitlock, 1st septuagenarian to run marathon in under 3 hours, dead at 86

Just a week after his 86th birthday, long distance runner Ed Whitlock died Monday at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.

In a statement issued this morning his family wrote:

"The family of Ed Whitlock is saddened to report his passing on March 13, 2017, of prostate cancer at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. His wisdom, guidance and strength of character will be greatly missed by his wife Brenda, sons Neil and Clive, and sister Catherine. The family requests privacy at this time."

Although he was an accomplished British club runner in high school and in university, Whitlock took a hiatus from the sport and embarked on an engineering career in Canada.

Whitlock grew up in London and moved to Canada following university. He ran in his teens and then rediscovered the sport in his 40s when he volunteered to coach with a track club just outside Montreal. He often wondered how far he could have gone in the sport had he had proper coaching in his youth.

Re-writing the record books

As a master's runner, he became the first 70-year-old to go under the three-hour mark with a world marathon record of two hours 59 minutes 10 seconds at the 2003 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, an event he specialized in. 

Whitlock set world master's marathon records for ages 75-plus, 80-plus and, most recently, 85-plus with a time of 3:56.38 last October 16th, 2016 in Toronto. In total he set roughly 25 world master's records over distances from 1,500 metre to the marathon.

Lasting impact on running community

Alan Brookes, the race director of the Toronto event, enjoyed a longstanding friendship with Whitlock.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Ed Whitlock, The Master. The Legend. This is an enormous loss to Canada and the global running community. Somehow we thought Ed would just go on setting records forever. We are especially saddened at Canada Running Series.

"We grew up with Ed. He won many of his 20+ year-old shoes at our Series' races in the '90s and, in many ways, he defined our Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. He will always be a vital part of the identity and spirit of that race.

"Over the next couple of years, the STWM grew from 935 to 2,526 participants and keeps growing. 'Don't limit yourself,' was one of Ed's key messages, and it was one we latched onto. It gave us the vision and the inspiration of what STWM could become.

Daily training

Whitlock lived nearby Milton, Ont.'s Evergreen Cemetery where he did his daily training consisting of laps. With his customary sense of humour he called it 'very fast walking.'

"I actually got up to three and a half hours this time," he said after his most recent marathon record. "The thing is three hours doesn't do it any more. That's the hell of it. I need four hours now. And it's only going to get worse."

Whitlock himself professed no undying love for the solitary training that came with being a long-distance runner. There was no runner's high when he was out in the cemetery. He said his biggest challenge was boredom. He would skip training runs for family commitments and didn't like to run in the rain.

"I don't particularly enjoy this daily drudge, it's something that has to be done if you want to run well," Whitlock said in 2012. "I suppose it's the sense of satisfaction to be able to keep going for one thing.

"And to run well, for another [reason]. I suppose I'm results-oriented, I'm mainly running for certain times in races, setting records, that sort of thing is what gives me my satisfaction I guess. And I find for me the more running I do the better I'll race. That's the incentive."

​Recognizable face worldwide

At races worldwide, numerous runners requested photos and autographs with Whitlock. The attention made him a little uncomfortable.

"I don't know how to respond to them. Well how do you respond to that?" he said with a laugh. "I suppose it's nice for people to say I inspire them but I am somewhat embarrassed and I don't know what the appropriate response is to that.

"I don't consider myself to be an inspiring person. I am not one to stand up on the stage and say 'you all can do this.'"