(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
February 2002. My heroes have always been runners older than myself. I can’t grow younger but can age better, and these people show me who I’d like to grow up to be.
I’ve found a new hero in Ed Whitlock. The British-born Canadian is the oldest marathoner ever to break three hours (with 2:54 at age 73).
Remarkable as his times are, they’re incidental to my admiration of Whitlock. I admire him not for how fast he races but for how he trains.
He didn’t need to turn himself into a techno-runner to become as good as he is. In an era when the theory and practice of running grows increasingly and often frustratingly complex, his approach is utterly and refreshingly simple.
Whitlock program includes no intervals or tempo runs. He doesn’t follow a hard-easy plan, doesn’t cross-train, doesn’t stretch or lift, doesn’t wear a heart monitor. He trains alone, around and around a one-third-mile cemetery in his Ontario hometown.
His only goal, he says, is “to go out there and put in the time.” Which he does for two or more hours a day at what he calls “a glorified shuffle” – a leisurely nine minutes per mile.
He only deviates from this routine on race days, which come round every week or two. Races are his speed-training substitute. Here he runs his miles as much as three minutes faster than everyday pace.
I stopped running Whitlock-like times at half his age. Now my glorified-shuffle daily runs rarely reach half the length of his.
I don’t look up to Ed for his numerical achievements but for the simplicity that underlies them. He reminds me that my running was also fastest – and healthiest – when it was simplest.
The old runner’s lament often is, “If only I’d known then what I know now.” I don’t think that way. Running went best for me when it was simplest, before the sport became so sophisticated, before I knew any of what we know now.
My year of years was 1968. I had never run better before, though my career was already 10 years and 400 races along. And I would never run better again, though I was only 25 when this golden year ended and hundreds more races would follow.
Training was more varied both before and after the magic spell. It began after I’d dropped out of a marathon (and decided I wasn’t meant to be a marathoner). The best of times ended less than a year later when I revoked my marathon “retirement.”
In the marathon-free period I was also injury- and illness-free. I ran 20 races – as short as one mile and as long as 30K. Seven of them resulted in permanent PRs. Seven more races led to my fastest track times since college, when I’d trained exclusively for track.
My approach was Whitlock-simple. I could fill a page with the names of techniques and tactics, practices and products that I didn’t use (usually because they hadn’t been invented yet) and apparently didn’t need.
The short list: no mile-counting or pace-checking in training... no track running except on race days or any speed training outside of races... no walk breaks during runs or scheduled rest days between them... no alternative training (“cross-training,” in current language) or stretching-strength exercises.
What I did is much simpler to describe. That is: run easily, steadily, consistently for nearly an hour a day... and race hard, fast, often... and run longer and slower, for about two hours, on non-race weekends.
That year I’d stumbled onto my best mix of easy distance and hard racing. Not knowing how good this combination was for me, I stumbled out of it again. The many complexities of modern running soon followed, and my running was never as good again as it had been in 1968.
Writing about that golden year almost four decades later isn’t purely a nostalgic exercise. I can’t live off the good old times. But the simple old ways of times past are still good ways to live.
My new hero Ed Whitlock didn’t speak the final line of this column but he moved me to write it: The more complicated the rest of life becomes, the simpler the running needs to be.
2018 Update. Ed Whitlock died last year, of prostate cancer, at age 86. In his final marathon, he became the oldest runner (then 85) to break four hours.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]