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Ed Whitlock, the 85-year-old distance runner, poses in his favourite training ground in Milton, on October 17, 2016. Whitlock, who famously smashed several senior records, has died just days after his 86th birthday. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)
Ed Whitlock, the 85-year-old distance runner, poses in his favourite training ground in Milton, on October 17, 2016. Whitlock, who famously smashed several senior records, has died just days after his 86th birthday. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)

Canadian marathon legend Ed Whitlock dies at 86 Add to ...

Ed Whitlock, one of the world’s greatest and oldest marathon racers, died in a Toronto hospital on Monday – a week after celebrating his 86th birthday. The holder of dozens of records for masters runners had prostate cancer, his family said.

In October, in his last marathon, the white-haired Whitlock set a world record in the 85-and-older age group at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The fleet-footed octogenarian completed the 42-kilometre course in three hours, 56 minutes and 34 seconds, breaking the existing mark by almost 40 minutes.

He was the oldest, by six years, among the 4,833 participants.

“He was a titan of the sport,” said Michael Doyle, the editor-in-chief of Canadian Running Magazine. “He elevated the profile of running – not only in Canada but around the world.

“For a lot of people, Ed was someone to mirror themselves after.”

Originally from England, Whitlock immigrated to Canada in 1952 after graduating from university in London. He had been a runner in his youth but did not take it up again for almost two decades – until his wife, Brenda, suggested it as a way to get him out of the house.

The couple lived in Milton, Ont., a half-hour southwest of Toronto, and were married for more than 58 years.

He remains the first and only person older than 70 to run a marathon in under three hours, a feat accomplished in Toronto in 2003. A year later, at 73, he improved that by completing the same event in two hours, 54 minutes and 49 seconds. Adjusted for age, the time was the equivalent of a runner in their prime completing a marathon in 2:04:48 – within two minutes of the world’s fastest marathon time.

“It could be argued that it was the greatest running performance ever,” Doyle said. “Because he was an older gentleman, I think it was lost on some people what a world-class athlete he was.”

Eventually, Whitlock set records in the over-75, over-80 and over-85 age divisions as well. In recent years, he set records almost every time he laced up his ancient Brooks running shoes. He had four identical pairs, but only one that he wore for racing. They were too comfy – even if, like him, they were getting on in years.

“There are an awful lot of people in the world, but there are not many idiots of 85 running a marathon,” he said the day after completing his final race along the Toronto waterfront.

Whitlock was 5-foot-7 and weighed just 107 pounds at the start of that race. The morning after, he complained good-naturedly that he was a bit worse for wear and had lost six pounds.

“I am stiff and not moving too well,” he said. “I have so many aches and pains, I have lost track where.”

He had already entertained calls from journalists at CNN and the Times of London that day. Like everyone else, they were curious about his prowess and endurance at his age.

“I doubt that I would run for my health,” he said. “I suppose to an extent it is an ego trip to set world records. That is an incentive for me.”

Whitlock retired from his job as a mining engineer in 1989. He ran his first marathon in 1975, but it wasn’t until years later that his fame began to spread. He ran competitively for the last time in December, returning to London to compete in a cross-country race he had won as a schoolboy.

“This is an enormous loss to Canada and the global running community,” said Alan Brookes, the race director of the Canadian Running Series. The circuit includes the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, and Brookes counted Whitlock as a long-time friend. “He will be deeply missed.

“Somehow we just thought Ed would go on setting records forever.”

The world’s greatest marathon runner was never choosy about the way he ate, nor was he terribly enamoured with training. He kept in shape and prepared for races by running laps around a cemetery 100 metres from his house.

“Nobody in there is going to interrupt me,” he said.

As quick with a line as he was on his feet, he was adored and celebrated by fellow runners.

“This is a hard day,” Brookes said.

In an interview a few years ago with Canadian Running Magazine, Whitlock deferred when asked if he had any advice for other older runners.

“I’m not sure if what I am doing is even healthy for me,” he told Doyle, chuckling.

On Monday, the editor was revisiting stories his magazine had done on Toronto’s racing legend.

“He didn’t like to draw attention to himself even though he was doing inspirational things,” Doyle said.

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