“We worshiped Ed Whitlock as a god even though he had no interest in being a god,” Amby Burfoot, Runner’s World editor-at-large, told the New York Times. “He didn’t run to inspire us, to impress us. He ran for higher reasons—he ran for himself. In the end, that’s why we all run. He was a pure athlete, following his own drummer.”
I miss Ed. Last year at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon I remember catching him on my phone for a video in his suit and seeing him smile. I miss that smile. I like what he brought to running. Of course, I’m in awe of his records—this weekend I’m joining a couple of guys in running at Ed’s pace for whoever would like to know what it feels like to run like him. The only pace of his I can manage is his time last year, when he was 85 and almost certainly ran the marathon with pancreatic cancer. I’m 43 and don’t even have a toothache. I could never have caught him in his early 70s, in his prime.
I first met Ed before my wife and I had our children, but I came to appreciate him more after I was a dad. It’s not just the running records that made him so special, he did things that no one else had ever done. By some accounts, he holds 36 world records and it’s astounding how many times Ed came back from injury—even in his 80s, to run another marathon and break another world record. He didn’t get too high or get down too low. He didn’t take himself, or running, too seriously. To be sure, he loved it. He was a student of the sport and of his body. He wasn’t spending all that time running in the cemetery to look at the birds, he wanted to break records—because he knew that he could. But he never let his running drain the joy from his life. I’ve spent a lot of time lately with Neil, his son, and Neil says that his father showed no visible differences between when he was running or when he was not. Whether he was a record-breaking star or just another old man at church, Ed didn’t change how he acted. He appreciated it, but he didn’t need our applause.
I think that’s what I miss most about Ed, what I most want to learn from him, is how authentic he was. He thought that maybe he was able to run so well in his old age because he had taken so much time off from the sport in his 30s and 40s. Maybe by the time he became famous he had already answered all those nagging questions about who he was. Or maybe he learned something growing up in England during World War II. His sister, who he spoke with every week, had no clue Ed was as beloved as he was until she read the obituaries after he passed away last March. Talking about yourself is unseemly. So is being paid to wear somebody’s shoes. Ed didn’t have any sponsors. He also didn’t succumb to any miracle training plans.
Alan Brookes, the STWM race director, tells a great story of Ed being in New York to receive an award in 2005 from Runner’s World. He followed the Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin up on stage. Gatlin thanks his sponsors, his agents, his physiotherapist, his masseuse; Ed comes up afterwards and brings the house down: “I’m not sure what to say and I don’t have a team or a coach or much of anything,” he said, “I just like to run.”
As if his star needed any more shining, that night Ed was the King of New York.
The most significant records that Ed held were all set in Toronto at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon and this is the first year that the race will be held since he’s gone. His presence is missed and he will not be replaced, but he can be remembered and we can all strive to be like Ed. We’ll never run like one of the greatest marathoners in the history of the world. But we all have the chance to live like him. We all have the chance to be true.