By Ed Whitlock
The Association of Road Race Statisticians keep world records for each age from five to 100 for the marathon and other distances. The world marathon record for men over 85 is 4 hours 55 minutes, this is huge falloff from the single age record for age 73 of 2 hours 55 minutes. The record for men over 90 is 6 hours 36 minutes. I am still the only man to run a marathon in less than 3 hours when over 70.
The 85 and 90-year-old records are soft. What are the reasons for this situation? I think the main reason is that very few men past 80 even attempt a marathon. Why is this? Largely because of society’s attitudes, it’s too difficult for people that old. Attitudes change over time, marathons used to be the domain of a few oddball runners at the extreme limits of endurance, now a strange mania has taken over where all kinds of people with little natural running ability have got it on their bucket list of things to do. As a bi-product of this, the numbers of 60-year-olds have greatly increased in recent years but not, so far, over 80’s. Greater numbers of participants would increase competition and the chances that a record setter would emerge.
As another example of current attitudes limiting participation, when I raced in the Rotterdam marathon at age 74, some of the elite Kenyan runners in their 20’s and 30’s couldn’t fathom why a person my age would be running a marathon and certainly not in the time I did that day—2:58:40, it blew their minds. What will it take to get the Kenyans to run when they are 70 or 80? There obviously needs to be a change in their mindset (plus I suspect some monetary incentive). When and if they do I am sure a number of the records will be broken.
Before the East Africans get around to running when they’re old, I think it more likely that elites from the developed world will run when they’re old and lead to record improvements. This has proved elusive so far as those who have tried to continue have generally succumbed to injuries that have impaired performance, e.g. Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter.
I was a good runner in my youth and I am sure with different direction and priorities I could have been an elite runner. If that had happened the odds are that I wouldn’t be running today. Even if I had tried, injuries might have taken their toll. I’ve now been running almost 45 years since starting again. I’ve had injuries, but have always got over them. I’m not convinced that continued running accelerates terminal injury issues so I think elite runners can continue to run well into their old age. As an example Joan Benoit, the Olympic champion in 1984, is still running well at age 58.
I found it surprising that no 70-year-old had run under 3 hours before me, at least four athletes had run in the 2:40s in their 60s, but never did a sub 3 when they reached 70. It’s now 12 years since I first did it and no one else has yet done it. A year after I first did it, I ran 2:54:49 at age 73. This indicates that the equivalent record for age 70 should be sub 2:50. Really sub 3 at 70 should not be that great a challenge for a talented marathon runner.
Of course some would say: What’s the point? I may have some ability, but it took a lot of training as well; there are probably better things to do than trudge around a cemetery for 3 hours every day. It’s not as though there’s any money in it.
So that’s my thesis: in spite of the preceding paragraph, others beside me should be pushing the envelope in over 70 marathon performance. I need company, maybe it would be a goad for me to do a bit better. Currently that would be difficult as various aches and pains are preventing me from training as much as necessary for good performance. Maybe running decently when you are old is more difficult than I have argued in my thesis!