Photo by Arif Ali/Getty
The late, great, baseball pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige is often quoted as having said “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” He also said “"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Mr. Paige should have been at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
If he had been, he would have met 93-year-old Fauja Singh. Mr. Singh is the current marathon world record-holder for runners over the age of 90. His time? 5:40. Content that his marathon record is secure for now, Fauja ran the half marathon in Toronto this year and set that world’s record. 2:30:02
Those records alone would be enough to make one wonder about the necessary slowing down that experts seem to think comes with age. But as astounding as Fauja is, his accomplishments were nearly overshadowed by a 73-year-old youngster named Ed Whitlock.
What Ed the younger did was break his own world’s record in the marathon by completing the waterfront course in--don’t read ahead--two hours, 54 minutes and 48 seconds. That’s right, a sub-three-hour marathon at 73 years old. If the Boston Marathon qualifying times were based on these two men, the race could start in a phone booth in Hopkinton.
I had a chance to meet both Ed and Fauja. What’s more impressive even than their speed, skill and dedication is their humbleness in the face of relentless media coverage.
You may not have heard of him before, but in his hometown of London, England Fauja Singhs’ name is mentioned in the same breath as David Beckham. (And if you don’t know who David Beckham is, you need stop running so much and watch the news.)
Through an interpreter, Fajau explained that he doesn’t see what he does as remarkable. He started running when he was 81, just to have something to do, and he discovered that he first enjoyed the act of running--and later the sport. He is so humble that at the pasta party he deferred to his 76-year-old "mentor" explaining that it wouldn’t be right to speak in front of his teacher.
Then there’s Ed Whitlock. Ed ran a 2:59:10 at the 2003 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon becoming the first person over 70 to break three hours. But, as he said, he really wasn’t as fit as he wanted to be and so the record didn't seem deserved.
In 2004 Ed came back fit, well trained, and honed for another record attempt. He is, at 73 years old, as tight and as muscular as any Olympic athlete. And even more surprising, Ed will not accept endorsement contracts because he feels it would compromise the integrity of his amateur status. He is, and wants to remain, the quintessential club racer.
What does all of this mean to the rest of us? I’m not sure. But I do know that it confirms my belief that what increasingly distinguishes the baby-boom generation from those that have come before us is our absolute and unrepentant unwillingness to get old. True, Fauja and Ed aren’t exactly "boomers" but they stand as examples of what can happen with a little good luck and a lot of calm determination.
It’s been barely twenty years since a baby boomer named Joan Benoit won the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984. Now, we have a marathon in New York City’s Central Park just for women over 40. Age is no longer an excuse for inactivity and inactivity in no longer the reward for getting old.
I do know what it all means for me, personally. I saw my own future on the waterfront of Toronto--it came to me as an epiphany. It was as if my destiny came to life right before my eyes. I have finally, after all these years as a runner, identified a life goal for myself.
It’s pretty straight forward, really. I just have to maintain my current marathon pace and live to be more than 100 years old. I mean there’s no hope that I can knock off Ed Whitlock’s record of 2:54:48.
But Fauja’s record, that’s another story. I’m about even with him right now. I know that because he passed me at mile 18 of the 2004 Flora London Marathon. I’m sure if I hadn’t stopped for coffee and chocolates I could have kept up with him.
I know now what I need to do. I just need to keep training like I am now for another 40 years, then put in a few months of speed work, tempo runs and hill workouts, and I can take a shot at going sub 5:40.
That’s my plan, and I’m sticking to it.
Waddle on, friends.