In Nashville this weekend Anthony Whiteman attempts to become the first 40-year-old to break four minutes for the mile outdoors. To set the scene, here is a recent interview he did with Athletics Weekly
Smashing the four-minute barrier for the mile is a tremendous feat for any athlete, let alone a runner aged the wrong side of 40. Before Roger Bannister became the first man to do it in 1954, many experts thought it was literally impossible. Even today, more people have climbed Everest than covered 1609 metres on foot in 3min 59sec or quicker.
When it comes to veteran or masters athletics, only one man has done it. In 1994 Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland clocked 3:58.13 on an indoor track in Harvard, United States, aged 41. Others, such as Dave Moorcroft and Steve Scott, have had a crack, but even on an outdoor track the challenge eluded them.
Now, though, a serious contender has emerged with the apparent ability to become not only the first 40-year-old to run a sub-four mile outdoors, but also to potentially break Coghlan’s world masters mark which was set indoors. He turned 40 in November last year and has been raising eyebrows for several months now with his age-defying performances. His name, of course, is Anthony Whiteman.
At his peak in the late Nineties, Whiteman clocked 3:51.90 for the mile and 3:32.34 for 1500 metres. He won the 1997 World University Games 1500m title and competed in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, but he is also well remembered for his many duels on the UK domestic scene with John Mayock as the pair flew the flag for British men’s miling for a decade or so around the turn of the millennium.
Today, though, Whiteman’s main rival is Father Time as he strives to become the fastest veteran miler in history. As recent achievements show, though, he has kept himself in tremendous shape and he is due to have a crack at the four-minute barrier at the Music Distance City Carnival in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday June 2 (local time 10pm Saturday; British time 4am Sunday). Failing that, the barrier could fall at the Emsley Carr Mile at the Aviva Grand Prix in London on July 13-14 or a special British Milers’ Club meeting at Oxford on July 28.
“I saw Ian Stewart (UK Athletics head of endurance) at the Great Edinburgh Cross in January and suggested he could get Shabunin over and it’d be a decent race with two vets in it,” says Whiteman, referring to Vyacheslav Shabunin, the Russian stalwart of the international athletics circuit who set the current world outdoor M40 mile record of 4:01.62 in 2010.
“If we run 3:58-59, we’re not going to be that far behind the rest and it’ll be a nice race within a race,” Whiteman added. “I’d rather get dragged around as opposed to being at the front of a race doing the work myself.”
This is true, given that the leading Briton at the 2011 Emsley Carr Mile at Crystal Palace was Nick McCormick with 3:58.78. Indeed, such is Whiteman’s form at present, he is giving Britain’s top middle-distance men a serious run for their money.
He ran a world M40 1500m record of 3:44.12 during the indoor season earlier this year and at the Loughborough International on May 20 his 1:48.28 for 800m beat the world masters 800m record which was previously held by the US Olympian Johnny Gray.
Indeed, if Whiteman had remained on the anti-doping register after quitting his serious international career then it would not be beyond the realms of possibility for him to earn selection for the British team at the European Championships in Helsinki in July.
And when it comes to the sub-four-minute mile, barring injury it almost looks like a formality. If the weather conditions and pace are good in Nashville, it could happen this weekend too.
Sub-four miling ambitions aside, Whiteman says he’d also love to break 3:40 for 1500m outdoors. “Eamonn did his sub-four mile indoors and there was never a better athlete built for indoors than Eamonn. So my aim is to beat his best indoor mark outdoors. But the mile is a big thing in America, it’s just about hanging on in Britain, and elsewhere people ask ‘how far is this mile thing?’ Given this another of my aims is to see how close I can get to sub-3:40 for 1500m.”
So how has Whiteman managed to stay in great shape at an age when most athletes begin to slow dramatically or they simply struggle to run at all due to injury? Whiteman tried to oﬀer an explanation.
“First of all, unlike many athletes, I stopped because I felt it was time to stop,” he said. “I was going to have a family, it was the Athens Olympics and I hadn’t quite made it and felt it was the right time to stop.
“It wasn’t injury which forced me to stop. It was my choice and I could have carried on. I was doing a good job pacemaking at races, too, but because of where I lived it wasn’t practical and I didn’t want to miss out on being a dad.”
Whiteman, who is father to two boys – George and Joshua James – added: “Athletics is a single person’s job and sport and it’s very difficult for parents. If you want to fit in your training if you have kids, you have a hard weekly schedule and you also sometimes have to be very selfish.”
He continued: “Since then I’ve just kept myself in shape. I’m a personal trainer, so I run around in my job, with lots of nine-minute miles. Then in 2010 I started doing a few more races. I did one, it went okay. So someone asked me to do another. And it just snowballed from there.”
Did Whiteman identify running a sub-four mile several years ago? He says: “Running a sub-four mile aged 40 was always in the back of my mind a little, but the first year (2010) I did maybe five or six track races, then the following year 10-12 and now this year maybe 20 or so.
“I haven’t just thrown myself into it. And I’m also tapping into all those years of training. All those years of miles I’ve run haven’t gone anywhere. I just have to dig a little deeper to find them.”
Surely being injury-free is a big factor, too. “Yes, I’ve been lucky with injuries. But do you make your own luck too to a degree? I’m not sure. I’ve always had good coaches and understood my running, though.”
When it comes to training, Whiteman obviously still works relatively hard, but he reckons he does about 60% of what he used to. More importantly, he trains more intelligently as he uses all the best elements that he has discovered over the years and binned the parts that have not worked for him.
“I know what works for me,” he explains. “I’ve cherry picked all the good ideas I’ve come across during my life. A couple of years ago I gave a lecture to athletes and the heading to the lecture was ‘the search for the perfect training week’. I started off by saying that I was still searching for all the elements that I need. It’s an individual search too.
“For example, I had a go at kettle bells but I hurt my back and decided it wasn’t for me. I gave it a fair shot and didn’t like it, so it goes on the ‘not to do’ pile. I’m a magpie.
“The circuit session that I run on a Monday night for my clients is a complete copy of the one I used to do at Brunel University with Costas Karageorgis. He was a professor of sports psychology and his session was so good that I copied it in every single detail.”
As part of this cherry-picking process, he spoke to Moorcroft, the former world 5000m record-holder who had a serious tilt at the ‘sub-four at 40’ goal with 4:02.53 in 1993. “I had a long chat with him on the phone,” says Whiteman. “I tracked him down and, being a magpie, I quizzed him on what he did.
“He was running road relays to keep fit. Then, in the year he decided to have a crack, he did an 800m time trial and he ran 2:03. And I was like ‘2:03, is that all?’ He obviously got quicker and being a 5km runner his speed endurance/ strength was better than mine, but even so. Hearing that gave me encouragement.”
Doesn’t Whiteman find it tough, however, to run much slower times in training than in the past? “I am close enough to my old times for them to be okay,” he smiles, before telling a story that relates to this. “In 2003 I did a session with some 3:31-3:32 Kenyan guys and the session was 10x300m off a minute recovery. It’s meant to be a session Coe ran and he is supposed to have done them in 38.
“Anyway we started off and we were running 38s and I was at the back doing 40s. Then we got to five reps and one dropped out with a sore hamstring. Then another went. And by reps eight, nine and ten I was at the front still running 40s. So this year I did the session again and I ran 43/44s. So they’re respectable. If they were 47/48s I would be hanging my head in shame.”
Speed is also of the essence. “I keep my legs turning over quickly by racing 800s and even 4x400m relays,” he says. “I also do a lot of hill reps.
“Saying that, it’s fair to say you do compare times in sessions with those of years gone by to a degree, so if I do it off track then I know I won’t obsess about running a 29-second 200m, for example, instead of 27.”
When it comes to diet, Whiteman says he is a tiny bit heavier than his racing weight from his heyday. “But I’m not stupid with food,” he says. “I just eat normally. I’m not weighing my food or anything like that. I know what I should and shouldn’t eat.”
He adds: “Generally I don’t like to over-complicate things. I like to keep things simple. The coaches I had were quite straightforward and that’s the way I am as well.”
Enjoying the sport is another factor or ‘secret’ of his success. “I look up and look around the crowd. At races now the officials usually know me so I stand chatting to them while all the other athletes are standing there nervously.”
Perhaps starting athletics later than most has helped too. Whiteman, after all, only began training seriously in his late teens. “The junior years I missed out on, I’m now getting back,” he reckons.
The old man of the current middle-distance scene also spends a fair bit of time helping and mentoring his younger adversaries. For several years now, for example, he has helped at On Camp with Kelly training get-togethers at home and abroad.
“When I was a young athlete there was a guy who used to run in the same events as me called Glen Grant and he ran 3:38 (plus exceptional times as a veteran). When you’ve only run 3:47 that feels like a million miles away. And when we’d warm down and stuff he would talk us through things and offer advice and when someone has run sub-3:40, you have to listen to what they have to say.”
Whiteman had respect for his elders, but he is not quite so gracious to his younger rivals today. He says lining up on the start line with athletes such as Kenenisa Bekele, Asbel Kiprop and Eliud Kipchoge at the Great Edinburgh Cross in January was “amazing” but he had no qualms about digging his elbows in if necessary. “On the line I don’t care who you are. I’ll mean business,” he says.
He also brings a Top Gun mentality to his racing. “Whatever happens this summer, I’d love to get to the final of the Olympic Trials just to annoy them. It’s like the old film Top Gun where you have Viper who’s trying to take down Maverick and the others.
“If you’re not on form that day, then they will take you out. And I’m effectively saying that to today’s athletes every time I step on to the start line.”
» This interview appeared in Athletics Weekly two months ago and Whiteman featured on the magazine’s front cover.