Race walking takes the lead at Huntsman Senior Games

ST. GEORGE – The race walkers looked like runway models – minus the charade – as they gathered Monday morning for Huntsman World Senior Games competition at Snow Canyon High School in St. George. At first glance, power walking appears to be the athletic, healthy stepsister to the runway culture – performed around a track, in Nikes, not stilettos. Under the surface, power walking – more accurately called “race walking” – is an obscure yet fading sport that falls under the subcategory of track and field.

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Blast off at the seniors games on the starting line of the 1500 meter women’s race walk. St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2013 | Photo by Drew Allred, St. George News

Steam vaporized off the athletes’ heads as they audibly inhaled and exhaled, and perspired, their way around the track Monday morning. They comprised a  large professional group of race walkers, braving the crisp October air to compete in the Senior Games race walking competition at the Snow Canyon High School track and field complex.

A sweaty funk emanated from the athletes, many dressed in full skintight track and field suits, as they completed lap after lap of the 1,500-meter race walk competition. This event was the first of three days of race walking and power walking competitions in the Senior Games this year. The longer, 3000 meter and 5k competitions will be held tomorrow and Wednesday.

Race walking is more than just walking fast

Race walkers are masters at restraint. Regulations prevent race walkers from lifting both feet off the ground at once. These regulations spawn a specific technique that race walkers swear by – a technique more complex than meets the eye. This technique allows race walkers to walk long distances just as fast, if not faster than, runners.

Unlike running, where the athlete is bounding off the ground, race walkers have to stay connected to the ground at all times. This restriction plus the technique is the main distinction between race walking, and just walking fast. Walking fast, known among race walkers as “power walking,” is a totally different competition in the senior games, and not an olympic sport.

I can walk faster than you can run

Many of the top race walking athletes can walk a marathon just as fast as a runner. Elite olympic long-distance race walkers typically walk a 6 1/2 minute mile. And, it’s not uncommon for a race walker to average 6 or 7 mph. The average healthy adult running speed is 6-8 mph. In the senior games, the overall record holder is Jonathon Mathews who walked a 5K in 18 minutes, 34 seconds in 2009.

Women in the 1500 meter women’s race walk make the initial turn at the senior games. St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2013 | Photo by Drew Allred, St. George News
Women in the 1.500 meter women’s race walk make the initial turn at the Huntsman World Senior Games. St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2013 | Photo by Drew Allred, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The efficient technique used by all elite race walkers is, in short, planting your ground leg straight until your body passes over that leg, then repeating the process with the other leg. It looks like an over-exaggerated limp. Add a hip-pop, and a twist, and you’ve got it.

A bunch of running converts

The Huntsman Senior Games race walkers are mostly former runners. Once they converted to race walking, these athletes never returned to running. Kerstin and Daryl Meyers, of Brighton, Colorado, swear that race walking has benefited them far more than running ever did. Both were long-distance runners for most of their lives, the Meyers said they realized that they could cover as much ground race walking, with less of an impact on their knees. Plus, race walking helped them to stay fit, they said, just as much as running did.

The most recent study on the topic showed that speed walking, using the term generically, burns a surprisingly high number of calories when compared to running – 110 calories per mile in fact.  A 2012 study done by California State University showed that walking fast burns on average three-fourths of the total calories burned while running a mile. It’s important to note that this study only tested athletes walking fast, the athletes in the study were not necessarily using the race walking technique. While research may not be available on calories burned while using the actual race walking technique, some of the race walking athletes at the senior games in St. George said race walking burns substantially more calories than just walking fast.

Popular among the old, ridiculed by the young

Aside from burning calories, Kerstin and Daryl Meyers said they continue to choose race walking over running because it has less of an impact on their joints. “Unlike running, it’s the type of sport that you can continue way into your older years,” Daryl Meyers said. Only older folks seem to be excited about race walking, maybe because older folks are the only ones self-confident enough to participate in a sport that, frankly, looks funny?

L to R: Daryl Meyers, Kerstin Meyers, Mary Gilbert, Bill Emslie, friends from a power walking club in Brighton, Colorado pose for pictures after their race. St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2013 | Photo by Drew Allred, St. George News
L to R: Daryl Meyers, Kerstin Meyers, Mary Gilbert, Bill Emslie, friends from a power walking club in Brighton, Colorado, pose for pictures after their race. Huntsman World Senior Games, St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2013 | Photo by Drew Allred, St. George News

Outsiders have been calling it a silly-looking sport since its inception. The most famous comment came from television announcer Bob Costas in the 1992 olympics when he called it “the overall weirdest sport in the Olympics.” Costas said that racewalking “looks like a person who has to go really bad. ‘I gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now’ – except they just don’t want to break into a full-scale sprint.” Even Daryl Meyers admitted that “The hip movement looks a little funny.”

Despite the awkwardness of the sport, Daryl and Kerstin Meyers said they believe in the benefit of race walking and hope that younger generations someday see the benefit of it too.

“There’s not very many of us left,” Daryl Meyers said, “and if kids get into it young, they would really enjoy it.”

Marathon-style training

The race walkers at the senior games are as committed to the sport as any triathlon or marathon runner. Mary Gilbert, from Colorado, is a certified Olympic judge for race walking, and a race walker herself. She has a marathon-style training regimen that includes five to six days of training a week.

Gilbert’s training includes long distance days, speed work days, and even interval training days. Gilbert focuses on stamina rather than speed. Her training schedule is based on her theory, which she said she took from marathon runners, that the most steady runner (or walker in her case) wins the race. She reserves a special training day that helps her to develop a strong “finishing kick.”

“If someone passes me during a race but doesn’t really pull away,” Gilbert said, “I can usually catch them before the finish.”

Race walking in St. George

Race walking almost totally faded out of the senior games 12 years ago but a race walking couple from St. George revived it. Norm Frable, a former marathon runner who switched to race walking because of a running-induced knee problem, introduced his wife Cathy to race walking. For over 20 years, they have competed across the globe in race walking competitions. They even have a trip planned to compete in Brazil this year.  The Frables have been the race walking and speed walking directors of  the Huntsman World Senior Games ever since reviving the competition years ago.

Although race walking isn’t very popular in St. George, Norm Frable hopes to soon get a power walking club in SunRiver St. George – a master planned active retirement community locally – and eventually to get a yearly St. George power walking event up and running. For those interested in the sport, Norm Frable said that he and his crew invite anyone in the community to come out for personalized instruction this Wednesday before the 5K race walk at 8 a.m.

Recap

Many of the top race walking athletes can walk a marathon just as fast as a runner. Elite olympic long-distance race walkers typically walk a six and a half minute mile. And, it’s not uncommon for a race walker to average 6 or 7 miles per hour. The average healthy adult running speed is 6 to 8 miles per hour. In the senior games, the overall record holder is Jonathon Mathews who walked a 5K in 18:34 seconds in 2009.

Resources

Race walking and power walking webpage, Huntsman World Senior Games 2013 – schedule included; competition continues through Wednesday, with medals awarded following each competition event.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

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