Race walking – no walk in the park

Out for a stroll.

Congratulations to Colin Griffin, who has qualified for the Olympic 50km walk. Clocking 3:52:55 to finish 15th at today’s IAAF World Cup of Race Walking in Saransk, Russia, the Leitrim man had 6 minutes to spare on the Olympic A-standard for his event.

Griffin is now eligible for selection for his second Games, having represented Ireland in Beijing in 2008. Unfortunately, there was no such luck for three-time Olympian Jamie Costin and fellow Irishman Michael Doyle – neither finished today’s race, which was held in hot conditions.

In the women’s 20km event, former World Championship silver medallist Olive Loughnane – already qualified for London this summer – showed that she is hitting form again at the right time, finishing 8th in 1:31:32. Laura Reynolds finished 35th in 1:37:06.

Ireland’s other qualifiers for this year’s Olympic 50km race, Robert Heffernan and Brendan Boyce, competed in the 20km event in Saransk, finishing 12th and 65th respectively. Having finished 8th in Beijing and an agonising fourth in both 20km and 50km walks at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, Heffernan will look to challenge seriously for a medal in London.

Race walking is enjoying increased interest in Ireland these times, thanks in great part to the major championship exploits of Loughnane, Heffernan and Gillian O’Sullivan, also a World silver medallist. (You can listen here to a radio interview with O’Sullivan shortly after her 2003 World Championship medal performance.) Young Irish talent following in their footsteps include Olympic qualifier Boyce and World Youth champion Kate Veale, who also competed in Saransk this weekend.

It’s not as simple as your Sunday afternoon stroll or Saturday night stagger home, of course. Walking is a gruelling event – the 50km race is longer than a marathon, remember. Also, the sport is highly technical, with competitors monitored by judges looking for breaches of the rules. Disqualification, after three ‘red card’ warnings, is a regular occurence in race walking even at Olympic level.

Here are the two basic rules for each walker. First, the toe of the walker’s back foot cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched the ground. In effect, this means that a race walker always has one foot in contact with the ground, unlike a runner. Loss of contact, if seen by a judge, earns a red card warning. Second, the front leg must remain straight from the moment of contact with the ground until the walker’s body is directly above it.

Try that for a few steps at home. Feels strange, doesn’t it? Now try doing – and remembering – that for 50 kilometres. As I said, walking is a gruelling event, and it demands great technical and mental strength.

Where most top long-distance runners use spinal motion and a forward centre of gravity to create momentum, race walkers propel themselves with a twist of the pelvis and a vigorous motion of the arms. This can look bizarre and unnatural to a general public more accustomed to watching pump-action sprinters or graceful milers. To the walking aficionado, though, the physical challenge is all part of the appeal. Besides, how natural is it to jump backwards over a 2-metre-high bar or lever yourself with a pole over the height of a bungalow?

As in all things, success breeds interest and then acceptance: should our race walkers perform well or even bring home a medal from London this summer, the straight leg and pumping arms will become a common sight on the roads and streets of Ireland. Who knows, we might even become the Kenya of race walking.

To continue your understanding and training, here are highlights of the women’s 20km walk from last year’s World Athletics Championships in Daegu:

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