Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 10 Sep 2003 08:18:40 -0400

One Fast Walker


(rerun from September 1999 RC)

We sat side by side for the first two days of the national track meet. This wasn't his assigned seat, and he had to move out as the stands grew more crowded. Besides, he had other business on the last day.

He wore a badge identifying him as an athlete. He looked a little old for that, so I asked his event.

"I'm in the 20-kilometer walk," he said. I didn't hear his name, but learned that he lived in Montana and worked as a college professor.

I've always liked race walkers. They have the same mindset as runners, train much the same way, and race at the same distances (or longer).

But I've never embraced their sport. It seems a little artificial to keep walking at speeds where the urge is to break into a run. It seems wrong to risk disqualification for going too fast.

An early boss of mine, Bert Nelson at Track & Field News, once wrote a classic line about these events: "They are like contests to see who can whisper the loudest."

Another seatmate of mine at the nationals, Jeff Kroot, added when the walker wasn't around, "You never see anyone race-walking away from danger."

When the walker returned to his seat, I asked him jokingly, "If runners take walking breaks during their races, do walkers take running breaks?"

He laughed and said, "Some try it, but they usually get caught and DQed."

Legal walkers wait to run until their race is done. While a runner eases into a walk at the finish line, a walker breaks into a run.

I didn't see the championship 20K. It was walked outside the stadium early that Sunday.

But I did see the victory ceremony. I learned that our companion from early in the meet was Jonathan Matthews and that he placed third.

At 43 he appeared to be the oldest athlete to make the World Championships team. Fast as he is, though, his time fell short of the qualifying standard.

I'd asked him what pace he maintained for a 20K. I knew about what the records were, but this was a sly way of asking how he compared.

"On a good day I'll do 6:50 to 6:55 per mile," he said. "The best walkers in the world will go about 6:15s."

The championship raceday was a good one for Jonathan. He walked exactly the pace he said he could.

Let's give some perspective to that pace. It's faster than I could have RUN that distance at age 43. It's almost as fast as I could run a single mile at 56.

These walkers MOVE. The best of them cover ground faster than all but about 10 percent of runners.

Thank you, Jonathan Matthews, for showing me that. Thanks for letting me know that you walkers are skilled athletes. And thanks for reminding me that the line between running and walking can be blurry.

It's especially so in a fast walk, which looks like running -- or in a slow run, which looks like walking. So maybe it's time to stop splitting hairs over what's the acceptable and athletic way to cover long distances on foot.

UPDATE. At the recent World Championships, world-best times went to Jefferson Perez of Ecuador in the 20K and Poland's Robert Korzeniowski in the 50K. Putting those times into perspectives that any runner can appreciate: Perez averaged 38:40 for back-to-back 10Ks. Korzeniowski walked 3:36 for a distance five miles longer than a marathon. The winner's miles averaged 6:13 in the 20K and 6:57 in the 50K. Women's 20K champion Yelena Nikolayeva of Russia walked at 6:59 mile pace.


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