This is a Throwback Thursday post.
I started running while I was in college. Every two weeks, I would get together with friends to run a timed mile on a track. Then we’d go out for burgers and malts. In between these informal mile races, we would each train on our own. I can still remember my first mile race. It took me 6:56. After I finished, I was curled up on the grass trying to catch my breath. I never knew running could hurt so much.
Eventually, my friends and I graduated. I continued to live in Minnesota, but most of my friends moved to other states to pursue their careers. When they would come back to visit, we would reunite at the track for a mile race.
In 1991, I ran my first Boston Marathon. After that race, I started to develop a mild case of shin splints. I continued training, so I could run Grandma’s Marathon in June. After Grandma’s, my shin pain was worse, and I decided to take a break. For the rest of the summer I cut way back on my running mileage and stopped doing any running at a fast pace.
It was near the beginning of this break that my friend Rick came to Minneapolis for a ballroom dancing event. While he was in town, we organized one of our reunion races. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to run an all-out mile, so I decided to see how fast I could walk a mile.
I already knew I could walk really fast for short bursts, but I had never tried to do it for an entire mile. I started too fast, but eventually settled into a pace I could just barely sustain. I don’t recall my exact time, but it was in the low 9:40s. After I finished, I was curled up on the grass trying to catch my breath. I never knew walking could hurt so much. I learned it was possible to put yourself in oxygen debt by walking fast.
A short time later, I learned about a walking event in Minneapolis called the Race-Walk Classic. It was a 5K race. I went to an informational meeting where they explained the rules of race-walking to runners who were new to race-walking. There are two rules. The first one is simple. You always have to have at least one foot in contact with the ground. Failure to do that is called “lifting.” The other rule is less obvious. Your leading leg must be straight as your foot makes contact with the ground. It must remain straight until the leg passes under your body. Failure to do this is called “bent knee.”
In a judged race-walk competition, there are multiple officials watching the competitors to ensure they’re following both rules at all times. If one of the judges observes an infraction, they can either give you a warning or a “red card,” depending on how flagrant the infraction is. If three judges give you “red cards,” you’re disqualified.
This particular race had medals for anyone who could complete the race in 30 minutes. I still had most of the summer to train, so I focused on race-walking while I was taking a break from running.
To break 30 minutes, I needed to average 9:39 per mile. That was just slightly faster than my first attempt to race-walk for a mile. Most of my workouts were on a track. First, I had to improve my pace for a mile. Then I kept increasing the distance, one lap at a time.
I also attended a clinic for beginning race-walkers put on by a member of the US Olympic team. She demonstrated how elite race-walkers walk and put us through a few different drills. I was too new to the sport to get much pelvic rotation. Mostly, I just walked really fast. Over short distances, I could do that, but I always felt like I would break down at any minute.
By late August, I could walk two miles at a 9:30 pace. My final tune-up before the race was 5K on a track by myself. I wanted to know I could break 30 minutes on my own before trying it in the race. It was different than training to run a 5K. I wasn’t worried about having the aerobic fitness. I was worried about whether I could make it through 5K before my mechanics started to break down.
The race was in September. It was on roads, which felt different from walking on a track. I was on a good pace from start to finish, but I attracted the attention of one of the judges. He crouched down close to the ground to watch me as I went by. Then he dashed ahead of me so he could watch me a second time. He never said anything, so he must have concluded I was legal. I’m sure my form looked a bit awkward. I was near my limits, and I was never as smooth as experienced race-walkers.
I finished the race in 29:38, which is an average pace of 9:32. I actually finished ahead of an experienced walker who led the informational meeting I had attended a few months earlier. For breaking 30 minutes, I earned this medal.
It says “elite walker,” but I knew I wasn’t really “elite.” An elite race-walker could walk 5K faster than I could run it. Still, it took three months of hard work.
A week later, I had another mile race with my friends. I race-walked a mile for the last time. I managed to improve my time to 8:38.
By then, I was no longer experiencing any shin pain, so I returned to running. Until this year, I only walked one other race. In 1994, I was out of shape after not doing any running during the winter months. My sister Betty was going to walk the Gary Bjorklund half marathon in Duluth. That’s the half marathon that’s held in conjunction with Grandma’s Marathon. I only had a few weeks to train, but I decided to join her. Our goal was to average 12 minutes per mile. I wasn’t at all smooth. I had an exaggerated arm swing and felt ragged the whole way. I did it, though. I finished that half marathon in 2:34:59. That’s an average pace of 11:49.
Based on that experience, I couldn’t imagine ever race-walking as far as a marathon. Now I’ve already walked one marathon, and I’m working on getting faster so I can beat a 5:30 time limit. That’s an average pace of 12:35. Had it not been for my brief flirtation with race-walking when I was young, it wouldn’t even occur to me to try.