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The following excerpt is the Introduction chapter to the book BoomerWalk.

Introduction

I’m a baby boomer, and if you picked up this book, you probably are, too. The group born from 1946 to 1964 is the 800-pound gorilla of demographics. We dominate and change our culture as we move through life’s stages.

The boomers’ obsession with youth and fitness brought many of us to the cusp of retirement in good physical condition and in anticipation of continued active lifestyles. That’s me, and there’s a good chance that’s you, too. (If you are out of shape, keep reading. This book also is for you.)

Unfortunately, decades of running and jumping and twisting and turning took a toll on my body, especially my knees. I gave up basketball for the final time in my early 50s. A few days of jogging left my knees weak and tender. The lateral motion of tennis was out of the question.

I was mourning losses in my life – loss of the ability to do activities that I loved, loss of vigor from not being able to stay in good aerobic condition and loss of the challenge of athletic competition. But the confluence of three events helped me find a way to fill the void left by the sports I could no longer continue:

  • I discovered that I can walk a lot without my knees getting sore.
  • I read the book Younger Next Year and realized I needed to get my heart rate up for an extended period six days a week.
  • I went as a spectator to the Illinois Senior Olympics and saw a racewalking competition.

Because I already was walking at a pretty good clip on a treadmill at the local fitness club several days a week, I thought I could compete with some of the walkers I saw in the state senior Olympics. The following year I signed up for the event. Without any research or instruction in racewalking, I thought my brisk-paced walking would be enough to prepare me for the Illinois Senior Olympics. Somewhere I picked up the notion that the only rule for racewalking was that at least one foot always must be in contact with the ground. Otherwise, one is running.

When the dozen or so competitors were called to the starting line of the 1,500 meter race, a woman in an official-looking red, white and blue outfit gave instructions. “There are two rules in racewalking,” she began.

Uh-oh. I had a bit of that sinking feeling in my stomach I get when I dream that I forgot to go to a college class all semester.

The second requirement, it turns out, is that your lead leg must be straightened at the knee at the time your heel strikes the ground, and your leg must remain straightened at the knee until your leg passes vertically under your body. At the time it sounded weird to me, as it probably does to you now. The official went on to say that judges stationed around the track watch for infractions of the rules, and if three judges give an athlete a “red card” for a rule violation, they will disqualify the walker.

Before I had a chance to reconsider what I had gotten myself into and step off the track, the gun went off. Two of the racewalkers took off at such a clip that I could not have kept up if I were running. I would have stopped to watch them, but I was in a race. I’m a competitor. People were behind me, and I had to stay ahead of them. I tried to straighten my lead leg on every stride, but as I approached the first curve on the track 100 meters into the race the judge flashed a yellow warning paddle at me and called out “Bent knee.”

Dang. I tried harder to make sure my knee was straightened. Another yellow paddle warning or two came my way during the race. I had seen real racewalkers on TV a few times and had tried imitating them in practice. It was exhausting, and I knew I could only walk fast in that style for one lap of the three and three-quarter lap race. When I got to the last lap I started my imitation of a real racewalker.

I came in third overall with a time of 10 minutes and 10.8 seconds. I didn’t know it at the time, but the two individuals who took off so fast, David Couts of Missouri and Dr. Robert Shires of Iowa, are national-caliber racewalkers. They beat me by more than two minutes and showed me that racewalking can be a competitive sport performed by superior athletes.

I found out after the race that I didn’t get any red cards. The judge who gave the pre-race instructions said I should have walked the entire race the way I did the last lap. I had to confess that I physically couldn’t have walked the whole distance that way. That St. Louis-based official USA Track & Field judge, Ginger Mulanax, is a great friend of the sport and later helped me with racewalkers I was training.

Knowing I needed to learn more about race walking, upon arriving home I sought information from the Internet and practiced what I learned. I went back the Illinois Senior Olympics the next year and qualified for the following summer’s biennial National Senior Games in Louisville, Kentucky.

I didn’t want to be embarrassed on a national stage. Perhaps I had survived two state senior Olympics without disqualification, but would my form be sufficiently legal at a higher level? Would all of the competitors be blazingly fast like Couts and Shires?

I got Jeff Salvage’s book and DVD on racewalking. His outstanding photos and video clips illustrated the finer points of technique. I knew what to do. It was up to me to implement it. I was particularly struck by his admonition to avoid imitating another particular racewalker because everyone’s body is unique. Use good technique but apply it to your personal body structure and strengths.

Dave McGovern held a weekend clinic a four-hour drive away in Indianapolis so I signed up. We had instruction on the track and in the classroom. I continue to get new insights when I refer back to my notes. But what most impressed me from the weekend was the incredible fluidity of one of the other participants. She flew along, yet her feet moved as smoothly as if she were peddling a bicycle.

Max Walker Racewalking
Max Walker, shown in full stride, exhibits proper racewalking form.

I kept on practicing. Finally, it was time for the 2007 National Senior Games in Louisville. I knew I didn’t have a chance for a top-three medal, but I hoped to place in the top eight and get a ribbon. I surprised myself, placing fifth in my age group in both the 1,500 meter and 5K races.* My time in the 1,500 meter racewalk was 9 minutes and 10.76 seconds, a minute faster than in my first race at the 2005 Illinois Senior Olympics. I finished the 5K in 32 minutes and 36.86 seconds. Those weren’t great times, but one of the advantages of being in a sport that has yet to mushroom in popularity is that modest times can still earn ribbons. Couts and Shires, who so impressed me in my first race nearly two years earlier, won both distances in the 50-54 and 55-59 age groups, respectively.

Our generation put fitness into mainstream culture. I remember when jogging first started to gain popularity. People thought it looked odd. But no one thinks that jogging looks odd now. Admittedly, racewalking looks a bit funny at first, too. If baby boomers discover racewalking, in a few years no one will think it seems odd either. We’ll be much healthier because of it, and, if we choose, we can still be competing decades from now.

Maybe you were part of the running craze and the years of pounding on the pavement have taken a toll on your body. Perhaps you used to get exercise in other sports but you’ve had to give them up as you’ve aged. Or maybe you’ve never been very active and you need to improve your health and lose weight. For all of you, racewalking is what you need.

I need to add a special comment for men. Bonnie Stein, who taught thousands to racewalk during the past twenty years, told me women are happy to embrace racewalking once she has explained the benefits of the sport. But she finds men are stubbornly resistant to move from running to racewalking even when they suffer nagging injuries.

Here’s my pitch to those men who think they are too macho for racewalking: I came from a family of athletes and learned to pole vault when I was six. By the third grade I earned a varsity letter on the junior high track team. I participated in various competitive sports for five decades. Running the quarter mile in high school was the most physically unpleasant competitive event I participated in on a regular basis and is at the top of my macho scale. But racewalking is as technically and aerobically challenging as any sport I attempted. Please don’t let your preconceptions prevent you from discovering this terrific sport.


* More than 12,000 senior athletes participated in many different sports at the National Senior Games in Louisville in 2007.  The officials awarded eight places in each event. Although I’m quite proud that I placed in the two racewalking events, I have no illusion that I’m the fifth fastest racewalker in the nation between the ages of 55 and 59. Many excellent racewalkers don’t come to the Games. And the 60-64 age group often has superior competition because more walkers are retired and thus have more time to train and can get away for the Games. If I had been in the 60-64 age group in 2007 with the same times, I would have finished 11th in each race.

Copyright 2015, Brent Bohlen