Coach Roger Burrows talks about “the wheel of feet” when he describes the swift and graceful strides of competitive race walkers circling the 400-metre track at Terry Fox Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
And watching a traditional “One Hour” race walking competition at the Mooney’s Bay complex, it’s easy to appreciate the whirling limbs and precise technique of Burrow’s Bytown Walkers and their out-of-town competition. It was the first such event since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, although the club did hold virtual races in 2020 and 2021.
The unusual hip-wiggling, arm-swinging gait of race walkers is the result of the sport’s two cardinal rules: one foot must always be on the ground and you must keep your knee straight as your body weight passes over and transfers from one foot to the next.
Competitive events have judges watching the walker’s form to ensure compliance. One mistake can earn you a yellow card warning. After that, a judge can issue a red card. Three of those and you’re disqualified.
“It’s never called cheating. It’s called getting tired or going too fast for your style,” Burrows said. “The athletes have their own terms. They call it ‘creeping’ (bending a knee) or ‘lifting’ (breaking contact with ground).”
One of the attractions of race walking is that it’s much easier on the body, making it especially popular with older people, many of them former runners.
“If you’re a runner, at some point you’re going to get injured,” Burrows said. Runners pound down on each foot with a force equivalent of two or three times their body weight, he said. Race walkers, who never completely leave the ground as they move, transfer their body weight evenly from one foot to the next with each stride. It’s rare for a race walker to get hurt, he said.
Sandy Archibald, who competed Sunday, covering 8,400 metres in an hour, had been a lifelong runner when she discovered race walking in 2003.
“I’ve ran off and on for my whole life, but I never enjoyed running,” she said. “With race walking, I feel more powerful. I feel more in control. I like the feeling of going fast.”
Race walking has taken Archibald and her husband around the world. The couple has competed in masters competitions in New Zealand, Turin, Italy and the Yukon, combining race walking events with their holidays.
Jianping Xu, a biology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, took top prize Sunday, covering 10.6 km in an hour.
The origins of the “One Hour” event is steeped in history. In England, where race walking originated, townsfolk would compete to see who could travel the farthest in one hour.
“Nobody had a stopwatch. They hadn’t been invented yet,” Burrows said. “But everyone could hear the chiming of the village clock.”
The events were popular with bettors, with some races taking place between villages. Competitors could choose whether to run or walk.
“But if the race was going to be walking, it meant someone had to decide what ‘walking’ was,” Burrows said.
The first rule book for race walking was published in 1924. Race walking has been an Olympic event since then, and two-time Olympic bronze medallist Evan Dunfee of Richmond, B.C., competed in the Ottawa event.
Still, the sport remains a niche, specialized event. Burrows hopes competitions like this weekend’s will attract more people to the race walking.
“We have a lot of 50- and 60-year-olds who are interested. We’d like to see more 15- and 16-year-olds get involved.”
For more information, visit bytownwalkers.ca