With legs striding, hips swiveling and arms flailing, a few hardy racewalkers will attack the course at the D.C. Marathon on April 12th. They're practitioners of a sport which 75 years ago outranked football in popularity, almost became extinct in the 1950s, and lately has come back on the heels of the running boom.
Ask the walkers baout their sport and they'll tell you racewalking is easier than running, an Olympic sport, and for most people. But make no mistake, racewalking is not for most people. It's for those not afraid to be different. Racewalkers must put up with smirking bystanders and frequent wisecracks.
Carl Scheuler, a racewalker and member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, has come to expect that. "We don't get a lot of acceptance from the rest of society," he explained. "That makes for a close-knit group." f
Marjorie Hayden, a racewalker from Gaithersburg, put it a little differently: "After a while the heckling becomes a compliment," she said. "If you get heckled, you know you are racewalking right."
The racewalker's gait propels him to speeds of seven or eight minutes per mile. The best walkers stride at nearly a six-minute-mile clip.
Participants try to come as close as they can to running without running. One foot must be on the ground at all times and the back leg must momentarily be straight on every step. Initial violations in a race bring warnings; repeated infractions bring disqualification.
There are about a thousand racewalkers in the country. Among the approximately 30 in this area are some of the best in the sport.
There's 33-year-old Alan Price of Washington, who set a national record by walking 100 miles in 18 hours, 57 minutes. There's Schueler, from Silver Spring, the top qualifier in the 50-kilometer (31-mile) event when try-outs were held for the U.S. Olympic squad.
Sal Corrallo of Gaithersburg, local racewalking club president, will talk your ear off on racewalking's opportunities.
"Racewalking is a sleeper sport," said the 49-year-old competitor. "It's where marathoning was 10 years ago. If someone has natural ability in walking it's the easiest way to make a national team."
In what other sport could someone with six months of practice win a gold medal at a Pan-American championship meet? Hayden did it in the women's 35-to-39-year-old five-kilometer walk in Puerto Rico last Labor Day.
"All I had to do was finish," said Hayden. "I was the only contestant in the event, but the medal I won was the same as those other winners received.
"Few women are involved in racewalking," Hayden continued. "With a few month's practice, one can compete nationally. It's a sport for crying people."
Racewalking has known better days. During the sport's "golden era" at the turn of the century, meets attracted thousands of spectators. Bettors placed wagers on the outcome. Racewalking became one of the earliest Olympic sports, with 20- and 50-kilometer events added in 1908.
The sport faded in the 1930s and edged toward extinction. Spectators turned their attention to up-and-coming sports like football and basketball. The number of racewalkers dwindled to a few hundred. In 1976 the 50-kilometer race was dropped from the Olympic program.
About 10 years ago, the sport began a comeback. The 50-kilometer event returned to the Olympics last year, but if the United States had gone to Moscow it's doubtful we would've won a medal. Schueler's national record time in Olympic trials would have earned only sixth place in Moscow.
"We compete, but we are hardly competitive," said Corrallo. "We can't be a serious contender with only several hundred serious walkers."
Strong Olympic teams come from the Soviet Union, Italy, East Germany and Mexico. The United States has never taken a medal higher than a bronze.
Racewalking has made inroads into such major running meets as the New York Marathon. About 40 racewalkers entered last year's. Schueler led the pack by finishing in 3:50. Although may spectators and runners yelled encouragement to the walkers, the race brought home the realities of the sport.
"We didn't get any publicity," Corrallo complained. "Not one newspaper made mention of the walkers. It's something we expect, but it's still disappointing."
Lack of acceptance makes for close camaraderie. Some participants spends hundreds of dollars each year for travel to away meets.Frequently walkers in the area of a meet try to find lodging for the others. Local walkers often carpool to non-local races.
It's not easy for walkers to explain the lure of the sport.
"When I saw my first racewalk contest," said Corrallo, "I became immediately fascinated by it. I was fascinated by the movement, flow and rhythm.
"There are fewer injuries in walking than in running," he added. "Stress is distributed more evenly along the leg. Some people who find running too painful can racewalk with little or no pain."
The exercise aspect attracted Hayden. "Your legs start developing muscles you never knew you had," she explained. "It's an easy way to control your weight. When you first start it takes a lot of concentration, but after a short time it comes naturally."
And experience that racewalkers regularly encounter says something about their hopes for the sport.
"Sometimes young kids laugh, then fall in behind to mimic me," said Schueler. "After a while soome ask serious questions about what I'm doing. When they realize I'm serious and doing something important, a few stop laughing and start thinking."