at the races Racewalking for runners

Racewalking for runners

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Canada has two Olympic racewalkers in Tokyo set to race Friday, Evan Dunfee and Mathieu Bilodeau. This is the sport that people usually stumble across every 4 years when the Olympics come along, and they catch the event on television. Its wiggly and, yes, it can look weird if you have never seen it before. But it’s also pretty cool and fun to watch.

At 4:30pm EST on Friday, Dunfee and Bilodeau (pictured) will line up to race the 50K racewalk event, set to be the last for this distance at the Olympics. A sport that pre-dates the start of organized athletics, racewalking has a colourful and interesting beginning and a history to rival the marathon.

In the 1880s, racewalking, then called pedestrianism, was the most popular sport in North America!

Having to define what was walking and what was running, rules and better techniques evolved to allow athletes to push walking to its limit. There are two rules that define modern racewalking: a walker’s feet should never both leave the ground as visible to the human eye (loss of contact) and the advancing leg making contact with the ground should be straightened as it passes under the body. Judges during an official event can give yellow warning cards and red cards that indicate a violation of a rule. Three red cards and someone can be disqualified. During a 50k race, often held on a 2-kilometre loop, the pressure, pace, exhaustion and need to keep one’s technique while racing can lead to a lot of drama and excitement.

Evan Dunfee, from Richmond, BC., was fourth at the 50k at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He won the 2019 Pan American Games 20k, took a bronze medal at the 2019 50k World Championships and, in 2021, broke the 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m (38:39) Canadian racewalk records—along with establishing a treadmill racewalk world record (39:02). He is a veteran walker and has been on the world stage competing since 2007. To add a cheesy twist to things this Olympics, and a fun one, Kraft Dinner Canada has sponsored Evan, and produced a fun video to promote him and the sport and has garnered the sport more attention.

Here’s a clip of Evan’s commercial.

Now meet Mathieu Bilodeau, the Quebec triathlete-turned-racewalker who picked up the unique sport quickly and went from novice to international calibre just as fast. Seven months after starting, he qualified for the 2015 World Championships 50k race. He then qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Mathieu says he thinks if he does a smart race, he will be proud. It’s been a tough year for him—like many—trying to find races and qualify for his chosen event. He says he is sad it will be his last Olympic 50k and will have to figure out whether to focus on the new 35k distance or move down to racing the faster 20k event. Time will tell.

The 50k world record set in 2014 by Frenchmen Yohann Dinz is an eye-popping 3:32:33. Elite racewalkers walk under 20-minutes for 5k, under 40-minutes for 10k and can do 50k at a pace that many decent marathoners would be envious of, walking!

Canada’s racewalk community is small, but there are Masters walkers keeping the sport alive and promising young walkers like BC’s Olivia Lundman who look ready to step up and keep the sport going. In the past, Canada has shone in this sport from record holder George Goulding who won gold at the 1912 Olympics to Marcel Jobin, Quuebec’s ‘fou en pyjama’, a double Olympian and Commonwealth Games medalist. There’s also Tim Berret, 3-time Olympian, double Commonwealth Games medalist, and the recently retired Rachel Seaman, who set many Canadian women’s records and competed at the 2012 London Olympics (along with other international competitions). Clearly, racewalking is something that Canadians do well.

Racewalking can offer runners an endurance sport that has less impact than running, requires a slightly higher cadence, is technical and can offer a great cardio workout. Many older runners take up the sport and it can be a great complement to a runner’s training, or else an opportunity for a fast young runner looking for a different challenge (plus, it’s a lot of fun).

Intrigued or interested? With a bit more knowledge, tune in on Friday for the Men’s 50k racewalk – 4:30pm EST. Racewalk, don’t run, to your nearest TV screen.

Noel Paine is a long-time runner who in 2020 gave racewalking a try and fell in love and currently owns the Ontario Masters 5k road record for men 40-44.

To try racewalking or connect with the Canadian racewalking community: https://canadianracewalking.wordpress.com/

Top photograph courtesy of Evan Dunfee; middle picture by Jeff Salvage.

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