34. Racewalking

34. Racewalking

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Racewalking

Your body is built for walking.
 ~Gary Yanker

After years of pounding my knees and ankles in dashes and the long jump, pain ended my decades of track and field competition. But how do you live without the adrenaline of racing? That’s simple. You just become rational at age sixty and turn to competitive swimming! Suddenly, the pounding was gone, and so was the pain. And I was gone, too, in less than a month, bored by pool laps and no scenery. Now what?

A friend in the Annapolis Striders had the answer. This marathoner said he had stayed fit by vigorous walking while healing from a running injury. “Try it,” he said, “It’s even a competitive sport.” Sure enough, a certain kind of energetic walking is a 100-year-old Olympic event called Racewalking. It’s the most efficient way that a biped can move, and that shows in Olympic competition where winners of the men’s 50K race will finish at an average of 7 minutes to the mile for those 31 miles.

I took to this sport immediately because there was no pounding involved, and thus no pain. Its special way of moving is so smooth that no cushioning is needed in the shoes. Many people use this method of striding just for health benefits. You don’t have to enter races to be a racewalker.

However, those who compete must follow two rules and must please numerous hard-eyed judges or be disqualified (DQ). The first rule says one foot must be on the ground at all times. Horse racing offers a comparison: if a trotter breaks the required style in harness racing, and goes into a gallop, it gets DQ’d.

The second rule is designed to guarantee no running. How? Well, it’s impossible to leap or jump or run unless the knee is bent to spring you up or ahead. Thus, on the advancing leg, a racewalker’s knee must be straight at a given point in its movement.

Violation can cause a DQ. It took me many months to become fluid in the style.

But I was “off and running,” so to speak. I took group-coached lessons from Dave McGovern, a world class racewalker. (To see his style in walking the mile in 6:00:72, visit www.racewalking.org and click any photo at the top of the page.) In time, I earned age-group gold medals in Senior Olympics’ and USA Track & Field Masters’ competitions. Hallelujah! I had lost a sport but had found another.

Then came a disaster. All the words in my saga start with “S.” They surge, surely and swiftly, on a slippery slope. This sequence shows the segues: stride, stroll, saunter, shuffle, stagger, stop. The cause? Another “s”: suffering. Lower back pain had arrived.

“Surgery is a last resort,” I was told. But months of therapy didn’t help.

The culprit was a slowly closing foramen, pinching a nerve passing through.

The cure was to enlarge that bone hole and relieve pressure. I saw it as akin to expanding the Holland Tunnel from the inside while traffic flowed. Some loss of leg control was predicted from nerve damage during removal of surrounding bone in tight quarters. I took the chance because the pain would only worsen.

Dr. Clifford Solomon, super-surgeon of Annapolis, Maryland, worked the cure. It left me with full leg control, but a flopping foot. I would be able to jog care free, but not meet racewalk rules. Months of therapy didn’t help. My spirits sank to the level of that foot until by chance I tuned the TV to an old movie showing Fred Astaire dancing up a storm. From the ankle down, his feet swiveled like pivots, in the very motion I needed. I turned off the TV and went to the Senior Center.

As the only man among twenty-nine students in the tap dancing class I learned that grandmothers are programmed to care for any wounded creature. Some fussed over this seventy-five-year-old invalid, staying after class to guide and inspire. Many had been childhood dancers; some were from chorus lines. They were there to recapture lost skills. They knew the value of repetition on performance and muscle memory. And they knew how the magic of music can make therapy endurable and even playful. With example, humor, encouragement, advice and team drill-drill-drill, they taught me to tap dance. The guy whose wife always claimed he had two left feet had learned to dance. Those grande dames cured my flopping foot. I will be forever grateful.

Within a year, I was competing well enough to enter the USATF Nationals at Boston and break the American record for the 3000 meter racewalk. The article about my race is on the wall of Dr. Solomon’s office, with a “thank you” inscription. And now, at eighty-six, I’m still competing and often thinking of dancing ladies.

~Charles Boyle

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