'For general-interest sports consumers, this is an esoteric activity. What is it about racewalking that captured you?"
Curt Clausen says, "Random chance. It was the summer between my seventh and eighth grade. I was a distance runner and competed in the Junior Olympic track-and-field program. A racewalker came by and said, 'Kids, if you want to try racewalking at the state meet, here's how you do it.' He gave us a quick lesson. I said, 'Cool enough; a new event to try.' So, I tried. Finished dead last. But I came back every track season and did a couple racewalking events."
Here's a slice of Clausen's pedigree taken from the USA Track & Field website: "1999 World Championships 50 km bronze medalist; 2000, 2004 Olympic Trials 50 km champion, 3-time Olympian; 5-time U.S. 50 km and 5-time 20 km champion." His stats run on for another page, but you get the idea.
Clausen, 37, grew up in Wisconsin, graduated from Duke University in 1990, won the U.S. Olympic 20 km trials in 1996, moved into Chula Vista's ARCO Olympic Training Center in 1997, thence to the Olympics in Sydney, and, four years later, to the Olympics in Athens. I dialed his cellular number; the prefix is San Diego's 619. Clausen answered in Madison, Wisconsin, where he's completing his first year of law school.
"How would you explain the difference between a professionally trained athlete competing internationally and someone who goes out and walks fast on a regular basis?"
"Look at elite runners in a marathon race," Clausen says. "Look at the difference between an elite marathoner and the average jogger. Elite walkers are the same way. People's impressions about racewalking are formed from seeing the guy down the street walk or women power-walking. They haven't seen racewalking at the top level."
My impression was formed by John Wayne's walk, that little sashay he does on the way to his horse. "Tell me something about technique."
Clausen says, "One foot on the ground at all times. That's walking versus running. Your leg has to be straight when it lands. They used to call the sport 'heel and toe' because you land on your heel, roll across your foot, and push off on your toe. We have the same physiology, the same demands as runners. The big difference between us is that we're a judged event. It's not only get to the finish line, but get to the finish line and maintain proper technique because if your technique breaks down, you won't be allowed to finish the race."
Heel and toe. "What parts of your body do you train and how do you train them?"
"Walking is more of a total body exercise than running because the coordination of your arms and legs are more emphasized in walking than in running. There are two ways to get faster in walk-racing. One, you can take more steps per minute. Two, you can increase your stride length. Racewalking has a traditional, people say, 'hip wiggle,' but that is a forward-and-back hip motion. The guys who are top in the world are getting a couple inches [more] per stride by rotating their hip forward. You do 200 strides per minute for four hours..."
"Four hours! Two-hundred strides every minute!"
"Yeah. Racewalking has a turnover equivalent to that of a mile runner, except our 50-km course is the longest foot-race in the Olympic games. It's 31 miles. I do 180 stretch, but the smaller guys are up at 200. You have to be on the ground all the way. With running, you have that flight phase, so you don't need to take as many strides. With walking, it's one foot on the ground all the time. The only way to get faster is to keep that high turnover rate.
"So, a lot of it comes down to having sufficient strength," Clausen says. "It's a kicking action. It's torso and core body strength. You use your hip abductors, hip flexors, your big group muscles. Most people who start walking will have tremendous calf strength, but weakness in their shin strength. So, most people who start out will have a problem with shin pain because you're landing on your heel. It's the only sport where you're landing on your heel with a toe up. That facilitates a straight leg, but it demands more from the lower shin."
"Are shins the most common injury?"
"For a beginner. For someone who is advanced, the most common injury would be the knees because we're landing with a straight leg and your knees absorb your body weight on impact. I've had both meniscuses trimmed out, basically just shredded them, but that's an overuse issue."
I regard having a stranger cut on one's flesh as a pain issue, but no need to quibble. We'll continue with Clausen next week.