Walking sport becoming more competitive in area

While running draws most of the attention and most of the participants in an average 10K or 5K event, race walking has generated its share of devotees and has gradually been establishing a name for itself as well.

The most ardent advocates of race walking, like Sam Freet of Altoona, are quick to point out all the good things that the sport has going for it.

Race walking is a certified event in the Olympic Games, featuring a 50K, or 31 miles, competition there.

Elite race walkers can cover 1 mile in as fast as 5 minutes.

Race walking demands nearly as much physical stamina and offers as many health benefits as running but does not tax the body’s joints nearly as much.

“The reason that a lot of people race walk is that running is harder on your joints,” said Freet, 51, who took up the pastime just two years ago but has taken first places in the race walking competition of several community races since then. “If you have arthritis, foot issues or hip issues, it’s a lot harder pounding the pavement when you’re running than it is when you’re race walking. Older people who have [physical] issues with running can still race walk. It gives them another option to stay in shape.”

Husband and wife Bill and Sherry Obert of Bedford have been race walking competitively since 2003. They estimate that they have participated in “40 to 50 races per year” – mostly at distances of 5K or 3.1 miles – at various locales throughout western Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia during the past decade.

They’ve been extremely successful at it, too, finishing at or near the top in their respective age divisions – Bill is 66 and now competes in the men’s 65-70 division, and Sherry is 57 and competes in the women’s 55-59 division – in just about every race walk they’ve entered.

“We have a whole family room full of trophies and medals,” Sherry said. “It’s something that we can do together and that we can do at the same pace. We have met so many nice people at these races who have become great friends.”

Bill recently had his right knee replaced, but he returned to finish first in his age group at a 5K race walk in Central City June 29 and second in his age group at the Hollidaysburg Area YMCA’s July 4 Angie Gioiosa Memorial Race in Altoona.

“I hurt my knee playing football back in high school,” he said. “I eventually bit the bullet and had the knee replaced earlier this year, and seven weeks later, I did a race. I didn’t finish it fast, but I finished it.”

The uneducated observer may take race walking for a benign competition. But even in local race walks, the walkers’ times are often faster than some of the runners’ times.

“Sometimes other people think that [walking] is not competitive, but it is very competitive,” said Lisa Appleby, 54, of Everett, who has been race walking since 2009. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”

Starla Snyder, 50, of East Freedom, is a veteran race walker who also ran a 26.2-mile marathon in Gettysburg this past April. Snyder believes that race walking provides good preparation for distance running.

“I think they both complement one another,” Snyder said of the two disciplines.

Freet, who was a sprinter on her high school track team at Johnstown Vo-Tech more than three decades ago, believes that race walking is just as physically demanding as running and requires just as much self-discipline.

“When people crossed the finish line after completing the 50K race walk in the Olympics, they were physically and mentally exhausted,” Freet said. “It’s a very technical sport, and if you don’t follow all the rules, you can be disqualified. At the Olympic level, that would be crushing.”

In Olympic-level race walks, and in other walks that are officially sanctioned by the United States of America Track and Field Association, a competitor can be disqualified either for bending his or her knees, or for having both feet leave the ground at the same time.

“When your heel hits the ground, your knee has to stay straight,” Freet said.

Freet was involved in power walking 20 years ago before she eventually moved on to race walking.

“In power walking, there are no rules,” Freet said.

In Olympic race walking or USATFA competition, walkers get two warnings for violating the bended-knee rule. The third violation prompts disqualification.

In race walking, moving the hips is essential.

“A lot of race walking is about moving the hips,” Freet said. “You have to get your hips moving. If you were to look at [a race walker’s form] from the waist up, they would look like a typical runner. But from the hips down, it’s a completely different ballgame.”

Snyder, who introduced Freet into the sport of race walking, said that “there is a whole different set of muscles used in race walking than there is in running.”

Freet attended a race walking clinic in Virginia Beach back in 2011 where one of the disciplines involved what is known as a “corpse walk.”

“If you’re having a tough time feeling your hips, you walk up a hill with your arms folded in front of you,” Freet said of the corpse walk.

Freet led all walkers across the finish line in the July 4 Gioiosa Race. She covered the 1.84-mile course there in a time of 19:23, doing the first full mile in 10:26. When Freet first started race walking, it took her 121/2 minutes to cover 1 mile.

Freet also won the race walking championship in the Lisa Rosa Flood City 9K in Johnstown this past May 25. She finished the 4-mile walker’s course that day in 43:26, averaging less than 11 minutes per mile.

Freet’s training regimen involves walking anywhere from 3-8 miles three days per week.

“I’d love to break 10 minutes [for a mile],” she said. “Being involved in these races is fun, because you get to see the same people, and you develop a lot of camaraderie with them. And once you get that competitive bug into your system, it’s tough to get it out.”

And the health benefits of race walking are tough to beat.

“I can eat all the desserts I want, and I look fairly good in Spandex,” Bill Obert cracked. “Walking helps keep me in shape, and I feel much better when I’m walking.”