Even race walking competitors know their sport can look a little silly.
Just ask 24-year-old Rachel Seaman, the favorite for Saturday’s Penn Relays event, who got her start years ago when she started making fun of her sister’s technique. Their track coach saw Seaman’s mocking and told her that she was a natural — the rest is history.
Or ask Lindsay Herman, a Drexel freshman who only began training in earnest this January.
“I was down at Fairmount [Park] and somebody in a banana suit started laughing at me. I’m like, ‘You’re wearing a banana suit! Come on!’” Herman said. “I get funny looks. Often.”
But as they gear up early Saturday morning for the Relays — the men’s 10K at 7 a.m., the women’s 5K an hour later — they also know that, aside from some thick skin, their event requires a mental fortitude unknown to traditional sprinters or cross-country runners.
After all, race walkers have to keep one foot on the ground at all times, plus keep each leg straightened from when it lands to when it passes under the body.
There’s no instant replay, but there will be five judges spaced around Franklin Field’s 400-meter track. If three of them concur that a walker strayed from the specialized form, the competitor is disqualified.
And the pace is still rather grueling. Seaman’s husband Tim set the American 10K record at the 1999 Penn Relays with a time of 39:43.85 — roughly 6:24 per mile.
It’s been an Olympic sport since 1904, even if it hasn’t attracted much of a following in North America.
“It bothered me more when I was younger, but at the same time, I think I’ve always taken it as turning a negative into a positive,” said Seaman, the top Canadian walker. “The comments people are saying, ‘You look funny at something you do very well.’ … You just know that some sports will be more acceptable in some countries than others, I guess.”
Around 100,000 people attended the opening ceremonies of a race walking competition in Russia, she said, and it’s relatively popular in places like China, Italy and Spain.
Here, though, walkers are drawn by a variety of factors — often, it seems, happenstance.
Seaman, of course, began her career with that display of derision at track practice when she was 15, but took another year before she started to embrace it.
Tyler Sorensen, a 16-year-old prodigy from California, was also motivated by his sister, who had taken up walking at a young age.
“I did it as more of a chance to go to the Junior Olympics, because I couldn’t really qualify in running,” he said. “So I thought if my sister can go to the Junior Olympics in race walking, I can probably do it.”
Five years later, he’s the No. 2 junior in the country.
And for Herman, it took two flukes. When she was a high school junior, a hip injury kept her out of a local benefit race. So, to be charitable, she decided to give race walking a shot — and she came in third place. The next year, she finished first.
Yet when she came to Drexel, she had no intention of taking up the sport. Then she found herself in a class taught by Jeff Salvage, a senior lecturer who just happens to be the race walking director for the Relays, the webmaster for racewalk.com and as he said in an interview, the sport’s “de facto promoter for the country.”
Now she works out with him twice a week, and much more on her own or with friends who jog.
“They’re like, ‘No, that’s so embarrassing, you’re walking as fast as I’m running,’” Herman said. “They get used to it.”
She won’t beat Seaman, or, with a strong 14-woman field, even place. But Salvage expects her to finish in the middle of the pack, which isn’t too shabby for three months of training.
And from critics who quip that being the fastest walker is like, say, being the tallest midget, Herman would like a little more respect.
“I wish they would understand the kind of discipline that it takes to be a race walker,” she said, “and not just look at it for what it looks like.”
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