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Hal Higdon
April 27, 1970
Everyone laughs when a walking race starts, but to the contestants it's a serious business in which the threat of disqualification looms larger than it does in any other sport
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April 27, 1970

Creepers, Floaters And Squirmers

Everyone laughs when a walking race starts, but to the contestants it's a serious business in which the threat of disqualification looms larger than it does in any other sport

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I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking, that is, of taking walks....

Fame, at last, has come to that odd half-brother of the track and field set: the race walker. The past few years have seen an upsurge of interest in walking as a sport—not in the sports pages, mind you, but through that harbinger of American pop culture, the television commercial. First came Alka-Seltzer showing the midsection of a race walker to illustrate stomach distress. Next Pabst Blue Ribbon beer pictured some walkers while reminiscing about "the good old days." Finally, Goodyear referred to a group of heel-and-toe walkers as "squirmers." (Presumably Goodyear tires, unlike race walkers, do not squirm.) As Jack Mortland, editor of the Ohio Race Walker, grumbled, "We saw more race walking on TV during the Winter Olympics than the Summer Olympics."

That's race walking, if you please. Walkers are people akin to Thoreau who stroll across the landscape eyeing the birds or the bikinis or meander down to the corner grocery store for Pabst Blue Ribbon and Alka-Seltzer. Race walkers, on the other hand, usually race at distances from one to 31 miles, keeping a stiff upper and lower leg while maintaining strict heel/toe contact with the ground. In an attempt to move at maximum speed yet avoid being airborne, the race walker thrusts vigorously with his arms while his hips swivel from side to side in a gyration that Goodyear quite accurately alluded to as squirming. Race walkers are accepted by hard-core track fans but the Lumpenproletariat gasp in astonishment at their bizarre gait. "The starter fires the gun and then the tee-hees start," says Olympic walker Chris McCarthy. "There's no question about it," admits national champion Ron Laird. "Race walkers look goofy."

Hollywood capitalized on the goofy image several years ago when it produced a Cary Grant comedy entitled Walk, Don't Run. The plot revolved around a lanky young athlete (not Grant, by the way) who lost his walking race in the Tokyo Olympics but won the girl. Whether or not Cary Grant had anything to do with it, in Mexico City the U.S. won its first Olympic walking medal since 1920, Larry Young, a stocky 25-year-old from San Pedro, Calif., finishing third in the 50-kilometer walk.

The U.S. might have earned an additional bronze medal in the 20-kilometer walk had the judges been more critical of Mexico's José Pedraza. Pedraza came marching into the stadium for the last lap perhaps 30 yards behind two Russians—Vladimir Golubnichy and Nikolai Smaga. As the partisan crowd went crazy, Pedraza surged down the back straightaway and passed Smaga on the turn. Golubnichy held him off to win the gold medal, however. Pedraza's second place represented the first medal ever won by Mexico in Olympic track and field competition. A minute behind, and in fourth place, was Rudy Haluza of Riverside, Calif., a United Air Lines pilot.

Many who witnessed Pedraza's final spurt felt he should have been disqualified for running. It is an unwritten tactical rule in race walking that you never burst past another competitor, particularly in the last few hundred meters, since sudden changes of pace attract the attention of the judges. According to Chris McCarthy, "A race walker not only has to walk legal, he has to look legal."

In race walking the threat of disqualification looms larger than perhaps in any sport. In auto racing the officials restrict the size of engines, but once on the track with his machine the driver lets it all hang out. In baseball a pitcher suspected of throwing a spitter merely receives a mild rebuke. A football player caught holding or clipping sees his team penalized only 15 yards. In the one-mile walk at last year's National AAU indoor championships in Philadelphia, three athletes got thrown out of the race and four others received cautions.

Walkers not only risk censure from the judges but disapproval from their fellow competitors. An established long-distance runner (who shall remain anonymous) once entered an indoor mile walk in Chicago. Walking with questionable form, he barely broke eight minutes. This failed to place him, although he did finish ahead of a woman walker from Detroit. Two years later in Mexico City he was introduced to the same woman walker, who was a spectator at the Olympics. "Yes, I remember you," she said with a steel edge to her voice. "You're the one who cheated in that race in Chicago!"

The rules defining the act of race walking are relatively simple. Two criteria must be met. One, at some point during every stride the supporting leg must be straightened at the knee for at least an instant. Two, constant contact with the ground must be maintained. The toe of the rear foot can't leave the ground before the heel of the forward foot makes contact. From this comes the term "heel-and-toe walking." Walkers who stride along with bent knees are known as "creepers." Those who lose contact with the ground are known as "floaters."

It is easy to define creeping and floating but difficult to detect them with any accuracy. The point at which the walker loses contact with the ground—or begins to float—is nearly impossible to see with the human eye. A race walker will take up to four 40-inch strides per second. The double contact phase, when both heel and toe are on the ground, represents only 0.081% of the time it takes to make one stride. Moreover, a walker can be accurately judged only from the side and from no farther away than 15 yards. "The best we can do is make a judgment call," says Chris McCarthy, who now acts as a judge.

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