Long-distance walkers

I read a beautiful article in today’s Hindu Magazine by Shreedutta Chidananda. It’s called ‘The loneliness of the long-distance walker’ and is about the competitive sport of walking. The article profiles four athletes from Bangalore who have qualified for the walking events in the London Olympics, but in the process sheds some light on this sport that has long fascinated me but which I never thought to explore.

Walking (according to the article) is the less glamorous cousin of long-distance running. There are two events – the 20km and 50km walks – and the longer one typically finishes in 4 hours, making it the longest athletics event in the Olympics.

A long-distance walker has, foremost, to stifle the urge to run. In doing this, two rules have to be obeyed: one foot must at all times remain on the ground, and the leg must be straight at the knee until the body has passed over it. Both conditions are monitored by a team of judges, and if a judge sees a contestant violating either condition, the judge signals a red card. Three judges signal red, and the contestant is disqualified. Often in heart-breaking conditions: Jane Saville, an Australian eyeing an Olympic Gold in Sydney 2000, was disqualified mere meters from the finish line at the end of a 20km walk. Staggering exhausted out of the race, she was asked if she was all right, if she needed anything, and she replied, ‘A gun to shoot myself.’

The article gives long-distance walking the glamour of concentration which running doesn’t have. Imagine if you had to run with the same kind of bizarre conditions as walking – for example, that the angle between your legs should never exceed 100 degrees. Every stride would have to be purposeful, considered. You can never just ‘let your body go’ – each step has to be a triumph of the mind over the body, and at the end of 20km (or 50km), it is not only your body that has paced 25000 steps in 90 minutes – it is also your mind.

The article also highlights the beauty of obscurity that long-distance walking has. The main protagonist of the story is Gurmeet Singh, a 27-year-old from Patiala who moved to Bangalore to become an Olympic walker. The story is imbued with the romance of the monk – Gurmeet Singh, in a far-off city, separated from friends and family, with nothing in his life except his sport and his coach, his morning practice consisting of nothing more than interminable laps walking around a track. There is a fierceness in his personality that makes this most sedate of sports almost brutal in him, his urge to win, his concentration, his focus. You know there is mental strength in this man, and perhaps he will win.

Thus the romance of walking has caught me – the beauty of competing in a sport that no one ever watches, that the TVs cover in a 30 second snippet of a 4 hour event, that no one competes in (unlike running) to be ‘cool’ or even ‘fit’, but which, in and by itself, is a way of coordinating mind and body to achieve a form of perfection.

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