Frank Shorter once said – in West Seattle, 1979, at the Diet Pepsi 10k - that he could not imagine running a marathon in four hours.
“How on earth I could maintain my concentration for that long I do not know,” he said. “I have far greater respect for the four hour marathoner’s ability to concentrate than I have for mine.”
I’ve long shared the same feeling about the 50 kilometer walk. I mean, who does anything for 50k?
Maybe cyclists are warming up at that distance, but to race walk a marathon and then sprint another 4.9 miles? Whose idea was that?
When I think of 50k, I think of driving from Seattle to Tacoma.
Last year I watched the London women’s 20k walk on my laptop as Yelena Lashmanova passed multiple major meet gold medalist Olga Kaniskina in the last kilometer and set the world record while winning gold.
Remarkably, in a sport that heretofore has rewarded experience, that day her age matched the distance.
Wednesday in Moscow dawned cool and rainy - great conditions, it seemed, for the men’s 50k walk. But things changed rapidly as the sun came out and the moisture turned the race course into a steambath.
Sweden’s Andreas Gustaffson bonked at 45k.
Gustaffson held his form even though he was doing a race walker’s form of a marathoner’s death jog.
He grimaced frequently in the ever hotter sun, threw his head back and uttered deep guttural shot putter’s groans – and just kept shuffling forward
He was completely on his own. No father to rush out and walk him to the finish line, no medicos offering assistance as long as he was upright.
Each step was a decision.
Each step was a decision.
And where did this happen? Right in front of judges row, where else?
Gustaffson kept focused on maintaining his form.
No lifting now.
No judges to decide this one.
This was up to him.
It was remarkable to see him in such distress while maintaining such good technique.
The crowd cheered him on and we studiously avoided eye contact with each other; this was tough to watch.
He disappeared down the long straightaway and around the far bend.
Sometime later two men appear.
Bib 404, Spain’s Claudio Villanueva, is strong and confident.
Next to him: yellow and blue.
Remarkably, he has pulled out of his crisis and is walking well again. Villanueva is a lap ahead of him, and they help each other until Villanueva peels off for the finish.
The cheers as Gustaffson goes by… it’s our turn for something from deep within us.
This is too good, too deep, too personal, and it is way too much to hope that he might yet finish.
He goes by one last time and we gather by the video screen on which we earlier watched Ireland’s Robert Heffernan change his life and his reputation as he pulled off a hard-fought win. No more dreaded 4th place “lead medals” for him.
Gustaffson comes into the stadium and we suck in our collective breath. It may appear that our silence is strange, but we know that he has 500m to go.
He’s not there yet.
The anxiety in this international group of race walk fans – Chinese to my left, Russian to my right, Ecuadoran, Australian, Italian, Mexican, and yes, Swedish in just front of me – is palpable.
Gustaffson gives a huge fist pump as he crosses the finish line.
We clap and cheer and know we’ve witnessed something transformative. It’s impossible to have witnessed this and not be changed.
The results show that his 4:01:40 is, remarkably, a seasonal best.
But all that shows is his time.
We are privileged to know something special.
We know how he got there.