Massimo Stano wins the 35km race walk at the Dudinska 50 (© Milan Duroch)
The latest stop in the Gold series of the World Athletics Race Walking Tour is Podebrady, Czechia, and the European Race Walking Team Championships on Sunday (21).
This time there are four senior races held around a one-kilometre loop in Spa Park, which is hosting the second of three consecutive championships first awarded in 2021.
A hat-trick of 20km wins awaits Perseus Karlstrom and Antonella Palmisano. The odds, however, are somewhat shorter for the men’s European silver medallist than the Olympic champion.
Karlstrom is in good form. But Palmisano is coming back from an injury-hit 2022 where her biggest challenge was surgery in September to ease swelling around a sciatic nerve. Her first race since that golden moment in Sapporo was a 10km in Madrid at the beginning of this month where she registered a modest 45:05.
Considering the 31-year-old’s best is 41:28, about a kilometre faster than she managed in Madrid, she will need to go a lot quicker around the park to add a third to victories in 2017 and 2021.
Karlstrom has been there or thereabouts in all major races since his first European Cup win in 2017. The Swede clocked 1:19:27 at the Australian Championships in February – only four seconds outside his time from the European Championships last year – and followed that with an acceptable 40:04 in Madrid.
If it’s not to be Karlstom, then maybe Italy’s Francesco Fortunato, who won that Madrid 10km in a nippy 38:56. He has clocked 1:21:11 this year, and there is nothing like a win against a world-class field to boost confidence.
Gabriel Bordier from France is next on the 2023 world list with his 1:20:49, just 39 seconds shy of his personal best, while Spain’s Paul McGrath has improved, including 39:09 in Madrid.
However, two yet to make any 2023 mark at 20km include Olympic champion Massimo Stano and European silver medallist Diego Garcia.
The latter has a PB of 1:18:58 and has clocked a steady 2:29:04 for 35km at the end of February. Stano’s CV speaks for itself. He set the Italian 20km record of 1:17:45 four years ago, and is also the world 35km champion. Ominously, for the rest of the field, he too made his 2023 debut in Madrid, and did so with a decent 39:06.
In the women’s race, Stano's compatriot will give it her best shot, but Palmisano looks vulnerable.
This is the moment Katarzyna Zdzieblo has been waiting for. The world and European silver medallist was meant to make her 20km 2023 debut on home turf in Warsaw last month. A slight strain put paid to that, but there are no Chinese race walkers and no Kimberley Garcia to worry about this time. And that sparkling 1:27:31 national record from Oregon will be at the back of her mind.
But it would be foolish to rule out Antigoni Ntrismpioti. The Greek who helps out at the family restaurant when she can is ready to serve up another surprise. She may be 39, but the double European champion scored a national record of 1:28:12 in February, and just as importantly has won in Podebrady before.
Two years ago she topped the podium at 35km and, like Karlstrom, has repeatability.
All three front runners will have Ana Cabecinha to deal with. She too falls into the veteran category but sprung a surprise in Rio Maior at the end of last month when the Portuguese stayed with a world-class field to finish in 1:29:55 – her first time under 1:30:00 since La Coruna’s super-fast race five years ago.
Cabecinha is enjoying an Indian summer, but a relative newcomer in Saskia Feige has made inroads on the world’s elite. The German’s 1:28:28 PB dates from only April, and was a massive improvement by more than a minute on her European bronze-medal-winning time in Munich last year.
Spaniards favoured for 35km
Spain could top both 35km podiums, but there is a big ‘if’ against Maria Perez.
The ‘if’ is whether she can stay in the race. The 2018 European 20km champion suffered back-to-back disqualifications at the World and European Championships last summer, but then smashed her national record with 1:25:30 two months ago.
There isn’t anyone in the 25-woman field within 11 minutes of Perez’s best. There’s no doubting the 27-year-old’s quality, but to win Perez needs to focus on technique as much as the opposition.
Behind her, Raquel Gonzalez and Paula Juarez should augment the Spanish team challenge.
Italy’s Sara Vitiello and Lidia Barcella along with 2017 world 50km champion Inês Henriques and Kyriaki Filtisakou have all recorded 2023 times between 2:54:06 and 2:56:59.
Álvaro Martin and Miguel Angel Lopez are odds-on favourites in the men’s race.
The latter won the inaugural 35km at the 2022 European Championships and then clocked a national record of 2:25:58 at the World Championships. Since then, Martin has breezed a 2:28:16 on home soil at the end of February and followed with 1:21:44 for 20km a month later. He has dipped his toe into the 35km already, earning silver at last year’s World Race Walking Team Championships in Oman.
But this time, the double European champion at the shorter distance looks more than enough to give Lopez a tasty test to the top of the podium.
Behind both, Marc Tur was second to Martin in Cieza in February, and could ensure a Spanish 1-2-3 at the medal ceremony.
Should any of the three stumble, Christopher Link is ready to pounce – and he loves the Spa Park. He won the 2017 European Cup there to go with three more opens at the April races. Linke’s PB is a mere 2:29:30, which was good enough for silver at the European Championships in Munich last year.
Spain and Germany will make it a tough call for the team prize. Germany’s Carl Dohmann, Jonathan Hilbert, and Nathaniel Seiler have all gone sub-2:34 this year.
But Spain can also look to José Manuel Perez if they need a fourth race walker to step up.
As an outsider, Aurélien Quinion is a contender. The Frenchman set a P of 1:19:57 for 20km in Aix-les-Bains in March, and set a national 35km record of 2:28:46 at the 2022 World Championships.
Paul Warburton for World Athletics