News21 Dec 2015

2015 end-of-year reviews – race walks


Miguel Angel Lopez celebrates his victory in the 20km race walk at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 (© Getty Images)

Three world records at the championship distances and the third-fastest 50km of all time tells a tale of race walkers shooting for the stars in 2015.

However, a man who didn’t set any of the new marks perhaps shone the brightest.

Miguel Angel Lopez predicted early in 2015 that this year would herald even bigger things than his 2014 European Championships 20km gold.

In August, the Spaniard made good on that promise and blew away the opposition at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.

It followed hot on the heels of a European Cup win on the streets of his hometown Murcia in May. And as top athletes will tell you, it’s one thing to race walk fast or even break a world record; it's another to peak at the right time.

Not many master the art of being ready for the big races when it matters but Lopez looks to have mastered that feat with aplomb.

A personal best of 1:19:14 in Beijing is not super fast by modern standards, but Lopez went faster than 1:20:00 three times this year and came home first on each occasion. The only blemish on his nine-race record over all distances came when he finished fourth on home soil in La Coruna at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge meeting there in June.

Liu Hong has a year to remember

If Lopez was the outstanding male race walker of 2015, Liu Hong likewise dominated the women’s scene.

The 28-year-old Chinese has suffered the odd hiccup in her 10-year time at the top and endured what’s often considered the worst finishing place of all at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games – fourth.

But when she eventually looks back, the Jiangxi province native will marvel at World Championships medals of every hue as well a world record year.

She went where no other female race walker before her had been, recording a world record of 1:24:38 in La Coruna.

In a display of gun-to-tape dominance, Liu clocked 42:39 for the first half along the quayside of the Spanish port, and then sailed the final 10km in 41:59, covering the last kilometre in a staggering 4:05.

She lapped all but one race walker, compatriot Qieyang Shenjie, and put to rest all claims of faster times elsewhere. No woman’s mark, ratified or otherwise, has ever been faster.

If she enjoyed winning in splendid isolation in La Coruna, Liu was tracked every inch of the way by another Chinese race walker, Lu Xiuzhi, in Beijing but just prevailed with both athletes given the same time of 1:27:45.

Liu’s overall IAAF Race Walking Challenge victory was the icing on a sweet cake.

Record year

It was a year of 20km world records and, like is often said about buses, you wait for ages and then two turn up almost at once.

For seven days, Yohann Diniz held both the 20km and 50km marks, the only race walker in history to do so.

France’s European 50km champion added the shorter distance to the long race walk he set in 2014 when he hit the tape in Arles on 8 March in 1:17:02 to take 14 seconds off the record.

Within a week, given the time differences, Yusuke Suzuki went even quicker, and on a much more demanding course.

On home soil in Nomi, the Japanese race walker ticked off eye-opening intermediate marks around a twisting course staging the Asian Championships and came home in a staggering 1:16:36.

To give an idea of how quick he was going, Suzuki was 36 seconds ahead of compatriot Isamu Fujisawa by 5km.

The latter was eventually second in 1:19:08, faster than Lopez’s World Championships victory, but the best part of a kilometre behind the new world record-holder.

There’s something to be said for racing in your own back yard.

Toth a headline act

Four days later in a magnificent March for walking, Matej Toth notched up the third-fastest 50km time in history at Dudince when the Slovak champion stopped the clock in 3:34:38.

The former journalism student went on to grab the headlines a second and third time by winning the World Championships 50km title and then the season-long IAAF Race Walk Challenge.

In retrospect, Toth’s Beijing win was clinched within 10km with the Slovak 30 seconds ahead at this point. But as a spectacle of race walking from the front, it was master class.

There were plenty of other things to cheer in 2015 as well.

Jared Tallent started the challenge year with 20km victory in hot conditions in Adelaide, and then followed Toth home for silver in Beijing.

Some race walkers come and go in almost a heartbeat but the 31-year-old Australian has won medals at five successive global championships. He took bronze in Daegu in 2011 and Moscow two years ago as well as silvers from the past two Olympic Games and should still be a contender in Rio.

There’s no stopping Jesus Angel Garcia either.

The world champion 22 years ago in Stuttgart made a record 12th appearance in Beijing and still finished a laudable ninth place in the 50km.

Aged 45 at the time of the race, the Spaniard was the oldest man pulling on a vest in China and plans to be on the start line in two years’ time.

If he makes it to London, Garcia will be the oldest competitor in IAAF World Championships history – and don’t bet against it.

Giorgi makes good

For the second year running, Italy’s Eleonora Giorgi finished second overall in the challenge after besting the course record when winning in Dudince, and breaking her own national 20km record in the process.

She had previously finished second in Rio Maior’s challenge event in April, and was second again in Murcia’s European Cup where she shaved even more off her best for another Italian record of 1:26:17.

One of the most surprising medallists in Beijing came in the men's 20km event in the form of Ben Thorne. The 22-year-old Canadian set a national record of 1:19:57 to take bronze, just one month after training partners Evan Dunfee and Inaki Gomez led a Canadian 1-2 at the Pan American Games.

South America had a good year as well. Brazil’s Erica de Sena became first woman from the 2016 Olympic Games host to secure a top-three finish in the challenge.

Her steady but emphatic rise saw her claim second in Chihuahua in March, fourth in Dudince, third in La Coruna and sixth at the World Championships.

There was a great race in Chile between Guatemala’s Erick Barrondo and Brazil’s Caio Bonfim for the Pan American Cup in May. The surprise 2012 Olympic silver medallist finished first in 1:21:25, just a second ahead of Bonfim.

Africa has for too long been a wilderness for race walkers but, maybe, South Africa’s Lebogang Shange can help change that.

The 25-year-old has made steady but sure progress over the past two years and set a personal best of 1:21:50 in Lugano in March.

A week later he won the 20km in Dudince while removing another seven seconds from his best, and became the highest ever sub-Saharan African finisher at the World Championships when he came home 11th. Had he found another 10 seconds, it would have would have elevated Shange to seventh.

Imagine what a major medal for a continent with more than a billion people and an outstanding distance-running tradition might do to galvanise the race walking fraternity in these countries.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF