Matej Toth smashes the 50km course record in Dudince (© Jan Viazanicka / SITA)
The 14th edition of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge starts in the Australian city of Adelaide in barely a week’s time on Sunday 21 February and is just one of 11 chances for the top athletes to accumulate points and possibly get a share of the huge $200,000 prize money pot.
Last year’s winners, Slovakia’s Matej Toth and China’s Liu Hong, pocketed $25,000 each after competing in the required minimum of three events during the 2015 challenge.
This year, all roads as far as elite walkers are concerned lead to Rome for the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships at the beginning of May, but in the challenge some race walkers get the chance to compete close to home.
Australia’s world and Olympic medallist Jared Tallent travelled all of five kilometres from where he lives to win the Adelaide race 12 months ago as friends and family made it a bonanza day for Tallent, who married his wife Claire in 2008 in an Adelaide suburb suitably called Walkerville.
Now he hopes for another celebratory year that includes not only success at the Race Walking Team Championships, but ends with the Olympic Games that also doubles as the last leg of the challenge.
There are many familiar faces as far as venues go, but the second race on 6 March is a new location.
It still takes place in Mexico but Chihuahua has given way to Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso in Texas.
Needless to say, home-grown race walkers tend to do well, and last year’s men’s 20km race provided a one-second victory for 2009 challenge winner Eder Sanchez over Guatemala’s Olympic silver medallist Erick Barrondo.
Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez then achieved what no other Mexican woman had in the history of the challenge when she finished first, breaking the tape in 1:32:42.
The challenge then visits Europe for the first time on a course that produced a terrific time for Toth last year.
The home advantage of racing in his native Slovakia paid off handsomely when he shot round the Dudince 50km circuit in 3:34:38, the third-fastest time ever.
Despite walking from gun to tape on his own, Toth’s win set him up nicely for an eventual victory over the same distance at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.
Suzuki looking for another Nomi burn up
The series then continues its sequence of continental changes and switches to Asia to Nomi City in Japan on 20 March.
The city, 300km north-west of Tokyo, when tapped into a search engine produces the name Yusuke Suzuki as one of its first entries alongside it.
The 28-year-old has broken his 20km best four times at Nomi, but never like he did in 2015.
No sooner had Frenchman Yohann Diniz set a scintillating world record of 1:17:02, Suzuki went even quicker seven days later – and on a more demanding course – to record a stunning new standard of 1:16:36.
The Japanese became hot favourite to win at the IAAF World Championship last summer, but was a disappointing non-finisher in Beijing. It will be interesting to see if he is over that disappointment on his favourite bit of tarmac.
The fifth race in the challenge is also the South American Race Walking Championships in Salinas, Ecuador on 1 April.
As for Ciudad Juarez, the challenge debuts in a town so west, the finish line stops just short of the Pacific itself. Life will be a beach for spectators if they witness another exciting one-second win in the men’s 20km the last time the series visited South America. In 2015, Barrondo prevailed by just that time over Brazil’s Caio Bonfim.
Ciudad Juarez and Salinas make a first appearance in the challenge this year but Rio Maior is one of only two venues ever present since the challenge first saw the light of day in 2003.
The Portuguese town plays host on 9 April before the races in Taicang in China, the scene of the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in 2014.
On 28 May, the other constant name on the list of venues gets another chance to prove it can produce a fast course.
Last year, Liu Hong showed how quick the La Coruna circuit on Spain’s Atlantic coast can be as the Chinese race walker set a 20km world record of 1:24:38 along the city’s port’s front.
If only five points separated the top four men on the final day of the 2015 challenge, the women’s title was far more clear-cut as Liu retained her title with a 13-point margin with La Coruna making a significant contribution to her tally.
For the second year in succession, Italy’s Eleonora Giorgi finished second overall, and Erica de Sena became the first Brazilian woman to secure a top-three finish in the challenge.
After Durban hosts the African leg on 22 June, can Brazilians dare to dream she will get a medal at her own Rio 2016 Olympics Game in August as well as another lucrative challenge cheque?
Paul Warburton for the IAAF