Liu Hong and Wang Zhen after winning at the the XXX Gran Premio Cantones de La Coruna 2016 (© Organisers/ Federación Galega de Atletismo)
For the second consecutive year, Chinese race walkers Liu Hong and Wang Zhen took the honours at the XXX Gran Premio Cantones de La Coruna 2016, the Spanish leg of this year’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge, on Saturday (28).
In doing so, the world record-holder Liu managed her fourth overall victory in La Couna – and third in a row – being bettered only by Russia’s Yelena Nikolayeva, who won the event five times in the 90s.
Held on a wet and slippery circuit by the Atlantic coast, due to the rain that fell in the hours prior to the early evening event, the women’s race started at a relatively modest pace set by the Chinese pair of Liu and Qieyang Shenjie, first and second at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome three weeks.
It became clear from the early splits that the world record of 1:24:38 set by Liu on the same circuit 12 months ago was not in jeopardy on this occasion.
Liu broke away from her compatriot two kilometres into the race but Qieyang caught her just before the seventh kilometre and they stayed together well ahead the rest of the field until just after the midway point, which was reached in 44:20.
Shortly afterwards, Liu injected a brisker pace and gradually opened up a sizeable margin on Qieyang.
Liu’s rhythm over the second half of the race proved to be significantly faster than the opening 10km and she even overtook many male race walkers – the women's and men’s races started with 20 minutes’ difference but on the same 1km circuit – on her way to an overwhelming win.
At the tape, Liu was timed at 1:27:43 to continue her unbeaten year and take her fourth straight victory, finishing 47 seconds ahead of Qieyang.
“I felt OK today but the weather conditions were not as favourable as last year," said Liu. "My legs were not very fluent so I couldn’t go for a faster time, but I’m delighted with my hat-trick of consecutive wins and I now look forward to competing at the Rio Olympics."
Behind the top two, there was a fine fight for the last place on the podium between the Italian duo of Eleonora Giorgi and Elisa Rigaudo, Portugal’s Ines Henriques and Guatemala’s Mirna Ortiz.
Giorgi eventually prevailed in 1:29:23 with 2013 La Coruna winner Henriques fourth just five seconds further back. Ortiz took fifth in 1:29:30 with Riguado sixth in 1:29:40.
Wang wins again
The men’s event also started quite conservatively, with a huge leading group ticking off the early laps close to 4:05.
By the fourth kilometre, which was reached in 16:22, it was Spain’s former European junior medallist Francisco Arcilla in the lead.
The first real surge was made by the eventual winner Wang shortly after the 5km point. The defending champion built a slight gap on the main group but he was reeled in two kilometres later.
Brazil’s Caio Bonfim then moved to the front and was to the fore when 8km was reached in 32:32. Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom also helped with the pace so that halfway was reached in 40:39.
To the joy of the local crowd, world champion Miguel Angel Lopez stayed with the leaders although he never took command of the race.
The real fireworks began about five kilometres from home when Mexico’s Pedro Daniel Gomez stepped up the rhythm and covered the following two kilometres in 3:56, a frantic pace which was only followed by Wang, Lopez and Italy’s Alex Schwazer.
A penultimate loop of 3:52 by Zhen dropped Gomez and Lopez but the Italian managed to remain at the Chinese race walker’s shoulder until the closing 600 metres when the world silver medallist finally shook him off.
Wang clocked 3:48 for his final kilometre to win in 1:20:17, with Schwazer six seconds in arrears. Lopez finished third in 1:20:34 with Gomez another five seconds further back.
Lopez was more than satisfied with his performance after his injury problems over the winter and a below-par outing in Rome earlier this month.
“Today’s is an enormous confidence booster," said Lopez. "I’ve clocked 1:20 which was my goal. I now plan two training camps in the altitude of Sierra Nevada in June and Font Romeu in July to get ready for Rio."
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF