Lack of respect? Race walking relegated to the parking lot

EUGENE, Ore. -- My friend bet me dinner that I couldn't write a column about the 20K Race Walk without a reference to "March of the Penguins."

I lose.

Race walking doesn't get much respect.

While the rest of the U.S. Track and Field Trials are being held in historic Hayward Field in front of 20,000 screaming fans each day, the race walk was held at 7 a.m. on Saturday, on a road across from the Autzen Stadium parking lot. There were less than 500 spectators, some of whom were just runners passing by during their morning jaunts and stopping to watch the 14 athletes racing around the course as if they were very late for a sale at Nordstrom's.

"Yeah, I don't know what happened with that," Theron Kissinger said of competing next to a parking lot. "I wish the course was a little flatter. [The slope] doesn't look like it's that bad when you look at it, but when you go around several times, you begin to notice it."

Kissinger is a 37-year-old high school math teacher who competes while sucking on a lollipop -- he went through three Saturday -- and occasionally performing complex calculations in his head to relieve the tedium of a long race. But before you label race walking a geeky sport, bear in mind that Saturday's winner, Kevin Eastler, is a captain in the Air Force.

"I have a need for speed," Eastler said. "But only as much speed as you can get without bending your knee.

"My students ask me, 'Race walking -- is that where you look funny when you walk?' and I say, 'Yeah.' A reporter once asked me how to describe race walking and I said it's like Mae West, but faster. You have to have that hip swing.''

The basic rule of race walking is you can't break into a running stride. Your lead leg must be straight -- no bent knees -- when the foot touches the ground and one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. Judges watch the racers throughout to make certain they maintain correct form -- a competitor is disqualified if judges issue him three violations.

The thing is though, these guys can really motor. Eastler walked the 20K in 1:27.07 -- I'm not sure if it was an Autzen Stadium parking lot record -- or just about seven minutes a mile. Which is faster than I run when I think I'm really going hard.

"I enter a lot of marathons and I don't run, I walk, and I beat about a third of the field," Kissinger said. "I'll hear people saying, 'Hey, that guy is walking and he's passing me.' "

Still, it's fair to ask the point of the event. It's like telling people to race, but not to go as fast as they can.

"It's good for people like me. I want to be competitive, but running is hard on my knees," Kissinger said. "It's less stressful on your body than running and it uses almost every muscle in the body. You build up your triceps without you even noticing. And it tightens up your butt and stomach -- that's why women do it."

Allen James says he got into race walking when he was in high school in Seattle and the track coach asked him to give it a try so the team could get some points in the event. He says he lost to girls the first time he competed, which motivated him to work hard and get better. "I got the fever and tried to see how far I could go in it and I got to the Olympics," James said.

And not just one Olympics, but two -- he competed in 1992 in Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta. Which is a hell of a lot more than the rest of us can say.

James is 44, a dozen years removed from his previous Olympics, but he was there on Saturday morning anyway, walking, sweating and swiveling his hips, and fighting through blisters to provide a bookend finish to his career. He crossed the line in an impressive sixth place.

Usually the only people attending a race walk in the United States are family members and a few friends, Kissinger said, but the sport is popular enough in Mexico, Central America and South America to draw thousands. "They never give up cheering," he said. "They were cheering for the people in last place as much as the people who won, if not more. After a race in Costa Rica, I was signing autographs. It was the coolest thing."

It looks goofy, but I don't know. Perhaps race walking isn't a whole lot different than the various strokes in swimming. Aren't all those strokes merely a way for Michael Phelps to win more medals. I mean, is there really a point to the breaststroke or the butterfly?

"I think it's cool," said Melanie Neilitz, who timed her morning run to see the end of the race. "I really think it's a unique sport. It looks painful. It's just good to support them. It's like the athletes in the throwing sports. It's important to come out and support them."

Kissinger finished 13th, walking in pain for much of the race because a calf had locked up on him. To add insult to injury, he was sitting on a massage table with an ice bag on the leg roughly 30 minutes after the race when a meet official came and took away the table.

Perhaps they needed it over at Hayward.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.