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Things People Do : WALK ON THE WILD SIDE : These Men and Women Look Pretty Funny, but They Feel Great

“A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest of men.”

--Roald Dahl, 1971

Novelist Roald Dahl wasn’t thinking of racewalking when he wrote that sentence, but he nonetheless put the sport in perspective.

Every racewalker will tell you how he or she has been heckled during workouts by passers-by who see the hip-swiveling exercise as just a lot of nonsense.

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“Runners come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know why you just don’t kick into a run,’ ” said Cathy Blackmer, one of several San Diegans who racewalk on a regular basis around Mission Bay Park.

Sure, with a little more bend at the knee, a little more thrust from the thigh and calf muscles these people could be jogging.

But no, they insist on wiggling their hips to propel their legs forward in a herky-jerky manner and in so doing make themselves look as if they’re trying to shed a girdle.

“You don’t go racewalking around the neighborhood,” said Fred Marzec, a recent convert to the sport, “because the neighbors might ask you some strange questions. It’s not a normal thing--it’s something you have to explain.”

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It’s also something that attracts more hecklers than Don Rickles does.

“The best one yet,” said Lizzy Kemp, 26, a sort of racewalking crusader, “was a guy who yelled at me from his car, ‘Hey lady, you want some fries with that shake.’ ”

Kemp and all racewalkers laugh off such remarks. They feel they’re the wiser for racewalking rather than jogging and point to some relevant facts to back them up:

--The key element of racewalking, the rocking of the hips, tones and strengthens the abdominals more than jogging.

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--The exaggerated arm motion in racewalking acts as a respiratory pump, helping to distribute oxygen throughout the body and aiding regular breathing. It also increases cardiovascular benefits by 7%, and, coupled with the hip movement, creates a full-body workout.

--Beginning racewalkers can burn calories more easily than can beginning joggers simply because people can walk longer than they can jog.

--Perhaps the greatest benefit racewalking has over jogging is the fact that it is non-impact and thus less injurious. Since one foot is always on the ground, the constant jarring of the joints associated with jogging is alleviated. Each time a jogger finishes a step, he comes down with the force of three to four times his body weight.

Ankle and knee joints tend not to appreciate such abuse, which is why many racewalkers are former joggers.

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Ward Fleri, one of a group of walkers that meets at Mission Bay Park’s De Anza Cove every Sunday morning, incurred an ankle injury while jogging. Unwilling to give up his active life style, Fleri enrolled in one of Kemp’s racewalking classes at San Diego City College last fall.

“I haven’t had any problems with my ankle while walking,” Fleri said. “Plus I can go long and fast enough that I really do get an aerobic workout.”

Bill Lee, another one of Kemp’s disciples and convert from jogging, tells a similar story. But his problem did not stem from jogging--he had not worked out for several years--and was not isolated in the ankle. His entire spine was out of whack.

Lee’s chiropractor told him he was going to have to start exercising to get his back shaped up, but Lee knew he couldn’t start jogging again--the jarring would be too much.

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He solved his predicament during a trip to the grocery store.

“I was walking through Boney’s Market one day (almost two years ago) when I saw one of Lizzy’s flyers,” Lee said. “And I just thought to myself, ‘I don’t know how you can get injured doing this.’ ”

After he picked up racewalking, Lee said, his bad spine began to heal.

“My chiropractor told me, ‘I don’t know why this is working so well, but it is. Keep doing it,’ ” Lee said. “My whole body stabilized. Now I love the sport. I’ll do this till I die.”

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Because racewalking is so easy on the body’s joints, middle-aged people have found it to be a perfect way to re-enter athletics.

Fred Marzec, for example, was one of the top three cyclers in Wisconsin in the mid-1960s and in 1966 made it to the national championships in the 100-mile road race.

“A year ago I tried to pick up (cycling) again, and I just couldn’t get back into it,” said Marzec, 41. “Probably because of my age.”

A sudden refugee from cycling, Marzec found an alternative.

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“There’s a world of difference between racewalking and cycling,” Marzec said. “I think racewalking is a hell of a lot easier.”

Like Marzec, Rose Plount, 63, began walking when she found she couldn’t get back into her exercise of choice--running.

“I used to race a little bit,” she said, “but I got too many injuries.”

Racewalking hasn’t come easy to Plount. In fact, most people have difficulty picking it up. Men particularly seem to have trouble shedding their inhibitions about wiggling their hips in public.

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The hip swivel is unique to racewalking and something few people have been exposed to.

“What you’re doing biomechanically,” offered Cathy Blackmer, 37, “is quite different than running. And to get the specifics down, you have to work at it.”

That goes not only for the hips, but also for the legs and arms.

One aspect of racewalking that differentiates it from both jogging and simple walking is that the trailing leg must be completely straightened as it passes under the body--a practice not easily assimilated, racewalkers say.

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Next comes the arm swing. With a 90-degree bend at the elbow, the hands swing from the ball joint of the hip to the mid-chest area. A correct rhythm must be achieved to help walkers drive through periods of exhaustion.

“Once you’re locked in,” Blackmer said, “You’re pretty much there.”

And once “there,” many find there is no turning back.

“It feels great,” Blackmer said. “It feels real smooth. When I was running, I heard people talking about ‘running real smooth.’ I only had that feeling twice, but with racewalking, I always feel it.”

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Rob Hendrickson, 60, also looks past the health advantages of racewalking, though he admits his condition was why he got into the sport.

“I got into racewalking because I had a life style change about three years ago,” he said. “I underwent bypass surgery. But as much as I do it for physical fitness, I just like to compete. . . . One thing I’m very proud of is that I’ve finished every marathon I’ve been in.”

Hendrickson has entered three marathons in the past 12 months, averaging 11 minutes per mile in each. The top racewalkers in San Diego average nine minutes per mile in distance events.

In San Diego, there is very little competitive racewalking. The sport’s devotees either have to enter area running 10Ks and half-marathons or travel to Los Angeles for races.

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There are those who do just that and excel. Clyde Hatfield, 54, a member of San Diego Racewalkers, has placed third in two recent racewalking marathons, one in Long Beach and one in Honolulu. He also placed fifth in the Los Angeles Racewalkers Marathon, which he finished in four hours 34 minutes; he was the first finisher in his age group.

Veda Roubideaux, 43, another member of San Diego Racewalkers, is the current national women’s champion for marathons.

“I’m not fast, but I do have stamina,” she said. “I enjoy the mental challenge of hanging in there.”

Roubideaux turns in 11 1/2-minute miles in distance races.

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Perhaps the most competitive racewalker in San Diego is Kemp. She was the youngest entry--and the only one without a coach--at the 1984 Olympic trials, where racewalking for women was a demonstration sport. Kemp finished seventh out of 30 women.

At the 1992 Barcelona Games, racewalking, which has been a medal sport for men off and on since 1908, will be a medal sport for women. Kemp is hoping to compete in the 10-kilometer walk.


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