Among all the runners in the Illinois Marathon races Saturday, keep an eye out for a group of walkers.
These walkers won’t be strolling leisurely along the course. They’re racewalkers, and you can spot them not only by their speedy pace, but also by their distinctive stride.
About 15 racewalkers from Abe’s Striders Racewalking Club in Springfield will be doing the Illinois Half-Marathon. One of them is Brent Bohlen, who started racewalking five years ago and has trained many racewalkers in the Springfield area.
Bohlen ran track in school and was a basketball player until he was in his 50s.
“My knees finally couldn’t take basketball anymore,” said Bohlen, who’s 60. “(Racewalking) is much easier on my body.”
Racewalking is highly aerobic and low-impact, he said, and it’s an ideal sport for babyboomers who can no longer do high-impact sports such as running or basketball. He’s written a book touting the benefits of racewalking, called “BoomerWalk.”
“It’s my hope that racewalking will become for baby boomers when they’re in their 50s, 60s and 70s what jogging was for them in their 20s and 30s,” he said. “It will be the thing that enables them to stay active and in good cardiovascular shape as they age.”
Racewalking differs from regular walking in its rules. Both feet must never leave the ground at the same time, and when your heel strikes ground in front of you, that leg has to be straight at the knee and remain straight until the leg is vertical underneath your body, Bohlen said.
“There is a special technique you can learn to help make you efficient at racewalking,” he said. “It does look a little strange.”
Bohlen uses the analogy of different swimming strokes to describe how racewalking differs from running or regular walking. And he said the technique becomes natural.
“We no longer think we look funny,” he said of his fellow racewalkers.
Most of the people Bohlen walks with in Springfield are looking for a way to stay in shape. They are either former runners who can no longer run, or people who were never athletic but have found racewalking a better way than regular walking to become fit. They get together to walk twice a week in Springfield parks.
“Some people are moving down from running and some people are moving up from walking,” Bohlen said.
“It can take just as much energy as running. You don’t go as fast, but you can burn up just as much energy,” he said of racewalking. "(Racewalkers) do it because it’s good exercise and it’s fun to do and there’s camaraderie.”
For Bohlen, though, a big part of the attraction was the ability to compete. He wanted to found an outlet for his competitive drive when he could no longer play basketball. Now he racewalks in races and in the Illinois and National Senior Games.
The Illinois Half-Marathon is a training walk for Bohlen. He’ll racewalk a marathon in Cleveland on May 16.
Don’t look for these walkers at the back of the pack, either. Bohlen and some of his friends are pretty fast.
Bohlen said he racewalked a half-marathon last fall in two hours and 20 minutes. One of his fellow racewalkers from Springfield will likely do the Illinois Half-Marathon a little faster than that. And Bohlen is hoping to break five hours in his marathon.
“That will be a challenge,” he said.
They often pass runners at races, and they almost always get a comment: “Oh no, he’s walking and he’s going faster than us running!”
The photos below: Brent Bohlen demonstrating racewalking form; Joyce Ludwig and Lois Stone, members of Abe's Striders Racewalking Club, at the 2008 Abe's Amble 10K at the Illinois State Fair.