SALEM, Ore. - The men’s and women’s 20-kilometer race walkers will get the first chance to shine at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field when they toe the line in front of the steps to the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on Thursday, June 30.
With the exception of the men's and women's marathons and the men's 50-kilometer race walk, which were contested in February, the rest of the Olympic Trials’ track and field events will take place in Eugene at historic Hayward Field from July 1-10.
In the summer of 2015, officials from TrackTown USA, the local organizing committee for the Trials, approached key people and agencies in Salem to see if there was interest in hosting the 20K race walk. They received a positive response and a close partnership developed as plans for the 20K race walk were fleshed out over the past year.
“The biggest benefit is that we can be a part of the Olympic Trials that are happening in Eugene,” said Brian Chung, sports and events sales manager for Travel Salem. “Salem is a stop on the road to the Rio Olympics. To be in a partnership with TrackTown USA and USA Track & Field is a real benefit for Salem, and will help put (us) on the map a little more, and show off the beautiful city that we have.”
Tracy Sundlun, one of the founders of the Rock 'n Roll Marathon Series, has been working on the staging of the 20K race walk since last August. Sundlun, who has organized more than 200 marathons over the past two decades, brings an innovative approach to presenting endurance races which are both participant and spectator friendly.
He believes staging the race walk in Salem is, to borrow a phrase from another sport, a “grand slam,” and he is excited about the "absolutely spectacular location" along the Capitol mall.
The 20K race walk start is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. for the men, with the women to follow a minute later, so both will be on the course at the same time. If the forecast for June 30 calls for high temperatures, the start time can be changed to an earlier hour so the athletes have a better chance to hit the Olympic qualifying times of 1 hour, 24 minutes for men, and 1 hour, 36 minutes for women. A maximum of 15 men and 15 women will compete in the combined race walks.
Aside from short segments at the start and finish, the race walk will take place on Cottage Street, which, Sundlun says, has "absolutely no cant (no slope from the middle to the edge)" – an important factor for the athletes. The race walkers will complete 19 one-kilometer loops on Cottage Street, then head to the finish.
Sundlun said there will be "music and cheerleaders on the course," and he is confident Salem residents will take the opportunity to come out and be part of history by lining the course and cheering on the Olympic hopefuls.
One of the race walkers seeking to realize her Olympic dream on June 30th is Erin Gray, a 2005 graduate of South Eugene High School. The third-ranked woman in the field, Gray said, "I hope that even if they have to change the event to earlier in the morning that we can have people out there supporting us. It is really helpful."
Gray started race walking in 2010, following an injury-marred college career at the University of Arkansas. Her father, Bob Gray, who competed in the race walk in the 1970s, encouraged Erin to try the event, and she found she liked it. Erin Gray made the U.S. team for the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow, where she finished 41st in the 20K race walk in a personal record time of 1:34.38.
Like Roger Bannister, when he ran the first sub-four minute mile as a medical student in Oxford, England, Erin Gray has been attending medical school and doing clinical work while competing and training for the Trials, though she has taken a temporary leave from school over the past several months to focus on her training. When she graduates from the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Northwest in Lebanon, Gray will apply for a residency in family medicine, and has a long-term goal of practicing in the field of sports medicine.
Gray trains for the race walk between an hour and a half and four hours a day, including stretching, warm-up and cool-down. Some days she does more than one workout.
"I feel really good about my chances," Gray said. "I feel like I am in better shape than I was in 2013. (The 20K) really is a grueling and underappreciated event. Not only do we have to walk with the correct form that is not entirely natural for 20 kilometers, we have judges watching us the entire time."
"The race walkers are remarkable athletes," Sundlun says. "In the 20K the top men will finish around 1 hour 24 minutes – which works out to well under 1:30 for the half marathon. The top women would be just over 1:30 for the half. How many people can run under 1:30 for the half-marathon? Not that many, and these athletes are walking not running."
By virtue of the required technique of race walking, in which one foot must be on the ground at all times, the stride length is shorter than a runner's stride length. But race walkers have a cadence which compares to top 400-meter runners and they must maintain it for an hour and a half (20K) to over four hours (50K).
There is no doubt that, physiologically, race walkers are special and well-trained athletes. As Gray points out, too, their technique has to pass muster with the seven judges stationed along the course. If an athlete receives three red cards from three different judges, that athlete is disqualified and removed from the course.
In continuing a TrackTown USA tradition of engaging youth in both national and global competitions in Oregon, Gray has been sharing her love for the race walk with youngsters from the Boys & Girls Club of Salem and the Salem Track Club. She will conduct a race walk clinic for youth in Wilson Park adjacent to the State Capitol on June 29, and many of the young clinic participants will be attending the race walk on the following day.
"I've gotten a really positive response," Gray said of the youth race walk clinic. "The kids seem really excited about it."
The city of Salem seems really excited about it, too. And why not, since the road to Rio starts at the State Capitol on June 30.