It’s been 18 years since I pinned an entry number on the front of a singlet and toed the line at the start of a race walk competition. Still, last week when I watched a dozen women battle to represent the United States in the 20K Olympic race walk, I felt a stir of adrenalin.
I watched with awe and admiration –and, okay, a stab of envy—as they circled the track at Hayward Field in Eugene with steady grace and focus. For a moment or two, I found myself wondering how it would be to start training again. “I’m still strong,” I told myself. “Still fit, and still ambitious.” It was a fleeting fancy that quietly wilted as the walkers rounded the track, again, and again. Fifty long, tedious laps in all!
For 40 laps the local favorite, a Eugene native, held tight to a spot in the lead. We cheered support from the stands each time she crossed the finish line. Then, we watched in agony as she gradually lost ground. New York walker Maria Michta maintained the lead for ten laps more to win a place on the US Olympic team--not on the strength of her body but on the strength of her mind.
“I could not feel my legs that last straightaway at all,” she told a reporter at the end of the race. “I could not feel my arms, I could not feel my face. I just kept looking at the straightaway and going ‘line, line, line.’” One hour and 34 minutes of strenuous walking and the final stretch came down to a mental chase—a battle to retain focus.
I don’t plan to walk a 20K race walk competition, but I am preparing for a 12-day distance walk later this year. I know there will be points when I’ll wonder why I ever thought this trek would be a good idea. On those days, I hope I remember Maria Michta, reminding me to shed the dead weight of self-doubt and weariness with words that turn my focus to the goal. I think instead of “line, line, line” as a focus, I’ll go with “hot tub, hot tub, hot tub.”
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