By Gene Opheim


I have seven national championship racewalks on my calendar this year. I’m racing everything from 1500 meters to a 20k.

My first race took place last Saturday on March 27 in Boston, Massachusetts. I asked everyone I knew if they would go with me to the USATF National Masters’ Indoor Track & Field Championships. They all turned me down – except Nick Yonclas. I didn’t ask him. I went alone.

The meet is held in the Reggie Lewis Track & Athletic Center. This is the athletic facility for Roxbury Community College located just a couple of miles south of downtown Boston. My race is a 3k racewalk on a 200 meter indoor track – fifteen laps. My first indoor race. My first 3k.

After picking up my registration package, I step into the arena – very cozy. The track is a 6 lane Mondo surface – a rubber like substance that has a texture similar to Berber carpet. It’s laid over wood. The straightaways are flat. Each end is banked maybe as high as 30 inches. It feels and sounds springy and fast.

The 60- meter sprints are taking place down the middle of the infield. The shot is being thrown in one caged corner of the arena. The long jump is in progress in the infield next to the 60 meters. Very close. Very loud.

I had gotten my flight sheet off the Internet a couple of days before. Each event is being held with the women competing first – oldest to youngest age groups. Then the men – oldest to youngest. The race walks start at 3:30. My heat, M55 and younger, is the last one and finally gets off at 5:45.

My age group competition looks like it will come from Robert Keating from New Hampshire. We have raced twice before in 5ks with Robert winning both times. Last summer on the track in Orono, Maine, he beat me by 23 seconds. Maybe he’s out of shape. Maybe he’ll have a bad race.

Max Walker from Indiana is in the race. He placed just behind me last fall in the 5k road national championships in Kingsport, Tennessee. James Miner from New York ran the mile early this morning in 5:28. I hope he can’t racewalk as fast as he runs.

Racewalkers wear four numbers in this meet. A race number is on both the front and the back. This helps the judges identify you so that they can ruin your entire trip by disqualifying you if you race with a bent knee or have both feet off the ground. It takes three DQs before a walker is pulled from the track. They must come from three different judges. A DQ board is placed in the infield by the finish line. As DQs are given during the race, these results are posted on the board in large numbers and marks so that walkers can be aware of how they are doing during a race.

An age group number is worn on the back whenever more than one age group is racing in the same heat. My number reads 50. This helps one decide if it’s worth blowing cookies to try and catch that last person ahead of you. A lane number is worn on the left hip. This positions you for the start of the race and helps the track announcer put names to the contestants as he does his race commentary.

The start/finish is at what I would call corner number 3 on a 400-meter track. I draw lane one. I should get a fast start. I want to break 15 minutes. Maybe go as low as 14:45. An easy strategy is to do each lap in :59+ seconds. If I succeed, I’ll have a great race. I tell myself: “Don’t go out too fast.”

The gun fires. Five racers from my right side come off the high turn and drop in front of me – James Carmines, a 55 year old competitor favored to win his age group, three 45 year olds, and Robert Keating.

It’s a fast start. I hit my first lap in :56+. I feel good. The slope on the turns bother me a little. I feel like I’m being sucked into the rail. On the first corner of lap two my left foot strikes the rail and I break stride with a bent knee. I’m ok. I wonder if a judge saw. Lap two is another :56+ second lap. Max Walker stays on my right shoulder. We’ve bumped arms several times. He has apologized once. I’m now hitting my laps in :59+.

Carmines and Keating are way out front. The announcer repeatedly states that they are on world record pace for their respective age groups. My mile split is 7:49 – excellent! I’ve passed two of the 45 year olds and am currently in 4th overall. The announcer has said my name several times and actually pronounces it correctly. What a day!

Lap 10 – I have my only 60 second plus lap. I’m tired. Max hasn’t bumped me for a couple of laps. Each time I pass the Indiana crowd, less than a second goes by before I hear “Go Max. Stay right there, Max.” I pass the last 45 year old – 3rd place overall. The announcer is going crazy over James Carmines’ world record pace. He no longer mentions Keating. I can’t see either of them. They must be coming up behind me.

Three laps to go – 600 meters. It’s where I start my finish push in a 5k. Another :59+ lap.

I’m just into my 14th lap when the bell rings for Robert Keating’s last lap. Seconds later he laps me. There goes my gold medal. Another :59+ lap.

Bell lap for me. With 40 meters to go I use it all up. The finish line crowd cheers. That’s nice. I finish with another :56+ lap – 3rd overall – second in my age group – with a 14:38.28. I check the DQ board one last time. No DQs. I had no warnings. I’m whipped.

Robert Keating finished in 13:36. I don’t know how much he missed the world record by. James Carmines, second overall, crossed in 13:51.46 breaking the M55 world record by 29 seconds. Max was fifth overall in 15:05. Fourth place overall went to 45 year old Stan Sosnowski in 14:38.83 – a half second behind me. That’s what all the cheering was about as I crossed the finish line. For Stan as he closed on me. Dag!

The traffic in Boston was a nightmare. All the streets seem to be under construction – detours everywhere. I was lost four times, but never for long. The indoor meet was a wonderful experience. It returns to Boston next year. So will I, but next time not alone.

Maybe I’ll ask Nick.