They call them the wigglers.
They move quickly, faster than many people jog, but they’re not running. Their hips rotate well beyond a normal gait, swaying from side to side as they power down the track, keeping one foot on the ground at all times.
They’re race walking. And while Marv Berkowitz admitted the wigglers’ sway might look funny, it’s what allows race walkers at the Olympic level to hit a six-minute mile pace. By comparison, a typical person walking a mile down the street might take 20 minutes.
Berkowitz was a runner, cyclist, triathlete and a weightlifter, but 18 years ago, an Achilles injury ended his running career for good.
Devastated, he searched for some other way to recapture the feeling he got from running.
That’s when he discovered race walking and joined the ranks of the wigglers.
“You adapt,” said Berkowitz, now 64. Longing for the sights, smells and experience he’d had when running, he studied the technique involved in race walking and, as his form improved, was able to go farther and faster.
“I was getting the same feeling that I was getting from running,” Berkowitz said. “I captured it.”
But race walking is not just walking fast. The technique and rules are specific.
“It’s such a simple sport, but it’s so technical,” Berkowitz said.
Running is natural, instinctual, Berkowitz said. Race walking is not.
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Walkers must have one foot on the ground at all times. There’s no flight period like in running – race walkers are firmly planted. They also must keep their leg straight until it passes under their body, no bending of the knees. During an official race, lifting the feet or bending a knee will result in a warning from one of several judges monitoring the course. Three warnings and you’re out.
Lancaster County’s Lana Kane learned that the hard way a few years ago.
Kane said it only happened once, but when the 76-year-old talks about it, you can still hear her aggravation at the incident. It was during an indoor meet in Boston an official came on to the track where she was walking to escort Kane off the course.
“They claimed I had a bent knee,” she said.
Unlike Berkowitz, who used race walking as a way to reclaim the feeling he got from running, Kane found satisfaction in the sport in its own right.
“I think I did maybe two 5Ks in my lifetime that I ran the whole thing.” Kane said. “I just hated it.”
She’d run fast, get out of breath then slow to a walk.
“I thought, this is ridiculous,” Kane said.
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Then in 2000 she tried to walk and discovered she was good at the sport. Instead of getting passed during 5Ks, she got the satisfaction of passing other runners as they dropped out.
“That’s a lot of fun to see the look on their face when you pass them,” Kane said. “I’d just keep walking.”
With no race walking events nearby, Berkowitz competes in 5Ks that don’t have judges for race walkers, holding himself to an honor system to obey race walking rules.
Kane, meanwhile, travels to compete in official race walking events. She competed in national USA Track and Field championships not just in race walking but in javelin, shot put, weight throw, 100 meters and 200 meters. She regularly places in her age group.
A stress fracture in her foot stopped the Conestoga woman from race walking for a few years, but now she’s back at it, hoping to qualify and add it to the list of events she’s already qualified to compete in during the 2017 National Senior Games.
Training for a race walking event is like training for other running events, said Berkowitz, a retired physical education teacher who coached cross country, track and field, wrestling and swimming over the course of 38 years at Red Lion Area High School and briefly at York Suburban. Just like in those events, he said, If you want to go fast you have to train fast on the track.
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The key to the quick pace of the race walker is in the hips. Competitors rotate their hips well beyond that of a normal gait, lengthening their stride.
“It looks like you’re wiggling your back end,” Kane said.
Kane doesn’t get snide comments about her stride, but she says some of her male counterparts do.
“You go down a busy street and you get whistles,” said Berkowitz, who said he caught some flak walking on the streets when he first started. “And not complimentary whistles either. You know, you’re wiggling down the street.”
The whistles don’t phase him, though.
“I don’t care at my age,” Berkowitz said. “I’m the one working out and you’re sitting.”
When to watch
There are two race walking events left in the Olympics.
The men’s 50K race walking final Aug. 19 at 7 am, and the women’s 20K race walking final Aug 19 at 1:30 pm