Walk, do not run, to the nearest marathon: Races see more walkers

August 25, 2008|By Alex Plimack | Alex Plimack,alex.plimack@baltsun.com

Kelly Blassingame used to be a cheerleader but never really considered herself to be much of an athlete.

That was until three years ago, when she was watching a marathon in Alaska.

"I said, 'I can do that!' " she said.

After returning home to Hanover, Pa., she began training. She focused on walking because of her bad knees, logging about two miles three days a week and taking longer walks on the weekend.

She's now finished two marathons, including the Walt Disney World Marathon in January, which she finished in seven hours and two minutes. And Blassingame is preparing to walk her third half-marathon in the Baltimore Running Festival on Oct. 11. She'll be looking to come in around her best time of three hours and 27 minutes.

Blassingame is part of an increasing number of people who walk half-marathons and marathons. No one seems to track the trend, but organizers, trainers and athletes say they see more people who train specifically to walk.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society chapter in Maryland even has a Team in Training program designed for that. People who sign up are coached for the season, training in someone's honor. Often, that someone is a child in the area who's battling blood cancer or is in remission.

"I do notice a lot of walkers coming out," said Karen Rafala, a walk coach with the program. "We get a lot of women walkers mostly."

But deciding to walk a daylong route through the city isn't something that can be done on a whim. Team in Training begins its preparation - for walkers and runners alike - five months before the event, working with people ranging in age from 30 to 60.

"I enjoy helping the people who weren't always at the front of the pack," Rafala said, noting that she typically runs during the Baltimore festival.

Training for walkers differs from that for runners, in part because the walkers will be out on the course for a much longer period. Runners may finish the marathon in a few hours, but walkers can be on the streets for more than seven hours. Rafala has to make sure she properly prepares those who sign on.

Good shoes are a necessity, particularly ones that can support walkers' feet for a prolonged period. Rafala trains walkers on proper walking form, including making sure arms are at a 90-degree angle and that they're always moving. "You're going forward, you want your hands to go forward," she says. Also, no shuffling of the feet or scrunching of shoulders.

On race day, walkers also differ from runners when it comes to nutrition, Rafala said.

"It's more of the fueling you need during the event," she said. "As a walker, we're not race-walkers. We don't usually like the power gels that runners use. We're able to eat gummi bears. Some people have even done peanut butter and honey sandwiches."

There are simple precautions that need to be taken, such as applying ample sunscreen, especially for the extra-long day walkers will endure. But most importantly, walkers need to prepare to be physically active for such a long stretch of time.

"It takes a lot of determination for someone who wants to walk a full marathon," Rafala said.

Even though more people are beginning to acknowledge how much is involved in walking a marathon, there is still a reluctance to proclaim oneself a walker.

"We definitely see the walkers as an area that's growing," said Michael Schaeffer, senior campaign director with Team in Training, who estimates that a quarter of those training with the group are walkers. "A lot of people register as runners. For some reason, there's a stigma attached to walking, so they don't want to register as a walker."

But, he says, walking is still often regarded as the safer of the two activities, especially when joints are considered.

"Walking is ... a lower-impact sport," he said, adding that many older runners are making the transition to walking a race.

With the increase in walkers, Baltimore Running Festival organizers have taken notice.

"We've gotten some feedback from the runners that there are definitely more walkers out there," said Gene Brtalik, director of publicity for Corrigan Sports, which organizes the festival. "We enjoy having the walkers there. We understand they're a big part of the race."

Brtalik said the course even was designed with walkers in mind. It winds around Baltimore, beginning and ending near Camden Yards.

baltimore running festival

The marathon starts at 8 a.m. Oct. 11 at Russell and Camden streets. Cost is $85, or $95 after The half-marathon begins at 9:45 a.m at Conway and Light streets and is $70, or $80 after Sunday. For information or to register, go to thebaltimoremarathon.com.

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