There I stood on the second floor of the McCann center track: shin splints looming, breathing heavy, and feeling shocked. I had just lost a one-lap race around the elevated track in the McCann student fitness center going as fast as I could, muscles moving harder than I had ever worked them. The victor didn’t even break a sweat, halfway done with the race by the time I rounded the first corner. She smiled along with her teammates watching the fiasco as I crossed the finish line. I came to one conclusion:
Walking is hard.
I had always felt walking was easy for me. Since before I can remember, I have gotten a handle on putting one foot in front of the other and getting from point A to point B. I can walk fast if I’m in a hurry. I can walk slowly if I’m going for a stroll. And I have never had to think about walking in any other aspect other than, well, walking.
After competitively walking against Marist’s sophomore race-walk athlete Mia Priore, I learned how good someone can be at walking. Some people are talented enough to compete in a wildly complicated yet highly competitive collegiate sport known as racewalking.
Priore is one of three members on the Marist track and field team, along with junior Marissa Sciotto and freshman Megan Hoffman, whose sole event is racewalking. Behind an event that might look simple and a tad silly hides a difficult training regiment and a deep understanding of the rules for proper form to succeed in racewalking.
Enduring any hardship, even embarrassment from friends or peers along the way, the three have set their sights on making the most of their craft at the Division I level, including a path to the Olympic Trials in Oregon this summer, where Marist racewalk athletes before them have reached the peak of their track careers.
Racewalking is surprisingly complicated.
The sport is unique in the fact that it’s the only track event where the athletes aren’t necessarily running, with rules designed to keep the athletes’ walking motion regulated during a race, like keeping one foot on the ground at all times.
“I remember when I’d have to just go off and just do like a normal mile day,” said Sciotto. “I would start running whenever I passed any of my school friends, because I didn’t want them to see me racewalking. Obviously, I can see how silly it looks.”
Sciotto is the eldest member of the team, originally from Farmingville, New York. She mentioned the large racewalking presence on Long Island, but originally got into the sport because a good friend asked her to.
“‘Ugh, why would anyone want to do track?’” she answered.
After participating in the conditioning week, her coaches taught the team how to racewalk on the last day. Sciotto described that she has naturally hyper-extended legs, which is useful in a sport that gives out penalties for bending the knees
Never did she think her strengths in racewalking would someday grant her a scholarship to a Division I college (no, she wasn’t a “walk-on”).
The origin story is familiar to Hoffman, a high school teammate of Sciotto’s at Sachem East High School. Despite being made fun of, Hoffman chose to fully commit to racewalking after picking the sport over her first love of volleyball.
While Hoffman has yet to race this season for the Red Foxes (the collegiate track season starts in June), her racewalking took her as far as the New Balance Nationals Outdoors, a national meet designed for middle school and high school level track and field athletes.
At the collegiate level, racewalking ranges in a variety of distances, anywhere from a short 3,000-meter “sprint” to a longer 50-kilometer race–longer than a marathon.
Priore mentioned the struggles of training alone for her high school team in White Plains, New York; most of the races and teams she competed with were against Long Island high schools like Sachem East.
Sure enough, Priore and Hoffman competed in multiple races against each other in high school. Last spring season, Priore took home the bronze medal in the U20 5,000-meter race walk in the Penn Relays, one of the largest and oldest track and field events in the United States.
When breaking it down, the training is similar to any other distance race, all based on repetition depending on the distances required. Training 11 months out of the entire year, Priore trains to build up stamina for any distance, even if she’s not able to train on a track.
“My dad will run next to me while I’m walking,” said Priore.
The three racewalkers at Marist have gotten used to the trials and tribulations that come with being an athlete committed to a unique sport. Under women’s track and field coach Chuck Williams, they have been provided with a platform to grow as athletes and race at numerous track and field events in the spring season, including the Penn Relays this past summer, where Sciotto placed eighth overall in the 20-kilometer event.
Their ambitions don’t stop there. Before attending Marist, Sciotto met two of the three senior racewalkers on the Marist team, Kayla Shapiro and Lauren Harris, each of whom participated in the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials in Springfield, Oregon. The two were the first athletes in Marist track and field history to compete in an Olympic Trial for any event, finishing ninth and 13th in the highest level of competition for racewalking in the country.
“If Chuck Williams was able to train them to go to the Olympic trials, then without a doubt, hopefully he’d be able to train me to make it to that level as well,” said Sciotto.
Now, it’s Sciotto and Priore’s turn. With qualifying races in March and April (one of them as far away as California), the two are training to hit the qualifying time that will send Marist back to Oregon. Sciotto recently hit the required time in a practice race, and the two athletes push each other during the process as they aim to take the national challenge to greater heights. Having a solidified team helps deflect the negative comments along the way.
“I remember when I qualified for indoor nationals all I kept hearing, ‘You qualified for walking,’” said Sciotto. “I would almost tear myself down in a way being like, ‘Oh, like, it is just walking, I know it’s not that important,’ but it absolutely is important.”
Even while not trying out for the Olympic trials in her freshman season, Hoffman has bonded with the two upperclassmen and made the most of her collegiate track experience, reminiscing about her own dream in high school and seeing seasoned racewalk athletes from her high school succeed in the next level.
“It’s really good to have a tight group of girls that I can train with and race with,” said Hoffman. “It just makes it a lot easier knowing I have other people.”
With sights set on the national stage, racewalking is a staple in the Marist track and field programs. There’s no denying the commitment required to send an athlete to races on the national stage; it blows away the stereotypes of race walking being an “easy sport.”
So yeah, I lost the race.
It wasn’t close. By the time I rounded the first corner of the McCann track, I thought I got a hang of the technique–hips swaying, knees locked and straight–but Priore has been racewalking for years. From the start, she propelled her legs towards a quick start, and the rest was a walk in the park.
I gained respect for the three athletes. It was worth the humiliation; sure, I didn’t think I would win in the first place, but I saw firsthand the preparation and training required for a sport revolving around an everyday task. It’s safe to say I’ll leave the walking to the professionals.
Edited by Luke Sassa
Graphic Credit: Cara Lacey, Photo from Marist Athletics