How Sport Walking came about

Sport Walk’s founder Roger Burlinson explains how this blog and his plans to develop Sport Walking came about:

I’ve essentially been Sport Walking for decades as, I’m sure, have loads of other people but I’ve always called it lots of different things in a rather awkward attempt to classify it (as if everything needs classifying).  For me, there was always something more to going for a walk than just…. going for a walk! Something more challenging, sporty, athletic, even though I was never race or power walking.

It was in 2016, when I decided to walk across the New Forest (where I live) that things really started to take shape. I initially thought I’d just ‘go walkabout’ and see how far I could get in 24 hours. Then I realised I could probably go much further than the forest itself in that time, so I started to devise a route through all the best parts in the hope I could eek out a trail, a kind of tour of the forest.

I eventually landed on an 80km route (83km in total) that I thought I could complete in maybe 20-24 hours and off I set, complete with traditional rucksack, approach shoes and a whole bunch of other stuff I didn’t need but thought I should take anyway (all those decades of received wisdom about what a walker should carry still governed my outlook). I took a storm shelter and sleep mat, thinking I would find a bench somewhere at the end and sleep until morning when I could be picked up.

I did a few test walks beforehand and settled on a pace I thought was realistic and stuck religiously to that pace throughout. I was also completely self sufficient, so I had to stop to buy food and replacement water to mix with electrolyte tabs along the way. I also stopped at a McDonalds for dinner about two thirds of the way through before heading on into the night.

Despite all this faffing around, I still found myself estimating that I would finish around 1am, so I frantically texted my wife to ask for a pick up that night, rather than enduring a long bivvi on a bench somewhere! In the end, I completed the route in under 18 hours (all with a heavy rucksack, heavy shoes & heavy clothes) and the seed was sewn.

The next day, I unpacked my rucksack and weighed everything, realising I could save a huge amount of weight, just by being more scientific about what I’d really need and using lighter weight alternatives. I went through my whole kit list and struck off everything that I could conceivably do without before researching online what essential equipment was used for some major trail ultras. And that’s where things really started to take shape.

I began to realise that my basic idea of setting a time goal for a walking challenge was fundamentally a strong foundation but that if I essentially approached the task like an ultramarathon runner would, I could go much faster than I currently could because I’d be much lighter. Kerching!

From there, I started to look at the whole concept of what I’ve now shaped Sport Walking to be – what sort of challenges you could take on, the idea of using support crews, of refining the way you walk – not to adopt a race walking style but just simply to make the ‘normal’ walking process as efficient and fast as it could be.

Then my wife forwarded me an advert for Race to the Stones and suggested I enter it. Now, initially, I was reluctant. I’d started walking like this for solitude, to push myself by myself. I wasn’t looking for company or trying to turn it into some kind of alternative race walk. But then curiosity took over and the more I read about it, the more a plan began hatching in my mind.

What if this were one of the things that Sport Walking was actually about? Not just taking part in an organised event but the idea that ultramarathons were a natural fit for Sport Walking. After all, the further you go, the more benefit you gain from walking rather than running. Well, that’s what I began wondering and the more I thought about it, the more I realised I needed to try out this thing that I’d been doing in a challenge that would be a really big test.

It was a fairly easy decision to reach to be honest, in terms of the challenge itself. If I could walk 83km in 18 hours with a heavy rucksack and heavy shoes, while also stopping to buy food and even kicking back at McDonalds for dinner, surely I could go another 20km in the same time if I trained right and used lighter weight gear?

So I started methodically buying new super lightweight kit and finding the most appropriate items for my needs. You can read all about the gear I used for the race here but essentially, I focussed on finding the best performing lightest kit available and, predominantly, it was ultra running kit that fitted the bill.

The most important items were the shoes (obviously), the vest (backpack) and the waterproofs but I looked at every detail and every item, even down to buying bodybuilder style posing pants because they were low cut at the front, meaning I could…. how shall I put this….  save time on wee stops by not having to fiddle around inside my flies to catch the top of my pants!

Yes folks, that’s what ‘marginal gains’ looks like in practice! It may seem hilarious (it does to me now) but it’s not just about saving seconds on a wee stop. It’s also about minimising stress by removing the frustration of un-cooperative briefs under your flies!

Anyway, armed with my ‘Arnie’ pants and some of the best, lightest ultra running kit available, I racked up at Race to the Stones with an 18 hour goal and got on with it. The first 50k went well and my progress was pretty much what I’d expected – runners passed me and I passed slower walkers, especially at feed stations which I tried to keep just for some nibbles and flat coke, whereas many people were treating them as rest stops. Rule No.1 – just keep moving, it’s the easiest way to save time!

I finished Race to the Stones in under 16 hours in the end and, most encouragingly for me, I wasn’t passed by a single person in the last 40k. I was passing lots of people though, lots of runners, who’d blown around the 60-70k mark. It was classic tortoise and hare and, while things were playing out how I’d hoped they would, I hadn’t thought about how that would actually make me feel.

I became alive with a competitive urge I’ve never felt before. For every head torch that flickered into life in the distance as I’d crest the next hill, I muttered with a kind of possessed grunt – “I’m having you!” The steady state process of simply walking fast was really coming into its own and I just became stronger, more determined and faster the further I went. I had my fastest split at kilometre 98 and felt absolutely over the moon as I crossed the line.

In truth, I had no way of knowing that my theory of Sport Walking an ultra would work but it did. I’d finished in the top 50% of all 100km non-stop finishers – runners and walkers. That was it. Mission accomplished! But, more than that, it showed that Sport Walking was a really good way of getting a strong result at ultra distance and that was the thing that really mattered to me. It was proof of concept beyond what I’d hoped for.

So, that’s essentially how ‘Sport Walk’ came about and how the journey of developing and promoting Sport Walking started. Now, we have The Sport Walk Plan in place and we’re starting to reach out to explain what Sport Walking offers to others, so that we can grow participation.

It’s very early days and it will take a lot of work and a long time to get Sport Walking into the public consciousness but that’s OK, There are plenty of trails and plenty of challenges out there.  There’s no rush!

Roger Burlinson
Founder of Sport Walk

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