Last weekend saw the big Ultra Marathon event of the year – the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc or ‘UTMB’ as it’s known. It’s about 105 miles long and it’s a monster, traversing as it does the entire Mont Blanc Massif. As one of the most famous Ultra races, the UTMB is always a draw and this year saw arguably the strongest field ever assembled for a race of this kind. But what’s this got to do with Sport Walking you ask? Quite a bit actually.
The similarities between Trail or Ultra Running and Sport Walking are many, in fact you could say that the only difference is that both Ultra Runners’ feet are off the ground at once! Watch any Ultra race and you’ll see runners walking up the steep climbs – walking is a key part of managing effort on steep ground. That’s not to say that walking is actually a component part of Ultra Running but Ultras are all about efficient effort and there comes a point where walking is simply the most efficient thing to do. Remember that last point!
The other obvious difference is of course that Trail and Ultra Runners move more quickly over the terrain. For weekend warriors though, as the distance increases, strong Sport Walkers can close in on some of them after a certain distance and even overtake. It’s about consistency and because Sport Walking is more steady state – maintaining an even pace for the whole duration – you get that ‘bungee’ effect. Look at Sport Walk founder Roger Burlinson’s performance at Race to the Stones, finishing in the top fifty percent of the whole field, runners included.
But this is not a competition between walking and running. It’s not about which is best, which is harder (some Ultra Runners think walking is harder because the effort lasts far longer). There’s real synergy between Sport Walking and Trail or Ultra Running. Essentially it’s about moving fast along the trails, either by walking or running.
Sport Walking doesn’t emulate Ultra Running though, neither is it the poor relation, it’s all just a question of preference. Some people (us included) just prefer the dynamics of walking to running and Sport Walking offers up the opportunity to take on Ultra races, something we probably wouldn’t be able to do if ‘racing long’ were purely the domain of runners.
Why does all this matter though? Well, it’s mostly about Sport Walkers being a part of a wider community of sports people and athletes, who share a common interest and common goals. You could argue that Sport Walking should find its own way, not latch on to an existing sport and that’s a valid point. The thing is though, the similarities between Sport Walking and Trail or Ultra Running have not been forged deliberately. Sport Walking is not just Ultra Running for less able athletes!
No, the logic of pursuing weight savings by using running kit, using the most effective nutrition, focussing on training for speed and endurance, naturally positions Sport Walking alongside Trail and Ultra Running entirely coincidentally. The whole purpose is to travel as fast as possible, whether running or walking, so it’s entirely logical that methods that work for Ultra Running would also work for Sport Walking. It’s not our fault if their equipment perfectly fits our needs either!
Of course, there’s no requirement to adopt Trail and Ultra Running equipment, nutrition or methods but when you start walking seriously at speed over longer distances, you end up adopting them because they bring benefits and, being a sport, the whole point of Sport Walking is to achieve the best performance you can.
For instance, you don’t see Race Walkers in the Olympic races wearing cargo pants and walking boots because they’re walking! No, they adopt the best athletic equipment available to achieve the best possible performance.
For us here at Sport Walk, we don’t see Trail and Ultra Running as anything other than a different way of travelling fast along the trails – both Ultra Runners and Sport Walkers are undertaking a challenge. Sport Walking is also making Trail and Ultra sport much more accessible.
At the moment, the competitions open both to walkers and runners are limited but that will change as Sport Walking becomes more widespread. But racing is only one small part and Sport Walkers can already take on monumental challenges, just pick a National Trail for instance and go set a time! By the way, we’re starting a verified ‘Fastest Known Time’ section on this site soon.
The best part of seeing Sport Walking as a part of the Ultra and Trail community though is that you can tap into an existing knowledge base, expertise and inspiration, that’ll help you forge your own Sport Walking into a hugely satisfying and empowering sporting lifestyle. Watch any video on YouTube about the UTMB or Western States for instance and what you’ll see are people basically doing the same thing as you, it’s just that both their feet are off the ground at once!