Think race walking is for slow coaches? Think again. Try keeping up with Welsh No.1 Bethan Davies who can walk 5k in 21 minutes (her current British record). Owen Morgan met up with her as she strides towards April’s Commonwealth Games in Australia.
With the Commonwealth Games now a shade under six months away, Welsh race walker Bethan Davies has just taken the first steps on the long journey towards her Gold Coast dream.
As well as aiming for a medal winning performance when she gets there, she’s hoping to raise the profile of her sport along the way.
Having taken a short break following her impressive performance at the World Athletics Championships in London, Davies has just returned to training in preparation for next April’s Commonwealths.
There’s a long, hard, winter of training ahead but the prospect of a Wales team place and the warm Australian sunshine is sitting invitingly on the horizon.
Speaking at the Welsh Institute of Sport in Cardiff, Davies said: “I’ve already had my season break and I’m just back into winter training at the moment so everything’s hurting.
“I decided to end my season after the World Champs because there weren’t really many other races I could have done. So I just decided it was time to have a little bit of a break, sort out any ailments and any niggles and now I’m back.”
“Back” means a return to a gruelling training regime in readiness to tackle the 20k (12.5 miles) Gold Coast course.
“I’ll be doing a lot of miles and getting the volume back to where it was,” says Davies.
“My top volume at the moment has been 120kms (75 miles) a week, so I’m slowly getting that back up.
“One of my main focuses is improving my pace over the distance. Last year was really good for me to get the volume up, but I now need to get the pace quicker at the higher volume, so that’s my main aim at the moment – to get quicker.
“It’s how you train for a half marathon, my longest training session at the moment has been 25kms in one go. I do strength and conditioning three times a week and I do shorter walks, which are usually about 8k and then it goes up to 25k. Then I do speed sessions, tempo sessions, say six by 1km. The same things that runners do, apart from I’m race walking them rather than running.”
Davies’ performance at August’s World Championships in London has given her real hope of a successful Commonwealth Games – if selected.
“The race itself went really well, I actually hit all of my goals. My aim was to come top 30 and I came 29th. I was the first Briton home and I was the second Commonwealth athlete home, so that’s really good looking forward to the Gold Coast. I was really happy.
“The girls in the Commonwealth at the moment are quite similarly paced. There are one or two that have got fast PBs, but it seems that a lot of us are around the same kind of pace at the moment.
“So, looking forward, that’s really good to know. I’m definitely in the mix and quite excited to see what happens in April.
“There are no guarantees I’ll be on the team as it hasn’t been picked yet, but I’ve done the standard I need several times this year, so I’m in a really good position to get picked. If I do get picked I think I’m in a really good position to do well.
“I would definitely say I am aiming for a medal, what colour that medal would be, whether I get it, that would all come down to the day.”
As well as her personal goals, the Cardiff AC athlete is keen to promote the sport which she says has changed her life.
Her aim is to raise the profile of race walking and encourage as many people to get involved as possible.
In the past race walking has been seen as something of a Cinderella sport, best known for its participants’ unusual-looking walking style.
But the success of athletes like Davies and fellow Brit Tom Bosworth has seen race walking’s profile rise, along with an appreciation of how talented the athletes are and how impressive their performances are.
The unique race walking technique is mainly down to the rules which participants must abide by.
Davies explains: “You have to keep one foot on the floor and you have to have a straight leg when you hit the floor. The straight leg rule is actually probably the biggest difference between running and race walking and not many people know about it. You could be a low to the ground runner but you can’t be a bent legged race walker.
“In running you land on your toes, in race walking you’d land on your heels with your leg straight, and it stays straight until it goes under your body.”
Despite the rigid rules, which can see competitors disqualified for three misdemeanours, Davies says the sport is accessible to anyone, especially those with a good endurance background.
“It’s not as hard as you may think to make the transition, but some people do struggle with picking up the technique while others just get it. It’s normally the knee that people really struggle with. You just have to keep practising. It’s like anything, keep practising, get a good coach and there you go!
“Approach your local athletics club and see if anyone does it. If you’re in Cardiff there is someone who meets there every single week. There are a few places across South Wales, it’s the same coach who does all the different areas, but if you’re interested, get in touch with your local athletics club and there should be someone, even if they don’t know how to coach it, who will know who to put you in touch with.
“There are lots of resources out there, so even if there isn’t a coach near you, there is on-line material which will show you how to do the technique. But as long as you’ve got a good endurance background, or you’re willing to pick up a good endurance background, there’s no reason why you can’t be a good race walker.”
For anyone who thinks race walking isn’t a “fast” enough sport for them, here are a few statistics that might make you change your mind.
At last summer’s British Athletics Championships, Davies broke the British record at the “sprint” distance of 5km in a time of 21 mins 21.52 seconds – a time which the vast majority of the thousands of participants taking part in the weekly Park Runs up and down the country would be more than happy to register.
Davies says: “The 5k example is the one I give to anyone I meet and I’m telling about race walking because 5k is something lots of people do these days especially with Park Run, so it’s an easy way to explain how fast we’re going. Obviously we do 20k in championships, which is not quite a half marathon, so that’s a little more difficult to put it into perspective.
“Most of the time when you say ‘walking’ people think ‘slow’. Race-walking is very speedy and I’m not even the quickest in the world. I’m getting there, but it’s very, very fast, especially the men. Over 50k it’s very impressive and they keep going for over three and a half hours. The speed they’re going just blows my mind.
“Just before the British Champs I did a 5k in Cardiff Park run and I made it a bit of a ‘race the race walker’. On that day there were over 800 people taking part. Overall I finished in the top 100 and I was something like 10th woman, so that was quite fun.
“That’s a good way of getting people to understand what race walking is because I had a lot of people coming up to me afterwards and saying ‘I really struggled to keep up with you, I’m really impressed’ and then they want to know what you’re doing. As soon as they see you in real life they want to know about your story and how they can get into it.”
Davies is an ideal ambassador for the sport and her enthusiasm is infectious.
“It’s a fantastic sport and it’s less impact than running ,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of really lovely people that do it. Anyone out there who wants to give it a go, they should definitely go ahead and try it.”
“It changed my life so I have nothing but praise for race-walking. I do really love it. Everything I have said is true there are lovely people doing it so give it a go. You might shock yourself.”
Race walking certainly has changed Davies’ life. When she took up the sport at Leeds University she was captain of the cross-country team, now she is a world class athlete preparing for her second global event.
Despite this, anyone thinking she is a highly-paid, full-time sportswoman would be well off the mark. Gruelling training schedules have to be juggled with employment opportunities.
“Currently I am a full-time athlete,” says Davies. “But that may change in the next couple of weeks because I’ve applied for a job as a research assistant. I did a similar thing this time last year, I worked the winter and then went away to Australia for a research study.
“Since coming back I decided to become a full time athlete ahead of the World Champs to fully focus on my training, which worked really well, so this is my plan now – if I can keep working through the winters and just get enough money.
“I’m supported by Welsh athletics but I don’t have any sponsorship from any companies or anything like that, so I have to finance all these things by myself, apart from the support that Welsh Athletics gives me, which is amazing and invaluable.
“Working though the winter is the plan, and also, because I did a neuroscience degree, I want to keep my toes in the water and keep my brain ticking over. Hopefully I will get the job, work until January then get back into full-time training.”
“If I was a runner of my standard maybe I would have had a few more approaches for sponsorship, whether that be kit deals or actual financial support.
“Race walking is a good way for people to stand out, I think that anyone who was looking to support a race-walker shouldn’t be put off by the fact that there’s not that many people that do it. I stand out. When I’m walking down the road everyone notices me, I’ve made a bit of a name for myself . . . ‘ah you know, that girl that race-walks’.
“Sponsorship would help me out because at the moment if I had a bit more financial support I wouldn’t have to have the pressures of working, or I would have a bit more money to fund the things that might be beneficial to me, which I can’t fund with what I get from Welsh Athletics.”
Until then, Davies, like so many other top class athletes will continue to combine the challenges of being an international sportswoman and earning a living.
But the prospect of swapping the Great Britain vest she wore at the World Championships for the red vest of Wales at the Commonwealth Games is more than enough motivation for Davies.
“We don’t get very many opportunities to represent Wales and I think it’s really special to do that, so it will be really amazing for me. I identify myself as Welsh before I identify myself as British so wearing the Welsh vest is going to be special in its own way.
“But now I have the experience of a world competition I know what it’s like, so that’s going to be a strength. So, yes, maybe I’ve done it slightly the wrong way around by going to a World Championship first, but that should help me out in Australia.”