Olympic medallists and defending champions Jared Tallent and Kjersti Plätzer lead the star-studded field from a record 25 countries for the first leg of 2009 IAAF Race Walking Challenge in this northern Mexican city.
A traditional powerhouse in Race Walking with more than 20 world and Olympic medals in this athletic discipline, Mexico has hosted the first stop of the Challenge since its inception in 2003 and Chihuahua has been the venue since 2008 and this northern city will host the IAAF Race Walking World Cup in 2010.
Plätzer, a 37-year-old mother of two, will defend her victory from last year, which marked the start of her most successful season ever, including her second Olympic medal, a personal best of 1:27:07 and the overall Challenge trophy.
The Norwegian ace will arrive here after a high altitude training camp in Flagstaff, northern Arizona. However, she is expected to find tough opposition from other European women, including Italy’s 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Elisa Rigaudo and Spain’s Beatriz Pascual, who finished sixth in the Chinese capital.
“I came to Chihuahua as this city will host the World Cup in 2010 and I want to prove myself on the high altitude (1,400m). I should not have problems as I live and train 700m above sea level,” said the 28-year old Rigaudo, who arrived here two weeks before race day.
Rigaudo returns to Mexico after winning the Tijuana leg of the Challenge in 2004. She went on to take the IAAF Walking Series that year. In Chihuahua, she expects to complete the 20km in 1h33, around Platzer’s winning time in 2008.
“The course is very beautiful. It is flat and I am sure athletes will walk well,” she added.
Beatriz Pascual and Portugal’s Inés Henriques, third in Tijuana last year, and 2005 World Championships bronze medallist Susana Feitor form a respectable Iberoamerican trio.
“We came here to assess how we are doing and specially thinking of the World Cup next year. This is my first time on Mexican soil and I am very pleased to be here. The people here have shown me joy and optimism. There’s always a smile”, commended the 26-year-old Pascual.
In the men’s race, Olympic double medallist Jared Tallent will start his title defence facing a strong field including his compatriot and 2007 Challenge champion Luke Adams, Tunisia’s 2007 World Championships bronze medallist Hatem Goula and 2008 Chihuahua winner and local favorite Éder Sánchez.
The Australian won his second consecutive national title last Saturday in Melbourne, where he clocked 1:19:42 hours, just one second off his personal best. A week earlier, he smashed his 5000m area record of 18:41.83, in Sydney.
Twenty-four-year-old Tallent finished a distant ninth in Chihuahua 12 months ago, but went on to clinch two Olympic medals in Beijing: silver in the 50km, bronze in the 20km. His wife, Claire, will also walk the 20km.
Mexico has high hopes on 22-year old Eder Sanchez, who will defend his victory from last year. “I am in good shape, but I am not focused on walking that fast. It is the start of the season and I’ll be happy if finish among the top five. The ultimate goal is the world championships,” stated Sanchez.
The 2008 World Cup bronze medallist confirmed his good early season form recently when he broke the CAC 5000m walk (18:40.11) in Sydney, on February, ahead of Tallent.
Irishman Robert Heffernan, who finished eighth in Beijing, will also aim for the top placings, as will Chihuahua-born Horacio Nava, sixth in the Chinese capital, and Norway’s two-time World Cup 50km medallist Trond Nymark.
The men’s 50km features Spain’s Jesús Ángel García, Norway’s Erick Tysse and Poland’s Grzegorz Sudol, who finished fourth, fifth and ninth, respectively, in Beijing.
Mexico’s Jesús Sánchez enjoys home advantage as he will defend his 2008 victory on the streets of Chihuahua.
“I have trained well and I am very motivated to renew my title”, said Sánchez who clocked 3:52:36 hours for the win last year.
García, 39, arrived here over two weeks ago to get used to the course and the weather, hoping to his improve his second place performance from last year.
“I came better prepared and I hope to perform better than last year. I believe the new modifications to the course will help us to achieve faster times. If we can walk around 3:50, considering the altitude and the fact that is the start of the season, it is a good result,” said García, who became the first international athlete to arrive for the Challenge.
The 1993 World champion won the 50km in Tijuana 2003 and has always been on the 50km podium in the Mexican leg of the Challenge. He missed the 2007 edition and finished second in Chihuahua last year.
Organizers of the “Encuentro Internacional de Marcha Chihuahua 2009” modified the 2km “Pancho Villa” course to reduce the incline and make it faster.
Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, the 1997 World Championships 50km bronze medallist, is currently the director of the Chihuahua Institute of Sports and heading the organizing committee.
“We are honoured to host such an important event” as the city, state and country prepare for the 2010 World Cup, the first one in Mexico since 1993. “We have worked hard to make it a success,” he said.
Former race walking stars will deliver the workshop “Race Walking in the World” on Friday. The list of speakers includes Italy’s Maurizio Damilano, Chairman of the IAAF Race Walking Committee, Ecuador’s three-time World champion Jefferson Pérez, Spain’s José Marín and Jordi Llopart, as well Jerzy Hausleber, considered as the father of race walking in Mexico.
The walking weekend will kick off Saturday’s at 13:00 with a recreational 4km race, followed by the women’s 20km an hour later and the men’s 20km at 16:00 local time.
On Sunday, the 50km men will start at 8:00am, followed by the junior women (10:00) and the junior women (10:15).
IAAF Race Walking Challenge consists on 10 events in three different categories, including the World Championships in Berlin, and awards over 200,000 USD in prize money.
The 2009 Challenge Final will be held in Saransk, Russia, on September 19, one month after the IAAF World Championships in Berlin, August 15-23.
For more information, please go to http://www.walkingchihuahua.com/
Sanchez and Plätzer are rated as the top favourites for the victory, according to an online survey on the official event website.
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF