There is no more loyal servant of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge than Claudia Stef.
The Romanian national record holder has competed in all but two of the nine Challenges – and only missed the 2010 version because she was pregnant at the time.
Back for an eighth go this year, she claims that when the sun sets on her Olympic tilt in August – and one of the two category A walks in this year’s series – will she decide whether she wants to put her body through more exquisite torture in 2013.
“It will depend on whether I am motivated or not,” she added from her winter training base in Portugal. “But if I am performing well – then why not?”
Stef admits the IAAF Challenge has been good to her career and bank balance, especially since her own country’s funding is all but negligible.
All the more rewarding then since her singular efforts that garnered a first, two seconds, two thirds a fourth, a sixth and an 11th so far – have been largely made against the background of a nation with no other top walkers to ease the burden of lonesome training.
The athlete is 34 on Saturday (25 Feb) and has long got used to being the solitary figure waiting for planes at airports while others fly off in team groups. But Stef has nothing but praise for an IAAF initiative that sees walkers duel for a share of $200,000, much like their brethren enjoy in other parts of track and field.
She said: “The most difficult Challenge in both senses was last year.
“I came back after pregnancy and I got a lot of injuries. But my desire to compete at London’s Olympics (and also a Category A race) was greater than anything else, and I got over any obstacle to achieve the 'A’ standard for the race.
“In the end it was a wonderful year because I was back doing what I like most than anything else which is to compete, travel and meet new people.”
The endless queuing for visas has more stamps in her passport than a philatelist’s album, but she is still able to list two standout events from so many.
The first in Tlalnepantla de Baz in 2006 owed as much to race officials in the Mexico City suburb as her win against the odds.
“The organisation was excellent – one of the best I can remember,” she said. “But I also surprisingly beat a very strong Chinese contingent that set me up for first in the final standings later in the year.”
It was at another Challenge race two years earlier that Stef adopted the vow to never abandon a race mid effort, no matter what pain and doubt was scraping away her resolve.
When she warmed up in La Coruna, the former IAAF World Junior Championship bronze medallist was convinced DNF would appear against her name halfway through.
By the end, Stef had set a Romania national record, won the 20k event and was on her way to a final second place in the standings.
“It was undoubtedly my best race of all in the Challenge,” she said. “I was competing against the best, but it was strange because I was convinced I would not be able to finish.
“But after 5k I began to feel better, and by 15k I realised I could win. When I set 1:27:41 – it convinced me there was no room to abandon in the future and always to make sure I crossed the finish line.
“You can never be sure what is going to happen next.”
The northern Spanish city has been good to Stef, because it was there after triumphing earlier in Mexico that she won the 2006 series at the IAAF World Walking Cup.
And it was in La Coruna, where she returned for last year’s final – and a welcome return to form.
She added: “The Challenges have offered me a lot personally.
“I have been to almost all the series because I really love to compete regularly. I love to fight for every place that’s in front of me – and maybe walk beyond my limits.
“Each competition won or lost makes me stronger as a person – and no amount of training can give me that.”
Paul Warburton for the IAAF