When the word ‘difficult’ was mentioned for the fifth time at today’s IAAF World Race Walking Cup press conference in Chihuahua - there was little doubt course and conditions are about to play a huge part in the 24th edition that starts bright and early tomorrow with the men’s 50km.
The 2km loop at the new Deportivo Sur sports complex 5km south of the northern Mexican town is all but shade-less, and the thermometer was touching 33 degrees around midday when the conference broke up.
"No daring strategies," says Horacio Nava
Throw in the fact it’s 1400m above sea level - and the warning from hometown favourite Horacio Nava, that anyone going solo at the start of the 50km would be paying dearly by the end was stating the obvious.
He said: “The course will make the competition more of a level ground, and in some ways more interesting.
“Athletes won’t risk daring strategies from the beginning - and no one should be going alone.”
The major player who brought the competition to Mexico for the second time naturally hoped that ‘level ground’ might just tip slightly in the home nation’s favour.
LOC Director Miguel Angel Rodriguez has spent the last two years and close to a $1million bringing the competition to a country that considers walking a national sport.
The former IAAF World Championship medallist made it plain the Mexican 50km team would be ready to cash in if some of the more obvious favourites faltered.
He said: “The strategy of walkers will be key to getting results, and we have good possibilities in the 50km team.
“Eder Sanchez in the (men’s) 20km on Sunday also has the chance to take advantage of the conditions.”
And if 1400m up in the air sounds testing - what price the thinnest air known to man at a habitable level?
Tallent aiming for full set of medals
Mexico took its team for a final training camp to Bolivia where at 2400m, anyone but a super athlete would have difficulty breathing properly - never mind training for a World Cup.
For all that, Jared Tallent did his diplomatic best to hide the pleasant surprise that his main rival for the gold medal won’t be lining up alongside the Australian in the 50km.
Italy’s Alex Schwazer pulled out of the race Thursday with a stomach complaint - leaving Tallent as odds-on favourite for the long haul.
He said: “I’m in two minds about Alex’s withdrawal. It’s not exactly relief, but it’s difficult to explain. You don’t wish anybody not to be there - but it would be nice to win team gold and give Australia a full set of medals to go with the silver and bronzes we’ve already won.”
The 25-year-old from Ballarat opted for the 50km even though he won Olympic silver at 20km.
He explained: “There’s only one race – the 20km at the Commonwealth Games in October, so this race gives me a chance to do both distances.”
Lopez chasing history for Colombia
Although all Mexican eyes will be on Sanchez for the 20km, Colombia’s Luis Lopez could be the first from his country to win a World Cup medal after placing fifth in the IAAF World Championships last August.
Lopez clearly thinks he might be in with a chance after inviting his fiancé and father to one of his big races for the first time.
He said: “We only have one medal from a major athletics championships – and that was in the ’92 Olympics.
“It would be a great honour to be the first in walking. Since the last World Cup when it was good just to be competing, I’ve gained so much experience since then.”
If experience is going to be the major player here in Chihuahua, Maria Vasco has already got one foot on the 20km women's podium.
Experience strong asset for Vasco
The 34-year-old Spaniard is competing in her seventh World Cup, and already has an Olympic bronze, World Championships and World Cup bronze in her trophy cabinet.
She said: “I think our team is the best we’ve had in World Cup history. The course is going to be difficult, and I’m not expecting any wonders. But a winning time of between 1:31:00 and 1:32:00 would be good – and I’ve trained for the event.”
IAAF Secretary General Pierre Weiss admitted numbers were down for the five races on previous World Cups – but was delighted there were 275 walkers who did make the trip as well as four new countries ready to heel-and-toe in a major competition for the first time.
He added: “We have 44 countries here – and we would love to have had 50. But as we pay only 50 percent of travel costs, as opposed to the IAAF World Junior Championships later in the year when we pay 100 per cent and have 185 countries – it’s not difficult to see why.”
Paul Warburton for the IAAF