Nine wonderful editions of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge has seen the best battle in some weird and wonderful locations – but none as contrasting as the big three this year.
The two Category A races plus the final offer everything an adventurous walking fan could want.
Saransk is hardly a city that trips off a travel agent’s tongue. But yet, the capital of the Republic of Mordovia is arguably home to world race walking.
It has the only centre in the world solely dedicated to the sport – and what a centre it is.
Home to 300,000 and about 630km east of Moscow, Saransk is also the venue for the IAAF World Walking Cup on May 12-13 – and one of the two Category As that serve as entry ticket for the Challenge final.
The city has already hosted two Challenge finals in 2007 and 2009, and if preparations for the Walking Cup are anything like previous experiences, anybody in attendance mid May is in for a treat.
At the previous editions, a dead straight, save for the turns, one kilometre loop through the city main street was especially re-laid to produce a surface so smooth – a spirit level's bubble was dead centre as made no difference.
Organisers were not averse to agreeing the operation had cost something close to $800,000 out of the council purse.
But city officials are willing to invest lavishly due mostly to the legacy from alumni whose portraits hang in the sports centre entrance hallway.
Olympic games winners, IAAF World Champions, World record holders, IAAF Challenge winners, IAAF World Cup walking champions – both sexes all beam down from both walls.
Two years ago the photos were nearly to the floor. By now, any new name making the grade is probably hanging around the corner in a corridor.
At the centre they have a special 333-metre track. Why the odd distance? Because three laps make up a kilometre minus a step, and therefore easier to count than a conventional 400 metre circuit.
Please tell of any other forest road training circuit in the world where they have a specially designated sweeping machine that clears leaves off a 1km tarmac stretch with stopwatch toting coaches shouting out helpful splits all the way around?
As for this Challenge/World Cup event, the $800,000 surface has been jettisoned in place of a brand new route that takes in the city’s iconic gold-domed cathedral favoured on just about every souvenir from Saransk available.
But if that’s a notable landmark out east, there are few more recognisable sights in the world than Buckingham Palace.
Queen Elizabeth II’s official residence acts as the backdrop for the three Olympic events that also double as the second Category A Challenge race.
Her Majesty has but to lean on the famous balcony out front for a grandstand view of the three walks that start on 4 August with the men’s 20km.
This time a 2k loop wends its way from The Mall and into Constitution Hill - home to every other postcard scene not featuring Big Ben, a London bus or a ‘Bobby’ policeman.
The Olympic 'Test' event last April saw a clutch of top Chinese give the course a go.
The verdict was that as competitors won’t have time to take in the sights, the road surface might have been a bit kinder.
The Mall is wide and long, but it also has a pronounced camber. Walkers will be over to one side of the famous route to make space for the centrally situated grandstand, and therefore walking on a bit of a sideways slope.
But as men’s winner Zhen Wang said, "It will be the same for everyone when the race starts."
That last sentiment perfectly echoes the start line in Erdos, Inner Mongolia for the Challenge final on 14 September.
Inner Mongolia conjures up images of Marco Polo and his caravanserai plodding its way east to meet Kublai Khan. But Erdos, making its debut on the Challenge circuit, is in fact a brand, new modern city also called the Dubai of northern China.
The city 561 kilometres west of Beijing has been showered with wealth, packed with public infrastructure and located near precious natural resources in a region plagued by water-supply troubles.
But the urban centre also known as Kangbashi New Area has had problems attracting new residents since inception six years ago.
Maybe its fortunes will change when local Chinese rally to see something as prestigious as the Challenge final when Race Walking’s elite go head to head for a share of $200,000 prize money through state of the art and carefully constructed streets.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF