Six thousandths of a second – in any event, it’s a minuscule sliver of time, a winning margin that could easily leave the defeated athlete feeling hard done by.
In an event as long and arduous as the 10,000m race walk, that feeling is only likely to be exacerbated, but at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018 there were no hard-luck stories for Ecuador’s David Hurtado.
For 40 minutes, the 19-year-old had walked his heart out, covering the 25 laps of the track both carefully and courageously, so when his final charge up the home straight fell short by the tiniest of margins, he had no regrets.
“My main target was winning the gold but throughout the race it became very difficult because I got two yellow cards,” said Hurtado. “So I decided to take it easy up until 8km and then just try as much as I could at the end.”
Turning into the home straight, Hurtado had a six-metre deficit to make up on China’s Zhang Yao, but with a surging finish he flashed past the finish in unison with Zhang, both athletes clocking 40:32.06, both athletes walking away exhausted, drenched in sweat from their exertions under an oppressively warm midday sun.
For Hurtado, reaching that line and earning silver for Ecuador was the culmination of a journey started 10 years earlier, when his interest in the sport was first stoked by watching a hero of his on TV.
Inspired by Perez
Hurtado was just nine years old during the 2008 Beijing Olympics but he, like most Ecuadorians, closely followed the exploits of Jefferson Perez, who, despite then reaching the autumn of his career, took a superb silver medal in the 20km race walk.
“Obviously he inspired me,” said Hurtado. “I remember watching him in 2008 and that’s when I understood what competitive race walking was and I wanted to do the same. I’m very, very proud to represent race walking now for Ecuador.”
It’s hard to overstate the esteem with which Perez is held in Ecuador. An Olympic gold medallist at the 1996 Olympics, upon returning home from Atlanta Perez embarked on a 459km pilgrimage in his native country, giving thanks for his success with an 11-day trek between Quito and his hometown of Cuenca.
That golden celebration drew huge crowds to the roadside each day, cementing his status as a national hero. In the decade that followed, that status only grew as Perez added three world 20km titles and an Olympic silver medal in Beijing.
Only three years after those 2008 Games did Hurtado first take up the sport, encouraged to try it by one of his teachers at school. His performances improved rapidly and a year later, at the age of 13, Hurtado was passed to a specialist race walking coach in Javier Callambe.
These days, he continues to train under the guidance of Callambe, who has him covering about 70 kilometres a week in training.
“At the moment we’re doing a very meticulous job and the aim is to improve it step by step and in the future to get better,” said Hurtado.
Hurtado trains in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, where he attends university and studies sports marketing, and though there is no race walking background in his family, his proud parents were following his exploits from afar when Hurtado flew the Ecuadorian flag in Tampere.
Heading into the IAAF World U20 Championships, all eyes were on Zhang, the Chinese star who won the world U18 title last year and had backed it up with the U20 10km title at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang earlier this year.
With warm sun beating down from above on the morning of the men’s 10,000m race walk, halfway was reached in a conservative 20:43.39, with Hurtado and Zhang nestled in the pack which was led by Kenya’s Dominic Samson Ndigiti.
Hurtado made his move shortly after, clocking a 3:52.19 split between 6000m and 7000m to whittle the leading pack. However, by then Hurtado had picked up two yellow cards and was at risk of an unwanted 60-second penalty trip to the pit lane.
As a result, he had to hold back and play a cat-and-mouse game with Zhang over the final three laps, Zhang making his decisive move at the bell and opening up an advantage that he would hold until the dying metres, when Hurtado made his last-gasp drive for gold.
It didn’t come off, but silver did not only exceed many people’s expectations; it also surpassed the bronze medal won by Hurtado’s hero Perez at this event back in 1990.
Given what Perez went on to do after that performance, Hurtado now sees no reason not to dream of similar success as he transitions to the senior ranks.
“My biggest dream is to win an Olympic medal,” he says.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF