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If you weren’t in Beijing on September 18you weren’t anywhere for the eighth edition of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge.
A change in the rules for 2010 meant all that went before was just so much jousting.
But there can be few preliminary events so well rewarded, with the IAAF extending the programme to add a new third category of race that allowed other cities throughout the world to join in the exciting competition.
But a little like play-offs in other sports, points earned from earlier events were scrubbed when it came to toeing the line in the Chinese capital for the final.
Those with fingers on stopwatches had earned the right to be there by competing in a minimum three of 11 events starting in Hobart on February 13.
Having produced the entry fee, so to speak, the right to the best seat in the house was decided at the end of a super-fast 10km in both events.
And like other sport play-offs – home advantage proved crucial.
China literally walked away with five out of six podium places as the winners’ earlier efforts in far-flung corners reaped dividends come the big one.
Wang Zhen had barely blown out the candles at his 19th birthday, before he blew away the opposition around the 2km loop to celebrate the second-fastest time ever for the distance – and certainly the best at this level of competition.
The almost unknown teenager’s 37:44 was second only to Erik Tysse’s 37:33 in a lower key event four years ago, and belied an anonymous 21st the Chinese athlete recorded at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in May.
After the race moved up to fifth gear by the 8km-mark, Wang and eventual second place Zhu Yafei were knocking out sub 3:25mins kilometres – faster than a good club runner maintains for the distance.
Such was the pace, spectators could be forgiven for thinking the field was on an invisible moving walkway that propelled them forward.
As a result, the first 15 all recorded PBs, and 38:29 by Australian Jared Tallent, normally an outstanding time, was good enough for eighth only.
Had this been under the old rules, Zhu would have romped home in the Challenge table after taking a 12-point lead going into the final.
But this time, one short race and a massive $30,000 cheque later, Wang was the more grateful for finishing races outside the medals at Rio Maior and Sesto San Giovanni that still added another $1,200 to his wallet.
For those chasing the dollar in the women’s 10km – the real event was taking place 30 seconds behind the actual winner.
Tatyana Sibileva quickly forged a gap from the gun, but not registered for the pay-day, the Russian’s sole consolation was the fastest time of the year (41:53).
In contrast to Zhen, Hong Liu hit headlines with Olympic and IAAF World Championship medals, but little in 2010 was heard of the Chinese champion until the vital last 2km in Beijing.
It was there the six-seconds forged between she and Melanie Seeger was worth $10,000 – the difference between first and second.
However, the German’s return to fortune and fame means daughter Helena will surely get extra-spoilt after mum’s maternity leave in 2009 saw her take a year off.
And Seeger was the only outsider to gatecrash the China podium party when Yanfei Lei came home five seconds later (42:41) with all three recording personal bests.
The impression left from the past was the biggest nation on earth paid scant attention to the Challenge.
With everything riding on a final that was on home soil, it all changed this time around with Ding Chen picking up $7,000 for fifth place and making six Chinese in total on the 2010 honours list.
The other innovation was a category C race in addition to the four major category B races and the one category A race – the IAAF World Walking Cup at Chihuahua.
Tallent took advantage of the new division to win the Hobart 20km race in a PB 1:19:15 – and the fastest by an Australian at home – and then watched as wife Claire broke the women’s tape.
And to give everyone who wanted a chance of being in Beijing, the names of Olhao in Portugal, Lugano, Switzerland, Dudince in Slovakia and Alytus, Lithuania was added to the roster.
Lei was one to take advantage of the extended format, and raced in Lugano where she not only won – but notched race number one on the way to $14,000 and third in the final.
On the regular Challenge calendar, Rio Maior saw Vera Santos break the tape in April after she revved up the pace at half-way to beat Seeger by 55 seconds in the first B race of the year.
And to prove lightning does indeed strike twice – the Portuguese did the same again nearly a month later at the Sesto San Giovanni in Italy.
Alex Schwazer endorsed the adage there’s no place like home when he dominated the men’s 20km by a minute having already won in Lugano.
But apart from the ultimate title, the one to win was next in Chihuahua.
The northern Mexican city splashed out upwards of $1million on the only category A event, aka, the IAAF World Race Walking Cup, and each of the three senior winners pocketed another $30,000 each.
As it turned out, those first past the post saw two figures in the final shake-up as well. Hao Wang won the 20km against the odds in searing heat and finished third in the Challenge standings.
And in even more trying conditions, journalist student Matej Toth wrote his own story with a last-lap charge to take the 50km title – and five months later – finished ninth in the Challenge final.
The women’s 20km winner, Mario Vasco, was always a championship bridesmaid destined to wear bronze it seemed.
But in the Mexican heat, the 34-year-old finally got her reward even though her season was cut tragically short when she pulled a hamstring in the European Championships at the end of July.
Poland is as far removed from Mexico culturally and weather-wise as one imagines – but it was in Krakow next that Seeger proved that pushing a pram is no detriment to pushing the Olympic and IAAF World champion to the line.
Olga Kaniskina has had it easy for the last two years. But the Russian got an almighty fright when Seeger made up 13 seconds over the last 2km to fall just two seconds short in the 10km race.
In the men’s event around Poland’s second city, Zhu won the $2,000 first prize with a then PB of 38:40 and six seconds ahead of Mexico’s Eder Sanchez.
Beatriz Pascual must have felt she was home alone as the Spaniard sped around the La Coruna course in the last B race to win by 31 seconds from Ireland’s Olive Loughnane on June 19.
And as he was now into his stride, it was no surprise when Zhu held off Colombia’s Luis Lopez by a single second – 1:21:11 to 1:21:12 – with Hao Wang another second back, and Sanchez finishing fourth (1:21:16) with all four just about tumbling over the line together in an exciting heap.
But with so many 2010 winners doing what they do best in their own back yard, the Zhen version of Wang was the ultimate victor in a race where plumb last was still worth 42:11 – that’s last place out of 19 – to produce the fastest in-depth 10km ever.
Paul Warburton for the IAAF
2010 IAAF Race Walking Challenge Final Saturday, 18 September Beijing, China
Men (10km): 1. Wang Zhen, CHN 37:44 2. Zhu Yafei, CHN 37:57 3. Giorgio Rubino, ITA 38:00 4. Wang Hao, CHN 38:00 5. Luis Fernando Lopez Eraso, COL 38:10 6. KIM, HYUN-SUB, KOR 38:13 7. Chen Ding, CHN 38:23 8. Jared William Tallent, AUS 38:29 9. Luke Kendall Adams, AUS 38:41 10. PARK, CHIL-SUNG, KOR 38:42 11. Christopher Eric Ercikson, AUS 38:59 12. Joao Paulo Garcia Vieira, POR 39:06 13. Cai Zelin, CHN 39:06 14. Matej Toth, SVK 39:07 15. Adam John Rutter, AUS 39:20
Women (10km): 1. Tatyana Sibileva, RUS 41:53 2. Liu Hong, CHN 42:30 3. Melanie Seeger, GER 42:36 4. Li Yanfei, CHN 42:41 5. Inês Henriques, POR 43:09 6. Ana Cabecinha, POR 43:17 7. Susana Feitor, POR 43:41 8. Zuzana Malikova, SVK 44:12 9. He Qing, CHN 44:20 10. Vera Lucia Montez Dos Santos, POR 44:53 11. Jessica Elizabeth Rothwell, AUS 46:05