Australia’s Dane Bird-Smith successfully defended his individual men’s title at the Around Taihu International Race Walking Multi-Day Competition, while Italy’s Antonella Palmisano secured the women’s crown on Wednesday (27), the fourth and final day of competition in the Wuzhong district of Suzhou, China.
In the team competitions, though, both of the individual winners had to settle for runner-up spots. ‘Latin Power’ – a team comprising world bronze medallist Caio Bonfim, Andres Chocho, Lebogang Shange, Ever Palma and Isaac Palma – won the men’s team title by almost three minutes, while Erica de Sena, Sandra Lorena Arenas and Kimberly Garcia teamed up to dominate the women’s team contest.
Now in its fifth year, the competition features stages of varying distances and locations on each of the four days, all situated around the scenic Lake Taihu area. The prize money and fun nature of the event attracts many of the world’s best race walkers as they look to end their season on a high.
Athletes compete individually but also as part of a team; the three quickest times within a team for each stage count towards a team’s final composite time.
Since his ‘DNF’ at the inaugural event in 2013, Bird-Smith has gone from strength to strength. The Olympic bronze medallist finished second individually in 2014 and 2015, also taking team honours in the latter. Last year he finished first individually and second in the team competition – positions he replicated at this year’s event.
In the first stage, held over 20km and in wet conditions, a large group of about 30 race walkers settled into a steady rhythm for the first nine kilometres before the pace quickened. Sweden’s Perseus Karlstrom dictated the pace and put in a surge at about 12 kilometres. Bonfim went with him as a 10-strong chase pack formed behind.
The two leaders were eventually reeled back in by the chase pack which, by 15 kilometres, had been whittled down to eight men. With the final five kilometres covered within 20 minutes, Karlstrom never relinquished his lead and won in 1:24:19. A late charge by Shange and Bonfim led to them both being given the same time, 1:24:21, with Bird-Smith one second behind them in fourth place.
The 10km stage in Mudu on day two was held in torrential rain, meaning the race walkers would often have to stride through deep puddles. Perhaps wanting to simply get the stage over and done with, the race set off at a healthy pace with the top 20 athletes spread out after the first few kilometres.
By seven kilometres, the group was down to about 10 men. Shange, the fourth-place finisher over 20km at last month’s IAAF World Championships, moved to the front and maintained his position until the end, winning in 39:48. It meant that at the half-way stage of the competition, Shange led the individual and team contests.
Bird-Smith finished second in 39:55 with Bonfim taking third in 40:00. Germany’s Christopher Linke, who was 10th in the first stage, rebounded with a fourth-place finish on day two.
Conditions once again proved difficult on day three as athletes were met with warm temperatures and high humidity for the 10.5km stage.
After a swift opening first kilometre, Bird-Smith charged ahead and opened up a big lead. The fractured chase pack only spread out further as the race went on. Shange, as is his trademark, put in a surge in the second half to make up some ground on Bird-Smith, but the Australian went on to win comfortably in 42:10.
With one stage left, Bird-Smith led the individual race by 41 seconds, but Shange’s ‘Latin Power’ squad still held the team in the team competition by 62 seconds. There was lots still to play for, though, as just five seconds separated positions fourth to eighth in the individual standings.
While conditions on the final day were better than the three previous stages, the final 10km race was held on a testing hilly course through Dongshan.
It proved to be a tactical affair with the pace only picking up at the half-way point when China’s Jin Xiangqian and Yang Hu made a break. They were eventually disqualified, which left teammate Gao Wenkui alone in front to be chased by Bird-Smith and Shange.
Gao just about managed to snatch victory from Bird-Smith, the pair being given the same time of 41:03, but the latter had done more than enough to take the overall individual victory with a combined time of 3:27:30.
Shange crossed the line in third place in 41:07, followed five seconds later by teammate Andres Chocho. Shange took second place overall individually with 3:28:15 with Bonfim finishing third with 3:29:26, but both mean featured on the winning team as ‘Latin Power’ won by almost three minutes from Bird-Smith’s ‘Beef Extreme’ squad.
Consistency the key for Palmisano
She may not have won any of the individual stages, but Italy’s Antonella Palmisano finished on the podium in three of the four stages and was ultimately rewarded with the overall individual title.
The pack of 10 women that shared the lead for the first few kilometres was broken up when China’s Nie Jingjing and Palmisano pushed the pace. Nie, the winner at the recent Chinese National Games, went on to win in 1:30:13 with Palmisano taking second place in 1:30:32. Brazil’s Erica de Sena, the IAAF Race Walking Challenge winner, finished strongly to take third place in 1:31:26.
Struggling with illness, defending champion Qieyang Shijie finished well off the pace on the first stage, crossing the line in 26th place in 1:43:22.
The 2012 Olympic silver medallist recovered in time for day two, though, and led from start to finish for the 10km stage in torrential rain in Mudu. Qieyang won in 42:46 with De Sena taking second place in 43:04 and Nie finishing third in 43:05.
At the half-way stage, Nie led from Palmisano – who finished sixth in the 10km stage on day two – with De Sena in third. Palmisano’s ‘Heroes’ squad led the team competition by the narrow margin of nine seconds from the ‘Latinas’ team made up of De Sena, Sandra Arenas and Kimberly Garcia.
Much like Bird-Smith in the men’s contest, Qieyang dominated the third stage. The 26-year-old took an early lead in the 10.5km race and was once again chased by De Sena in the latter stages, but the Chinese athlete won by an even bigger margin than the previous day, crossing the line 36 seconds ahead of her Brazilian rival in 45:50.
De Sena held on for second place, which also helped put her team into pole position with just one stage left. Palmisano, meanwhile, placed third in 46:39 and jumped to the top of the overall individual standings with a 17-second lead over De Sena.
Qieyang notched up her third consecutive stage victory on the final day, but having surrendered the best part of 13 minutes on the first day, she was never in contention to claim the individual overall title.
Nie attempted to stay with Qieyang during the earlier stages of the final hilly 10km stage, but her efforts were in vain as Qieyang won in 43:31. To hold on to her individual overall lead, Palmisano needed to stay within a minute of Nie and not let De Sena get more than 17 seconds ahead. The Italian easily achieved her goal, placing third in the final stage in 44:07, 23 seconds behind Nie, while De Sena finished almost a minute behind in seventh place.
It meant that Palmisano took the individual victory with a composite time of 3:44:45. Nie placed second with 3:45:27 and De Sena finished third with 3:46:00.
De Sena and her ‘Latinas’ teammates, however, topped the podium in the team standings with a combined time of 11:25:18, more than six minutes quicker than Palmisano’s squad which also included Lithuania’s Brigita Virbalyte-Dimsiene and Hungary’s Viktoria Madarasz.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF
Men – individual
1 Dane Bird-Smith (AUS) 3:27:30 (1:24:22, 39:55, 42:10, 41:03)
2 Lebogang Shange (RSA) 3:28:15 (1:24:21, 39:48, 42:59, 41:07)
3 Caio Bonfim (BRA) 3:29:36 (1:24:21, 40:00, 43:54, 41:21)
4 Gao Wenkui (CHN) 3:31:04 (1:26:16, 40:31, 43:14, 41:03)
5 Christopher Linke (GER) 3:31:12 (1:26:18, 40:08, 43:34, 41:12)
6 Andres Chocho (ECU) 3:31:14 (1:25:13, 40:55, 43:54, 41:12)
7 Evan Dunfee (CAN) 3:31:19 (1:25:45, 40:31, 43:49, 41:14)
8 Wayne Snyman (RSA) 3:34:12 (1:27:32, 40:39, 44:37, 41:24)
Men – team
1 Latin Power (C Bonfim, A Chocho, I Palma, E Palma, L Shange) 10:29:05
2 Beef Extreme (D Bird-Smith, C Linke, P Karlstrom, T Bosworth) 10:32:03
3 China (Yang Hu, Zhang Jun, Zhu Guowen, Jin Xianqian, Song Huazhang) 10:48:03
4 Boys in Green (B Boyce, A Wright, D Blocki, W Snyman) 10:52:12
5 JT Salute (D Tingay, R Augustyn, E Dunfee, Q Rew) 10:52:49
Women – individual
1 Antonella Palmisano (ITA) 3:44:45 (1:30:32, 43:27, 46:39, 44:07)
2 Nie Jingjing (CHN) 3:45:27 (1:30:13, 43:05, 48:25, 43:44)
3 Erica de Sena (BRA) 3:46:00 (1:31:26, 43:03, 46:26, 45:05)
4 Sandra Lorena Arenas (COL) 3:47:47 (1:32:29, 43:16, 46:58, 45:04)
5 Nadia Borovska (UKR) 3:48:42 (1:32:55, 43:59, 46:56, 44:52)
6 Kimberly Garcia (PER) 3:51:31 (1:35:46, 43:23, 47:17, 45:05)
7 Julia Takacs (ESP) 3:52:18 (1:33:32, 44:36, 48:37, 45:33)
8 Brigita Virbalyte (LTU) 3:53:28 (1:33:00, 44:45, 49:32, 46:11)
Women – team
1 Latinas (E de Sena, S L Arenas, K Garcia) 11:25:18
2 Heroes (A Palmisano, B Virbalyte-Dimsiene, V Madarasz) 11:31:51
3 Inter F3 (N Borovska, I Kashyna, A Pinedo, J Takacs) 11:32:23
4 China (Qieyang Shenijie, Nie Jingjing, Xie Lijuan, Mao Yanxue) 11:38:52
5 UBA (B Smith, C Tallent, H Drabenia, T Havryliuk) 12:14:02