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Long distance walking races are much harder than you think


The Vierdaagse – a four-day walking event in Nijmegen in the Netherlands – is rumored to be one of the largest walking races in the world.

Long distance walking races are a bit of an unsung phenomenon in most parts of the world – and an absolutely fascinating one at that.

When runners hear about the concept of a long-distance walk, they typically go, “Psh, that sounds easy.” But talk to someone who’s completed one (or tried to) and you realize it may not be as simple as it seems.

Why are they so interesting?

A long-distance walking race is what it sounds like: races that start from the 5/10K and range all the way up to 200K or more. Walkers start out in the morning and keep walking until they reach the goal – and in some multi-day races they sleep in camps along the way.

These events are not race walking, which is a fast-paced sport with an Olympic distance of 50K. This is just regular old walking – for hours, maybe days. Except that it’s a race.

Make no mistake – these races are tough. Walkers set out extremely early in the morning, and while most marathon runners will finish at max in 5 to 6 hours in, distance walkers typically go for much longer. They deal with muscle stiffness, dehydration, pain (not only in the legs but in the hips and back), exhaustion, and – perhaps toughest of all – being left alone with their thoughts for a really long time, making it challenging to stay energetic and motivated.

It’s worth pointing out these events are not really as competitive as your typical running race – in fact, lots of them are specifically called out to be non-competitive. The idea is that you’re aiming to surprise (or beat) yourself, not the other people around you.

But that doesn’t meant they’re easy.

How do they work?

There are three types of long-distance walking events.

One-day races: One-day races are completed within a 24-hour period, so you don’t have to camp along the way. There are fairly gentle, doable distances like the New York City 10Kwhich consists of two loops around Roosevelt Island (although you do have a fairly strict time limit of 1.5 hours).

And there are other more challenging ones, like the rather intense Kennedymars, an annual 50 mile (80K) walk in the south of Holland. You get 20 hours to complete it – and yes, it’s in honor of John F. Kennedy, who was passionate about public health and introduced the 50-mile march as a challenge to his staff. It was then picked up by the general public and made its way to the Netherlands.

Charitable races: This one overlaps with the other two categories, but it has another unique element to it: to participate you are required to raise a certain amount of money for a cause. There are milder examples – such as the 2-3 mile Walk to End Alzheimer’s. There are also the tougher challenges, like the London full/half marathon Shine Night Walk for Cancer Research, which starts around 10 o’clock at night and lasts for up to 14 hours. And there are the big-time commitments like the Susan G. Komen Walk for Breast Cancer, which is 60 miles (100K) and 3 days long.

Ultras: Finally, you have your (really) long and (really) tough walking events. For example: There is a four-day walking event in Nijmegen in the Netherlands – the Vierdaagse – which is rumored to be one of the largest walking races in the world. It may also be one of the oldest – the 100th event is in July 2016. The walk is open to everyone, but it has its roots in Dutch military training, and to this day, Armed Forces from all over the world send contingents to participate. That’s why it sees about 4,000 dropouts per year – it’s tough.

Participants are tasked with walking a particular distance based on their age and gender – either 30, 40, or 50K each day for four days. For active military (men and women), the regulation distance is 40K a day for four days while wearing their uniform and carrying at least a 10kg (22lbs) backpack, not including personal supplies.

How do you train for one?

Take it from someone who has friends with serious injuries: you absolutely need to train for a long-distance walking event, even if you are a runner! Running and walking don’t use the same muscle movement patterns (that’s why long walks are great for cross-training), and overusing these muscles under the stress of a race will get you into trouble with your body and your mind. (I’ve heard more than one person admit to having hallucinations during a long-distance race because their body was so confused and exhausted.)

Just like with training for a running event, you need to start slowly and build up to a longer distance. You can find a sample training schedule here.

Would you ever do a long-distance walk?

Written by Varia Makagonova.