The 50km race walk is a near four-hour endurance-sapping hell of physicality and focus. Australian race walking ace Jared Tallent and Canada’s 20km Pan American champ Evan Dunfee give us their methods of survival.

You’re a wizard, Evan

Completing a 50km race walk at the highest level requires, well, lots and lots of race walking. Evan Dunfee likes to put in a blister-inducing two 40-45km training sessions each week, and calls upon the classiest literary combo in the world to power through.

“I used to play the Harry Potter audio books narrated by Stephen Fry when training,” he explains. “It took me two years to get through the entire collection, but I found distracting my brain was helpful.”

The cheat sheet

Forget the marathon, the 50km walk is the longest and most gruelling event in championship athletics – and it hurts. The leaders take around 3:45 to complete the distance (approximately the time it takes to fly from London Heathrow to Istanbul). Stragglers can take up to 30 minutes more.

To get through the gruelling slog, competitors have a meticulous race plan individual to their needs. Dunfee calls his the “cheat sheet”, and we managed to get a copy the one he put together for the Beijing world champs: take a look at it here. For us on the sidelines, it provides a fascinating insight into the prep required at the top level – for Dunfee, it is an essential lifeline.

“It is amazing how you can go from feeling so good at 35km to within the next 500m suddenly feeling like you cannot walk another step,” he explains. “The transition can come on really quickly and knowing how to deal with that is quite big.

“So I made a little cheat sheet for my coach, Gerry Dragomir, and the drinks staff at the worlds. For me, one of my key points is to treat the race just like training because, unfortunately, I tend to train better than I race.”

Race Walk Beijing ()

"Once the conversation stops, that is when the race starts to get serious"

Mind over patter

How each athlete prepares mentally for the demanding distance differs depending on the individual, according to Dunfee. Whatever the approach, it is important to get it right.

“I remember the atmosphere in the call up room ahead of my first world championships in Moscow,” Dunfee explains. “Robby Heffernan [of Ireland], who went on to win gold, was sat there stone faced with his sunglasses on looking like he was about to go to war.

“For me, it is difficult to be that intense. I have to stay as relaxed as possible, especially for the first 5km.

“It is funny, you often see guys laughing and talking in the early stages because it just feels like you are out for a training run. Yet you know once the conversation stops and you start to hear the athletes breathing, then that is when the race starts to get serious.”

Gluttony is not a sin

Looking at Dunfee’s nutritional plan, you would think he was a bit of a glutton. Yet the race walkers don’t hoe through the food provided at drinks stations (usually 24 in a race) just to make the most of a free buffet (that’s our job). The athletes burn around 3,500 calories per race, so a precise approach to fuel intake is critical.

Athletes process isoactive drinks, power bars or gummys, gels, caffeine and even plain old water during a race. Dunfee also has a couple of (flat) cokes on his way round.

Nutrition is a personal thing, and not easy to get right, as Jared Tallent explains.

“I aim to take on board about 90 grams of carbs per hour, but sometimes your gut can play up, so it is no good shoving as much stuff in and being sick later,” the Australian says. “Getting it right can make a huge difference.”

Get it wrong, as Dunfee admits he has done in the past, and the carb-depleted brain can wander into some surreal spots.

“When I have a bad race, my mind has gone to some weird places and a lot them are to do with food,” he says. “Once when I was 2km from the finish line, I thought to myself, if someone gave me a piece of pizza I would drop out right now.”

Race Walk Food ()

GOING BANANAS: “When I have a bad race, my mind has gone to some weird places and a lot them are to do with food”

Pace yourself

Pacing is critical to success in any 50km race walk. Tallent, a three-time Olympic and three-time world championship medallist, is a master, and can often instinctively walk within a few seconds of his planned time at each kilometre. But get it wrong, as the Aussie did at the Berlin world champs, and the wheels fall off.

“I went from walking 43-44 minute 10kms to a 49 for the last 10km,” he admits. “You can lose a heap of time.”

Yet it pays to be flexible. At the London Olympics the pace was much quicker than anticipated. He was brave, followed the pace and earned silver.   

Technique, technique, technique

With the judge keeping an eagle-eyed lookout for any technical deficiencies, staying on top of your technique is critical.

Dunfee marks down a number of technical tips on his cheat sheet. Tallent works with a sports psychologist to write down a series of key points, which he rotates during a race to keep on the right side of the race officials.

Technique is one thing, and tied with it is psychologically handling the warning cards (three strikes and you're out) you pick up for transgressions.

“I received a warning at around 20km in Beijing [world champs] and I definitely feel like I tightened up a bit after,” Dunfee recalls. “To someone like Jared, who picked up two cards by around 15km in London, it doesn’t seem to worry him at all. I need to get in that same head space not to worry.”

Jared Tallent ()

Tallent won his sixth major championship medal with silver at the Beijing world champs in August

Stay positive, remember the graft

A 50km race walk is painful, but as Tallent philosophically explains: “It is sport, so it is going to hurt.”

Pacing, as we mentioned earlier, is critical, but the Aussie maestro has another tactic he turns to in an effort to mask the pain – positive thoughts.

“I think about all the hard work I’ve put in the months leading up to the race,” he explains. “That I should enjoy it and make sure all the hard work and effort is worthwhile.”

Call in the coach

Dunfee, who only turned 25 at the end of September, does not yet trust himself to make rational decisions in the final 10km of a 50km race walk. He allows his coach, Gerry Dragomir, to take control in the final fifth of the race.

He remembers one particular race where, without the guide of his coach, he got it all wrong in the closing stages. At 42km, his scrambled mind assessed that if he hit six-minute KMs for the remainder of the race he would set a PB and finish within the Olympic standard. The trouble was, he actually needed to walk at a pace of FIVE minutes per kilometre.

“I was completely convinced all I needed to do was walk six-minute kilometres, so that is why I now give up control to Gerry,” he explains. “He lets me know when to push it and how I’m doing technically because I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions!”