Skip to content

Would you walk 26.2 miles in their shoes?

chester.jpg

Chester Kalb, 63, shows his awards after finishing the Mt. Rushmore Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Chester Kalb)

Yolanda_Holder_3.jpg

Marathon walker Yolanda Holder, 51, crosses the finish line after the Little Rock Marathon, March 15, 2009. (Photo courtesy of Yolanda Holder)

maryann_ramirez.jpg

Maryann Ramirez, 48, sets her personal best of 5:44 at the Desert Classic Marathon on Jan. 31, 2009, in Phoenix. (Photo from Maryann Ramirez)

Rock_n_Roll_1.JPG

The start of the 10th annual San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. (Photo courtesy of David Cruz)

Yolanda Holder does marathons. She laces up her racing shoes, arrives early at the course, keeps a steady pace for 26.2 miles and occasionally, like most marathoners, sprouts blisters on her feet. Last year, she won honors from a group called the Marathon Maniacs because she logged more races than any other woman in the club.

But ask Holder if she runs marathons, and she’ll answer no. Because she doesn’t.

“I’m a marathon walker--proudly,” says Holder, 51, known as “Walking Diva” to many of her Marathon Maniac friends. “I’m my happiest when I’m walking a marathon.”

Online marathon registration increased overall by 11 percent in the past year, according to Active.com, a Web site that handles registration for most of the U.S. marathons. And a large number of these newcomers are walkers, also known as “back-of-the-packers” or those who finish in the bottom third of the race, according to Dan Cruz of the Rock and Roll Marathon series.

Marathon directors have taken note. Most now keep courses open longer--up to nine hours in some cases—so that walkers can complete the races, and some offer live music to help walkers--and runners--go the distance. And the first walkers-only marathon, We Walk!, debuts this May in Saint Joseph, Minn.

Runners no longer have a monopoly on marathons. “In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, if you couldn’t finish a marathon under five hours, they didn’t want to see you,” says Chester Kalb, 63, a former runner from Key West, Fla., who’s walked a marathon in all 50 states. “There wasn’t the feeling of making the journey, just winning the race.”

Walkers who make the journey are a motley crew that includes injured ex-runners like Kalb, “woggers” who oscillate between a walk and a jog, baby-boomers looking to cross “marathon” off their bucket lists and scores of people walking for charity groups fighting cancer, obesity, kidney failure and a smattering of other causes.

Then there are people like Holder, who just really, really like to walk marathons.

“It’s serenity for me,” says Holder. “I meditate when I walk, so it’s my yoga.”

Holder started walking 5 and 10k races about 10 years ago with a group of friends in Corona, Calif. The races were rough, and she often felt sore for days. It wasn’t until she walked a half marathon a year later in San Diego that she seriously contemplated walking an entire marathon. Nine years later, she’s undoubtedly become a Marathon Maniac.

Holder, who describes her walking style as “a combination of race walking, power walking, and get it done walking,” turned 50 last year and was contemplating ways to celebrate. One of her friends had bought a Harley-Davidson. Another went on a seven-day cruise. Holder decided she would walk 50 marathons in 52 weeks.

“I got to 50 in October, and I just had to keep walking,” says Holder. By year’s end, she had completed 65 marathons, even walking back-to-back races on Saturdays and Sundays for multiple weeks in a row.

“After one race in Seattle, they couldn’t find my pulse,” says Holder. “I thought, ‘I am I dead.’”

Like runners, Holder and other walkers have their marathon rituals. Holder methodically lays out her clothing exactly the same way before each race. Maryanne Ramirez, 48, a marathon walker from Sealy, Texas, always loads up on pasta the night before. “For walkers who train and take it seriously, they go through the same exact physical and psychological challenges as the runners do,” says Barbara Walker, a sports psychologist at the Center of Human Performance who, despite her last name, is an avid marathon runner. “A lot of the times there will be the same nerves the night before a race and the feeling of, ‘can I do this?’”

The challenges of a marathon can be greater for walkers, who are often on the course twice as long as runners--Ramirez’ personal best is 5 hours 44 minutes, while the elite women finish around 2:30. There’s also inclement weather to contend with--Holder, Ramirez and Kalb have all raced in the rain and over 100-degree heat--not to mention the mental stamina needed to stay out on the course for an extended duration.

Walkers do occasionally find their accomplishments dismissed. Holder has had people facetiously tell her, “‘Oh, I should be like you and be a walker,’” she says. “They kind of think we’re cheating.” Most of those types of comments, though, come from people who aren’t marathon runners.

“The people at the front of the pack say, ‘Wow, you’re out there twice as long I am,’” says Ramirez.

Ramirez, who drinks a skim quadruple shot latte after every marathon, began racing in 2006 after she quit smoking and started gaining weight. She’s now lost 70 pounds and trains six days a week, all while listening to heavy metal music--especially Metallica.

Ramirez is often asked whether she’ll “move up” from walking to running, so that she can say she “ran” rather than “completed” a marathon.

But she feels no longing to run. “I’m 48 years old, and there’s no reason I need to start,” says Ramirez. “Even if I was running, I wouldn’t win anyway.”

Because in the end, for most walkers, it’s not just about the race--though many are happy to collect medals. “I just like to get out there,” says Kalb. “If I didn’t compete in any races, I’d still be out there walking.”

E-mail: lab2184@columbia.edu