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Think You Hike Fast? Great, But This 3-Time Olympic Racewalker Can Really Blaze a Trail

A few summers ago I hiked 30 miles in a day. It took 15 hours to do it: almost 5 hours for berry-picking, scrambling, snacking, picture-taking and goofing off, the rest for hoofing down the trail.

That was a full day. So anyone who can walk 31 miles in 4 hours instantly has my admiration.

PDMeet Philip Dunn—hiker, backpacker, geocacher, cyclist, kayaker, trail runner, English major (with a emphasis on Irish lit), family man, nice guy and (ta-da) elite racewalker.

A native of Eugene, Ore., who grew up in Portland, Dunn is an 8-time U.S. national racewalking champion and a 3-time U.S. Olympian.

Dunn, though, won't be in London for the 2012 Olympic Games due to a persistent hamstring injury. "I'm quasi-retired," says Dunn, 41. "I'm not ready to give up competition. I'm not comfortable using that word yet—retired."

Not surprising. In an event currently dominated by Russian and Chinese athletes—the last American to medal in Olympic racewalking was Larry Young in 1972 with a bronze in the 50-kilometer (31-mile) walk—Dunn has performed consistently in 3 Olympic 50km races:

2008 (Beijing, China): 39th (4:08.32).
2004 (Athens, Greece): 35th (4:12:49).
2000 (Sydney, Australia): 28th (4:03:05).

Dunn, raised in an outdoor-minded family—his twin brother, Malcolm, is a staff member ddof the REI store in Olympia, Wash. (in the photo to the right, Philip's in yellow, Malcolm in blue)—has also accumulated a enviable list of hiking accomplishments:

• Hiking Peru's renowned Inca Trail—3 times. In 2000, in the company of fellow Olympic racewalker Curt Clausen, Dunn blitzed the steep, 25-mile trail (a 3- to 4-day effort for most people) in less than 24 hours.

• Hiking the Great Wall of China after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

• Hiking Northern Italy's famously rugged Cinque Terra coastline despite competing in the 2002 World Racewalk Cup, a tough race, just days earlier. "I was totally wiped out," he says.

• A couple of what Dunn calls "middle-of-nowhere-hope-I-find-the-trail-again" experiences in the Andes near Cuenca, Ecuador, at 12,000 feet.

• Climbing Mt. Hood and Mount St. Helens in his early teens, the latter shortly after a summit route was opened following the 1980 eruption.

• Multiple Yosemite visits. "The one that stands out was bagging Half Dome one day, driving like crazy to get a last-minute permit to climb Mount Whitney, then getting up at 3:30 a.m. the next day to summit Whitney," Dunn says. "That was pretty cool." This he also accomplished with his Olympic friend Curt Clausen.

DunnsDunn's parents, Ardy and Marv (see left; Philip: far left), are earnest outdoor types, once teaming up for a technical climb of Half Dome. After the 2000 Games, Philip sailed with them north of Australia. Mom and dad used hiking and camping trips in mountains near Portland to introduce the boys to adventure early in life. Early.

"I was asking my dad the other day about the first real hiking/backpacking trip that we went on," Dunn says. "He said I was about 6 months old and rode in a backpack most of the time. We did overnight skiing trips when I was a year old. My parents still tell a story of when my brother and I took almost every step of a 4-mile hike to a campsite. We were 2 years old."

Apparently all this cultivated a natural skill for walking far and walking fast in Dunn.

"I started racewalking competitively at the age of 10," says Dunn, today a stay-at-home dad who lives in San Diego with his wife, Liz, and 2 children, ages 5 and 2¾. "I've been doing this for a long time."

tapeREI: What's the appeal of racewalking?

Dunn: I had a lot of success at an early age, and there weren't that many other people doing it.

A lot of racewalkers gravitate to the event because it's less popular and has a uniqueness to it. A lot of people who do it are a little more cerebral: "OK, how can I figure this out? How can I master it?" It's something that provides a continual challenge in a different way than running does.

I was a runner in high school and college, and I love running, cross-country in particular. I still do a lot of trail running. But there's an element of challenge in racewalking, a studiousness you have to have, because of the technique. Maybe at the highest-level runners are trying to fine-tune their technique to become their most efficient. But for most people it's from Point A to Point B: How fast can you go? With racewalking it's that, plus mastering the technique.

PDREI: Racewalking involves judges—unusual for track. How does that work?

Dunn: Judges look for 2 rules:

1. You have to maintain continuous contact with the ground. As your heel is hitting in front, your toe is just leaving the back. Actually, the way the rule reads, you have "to appear to maintain contact as judged by the unaided human eye." No cameras; no slo-mo video.

2. When your lead foot makes contact with the ground in front of you, your lead leg has to appear to be straightened and maintain that straightened position until it's in the full, upright position. So as your leg moves behind you and you push off and bring your leg forward, you can bend the knee. So you're not walking straight-legged.

REI: The big story in running past few years has been minimalist running that emphasizes a forefoot strike. Do you consider racewalking a natural motion?

Dunn: Because it's a judged event and you're following these guidelines and rules, that makes it somewhat unnatural. The most natural way for a human to move is probably forefoot running. But for walking long distances, racewalking isn't natural either. When you walk normally you land on a flexed knee and you get that sort of ballistic flex, so you gain a little bit of power or return.

Because racewalking is walking at a higher level, it's incredibly efficient to use racewalking techniques in competition. To me is, it's sort of a natural extension of a normal walking gait.

pdREI: Does the racewalking motion ever begin to feel natural?

Dunn: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It's not only natural, it begins to feel very graceful and fluid. When you see people who really know what they're doing, I think of it almost as a dance step. It's so graceful, so quick and efficient, that it becomes second nature.

REI: Some people mock the motion of racewalkers, with the wiggling hips and churning arms. But you contend that it's a refined activity.

Dunn: I think so. I can see how people might feel that way, if they're unfamiliar and didn't know what the person is doing. But if someone is a really high-level walker and they're really efficient, their hips aren't wiggling that much side-to-side. They're using their hips in a very powerful, athletic way. It's a very dynamic gait.

REI: How fast can you travel as a racewalker?

Dunn: For short, short periods, I could go 10 miles per hour using racewalking techniques. My fastest 1-mile race was 6 minutes 11 seconds. That sounds pretty fast, but there are people who in a 1-mile race can go consistently under 6 minutes. (Editor's note: The 1-mile world record is 5:33.53, held by Tim Lewis.)

REI: Do you go fast all the time?

Dunn: When I was training, doing 80-100 miles per week, there would be times when my wife and I would go somewhere and she would have to say, "Come on, hurry up; we're going to be late." I was walking as slow as I could to save energy. So no, I don't mind walking a variety of speeds.

pdREI: When competing, is it hard not to break into a run?

Dunn: Honestly, no, because you've trained your body to walk in a certain way, using the racewalking gait. You get to a point where you don't really have to think about it too much. Obviously when you're super-tired and ready to quit you think, "Ah, if I could just run, that would be easier." Mostly it's just a matter of conditioning and training. The fastest way to get there is to run, yeah, but there's a certain challenge to do it within the guidelines of racewalking.

REI: When you're hiking on a trail, do you ever shift in racewalker mode to make time?

Dunn: Absolutely. I'll use my hips a lot more, and I'll use my arms in a more powerful way than I would normally. Normally when you're hiking you have your arms down at your side, swinging in a relaxed way. You can generate a lot more power and energy if you bring them up to almost 90 degrees, in a pumping action.

You can also allow your hips to extend forward and backward with each stride. It's not much, but it adds a little bit of length to each stride. Driving the hips, especially on the uphills, I've found makes a big difference. I'll definitely do that.

REI: A moderate hiking pace is about 2.5 mph, a quick pace 3 mph and a fast pace can reach 3.5 or 4 mph. If you shift into racewalking gear, how fast can you go on a trail?

Dunn: I've definitely gone 5 mph on uneven terrain while hiking using some of the racewalking tricks.

kid packREI: Does a pack inhibit you?

Dunn: Yeah. Both the weight and the change of where your center of gravity is slows you down, makes it a little more awkward.

I've tried doing backpacking with a full backpack, and swinging my arms back behind me is a little more difficult to do in the most efficient way. The pack gets in the way on the sides.

REI: A racewalker's arms extend that far behind the body?

Dunn: When I drive my arm back I'll bring the elbow back and up, and the hand itself will come all the way back as though I was reaching into my back pocket or even farther back than that.



REI: Racewalking courses are flat, right?

Dunn: Primarily. Sometimes they'll include hills if they're trying to have a race finish at a stadium, like the course at the Olympics in Athens, Greece. The streets next to the stadium had a couple of hills and they were unavoidable. But it's much more difficult to walk on hilly terrain, and it's more difficult for the judges to keep the competitors honest if it's really hilly. So most of the courses are flat and paved or on a track. You never see it on dirt or gravel.

REI: Why are hills tough on racewalkers?

Dunn: Because of the straight-legged gait. Think about walking down a hill. You're bending your knees a lot to absorb that impact. Same with the uphill. You lift your knee up to get your leg a little higher. If you can't bend your knee up, it makes it more difficult to charge up a hill.

The other thing you have to know about a racewalking course is that it's never longer than 2.5 kilometers. So you repeat the same loop many, many times. Usually it's 2km; it's easier math for a 20km or 50 km race.

REI: Does that get monotonous?

Dunn: It's a little bit tedious but not really. You're just focused on your race, your pace. Sometimes it's easier to monitor what speed you're going when you're on a same-distance loop. It also allows the judges to be in one place to make sure you're following the 2 rules all the time. If it was point-to-point, you'd have to have a hundred judges out there.

REI: Here's a glance at America's racewalkers competing in London:

20km: Trevor Barron, 19, Bethel Park, Pa.
50km: John Nunn, 34, San Diego, Calif.

20km: Maria Michta, 26, Nesconset, N.Y.

Notes: Trevor Barron (that's him to the right) is being hailed as a great future U.S. hope. Nunn (seen below on the left) is a customarily a 20km racewalker (he placed 26th in the 2004 Games in Athens) who is attempting his first international 50km. Michta (below on the right), who of all things had lightning strike her house on July 18, is a first-time Olympian.

REI: How good is Barron?

Dunn:  I think he's the real deal. I think he's got a really bright future. He has incredible talents jnin other areas, too, so it's a decision he'll have to make at some point if he's going to focus on racewalking. He's a very, very bright young man, so he may end up doing something in the academic world.

If he were to finish I the top 20, that would be really admirable. If he continues to make the kind of improvement he's made over the last year, then 4 years from now I think he could be right in the mix—for sure in the top 10.

mmFor John [left] in the 50k, the distance itself is the biggest challenge. I think he's got a chance at doing well, but he's going to have to have a really great day and hope some of the other guys don't have their best day.

Maria [right] also has a bright future, but right now she's still about 6 or 8 minutes off the pace of the lead pack. She's not likely to be in the mix.

REI: You've devoted a lot of your life to walking. What role should walking play in the lives of average citizens?

Dunn: I think it's a vital part of our human experience. It's an incredibly healthy and beneficial activity, but it's also something that could be part of our city planning, our transportation plans. I don't think nearly enough people do it in this country.

pdI wish our city, state and national leaders would find a way to help people get from one place to another in a really healthy, positive way. I think it would eliminate a lot of the problems we're seeing with childhood obesity. I live in San Diego, and certainly we could do a better job of building walkable communities and making it an activity people can enjoy safely without worrying about cars.

In Southern California it's tough. We sort of have this car-first mentality. That's really frustrating for someone who thinks there's nothing wrong with walking a mile to the store or a mile to school and back. My oldest child (Miles, age 5; Clarie is 2¾) is in preschool and we walk or bike to school every day. There are parents who live a lot closer than we do, and they throw them in the car and drive home again. It's kind of crazy to me.

REI: Might you compete again?

Dunn: Maybe, but my focus now is on the kids and other things. I'm a 3-time Olympian. I've won multiple national championships. I don't have a lot of regrets about things I didn't get done in this sport.

At the London Olympic Games, Trevor Barror finished 26th in the men's 20km in 1:22:46, exactly 4 minutes off the winning pace. Walkers from China placed first, third and fourth.

John Nunn placed 43rd (4:03:28) in the men's 50km, won by Russian Sergey Kirdyapkin in 3:35:59, and Maria Michta finished 29th (1:32:27) in the women's 20km. Russian walkers finished 1-2. 

Olympic racewalker photos courtesy of USA Track & Field. On-track photos of Philip Dunn © Jeff Salvage of, a comprehensive resource for racewalking information.

Posted on at 5:39 PM

Tagged: Hiking, Olympic Games, Philip Dunn, REI Olympia, Racewalking, backpacking and trail running

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