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Podlaski's mantra: Walk, don't run

Saturday, June 21, 2014
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— Walking is so simple.

Right?

One foot in front of the other. Easy game.

Walking just got much more complicated for Meaghan Podlaski.

Forget the airline snafus that made traveling to the New Balance Nationals Outdoor championship meet in Greensboro, N.C., a massive headache last weekend.

Podlaski, who will be a senior at Colonie High School in the fall, performed so well at North Carolina A&T that a whole new world of possibility has opened up for her.

The breakout race came in the one-mile racewalk, with a strategy right out of the playbook of Presious Passion, who bolted to a 20-length lead in the 2009 United Nations at Monmouth Park and held on by two.

Yeah, ha ha ha, racewalking, that track and field event that looks goofy to those who are conditioned to believe that the only way to go fast is in full stride. Guess again.

Meaghan blasted the first quarter-mile in a “ridiculous” 1:41 on coach Don Lawrence’s watch. While her supporters were holding their collective breath, the PA announcer told the crowd, “Now she just has to survive” as Meaghan started the final lap.

Not only did she survive, but she finished in 7:23.4, over eight seconds ahead of the runner-up and almost a half-second better than the national record for the junior class.

Winning the meet was rewarding enough, but now Meaghan and her parents, Tony and Linda, have to consider a future that could lead to the 2016 Olympic Trials. Not so goofy anymore, is it?

“The last 200, I’m thinking, ‘I hope nobody has a good kick, because I really don’t want to lose all this now,’ ” she said on Tuesday, after receiving a special plaque for her national championship at the weekly Colonie rec meet. “I was completely surprised.”

“I kept waiting for her to just die,” Linda said. “My sister said, ‘No, she’s going to win!’ We were screaming and yelling.”

“I’m still processing it,” Tony said. “I don’t want to speak for her, but when we left North Carolina A&T that day, we didn’t know what to think. It’s like, we did this . . . now what? We’re still trying to understand what’s going on.”

Lawrence can speak authoritatively about exactly what is going on.

Meaghan is blessed with natural ability in her event, but also benefits from having an experienced and accomplished long distance running coach, Frank Myers, and the guidance of Lawrence, a racewalking guru.

He competed in three Olympic Trials and has mixed it up with the likes of Jim Mann and Tim Lewis.

Lawrence coached his ex-wife, Debbi, to three Olympics and a silver medal at the 1991 Pan Am Games.

Now, he’s president of the USA Track and Field Adirondack Association and the national media coordinator for Race Walking USA.

The native of western New York racewalked for the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, an NAIA school that was known as a racewalking hotbed in the ’80s and ’90s. In 1988, 12 of the 26 racewalkers at the Olympic Trials were from Parkside.

What he likes about Meaghan Podlaski isn’t so much what she’s done on the track, which is great and intriguing, of course, but what she does outside of the meet setting.

“She isn’t all about racing,” he said. “She likes the workout, as well. That is the true definition of a whole athlete. A lot of these kids just want to know when the races are. And she knows that it counts when people aren’t watching. That’s when she’s got her grubby sneakers on and not a uniform, and just putting on sunglasses and go.”

There are two rules in racewalking. Technically, the toe of the back foot has to still be touching the ground when the heel of the front foot makes contact.

Also, the supporting leg has to straighten and stay that way until the torso passes over it.

It makes for an awkward-looking gait, but puts emphasis on short, quick strides enhanced by steady, precise arm carriage.

“Everybody teases me because of it,” Meaghan said. “They’ll see me in the hallway and say, ‘Why are you walking faster?’ In real life, I’m actually the slowest walker ever. My mom will be walking through a mall and ask me, ‘How am I walking faster than you?’

“Eh, I just joke around with it. You can’t take it seriously. You just kind of have to go along with that. Everybody’s supportive of me. I know it’s not serious, it’s all just joking around.”

Part of what makes elite racewalking complicated is that there aren’t very many schools that offer scholarships in this obscure event. The choices are extremely limited.

What helps is that there is a network of racewalkers who swap notes and pull for each other.

Meaghan is an excellent student who wants to pursue engineering, perhaps at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she knows she can work out and commiserate with Bailey Kem. Close to home, Annica Penn, a two-time NBNO winner, is a student at Siena and Meaghan’s friend.

Meaghan has the Junior Olympics and USATF East Region Open Championship at UAlbany this weekend. By this time next year, she will have lengthened her training and endurance because the distances will stretch out considerably as she approaches what she needs to do to become an Olympic Trial-caliber racewalker.

For now, she prefers to keep it simple, a step at a time, but there will come a time when that won’t be enough.

“I make goals as the opportunities come up,” she said. “I wanted to make All-American with a top-six last week, but I wasn’t thinking about that two months ago.”

“This was something that she could excel at, and after meeting these two wonderful men, she was able to find something that she excels at,” Linda said. “So that’s been really fun.”

 
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