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Ruta Mave: Race walking teaches perseverance and understanding

Monday 10 June 2024 | Written by Ruta Tangiiau Mave | Published in Opinion

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Ruta Mave: Race walking teaches perseverance and understanding
Columnist Ruta Mave with her gold medal from the Oceania Athletic Championships in Suva, Fiji, last week. Athletics Cook Islands/24060903

If at first you don’t succeed, then try, try, try again. Then if you don’t succeed read the instructions. This has been the answer to my latest attempt at trying race walking, writes Ruta Mave.

I recently competed at the Oceania Athletic Championships in Suva, Fiji. As the athletics development officer for Athletics Cook Islands, I want to bring the race walk event into our community. It is a sport everyone can do because everyone learnt and achieved it before they learnt to run.

I also found out it is challenging. I have tried to introduce the race walk into our events starting with the Kumete competition. Comments were that race walking was only for old and fat people and not something to be focused on. Olympic race walkers would be appalled at that statement as was I. 

Despite having the desire to attract those who are older and larger who want to improve their health and longevity to take up walking and then to walk faster than an amble, I also know there is so much scope for younger ages to learn and compete at high levels in race walking.

I figured the only way to introduce something is to lead the way by totally immersing myself into a programme. I did this by walking my dog six to eight kilometres every morning.

Being pulled forward by a dog is not the correct posture for a race walk but I had no one to tell me what I was doing was right or wrong. Straining my hamstring walking three dogs meant I arrived hobbling. My aim to do a good time was reduced to having a good time – maybe.

Ten thousand (10,000) metres, 25 laps, was a mixed race of men and women of various ages from 30 to 80 years old.

Within 200m, four of us were flagged for breaking one of the cardinal rules – bent knees. On my 11th lap I had a one-minute penalty, it meant nothing as I was already lapped more than once. I carried on trying to improve, as I passed Samoa, Tonga and Cooks athletes cheering me for being the only island walker in the race, I gave them a little ura swing and wave and got disqualified for bending my knees and not allowed to finish the race. Gutted.

Having tried enough times, I watched some training videos and asked some experts for help. The 3000m race I was determined not to fail. After three laps of seven I was on my last warning so instead of risking getting disqualified again, I goose stepped like the Nutcracker for the last four laps. When people called out, I didn’t wave or waiver. I felt embarrassed because I knew I could go faster. It then occurred to me people didn’t know if I had two hip replacements and no knee caps which is how I felt my walking looked like, so they could be impressed with my attempts. I finished and won gold.

That’s the thing about life, not knowing what each person is going through, until you have walked a mile in their shoes.

D day celebrations reminded me of tours I led through Europe to concentration camps and battlefields. Viewing Auschwitz empty, shows the cruelties they faced. Large rooms full only of reading glasses or shoes taken off prisoners before they faced the showers, made it more personal but detached. 

Mauthausen was a labour camp with one of the highest mortality rates and known for the stairs of death. 186 steps leading from a quarry where prisoners had to carry large granite boulders on their backs up to the top while they were ill, malnourished and barefoot in the snow. To give tourists a better understanding of the trials these prisoners were under, we would make them walk up to the top in their comfortable clothes after being well fed and watered.

Similarly, at Gallipoli we would take them to Anzac cove and ask them to climb the sand bank at the water’s edge under a clear blue sky wearing no heavy back packs or artillery shells raining down on them. They often failed to reach the top.

These young, healthy people walking less than a mile in these soldiers or prisoner’s shoes and life for the briefest of moments, often led to complaints that we were being unreasonably harsh on them.

For others it was a sombre time of reflection and acknowledgment that we live this lifestyle due to the selfless lives of ordinary men, not just Jesus.

Survivors of these cruel times show us how humans can endure survive and thrive anything.

At the competition, we watched in awe 90-year-old and also para athletes in wheelchairs competing and giving their best despite age or misfortune. Let’s choose to live a long life.

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