Ian Whatley is at the top of his game. Between 1993 and 2016, the bioengineer from Birmingham, England, has represented the United States as a racewalker at every race distance from 3,000 meters to 50 kilometers. Whatley stepped into history this past May, when, on his 57th birthday, he became the oldest person to qualify for the Olympic trials.
Whatley and his wife Susan Heiser, the South Carolina director for racewalking, live on a farm in Greer with their 16-year-old twin daughters Jesi and Tori, who happen to be nationally-ranked junior racewalkers and cross-country runners for the champion Riverside High School team.
Though he recently retired from international competition, Whatley is still ranked number-one in the world for his age group in the 50-kilometer event. He plans to continue racing as a Masters Athlete.
How did you get involved in racewalking?
I started as a swimmer as a kid, but my eyesight was rubbish, so I switched to running track and cross-country when I went to high school (high school and middle school were combined in England—a lot like Hogwarts, only less fun!). When I was 13, the master in charge, as he was called, named four of us to compete in the Birmingham Schools Racewalking Championships. The race was in a week, and he told us, ‘Go and find out how to do it.’
Most of the sports system in Britain is club-oriented, so I went to my club and asked around and was directed to an elderly gentleman who was smoking a cigarette in the corner. He taught me racewalking technique very successfully. I found out years later that he was at the time the British women’s national coach.
What is the difference between running and racewalking?
In one, you go as fast as you can to get to the finish line. The other has a set of rules, and if you do it wrong, you get disqualified. In racewalking, you have to have a straight leg from the moment your foot hits the ground until the leg is vertically upright underneath you. That stops you from using your quadriceps, the primary muscles used in running. You have to use your hamstrings and your glutes and lower back, and balance it all with a vigorous arm action. And you must have one foot on the ground at all times. The advantage in racewalking is that there’s only about half the impact force of running.
How do you train?
We have 3 kilometers of paved surfaces on our farm in Greer. They are really tractor access pads within a flood plain for the farm, but they work well for training. I’m getting ready to do the National 50k in Santee, California, at the end of January. It’s a five-hour race, so I don’t need speed, but I will need perfect technique. I’m averaging about 75 miles of walking per week—that’s the time equivalent of 110 miles of running.
Do you follow a special diet?
I don’t follow any special diet. You cannot eat yourself fit, but you can eat yourself unfit, so I’m careful what I eat. I don’t eat a lot of fat or red meat, but I don’t totally avoid those things either. I probably eat more fruits and veggies than the average person, and this has been my habit over the years.
Who has access to your training track in Greer?
Local high school runners can access our track if they contact us first. And members of the national team come and stay with us to train. We also have a room with weights and a treadmill with a system of four cameras around it, so people can see themselves in real time, and we can do biomechanical analyses and make technical corrections.
What appeals to you about racewalking?
I like getting out there and pushing the limits with my body to see what I can achieve. That’s more me competing with me. You’re always going to be more successful that way.
What advice would you give to beginning racewalkers?
Don’t get frustrated the first few weeks. At first, it feels very awkward. Stick with it, learn the technique first, and then think about going fast. I encourage our daughters and other young cross-country runners not to set out to beat the kid ahead of them in a race. Set your goal to do better than you did last time. Nobody can criticize you if you do the best you can do on any one day.