Robert Hardy is a 67-year-old race walker—no small feat in itself—not only that, he races with a walker. He’s recently started giving race walking, or rather walker racing, classes in Alexandria and he’s looking to do so in Vankleek Hill. The Review spoke with him about the project and his long-term athleticism.
The Review: Can you tell me how you started race walking?
Robert Hardy: In 1997, I was diagnosed with leukemia and had a bone marrow transplant. On the Sunday (the day before the transplant), I did a 100-kilometer bike ride for the Ottawa Hospital. The next day, I started my bone marrow transplant process. In 2000, I started racing bicycles. The cause of my loss of balance was actually in 2012, when I was training for a race in France. I had a pain in the stomach, which resulted in three months in the hospital, three surgeries and loss of balance. It was two blood clots, one in the intestine and one in the neck. That was in January 2013, and that’s where the story started with my race walking. That was the time I met up with Hugo Mobility (Robert’s sponsor for marathons and classes). Our first event was the Wobbly Walker Walk-A-Thon. It brought out a whole lot of retirement homes. I think we had 60 participants from different retirement homes, a lot came from the Palais in Alexandria. We gave away 13 walkers that day and it produced quite the results. It proved there’s a need for training or physical sport for mature athletes. That’s what I’ve been trying to do all the way is encourage older people to do things, and this race walking class is precisely that.
TR: Can you speak a little bit about those classes?
RH: Anyone can join for free. The first class, one of my fellows had type 2 diabetes and he couldn’t really exercise at all. So, I showed him a stretches for your whole body from the top all the way down through the back of your legs. That really helped him. Then I showed him the long stride and he gradually started getting the idea, then we added the rest, which is kind of a wiggle.
I don’t know if you’ve seen a race walker before but it looks like a wiggle of the bum. We make fun of that at the class. I can say, “Your bum is not wiggling enough.” I made it competitive without competing with each other. We have a time trial and each participant will leave 30 seconds apart and we give them a time at the end of each lap. They do five laps, which is a kilometre, they then have those results and next time they come to a class, they can compete with themselves and try to do better.
It’s physical and mental. It requires focus when you try and put one foot in front of the other and keep it on a straight line. And then when you add the wiggle to it, that’s more to focus on. We also go to the actual physics of the racing, which is putting down the heel and dragging the foot. That also is more focus. Finally, there’s basic nutrition and hydration. It’s amazing the number of people in the morning that don’t drink any water, or have any breakfast. It’s all the things combined and designed for mature athletes.
TR: How is training for older people different?
RB: If you want to teach them to move faster, it’s good that they actually use a technique that is beneficial to the knees and the hips. When I was bicycle racing, I had a professional coach. He said when you’re in your fifties and sixties, you have to start slow and build up, whereas a younger person can go straight into a race and not really going to hurt them.
TR: Have you raced so far this year?
RH:I did a half marathon last week and I’m doing another at the end of the month. My heart rate during these things is very minimal. I start off around 100, by the time I’m at 10 kilometres, I’m about at 110-115, that’s all. That’s just by doing things right. Walking is fluid, the movement is fluid. I learned all the techniques for race walking, but I got the idea from the Dutch speed skating team. They get a pace and keep that pace the whole way through, maybe a little sprint at the end, but that’s all.
TR: What were the first impression of your classes?
RH: It was an experiment to start with. I wanted to see how the mature people would handle it. And at first when I went to the dome, there were all these older people saying, “I can walk, I know how to walk,” or “I don’t want to race.” But the word started getting around, and more people were interested in what I was doing.
TR: How long ago did you start these classes?
RH: We’ve only had two classes. We had two people the first time, and five the second time. I know this is going to work for older people. I think going through the nutrition and hydration is very important, too. The class is 45 minutes to an hour, at the end it’s mainly discussion about what they can do for progress.
TR: What’s the plan for Vankleek Hill classes?
RH: It would be nice to go to Vankleek Hill because we’re talking about older people who may not be that mobile, and they would prefer, I believe, to stay in their own town. I haven’t approached anybody yet. What I would like is an open space where we could sit and discuss the nutrition, the hydration and do the stretching with some kind of wall. And then we just need a simple, even road to walk on, preferably in a loop where we could measure the course.
TR: You said your next race is at the end of the month?
RH: It’s the MS half-marathon in Cornwall. I got first place there last year. I got my gold medal and it was by default, really. The 65-69 age group in that particular race, there was only two of us and the other fellow did not finish!
TR: How have you stayed motivated to stay fit after all you’ve gone through? What part of you has allowed you to do that?
RH: Probably because I’m crazy. Now I’m going through another cancer; I have a tumour on my kidney. That was found last May, and by December we went into another meeting and they said they’ll be treating it. I did panic a bit. I ended up three weeks watching television, doing nothing and giving up. And I said, “What the heck?” I did it 20 years ago, so I just picked myself up, stop whining, get off my ass and got on with life. I work in a grocery store part time, as well. So I went back to work and I’m writing music again (with Participation). I don’t have too much time to think about the problems. While I’m still fit, while I can still do these things, I want to do them and do my best.
TR: What do you tell those people who are scared or apprehensive to starting getting fit?
RH: (Here he takes a minute and sighs). At the beginning of class, there’s always the message that you can do it. Anyone can do it, if they want. I don’t make anybody compete with anybody else, they compete with themselves. They can enjoy their own success.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.