Olympic Race Walker Hones Secret Weapon in Mammoth Lakes
Jul 13, 2021
Olympic race walker Mathieu Bilodeau is used to getting attention while training, but he’s had to readjust to being in the spotlight during his stay in Mammoth Lakes.
“People are looking at me, like, ‘Who is this guy? What is he doing?’” says Bilodeau, 36, a Canadian native who currently resides in Alberta. “I’m not used to that anymore because people know me in Canada.” But, he says with a laugh, “here, in a ski town, well… I’m pretty sure this guy was filming me last week.”
Bilodeau takes it in stride—bad pun intended. The sport that propelled him to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics does have its quirks, and what makes it so unique and difficult to compete in also makes it appear somewhat strange to the uninitiated.
What Is Olympic Race Walking?
There are only two rules to race walking: First, at least one foot must maintain contact with the ground at all times; and second, an athlete’s leading leg must be straightened as the foot makes contact with the ground and remain straightened until the body passes over it.
“We’re fighting against our body, that’s why racewalking is so difficult,” says Bilodeau.
Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, famously said that “The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” That’s race walking in a nutshell. The unique gait that athletes like Bilodeau exhibit is an adaptation to maintain speed while conforming to the rules of the sport.
And race walkers are surprisingly fast. Bilodeau, who competes in the 50-kilometer event (that’s 31.1 miles), has a personal best of 3:53:39, which is approximately a 7.5-minute mile.
“After 43, 44 kilometers, your body just gives up,” says Bilodeau, who has a few tricks up his sleeve to keep going. “And we’re on a loop of 1 or 2 kilometers, so there’s a lot of turns.” Each turn affords an athlete’s competitor a chance to pass, or to throw someone off their stride, so race walkers are constantly on guard. There are also judges lined up along the route, constantly watching for a slip-up (like a foot leaving the pavement).
It’s brutal, and it’s surprising the sport doesn’t get more recognition in North America.
“In Europe, I am a superstar, signing autographs,” says Bilodeau. But in the U.S., well, he seems to spend a lot of time defending the sport. “I don’t know if it’s because the U.S. team is pretty… terrible?” he says, laughing.
“I feel like as soon as you hit the road and someone is laughing at you… I mean, I’m older, so it doesn’t bother me as much.”
How Mat Bilodeau Got into Competitive Race Walking
Bilodeau found race walking serendipitously—he’s always been an athlete and had previously competed at a high level in triathlon. In 2015, he was nearing professional retirement.
Then, Bilodeau was approached at a track in Canada by a race walker, who asked him if he’d thought about competing. He wasn’t interested.
“I said no, I’m going to retire, I’m done.” But his wife Marie had a different opinion.
“She said, think of the positive side—we can train together! And I would say that’s the first reason I picked racewalking.”
When Bilodeau was triathlon training, “I would wake up at 4 am to swim, go to work [he’s an accountant for Deloitte in Alberta], come back, cycle for 3 hours, run during lunchtime… I never saw my wife.”
Marie is now his main support team. “My wife is really important to my training,” says Bilodeau. She rides her bike alongside him during long sessions, providing fuel and moral support.
Mat Bilodeau’s Secret Training Weapon
During his stay in Mammoth Lakes, Bilodeau has been training with the members of the Mammoth Track Club down in Bishop and Round Valley while the snow falls at high altitude. He’s also been hanging with two-time Olympian and Mammoth Lakes local Nancy Fiddler, who has been showing Bilodeau around the cross country ski trails at Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center.
The skiing has been a huge bonus for Bilodeau as he trains for the January 25 Olympic trials in Santee, CA. Bilodeau calls cross country skiing his “secret weapon” and his “true passion.” He took first place in the Tannenbaum Classic in Mammoth Lakes on December 15 (followed closely by Mammoth Lakes local Jared Mahler).
But the highlight of his Mammoth Lakes stay so far has been spotting comedian Adam Sandler at Black Velvet Coffee. “He said hi to me!” recounts Bilodeau, wearing an enormous grin. If Bilodeau can spot his favorite comedian and snag a spot in the 2020 Olympics, he says, his stay at The Crib will have served him well indeed.
Watch Mathieu Bilodeau compete for a spot on the 2020 Olympic Team at 7 am on Saturday, January 25 at USA Track & Field’s website, www.usatf.tv.