About 25 miles into his 31-mile race walk Saturday in Santee, the 38-year-old former Swedish star thought he was going to pass out.
“I wasn’t feeling good at all,” he said after winning the 50K race in 4 hours, 12 minutes and 11 seconds. “I started to pedestrian walk for a bit. And then I ate three bananas within three miles or something.”
That revived Gustafsson enough to hold off defending national champ Matt Forgues (a Hilltop Middle School teacher while training in Chula Vista) and El Cajon’s Nick Christie (who vomited around 30K and fell off his torrid leading pace).
Coached by his father, Bo, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist in the 50K walk, Gustafsson was cheered by his wife, Molly, and two young sons as he averaged 8:08 miles starting in foggy mid-40s conditions and ending in clear-sky 70s near Santee Trolley Square.
He won $10,000 for his efforts. More important, he earned World Athletics (formerly IAAF) rankings points needed to make the Olympic team in case he doesn’t record an automatic qualifying time under 3:50. (His all-time best is 3:50:47 from 2012.)
“I’m super happy,” he said. “I think I’ll get in by the rankings within the next few months.”
Married to a U.S. citizen in 2015, Gustafsson has lived in the States since age 15, when his mother married an American. (In 2015, he drew a two-year ban for using the blood-boosting hormone EPO.)
The professional pilot passed Christie around 35K, and “I wasn’t really going to give him a chance. … I really kind of made a move. I knew all along that he wasn’t going to hold it. I was mostly worried about Matt.”
Christie, a former high school hurdler and pole vaulter, said the 50K was more a formality — and a chance for a payday. (He earned $6,000.)
“The 50K is not really my thing,” he said. “I think this will be the last one I do.”
With a focus on making the Tokyo team in the 20K race walk, Christie, 28, also will walk at the Feb. 8 Millrose Games in New York (a mile) and try to defend his national 3K walk title at the national indoor championships Feb. 14 in Albuquerque.
Joining him at the Armory track in New York City (at Millrose) will be Christie’s girlfriend, Robyn Stevens of Vacaville.
Stevens won the women’s national 50K title in 4:37:31, which would have made her fourth in the men’s race.
Unlike a year ago, when she prevailed despite finishing and learning she had a lap to go (shedding Old Glory and heading out for a final 1.25-kilometer* circuit), Stevens had triple-redundant lap counters Saturday.
But it was no walk in the park Saturday.
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“My body started to cramp up a little bit at about 25K, so then I just decided to go for the win” rather than an Olympic qualifying time, she said.
Like Christie, Stevens says the Tokyo 20K walk is her emphasis. But if the Swedish-based Court for the Arbitration of Sport orders Olympic organizers to add the 50K walk for women, she says she’d like to double (the 20K comes before the grueling 50K).
She’ll compete for the U.S. team in May at a world race-walk meet in in Minsk, Belarus, where she’s looking for a good 20K time.
Stevens said she told her beau nothing as Christie passed her on the course.
“I didn’t want to distract him,” she said. “But I was really proud of him. He was on a sub-4-hour pace.”
Besides the 50K, other races were held — including a 10K won by a 17-year-old Tijuanan (Andres Gonzalez-Aquino) and a 20K won by 2012 Canadian Olympian Rachel Seaman of Imperial Beach (married to two-time U.S. Olympian and local coach Tim Seaman).
Seaman, 34, said the Santee walk wasn’t meant to be a super-hard effort
“I’ll do my first real race in March,” she said. “I’m on a good track” to qualify for Tokyo in the 20K.
She credited her daughters, 6 and 2, for her recent success, saying: “It’s been good for me to balance motherhood with my training” after once being too focused on training “to my detriment. I needed some balance.”
With three-time Olympian Phillip Dunn as announcer, the event attracted U.S. Olympic walkers from 1992 to 2016, including 2016 Olympic Trials champion John Nunn, whose last major race was in 2017.
Now 42, Army staff Sgt. Nunn graduates next week from physician’s assistant school in Colorado Springs. After officer training, he’ll be assigned in June to Fort Irwin National Training Center, “a nondeployable location,” north of Barstow. He’ll be promoted to a first lieutenant.
“I thought I’d really miss race walking,” he said, “but I had an almost 20-year career. So it’s nice to be able to come and not really feel I’m envious.”
Besides, he tried race walking at the beginning of clinical rotations in February, “and I was so sore for a couple days.”
How does he stay in shape now?
“I just run,” he says.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to 1.25-mile laps.
New American Goes Bananas to Win Santee 50K Walk, Shot at Tokyo Games was last modified: January 31st, 2020 by Ken Stone
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