Taking a walk break on the way up to Mt. Hallback (Clingman’s Peak in the background).

This week we’re going to discuss one of running’s four-letter words: WALK. As in, “I had to walk”, “I was reduced to walking”, or “My goal is not to walk”. For most runners, walking in the midst of a training run is taboo. In a race, it’s even worse. To have to walk signals weakness and failure.

I began running at fourteen. The summer before my first cross-country season, my goal was to be able to run to the end of my driveway and back (a total of two miles) without stopping. I figured that would get me into good shape for a 5km. It took the entire summer, but eventually I was able to go the distance without walking. What an accomplishment! I finally felt like a real runner and I vowed to never have to resort to the pathetic practice of walking again.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I’m now an ultrarunner. And a funny thing has happened. I now appreciate the joy – and necessity – of walking. Making the transition from road racer to ultra and trailrunner has been an evolution, and I’ve had a love/hate relationship with walking all along. It’s pretty hard to get out of the mentality that views walking as failure. Yet when you’re making your way up a rocky 20% grade thirty miles into a race, it’s not as if you have a lot of options. Under certain conditions walking can be just as efficient as running.

I’ve witnessed some unbelievably fast hiking in long races. Runners who approach a hill head-down, hands to knees, powering up the incline like nobody’s business. I’ve been passed by these runners, even as I slowly trudge my way up, refusing to succumb to the dreaded “w”. I think the key for them is not to view walking as a rest break. They might be walking, but they are still pushing, getting the most out of every stride. Meanwhile, when I finally surrender, I end up lollygagging. Taking my time, looking as if I’m out for a casual stroll, feeling those competitive juices slowed to a trickle like a dried up stream in August. Once I finally get to the top of the hill, it takes effort to remind myself that yes, this is a race and I’d better get my butt in gear. I resume my running pace in shame, feeling like a real loser.

Yes, it’s sometimes just downright embarrassing to be caught walking in a race. Occasionally, though, when I’m out for a casual training run and I allow myself to walk for just a bit, I find that it’s actually kind of enjoyable. It’s nice to slow down, take in the scenery, and allow my heart rate return to a normal level. I begin to think that maybe it’s not so awful to allow myself to slow down every now and then…and that maybe the “w” word is not such a bad one after all.