Francisco Javier Fernandez of Spain and Portugal’s Susana Feitor were respectively the men’s and women’s 20km winners at today’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge Final (21).

Murcia. Spain, 21/09/2008. There was joy for Francisco Javier Fernandez as he won the men’s IAAF Race Walking Challenge Final in Murcia – and a $30,000 cheque for overall winner Jared Tallent – but the story was all about Jefferson Perez.

Even as the other two were quietly celebrating, chaotic scenes surrounded the Olympic silver medallist in his emotional last race after he crossed the line in third place.

Having staggered the last 50 metres while vomiting, hundreds of second-generation Ecuadoreans jumped the barriers to mob their hero.

The uncontrolled scenes of passion made sure at least two walkers starting their last 1k lap had a conservative 30 seconds added to their time as they came to a dead stop amongst the crowds.

Once the tailenders were through, organisers and stewards made sure they scuttled the still suffering Perez away for his own safety.

Fernandez was on home soil, but it was clear where the affections lay for large numbers of spectators – many in the yellow Ecuadorean national football shirt.

Perez even gave it a go at the front for a kilometre in the middle of the race, but it was clear this was all about a strong finish to an illustrious career that hit the headlines when he won gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

“At the end of the race I told the people how much I loved them,” said Perez. “I’m thousands of miles from home, but it seems all my countrymen are here.”

Fernandez had expressed his fear of a race too many in a somewhat chequered season. But in the end, he walked strongly away from the rest of the field, including Perez, to take first.

“Every kilometre after five I felt better and better,” said the Spaniard. “I thought I could then win – and yes, this is a surprise, but I really wanted to be here for Perez”.

The close points competition saw a turnaround on the final day.

Tallent jumped from third to first – and demonstrated that this really is the Australian’s time.

As others suffered, the walker who is just a month on from 70k of racing and two Olympic medals, held his own to close down Perez and come in second as well as walk off down the Gran Via with a huge mock $30,000 cheque for his new wife, fellow Olympian Claire Woods.

Eder Sanchez was a DNF after 15k, and this cost the Mexican his first place in the standings going into the race. Still, his eventual third was some consolation for two wins in the series. Erik Tysse moved down two places as well, while Perez’s heroic finish moved him up to overall second.

The race at 1pm (GMT+2hrs) saw the thermometer touching 33 degrees, and so Japanese Yuki Yamazaki’s 40-metre lead after the first lap was always going to be short lived.

He was joined by four others for a 5k split of 20:33. But at halfway the lead was shared by Perez (41:22) as well as Fernandez, Tallent and Yamazaki.

But the war of attrition and heat took its toll, and by 15k Fernandez had creviced open a four-second gap on Perez with Tallent eight seconds further back.

However, the Australian rallied, and once he caught Perez the places were decided.

Tallent said: “I would have settled for second, and I never thought I was going to be overall winner. I have to say it was heartening to see Eder (Sanchez) drop out. And I really wanted Jefferson to win his last race – but that wasn’t going to get in the way of what I had to do.”

Women’s 20km

Was the cup half empty or half full for Susana Feitor? The Portuguese winner of the IAAF 20k Race Walking Challenge in Murcia today (Sunday) wasn’t sure.

The 33-year-old veteran had just comprehensively beaten the rest of an illustrious field through the streets of the southern Spanish city by some way, but it was a month too late as far as Feitor was concerned. She went to the Olympics in good shape – but had her hopes washed away in the Beijing rain.

This time she made no mistake in the 30-degree heat, and as grateful as she was for the win, Feitor was still coming to terms with her average display in China. She said: “The Olympics were just frustrating. I was as nervous as a five-year-old on the day, and considering it was my fifth time – I don’t know what happened. I’m half-happy, half-sad.”

Considering she had an ear inflammation, Athanasia Tsoumeléka was delighted with her second place. Starting slowly, the Greek worked her way through the field, and ended up second overall in the Challenge.

And the reason for the earache? According to the Greek Olympic gold medallist from 2004, it was the result of dirty rain battering down on her in Beijing. She said: “It didn’t help either my daughter had a virus that she passed on to me. But I know this heat, and how to race in it, and I’m delighted. I also admire the way Kjersti Platzer can cope with two children and still do so well.”

The Norwegian was a distant third here, but points accumulated throughout the year were enough to see her home and the overall $30,000 prize money for the 2008 IAAF Race Walking title.

The 36-year-old, expected to call it a day next month, spent some time afterwards in the medical tent getting treatment for a blood clot on her heel. “I walked an even pace but my heart rate was so high, I just couldn’t have given any more,” she said.

Nonetheless, she had more to take away having moved up from last year’s first to overall second.

Claudia Stef also had good reason to keep going and finish nearly seven minutes behind Feitor. The Romanian’s struggle in the heat bagged her third in overall standings and an improvement on three places from 2007.

The first three kilometres in 13:24 saw a group of four including Feitor, claim 50m on a chasing pack of five which saw Platzer and Tsoumeléka just a second apart.

By 4k it was down to three, with Ines Henriques eased off the back by a couple of seconds and the Platzer group going out the back door in a big way.

Considering the conditions, Feitor laid down a marker for the others to follow when she went through quarter distance in 22:16 having upped the pace for the last kilometre by just four seconds. It appeared a trivial amount, but Sabine Zimmer’s open mouth gasping for air and the disappearance of Olive Loughnane and Henriques going backwards told the story.

Another 2k in 8:51 shook off Zimmer, and Feitor knew she was in control. By halfway (44:29) the race for first was effectively over, although the positions behind were shifting to and fro.

Early leader Loughnane was shown the dreaded red card just after 8k, and after Tsoumeléka had earlier seen Platzer gain a few seconds the Greek started to move back on her.

Over the next six kilometres the 2004 Olympic gold medallist gradually added nearly 200m and two places to the distance between her and the tiring Platzer to move up to second.

Zimmer also paid the price for briefly heading the field, while Henriques steadied her own ship to finally claim fourth.

The end of season exertions were clearly too much for Portuguese Vera Santos and a number of home Spaniards with PBs hovering around 1:39:00, all of whom slipped off through the barriers before 15k to join the near 30,000 spectators surrounding the course.

Feitor was down to a 4:40 lap with 2k to go but cruising with the slight consolation that she who laughs last, laughs, well, almost longest.

The overall 2008 IAAF Race Walking Challenge titles went to Norway’s Kjersti Platzer and Australia’s Jared Tallent.

Paul Warburton for the IAAF


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