European Race Walking Cup champion Eleonora Giorgi discovered just how tough walking 50 kilometres is on Sunday (19) in Alytus when the event was held as part of the European Race Walking Cup programme for the first time.
Tough enough thinks the winner and newly minuted European record-holder to revise plans for a repeat in the scorching heat of Doha at the IAAF World Championships in September.
The 29-year-old stepped up to the long race after struggling with technical problems that saw her suffer crucial disqualifications over the last four years.
She was on the cusp for a medal at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome three years ago before seeing the dreaded red disc thrust at her on the lip of the stadium with 200m to go while vying for the silver medal.
Before that, Giorgi was also removed by officials at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in 2015.
So it made sense for someone with her latent talent to dip a toe into a race where she could slow down, be technically sound from first to last, and still win. Even so, those debut 50 laps on the Alytus course in Lithuania have raised doubts about a second attempt.
“I will decide with my coach what I will do for Doha,” she said. “I would prefer to do the 50K, but it will depend on how long it will take me to recover. I am very competitive at the 20K also.”
Maybe. But it was over four years ago she set a personal best of 1:26:17 in winning her first European Cup title in Murcia despite two top spots at the same distance in March and April of this year.
Those victories in Dudince and Poděbrady were heartening and the latter was a solo 1:27:46 effort, the fastest time by a European in 2019
But there are a few - especially among the Chinese contingent - capable of walking a minute faster in Doha in spite of the conditions and a unique near midnight start.
Once Giorgi sits down with coach Gianni Perricelli, she might prefer to work out a way to even-pace racing rather than endure another two uneven halves as in Alytus.
“I had planned for four hours or 4:05 so it was fast,” she explained. “But 50K is hard and it is unpredictable. I got into my own rhythm and I felt good. However, I slowed down at halfway, and then realised that the Spanish girl [Julia Takåcs] was behind me so I had to fight in the last five kilometres.”
And fight she did. At 30km, Giorgi had more than four minutes over Takåcs but the European bronze medallist from Berlin - and a veteran of three other 50km races - moved smoothly through the field and ahead of European and world champion Ines Henriques from Portugal into second place.
That experience allowed Takåcs to increase her tempo and finish less than a minute behind Giorgi who nonetheless mounted a final 4:42 kilometre to counter the Spaniard’s late charge and come home in style.
Giorgi’s original plan was to study form and attach herself to a group of men aiming for four hours. She was forced to review the situation very soon after the 8:00am start in Alytus.
Nonetheless, unlike the relative sprint that is 20km, Giorgi also gave herself a bit of breathing space.
“I had hoped I could walk with and get help from the group of men and do four hours. But they were going faster than that so I had to walk alone,” she said. “It was all right. I could listen to my own rhythm, and also I had time to think.”
It also answered another question about whether mixed gender races could be useful to women getting a pacemaking tow from men? Clearly not, at least as far as Sunday went for the Italian champion.
Even so, Giorgi thinks there is still life in the 50km - at least for the next couple of years before proposed changes could see it make way for shorter events.
“I think the women deserve the same rights as the men, and we are improving fast and breaking records all the time like at Alytus, with the European record,” she said.
The summit meeting with her coach over the next few days will decide whether Giorgi tries to improve all the more at 50km - and on paper what would seem a near-certain IAAF World Championships medal - or take a gamble that is the return to 20km and a technically sound race.