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Democrat Photo by Jeanne Sager

Bob Barrett

Smallwood Native
Hits It Big

By Jeanne Sager
SMALLWOOD — June 20, 2003 – Smallwood definitely has its name on the map – it’s now home to a national champion.
Bob Barrett, a member of the Smallwood Civic Association and a part-time resident for more than 40 years (full-time since 1999) claimed victory in two racewalks at the National Senior Games in Virginia Beach, Va., earlier this month.
And the 69-year-old is not stopping there.
Barrett started racewalking in 1991. At that point, he said, he was gearing up for retirement and looking for some physical activity to keep his body limber and his mind occupied.
Barrett ran in high school in the Bronx and later at Iona College, so heading back onto the track was a logical choice.
“I started to work out, doing what I thought was racewalking,” he said.
Barrett figured racewalking meant what the word implies – fast walking.
Then he went to his first event and found out he had another think coming.
Racewalks are judged events, so competitors have to concentrate not only making it the distance of the race in a short amount of time but conforming to the style of the sport. Only one foot is allowed to leave the ground at a time, and the arms must be bent in a certain manner.
The landing leg must be straight as well, and judges will call you on a bent knee or foot off the ground. If they have to warn you three times, you’re out of the race.
“You must develop kind of a peculiar gait,” Barrett explained. “Running you can do any style whatsoever, but this you must follow the style.”
So Barrett’s wife, June, and daughters helped him out by taping races and giving him the chance to study the videos and develop his style. He even joined a racewalking club that practices in Central Park (the couple lived in Yonkers before Barrett retired from his job as a middle school principal).
The advantage of the exact rules to the sport soon became clear to Barrett.
“You’re not wasting any movement, so you propel yourself forward at a quick speed,” he explained.
Soon, Barrett was racewalking in competitions across New York City and, later, across the globe.
He’s competed in England, Ireland, and Canada, as well as Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and a number of other states.
Though he grew up in the Bronx, Barrett said he never would have seen as much of his native state if he hadn’t started racewalking. Races have taken him from Cortland to Albany and everywhere in between.
“I’ve hit places I probably never would have visited,” he explained.
“I enjoy the camaraderie of the people who participate,” Barrett continued. “You meet people you don’t ordinarily meet in life.”
It’s also steadily increased Barrett’s quality of life.
“I used to have all sorts of aches and pains,” he recalled. “After I started walking, I dind’t have any more aches, I didn’t have any more pains.”
He’d recommend the sport to anyone, whether they’re seniors looking at retirement, or younger adults who need to let off some steam after work.
It’s a sport that doesn’t require a lot of equipment – just sneakers and an open road. During the winter, Barrett uses a treadmill to keep in shape, but he also does a full indoor season of races (mostly in New York City) so he doesn’t lose his edge on the competition.
Currently, he walks at least five or six days a week, taking one day off to let his muscles rest. He trains for strength and endurance and to shave his walk times.
The length he walks usually depends on the length of the race he’s working up to.
The races he won in Virginia Beach were a 1,500 meter and a 5,000 meter. The week after, he competed in Cortland at the Empire State Senior Games and set a national record for 69-year-old racewalkers, finishing in 27:47 – breaking the previous record of 28:13.
Barrett races against folks in the 65-69 year-old-age range. Usually, he said, he’d be at a disadvantage being on the older end of the stick.
But so far he’s been able to hold off most of his competitors – the man who has come closest to beating him just moved up into that age bracket, making him a very young 65.
Barrett racewalks about a 9 minute mile, but he’s always looking to improve that time.
“Racewalking is a difficult sport,” he said. “In order to be good at it, you have to work hard.”
And that includes examining past successes and failures. Barrett looks at the moments when he lost momentum in a race to figure out what went wrong and turn it around for a future meet.
And so far, it’s worked. He’s captured 12 gold medals at the Empire State Games, and he’s working up to the next Olympic-style competition in Niagara Falls late next month.
And the racing bug has spread throughout the family. June has started racewalking with her Weight Watchers group and won one medal of her own.
The couple’s daughters, Elizabeth and Katharine, have both started running in their own towns.
Elizabeth even made it up to Sullivan County last weekend with her daughter, Emily, 13, to run in the Rock Hill Run and Ramble to raise money for leukemia and lymphoma research.
Emily and her sister, Katie, 17, will also be competing in the Empire State Games this year for their age group as swimmers at the Buffalo competitions.
“I guess they were kind of spurred on by me doing it,” Barrett surmised.
He hopes other people will have the same kind of inspiration to get out there and get moving.
“Get out and do a little bit each time to increase your distance and decrease your time,” he advises. “It’s not something beyond anyone’s capablities.
“It’as a matter of getting up and starting.”
When Barrett gets tired of walking and just wants to laze in front of the television, he’s reminded of an old Chinese proverb, “You die from the feet up.”
“It’s something I always think of, and I just get up and walk.”
Local folks who want to see Barrett in action can check him out racewalking against the runners in the Smallwood-Mongaup Valley Fire Department’s Second Annual Fighting Fires Race set for July 6.

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