March 31, 2022 5 min read
Mike Devaney, 71, wanted to see the wild of America. Everything was so antiseptic in airports, and there was finger-wagging and lines and schedules. So he hopped in his car(s) to continue his quest to win a gold medal in race walking in every state.
Devaney figures he drives 50,000 miles a year now. At least. The Honda CRV has 249,000 miles. The Chevy Aveo has 142,000. These are not luxury rides, by any means, but they have what Devaney needs most: good gas mileage and cruise control.
“You can’t compete if your leg has been held in one position eight hours,” he said about the advantages of cruise control.
Gold medals in every state in race walking? Somebody is trying to do this?
Yep. Devaney, who is from Globe, Arizona, and is a retired casino executive, started race walking in 2014. He’s almost at the finish line of his Holy Grail, so it’s too late to rush to the window at one of his casinos and lay odds against him. He won the bet.
Well, just about.
Devaney has won at least one gold medal in 49 states in race walking. He has medaled in every state, just not gold in that ONE state.
Illinois is the scofflaw. Mike is coming for your gold Illinois, but he is not coming through O’Hare or Midway airports. When he conquers Illinois it will be on Route 24 into Peoria, or Interstate 72 into Champaign.
If he gets his weight down to 146 pounds, Devaney insists he is going to be a gold medal threat all over the country in 2022, including Illinois.
You don’t have to ask Mike Devaney why he is on this adventure of driving, walking, and driving. It’s the competition. It won’t let go of him, and he won’t let go of it.
Devaney does not have industry-standard ambition.
He went to high school in the Seattle area back in the late 60s when Washington state and Oregon were the two premier distance running states in the country. Devaney was part of that crowd that included icons Steve Prefontaine and later, Alberto Salazar, and became immersed in the culture of running. Devaney was highly-ranked nationally in the 5,000 when he was 37.
A workload and a motorcycle accident bounced him out of running. He couldn’t train to win and that was deflating. He gained weight and didn’t look like much of a runner, or feel like one, for that matter.
The accident, which pinned his left leg against a telephone pole, made it so Mike could stride just one meter, instead of two the rest of us use for running.
The epiphany to switch to the race walk came in 2014 when he got shingles. Pneumonia came with it and three ribs exploded, and one is permanently dislocated. Devaney had to sleep in a recliner for 30 days because it hurt so bad to lay down.
“I wanted to die, the pain was unbelievable,” he said.
On the 30th day, Devaney got up, slipped on some deck shoes, and walked two miles. His feet hurt with blisters because, well, deck shoes are not made for walking.
But something clicked. He could walk fast, he discovered, and the thrill returned of going faster than somebody else.
Devaney bought some Nikes and started walking more…and he kept going faster and faster. Devaney was really fast at 65, once the ribs healed. He started training hard for a new passion: race walking.
By 2017, Devaney had trained himself up for a breakout at the National Senior Games in Birmingham, Ala., and finished 5th in the 1500 race walk in the ultra-competitive 65-69 age group.
He had the fever now. Devaney was traveling to state senior games and The Huntsman Games in Utah, and whatever competition he could find. He owns records in several states. North Carolina, Tennessee, and New Mexico will not allow him to compete as an out-of-state athlete in their official Senior Games or state senior Olympics, but he finds other races in those states that will take all comers…and wins.
If you missed the moral of the story so far, it is this: Get back out there.
Devaney got a taste of what it is like to sit around all day when you are older and decline in a recline. He was fixed to that recliner with shingles and pneumonia and, ultimately, he refused to curl up and go out that way.
“You mean because I’m older I’m supposed to stay home and rot,” Devaney said. “And die wondering what I could have done? That’s not me.”
When you ask Devaney to explain himself, he is quick on the draw. The son of a Navy man, who led a family that moved a lot, Mike was the “new kid” who got tested when he showed up to a new school, so his guard was up. He went to six schools in the sixth grade and three schools grade 7 through 9.
“Every time you go to a new school, it’s a fight, they always wanted to know what you’re made of,” Devaney said.
So he was a combatant, and still is, it seems. He spit on their team sports because the coach’s son and the mayor’s kid and the other cool kids dominated the rosters of the baseball, football, and basketball squads. Devaney became a runner. Individual sports depend on three people, Me, Myself, and I, and that’s how he liked it.
This is the fuel behind Devaney, but before you think he is all Me, consider what he did in July, 2021. His times were going down, he felt good, and then the phone rang, and his local junior high and high school needed a cross country coach. He dropped what he was doing and went back to Miami/Globe, Arizona to coach kids.
He taunted the younger athletes—in a good way—with his speedy race walking. He used his gray whiskers as motivation.
“I know how I felt when I was their age,” Devaney said. “I didn’t want some man in his 70s beating me.”
When he showed up in Nevada last week for a 1500 and did a 10:21 in sweats, which was two weeks after a bout with pneumonia, the young kids volunteering at the race, dropped their jaws. They hadn’t seen anything like it. A man, 71, was competitive in a 1500 run while race walking.
You understand, right? This was not a race walking event. It was a running event and Devaney finished six seconds behind the runner-up.
“I slacked off on the third lap,” he said.
So many events have been cancelled because of Covid, and Devaney has missed so many others with pneumonia, that he had to enter something, anything. He picked a 1500 meter run.
Devaney does so many things upside down and inside out, like driving when he could fly, or camping in his car instead of hanging out in plush airport club lounges where the food is free.
This isn’t a travel story, but Devaney urges you to get to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Wonderful, he insists.
He also says you need to take in the spectacle of the mountains of western North Carolina. The man who once made $300,000 a year as a casino exec would rather camp in his car in one of those national parks than use points for a hotel.
“I was missing so much of America,” he says. “What was I seeing? Nice airports, I guess.”
When he gets the Gold in Illinois might he go for another lap around the U.S., or just stick to a normal schedule like other humans?
“I vacillate about that,” Devaney said. “That race in Nevada and not being 100 percent and still going fast I said to myself ‘This is fun’. Maybe I keep going. Yeah, I think I’ll keep going.“
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