October 21, 2023 4 min read 8 Comments
The face of a woman who adores her habit of racewalking. Photo by Diana Schackman.
By Ray Glier
It was 102 degrees in Palm Springs, Ca., Thursday, but Darlene Backlund, 78, had already been up three hours while the temps were still in the 70s. She had the first of her 10 cups of coffee for the morning at 5 a.m., eased around the house for a while, and then got her racewalk workout in before the oppressive heat descended.
Her racewalk five days a week—either 4 miles or 12-13 miles—is more than habit. It’s a cathedral, a bedrock, and identity. It’s what Backlund does and what she is known for, a sport she has enjoyed since age 50. It’s easy to rise at 5 and have your body cooperate with a sport under those circumstances.
“I want to racewalk when I’m 95,” said Darlene, who is already the oldest woman on the planet to complete a certified 50k racewalk. “I want to die crossing the finish line of a racewalk.”
Darlene's habit is she will not give in and, surely, will not give up. The track authorities have stopped offering her cherished 50k racewalk (31.1 miles), so she settles for the 20K, and lower-mileage events, which must feel like a warmup to her.
Backlund doesn’t have to use age as an alibi as why she doesn’t do a 31.1 mile racewalk.
“I could still do it, yes I could, if they had the 50K in meets,” Backlund said. “Give me a few months to train and I could do 50K.”
You believe her because at The Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah last week, on consecutive days, Backlund raced the 3000 meters, the 1500, and then a 5000 race walk. That’s not 31 miles, but Darlene said she had plenty of juice left on Sunday after finishing second in all three.
If you are struggling with defeatism with your workouts, that you were not born to rev your body’s engine at 78, and you are losing that monologue in your head ("I can't do this"), understand Backlund is not some freak of genes. Her father, Ralph, died at 55. Her siblings have a variety of ailments.
What Geezer Jocks of any fitness level need to grasp is we are not all on a fate-inspired trajectory. Change your seat. Get un-stuck. Ignore the noise.
If you want to racewalk, here is a starter.
Life, she says, was meant to be participatory and Backlund is a steadfast adventurer. Before her husband John died seven years ago, the couple’s racewalking took them around the world, either to race or to stay with friends they met through the sport.
“Race walk is my survival and my meditation time and I’m just so grateful that John and I got into race walk together,” Darlene said. “It totally enhanced our retirement. It gave us purpose for traveling and gave us the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people all over the world.”
The couple also lived out of a motorhome for 10 years and saw all 50 states, never driving more than 150 miles a day and never making a reservation.
They bought a piece of property in Oregon so John could raise a garden. They were foster parents to a 13-year old boy, and Chris is still solidly part of the family. She coordinates a local Alzheimer’s support group and teaches people how to racewalk at a community center in Palm Springs (Racewalk Wisdom).
The woman seems to believe nothing happens by accident, including her health. Life is meant to be an adventure and Darlene keeps the adventure percolating with the racewalk, which includes warm-up walks, cool down walks, static stretches in the evening, interval training, dynamic stretches, and aerobics.
“My doctor says I'm the healthiest person she knows,” Backlund said.
The last time she was in the hospital was when she was 10 for her appendix to be removed. She takes no vitamins or supplements or pills for any ailment. Darlene lives a retro life and has the electric percolating coffee maker (Cuisinart) to prove it.
The coolest part about Backlund is that she would not be chased out of the sport by her ego and finishing second in so many shorter racewalks to the national champion, Kathy Frable. Instead, they became friends and traveled together and teamed up for three gold medals in world racewalk relay events.
Darlene was 64 when she set a world record for the 50K racewalk in the 60-64 cohort in 6 hours, 40 minutes.
At 65, a year older, Backlund went 13 minutes faster. At 70, Darlene was the first woman to complete a 50K.
Four years later, Darlene became the oldest woman in the world to complete a certified 50K, which she did in Santee, Ca. Last January she did a 35K racewalk.
One of her biggest thrills was standing on the podium at the World Masters games in 2005 in Spain with a gold medal around her neck and hearing the U.S. national anthem playing.
“It just brought tears to my eyes,” Backlund said. “It was just such a good feeling, which is one of the reasons I continued.”
Darlene starts the day with the first of those 10 cups of coffee and ends the day with a half-cup of salted caramel ice cream just before bed at 9 p.m. In between, her cup runneth over, as they say. Life is a participatory exercise and Darlene participates...one cup at a time.
Please support Geezer Jock. I am sportswriter in Atlanta who has written for national publications and I love to find these stories of courage, inspiration, and resilience. You don't have to be extraordinary, or have freakish ability to be a Geezer Jock. You just have to move.
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