Fantastic finding out about Heather's race walking!

Heather Lewis putting Fraser Watson through his paces

I crossed the line at the Sir Thomas Picton running track blowing but not broken.

Seven and a half laps of the track had been ticked off, my pace had been decent enough, and what’s more, I’d kept up with an elite athlete who regularly represents Wales and Great Britain on the international stage. I’d even go as far to say both of us had a little left in the tank – although there was maybe one caveat to all of this.

I was running, whilst my temporary training partner was only walking!

Travelled a long way

Indeed, Heather Lewis has come a long way since opting to switch from long distance running to competitive race walking with Pembrokeshire Harriers 10 years ago. The now 25-year-old has competed in both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships and is currently working intensely towards her next big goal – a spot at the World Athletics Championships in Qatar this September.

“I entered a couple of race walks in the Louise Arthur meetings at short notice, simply to get some extra points for the Harriers,” explained Heather, rewinding to where her career transition began.

“But it was something fresh. I was asked if I would like to compete in it properly and decided it would be interesting.”

Started at 15 years of age

So it proved. At the age of 15 she started to compete properly in the discipline and within a year, race walking had become her sole athletic focus.

Starting out with 1km races, she progressed to 3km and then ultimately 10km, earning herself a host of local and national titles before gaining both Welsh and Team GB junior vests.

The jump to senior level and 20km distances took some getting used to, but more success followed and in 2017 she was selected for Team GB again – and then in April 2018 came the biggest race of her career to date at the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia.

That day, she defied searing heat to finish seventh in 1:41:45.

“It was a brilliant experience and I loved every moment.

“It wasn’t a personal best so I guess I left feeling I could have gone quicker.

“But I was so proud to represent Wales and the support I had was amazing.”

Even steeper learning curve

Four months later came a far steeper learning curve though as brutally, Heather was disqualified at the European Championships in Berlin.

As I would later find out, it is impossible to gauge the technical complexities of race walking from the comfort of your armchair. An athlete's back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched – and the supporting leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straightened until the body passes over it.  Violating either rule has consequences, and Heather’s race in Germany was ended prematurely due to disqualification.

“It was the biggest lesson of my career,” admitted Heather.

“I felt in great shape going in and was really excited.

“Our race was actually delayed due to a leakage on the road so we ended up starting the same time as the men. The adrenaline was pumping and I ended going off at a much quicker pace than planned. I really went for it and was going too fast for my own technique.

“I should have kept my composure and sat back a bit.”

Positive reaction to a huge set-back

From the disappointment though, emerged a positive realisation.

“I’d perhaps got away with stuff in previous races but I knew from that moment I needed to work on my technique. So I went away and really concentrated on getting it right.”

So far this year, she’s done just that, overcoming Welsh teammate Bethan Davies to become British Indoor champion in Birmingham in February. Mercifully for me, the night of our meeting she was five days away from the European Race Walking Cup in Lithuania - meaning a ‘lighter’ session than usual.

Heather was also keeping an eye on Grace, a young Harrier who she’s currently coaching in her spare time. The basic warm up drills soon hammered it home that the art of race walking was considerably more complex than it seems on the telly.

“People don’t get how hard it is,” confirmed Heather.

“And it’s surprising the effect it has on you over long periods. Anyone that has a go for the first time will realise it can be painful on the shins.”

Fraser tries his luck

Sure enough, my own efforts to maintain rhythm and speed over 400 metres, whilst also focusing on not breaking rules, went about as smoothly as Bambi on ice.

Thankfully, when it came to accompanying Heather on a 3km jaunt later on, I could run alongside her as opposed to being lapped countless times. Joining us was Bleddyn Thomas, himself an athlete and Ironman competitor, who regularly assists with her track training.

Only then did I really appreciate the dynamism involved. Heather essentially walked at the same pace me and Bleddyn ran with her balance, leg speed and arm drive all in sync. Track side, long term Harriers coach and stalwart Pete Freeman was there to point out any fleeting glitches in technique.

And what turned out to be a brisk 13 minutes was far from the end of the session. Interval walks (runs in my case) followed shortly after - ten 200 metre sprints with (very) brief rest in-between, and warm down laps to finish.

This however, was merely a glimpse into Heather’s current schedule as she aims to improve on her personal best 20km time of 1:35:04 and gain automatic qualification for the afore- mentioned World Championships.

Terrific training sessions needed

She’s coached by Chris Jones of Welsh Athletics and is guided by a nutritionist – and an average week consists of six training days and 12 long distance walks. She’ll also fit in two strength and conditioning sessions, and alongside training camps, will hit the roads around Haverfordwest on a daily basis.

“I have routes worked out and for most of my training I’ll keep to the road lanes because that helps me work more on the technical side,” she explained.

“On the track you’re continuously turning in the same direction so it can be repetitive. But I like going out on the roads – and on my easier walks I tend to do a lot of thinking and it helps clear my head sometimes.

“Pete or Bleddyn sometimes join me as well and often it’s good to have company. It can make training more enjoyable.”

Family support

Add to all this her role in the family business at Clerkenhill Adventure Farm and maintaining healthy work/life balance isn’t straight forward.

“Working full time with all the training can be tough,” she admitted.

“I’m up by 6am nearly every morning so I can get a walk in before feeding the animals. Being involved in a family business does help so as I can be flexible and my parents are so helpful. They make sure I never miss training because of work.

“Having a life outside of work and athletics can be difficult and you do have to make sacrifices. I miss out on a lot of things socially, especially at this time of year, but I wouldn’t change it.”

Dedication intensifies in working towards key targets

And the levels of dedication will only intensify as she works towards qualifying for Doha this year, and then the inevitable target of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

But Heather also has goals beyond that. She excels in a discipline of athletics that by her own admission, has not always been an attractive proposition for youngsters.

That notion is now changing, and she plans to eventually put something back into the sport and pave the way for others to have an opportunity.

“I’m always happy to give a hand to other athletes and enjoy coaching. I’d like to be able to put more into it and one day it’s something I’ll push to do properly.

“The opportunities for race walking haven’t always been there and I’d like to help both youngsters and adults have a go at it if they’d like to.”

And finally . . .

They say don't knock things until you've tried them. Growing up, race walking was the event I'd take partial interest in during a major Championships - often wondering how something so simplistic could be considered an athletics discipline in its own right. An hour with Heather and co had made a mockery of my previous ignorance.

The speed of movement and technical discipline required is frightening. And if you've never tried it, you won't realise that.

But Heather's success, coupled with an obvious desire to one day guide others, can only help raise the profile in a positive way.

And if come September she's able to stroll into Qatar in Team GB colours, it would be fitting reward for some extreme dedication.

  • Heather also thanked everyone who has helped her with funding and support for her career, including Margaret and Mike Bradley, Clerkenhill Adventure Farm, Welsh Athletics, Pembrokeshire Harriers and the Haverfordwest Swimming Pool Trust.
Heather Lewis warming down with Fraser and pals