Maria Michta-Coffey is here to share with us her World Championship experience. Maria’s been racing walking at the international level for Team USA for over a decade and is excited to share with us what this experience was like this time around!

What number championship is this for you?

6th senior World Championship Team, 8th if you count Youth and Junior Worlds!

Wow, that’s a lot! What was different or special about this one?

This one is special for several reasons. First, it was the first time the U.S. has hosted the World Championship on home soil. The advantage of this is it’s so much easier for family and friends to attend and spectate live, which means the hometown crowd is
your crowd cheering for you! I had my husband Joe, daughter Liliana, Mom, high school track coach Pete McNeill + family Kathy and Pat, Chiropractor Dr Amico + his wife Lori, and a bunch of other Race Walk community people who came not just for me but cheered their heads off for me, too! The craziest difference for me personally was bringing my three-year-old daughter. Also, this was my first Worlds competing at the 35k (21.7 mile) distance.

Bringing a child cross country is challenging no matter what it’s for, And for a pre-championship race that sounds extra stressful. What was it like?

She had never flown on an airplane before, so that was an adventure in itself. Normally as an athlete at Worlds, I fly out early, enjoy the last week of taper, get in the racing mindset, and let my body do its thing on race day. Traveling with my daughter was infinitely harder. We flew out only four days early, bought 100 “activities” to occupy her on the plane (which mostly held her attention for 30 seconds to 10 minutes) and stayed at an Airbnb. That was definitely the way to go. It gave us a home away from home, a yard where she could expend her energy, and the ability to prepare our own meals - which is super helpful for someone with a sensitive race week stomach.
The hardest part of traveling with a three year old pre race was the time zone change. I can assure you that staying up late in hopes she’ll sleep in late is a recipe for disaster! Luckily my husband took the brunt of this and dealt with all of her early morning wake ups and her refusal to take naps. The most helpful was him taking full parenting duties for the two nights before the race, which allowed me to spend those nights at the meet hotel to minimize sleeping interruptions. This helped me to have the rest and focus time heading into the race.

Take us through your thoughts the morning of the race.

Despite sleeping at the hotel I slept terribly, but that’s typical the night before a race for me, so when the alarms went off I was mentally ready! I quickly checked the weather—61°F and overcast as was projected to stay that temp through 9:00am. This is literally perfect racing conditions in what’s typically hot weather of championship season, and this alone had me feeling pumped. This type of weather is the kind you can go out big in and take a risk and not worry about too big of a blow up.

I also knew I had nothing to lose by going big. This was it, this is what all the training and racing had been to achieve — a spot on the starting line. Now it was time to see what I could do before crossing the finish line.  

Tell us about the race!

The course was 35km done on a closed 1km loop that we went around 35 times! Race walking is super technical where form and adhering to the very specific details of a racer’s body movement is monitored closely by several judges. For this race, there were eight international judges watching our form to ensure we are adhering to race walk rules and technique. As judged by the naked eye, this means racers must maintain contact with the ground, and the knee of the leading leg straightens as it makes contact with the ground and remains straightened until the leg passes under the body. If you watch a race walker in slow motion, you can see the specific contact points and motion that are being closely monitored. Racers get up to three infractions, after which they are placed in a penalty box for three minutes. If there is a fourth infraction, you’re disqualified. As we push fast and hard for over 20 miles, we have to constantly be mindful of our technique the whole time!

So back to this race today! The gun went off and my plan was to walk with Miranda Melville. We agreed on the first few kilometers to settle in around 5:10/km and then bring it down to 5:05/km. The hope was to feel strong for the majority of the race, and after 20-25 kilometers be able to pick people off. I knew that she had a significantly better PR than me, but the weather conditions favored a bold plan racing with a teammate rather than an overly cautious solo approach. Our first lap was 5:15, which was fine considering you take a lap or two in these long races to find the rhythm of your pace.  

The next few km we were closer to 5:06 and I even dropped a 5:02.3, at which Miranda reminded me to be patient. It was an incredible feeling, so relaxed and chomping at the bit. By 6km I had instinctively started hunting competitors who were ahead. First up was an athlete from Kazakhstan. Without realizing it I was pulling away from Miranda only to realize I dropped her and hit a 4:56.7 lap - way under my planned pace.

I backed off to 5:00 to relax a bit but was still way faster and much earlier than planned. The next kilometer I hit 4:57 and I was feeling fantastic. I felt good enough that I wanted to see how long this could last - it felt so smooth and too good in this moment.

I continued hunting and thinking how incredible this felt, that this is how “2012 Maria” felt: damn this is amazing, this is why I pushed another year, I knew I had this in me. I’m here, I’m back, I’m a race day gamer, a championship racer!

My second 10k split was faster than my second 10k from three months ago when I was racing a 20k just 2 weeks after having Covid. I thought Maria Is Back! I moved up from being seeded 38th to 33rd after my first lap, and was now in the top 25 after 20k!

My mind was racing as I kept thinking: Wow, this is going way better than I planned or even imagined. I’m totally going to PR! But wait - what if I crash?! Remember, at 22k is where it started to fall apart last time...No, it’s ok, Maria, you can crash and still PR. You are stronger, you’ve got this!

At 25k, I notice I’m still here, I’m still pressing on… what place am I?

At 30k, I’m feeling it…it’s getting hard but it’s ok…Even if I walk 5:30/km I can still PR and break three hours. I can do it.

At 32k I can do this, hold it together, I can break three hours.

At 33k take your bottle one last time.

At 34k one more lap! Wait, I see a racer on the same lap as me... she must be dying, I can catch her, I can catch her!

Last turn around, okay time to accelerate home…

Shoot. She’s surging too.

Last 200m…

There’s the finish line!!!

I cross the line thinking: this was incredible, did I just fist pump…?? Hell yeah I did, I’m so stinking proud! Where’s Joe, where’s my family, can they see me? Wave wave, wave!

OMG 22nd in the World!!!! And 2:58.51!

At this point it’s still hitting me! I realize they aren’t ushering me away yet. Sweet - I can catch Team USA finishing! I cheer on my teammates, Miranda and Stephanie Casey - GO!

It was truly amazing. You can tell how vividly I remember every part of this race.

Wow that sounds incredible! How are you feeling now almost a week later?

Honestly, I’m feeling amazing. While my stomach took hours to recover and the first time I ate actual food after racing was 5:00 pm, my body bounced back really well. I got a post-race flush by USATF staff the day after the race and saw my chiropractor back home on Tuesday. I took two days off completely, did some cross training, and rested up before seeing my chiropractor. I’m really happy with my recovery, and looking back, it further strengthens my belief in my post Covid recovery and adaptation to my work schedule. The training, the race and the recovery gets me excited and confident for the rest of the season!


What’s next?

I’m heading to the Bahamas! It’s the NACAC (North American Central American and Caribbean) Championship on August 19-20. This race will be a 20k on the track under the tropical sun! Definitely calls for a different game plan than Worlds, but I’m stoked for another championship race.

Rebecca Nelson
Tagged: racing