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Science of walking.

Byline: Curtis Anderson The Register-Guard

With a heart monitor strapped to her chest, and a fresh pin prick on her right index finger to measure lactate ion levels in her blood, Erin Gray begins a recent workout at Hayward Field.

On this summer morning, Gray, a 26-year-old racewalker from Eugene, is being asked to walk 8,000 meters at a fixed pace, take a break, and then walk another 8K, incrementally increasing her pace after each 2K interval.

Gray, who will compete in the 20K racewalk at the IAAF World Championships of Athletics in Moscow next week, calls out her heart rate after each lap.

Those numbers peak around 187 beats per minute, and at the end of each 2K, there is another pin prick and another blood measurement.

This "field test" is designed to validate measures taken on a treadmill two weeks ago in the Bowerman Sports Science Clinic, which has taken up residence on the first floor of The Bowerman Building on the northwest end of the track.

"When you exercise aerobically, lactate ions are produced as a byproduct of burning up energy," clinic director Mike Hahn said. "The body metabolizes those ions quickly unless you're performing at a high workload; then they start to accumulate in the blood."

The maximum effort that can be maintained without continually adding lactate ions, which leads to fatigue and diminished performance, is known as the lactate threshold.

Gray, a 2002 state cross country champion for South Eugene High School, was first tested in the BSSC lab in February. The follow-up test in July showed a significant 4 percent boost in her threshold after she began serious training in the spring and summer.

"That's huge," Hahn said. "It means a half-kilometer per hour improvement."

Armed with such data, it's much easier for Erin's father and coach, Bob Gray, to write workouts that take advantage of her fitness level and target reasonable goals at any given moment of the season.

"I call this the min-max system," he said. "It's about doing the minimal amount of training to get the maximum effect. ... Any goal-oriented athlete in an endurance sport should be using scientific data. Having that extra piece is so helpful."

It's especially meaningful for his daughter, a full-time medical student at the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Northwest in Lebanon, as she tries to balance her academic load with high-level training.

Gray appreciates knowing what her correct training pace should be so she can make the most of her limited workout time.

"A lot of people ask me how I do it," Gray said. "Honestly, I don't think about it that much. I just do it. For a lot of the year, I would wake up at 5:30 a.m., go train, spend all day in class, get done at 5 p.m., and then go train again."

Gray aspires to be a primary-care doctor with a focus in pediatrics.

She became all too familiar with the medical system at the age of 12 when she underwent open-heart surgery to fix a misplaced pulmonary vein. Gray spent the next six years making regular visits to a pediatric cardiologist but, thankfully, has had no issues.

Today, she's focused on competing on the biggest stage of her life.

"I'm super excited," Gray said of the World Championships. "I can't wait. I keep joking with my dad that I'm going to get into the top 10, but he says it would be good if I was in the top 20."

This is only Gray's third season of competitive racewalking.

She made the transition from distance running after suffering a devastating injury heading into her senior season at the University of Arkansas in 2008 - a broken femur that required surgery. It was the latest in a long string of running-related injuries.

Upon graduation in 2009, she decided to follow in her father's footsteps. Bob Gray competed in the racewalk at the 1972 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials at Hayward Field.

"All through college, I kept telling my dad that I wanted to make a world team," Erin Gray said. "He kept trying to convince me to switch to racewalking. ... After I broke my femur, I finally decided to give it a try, and it has worked out great."

Gray, who competes for the Bowerman Athletic Club, set her personal best of 1 hour, 35 minutes, 40.05 seconds in placing third at the Olympic Trials last summer, good enough for the "B" qualifying standard.

None of the U.S. female racewalkers could achieve the "A" standard, however, so only Trials champion Maria Michta was able to compete in London.

The World Championships standards are not as stringent, and the qualifying window included the 2012 Trials, so the top three finishers at the U.S. championships in Des Moines - Michta, Gray and Miranda Melville - are all headed to Moscow.

The 20K racewalk is scheduled for 9:35 a.m. on Tuesday in Russia, but given the 11-hour time difference, it will actually start Monday night (10:35 p.m.) in Eugene.

"I'd like to get a PR," Gray said. "The American record is 1:31.50 and I'm always chasing that. You never know."

Although Team USA has never won a World Championship medal in women's racewalking, Gray told USA Track & Field last week that she hopes this year's team can provide inspiration for future competitors.

"It's a really exciting thing," she said. "Hopefully other girls can look up to us and see how we've progressed over the years, and I hope more excitement can come to race walking."
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Title Annotation:Track-Field; Erin Gray uses data to get the most out of her workouts
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 7, 2013
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