While many Americans were preparing food for their Super Bowl parties this past Sunday, Helena’s Jonathan Matthews set out to accomplish something he never really thought possible for someone his age.

Matthews, a 53-year-old Education professor at Carroll College, took part in USA Track & Field’s 50 Kilometer National Race Walking Championship, held in Surprise, Ariz., on Feb. 7. That morning, with temperatures hovering in the mid-60s, Matthews crossed the finish line in 4 hours, 23 minutes and 15 seconds, good enough for second place, just 13 seconds out of the lead.

“The guy who won this race is 29,” Matthews said. “Aging apparently hasn’t knocked me down. I was surprised by the result.”

With the top-five finish, Matthews qualified to represent the U.S. in the most prestigious race walking event outside of the Olympics. He will compete in the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Race Walking World Cup, featuring competitors from 70 nations, in Chihuahua, Mexico in May. With winner Steven Quirke of Wisconsin unable to attend, Matthews will be the top American competitor.

“I’m willing to bet I’ll be the oldest guy by a lot of years,” Matthews said. “Probably out of the whole world. I just want to prove it’s possible to do well when you’re older.”

The top competitors in race walking tend to be in their 20s. When Matthews was 36 years old, he won the national race and continued to stay near the top for the next seven years. He temporarily gave up the sport to spend more time with his wife and kids in 2000, after finishing fourth in the Olympic trials and just missing out on the Games.

Matthews continued light fitness workouts and mountain biking during his time away from race walking, but decided to start training seriously again when he turned 50.

“I decided it might be fun and good for my health to try to get back in shape,” he said, adding that the past few months he has averaged 70 miles per week race walking at Nature Park and Vigilante Stadium.

While race walkers are going 30 percent slower than the average runner, Matthews said what few people realize is that race walking is just as difficult. The mental concentration and focus on technique is more critical when race walking, and because to one’s eyes it appears the feet never really leave the ground, the physical toll it takes on the body can be much greater. The legs are kept straight, and one rule in race walking is that the athlete’s back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched.

Matthews first got into the sport because of injuries. He sustained injuries during his prep years running track and cross country, then became involved in bike racing. He made the U.S. national bike racing team, but a bad crash that sent him face-first into the pavement made him think twice about that sport.

“I became aware of the violence inherent in bike racing and how dangerous it can be,” he said. “I didn’t want to swim. So then I decided race walkers don’t have those same kinds of injuries and yet it would be just as intense.”

Now, Matthews is thrilled he decided to get back into competition after 10 years in retirement from the sport. On Sunday, Matthews led from the first kilometer until the 48th kilometer, being passed in the last mile of the 31-mile race by Quirke. His lead stretched to over a minute ahead of second place for much of the race, and three national team members dropped out during the several hours spent chasing him.

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“I was hoping for a top-five finish,” Matthews said. “I thought that some of the guys who dropped out were probably going to beat me. The amazing thing is, I didn’t think at 53 I’d be able to (do that well).”

In addition to winning the silver medal, $3,000 in prize money and a berth in the World Cup, Matthews set several records for his age group. As he crossed the finish line, he broke Mark Green’s 2007 national mark by 14 minutes.

Last year, Matthews also set new race walking records in the Senior Olympics National Championships and in the Huntsman World Senior Games.

While proud of those accomplishments, Matthews is most excited about what he experienced this past weekend at age 53.

“Racing 31 miles at one’s limit takes a lot of toughness,” Matthews said, “as does doing speed work on the track under three layers of clothing at 15 degrees.

“During the race I kept in mind how hard I’d worked to get ready for it, so there was no point being timid. I was prepared to give everything I had. It ended up being a great day, though I wish I somehow could’ve figured out how to be 14 seconds faster.”

Amber Kuehn: 447-4079 or amber.kuehn@helenair.com

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