DES MOINES, Iowa – Maria Michta-Coffey, who calls herself the “Walking Scientist,” can appreciate that 42 is the atomic number of molybdenum, a trace mineral found in some foods.
It is also the atomic mass of one of the naturally occurring stable isotopes of calcium.
And on Friday night, 42 became the number of national race walking titles won by Michta-Coffey, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences.
She led wire to wire for 50 laps to win the women’s 20-kilometer race walk at the USATF Outdoor Championships at Drake Stadium, taking a 30-meter lead on the first lap and lapping the trail group by Lap 5.
Michta-Coffey’s time was 1 hour, 35 minutes, 21.59 seconds, smashing her own stadium record by more than two minutes at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. Kate Burnett, her closest competitor, was next at 1:37:55.97. The 11th and final finisher (out of 12 starters), came in at 2:01:07.87, while Michta-Coffey was already at doping control.
Winning her first national title in 2010, Michta-Coffey’s 42 titles span distances from a mile to 40 kilometers. She won six national titles in 2014 alone.
The 20K is the Olympic distance and Michta-Coffey is the American record holder in the race at 1:30:49.00, set in 2014. She has been a member of more than 20 USATF teams since the World Youth Championships, including two Olympic Games. She was 29th at the Olympic Games London 2012, and 22nd in Rio.
Michta-Coffey, who turns 32 on Saturday, can not only walk the walk, but talk the talk.
“I guess it’s just overcoming adversity,” she said of her record-setting run in her sport. “As a race walker, there’s no path paved in gold. There’s no easy way. You have to figure out how to financially support yourself, you have to create your own support system.”
Michta-Coffey said she’s lucky to have an amazing husband – high school sweetheart Joe – and family that have let her pursue her passion for race walking. Her Ph.D. stipend while studying at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, supported her at the time financially. Now she represents Walk USA and said she’s lucky to have a contract with an apparel company. Michta-Coffey also receives prize money, which is obviously more for the winner.
“It’s not that people have told me ‘No,’ but no one ever made it easy,” she said. “And it was just that desire, that dream.”
Michta-Coffey has won eight of the last nine 20Ks at the U.S. championships. The only exception was 2015 when Miranda Melville defeated her. Melville did not compete in Des Moines.
Elliott Denman, a 1956 Olympian in the 50K walk and a longtime sportswriter, said Michta-Coffey “is truly the class of the field. Without Miranda, there’s nobody really here to challenge her.”
Michta-Coffey was so dominant that she could have stopped for a snack and still won. However, it wasn’t as effortless as it looked.
“The race was a terrible second half for me,” she said. “I went out too ambitious. I knew I had nothing to lose. I figured the conditions were good and I kind of went for it and I went a little bit too hard.”
Michta-Coffey wasn’t concerned, though. “My safety blanket was if I lapped the field and I started to fall off,” she said, “then I could at least ride with the person coming back to me, which is what I did with Katie Burnett and that was really helpful.”
Michta-Coffey was a soccer player in high school and went out for track and field to help her stay in shape. The track coach had his athletes try all the events. New York is one of the few states that included race walking.
She was a natural in the event, which is very technical. Michta-Coffey has said that just like not everybody who drives a car can race NASCAR, everybody who can walk can’t be a race walker.
At all times, one foot needs to be touching the ground and no visible (to the human eye) loss of contact can occur or else the walker gets a red card for a violation.
The knee must straighten when the foot contacts the ground.
“I can’t ever remember her getting a card,” Denman said. “Style-wise, she is really perfection. She really pushes the knees back and maintains contact. And internationally she finishes in the middle of the pack.
“By American standards she’s more than respectable. But this is an event the United States does not embrace the way we do everything else, which is very unfortunate.”
Denman laments that the United States doesn’t have a farm system in high school and colleges for race walking like it does for all the other events in track and field.
He’s encouraged by the success of Taylor Ewert, a 16-year-old race walker, but said she is also being pursued by college coaches as a runner.
In the meantime, Michta-Coffey could continue adding to her collection of national titles. She said she doesn’t know how long she’ll compete since she and her husband are trying to start a family.
The Tokyo Games are a little more than two years away.
“I’m never going to say an official end date,” Michta-Coffey said. “I don’t have an expiration. I’m just going to see how long I can juggle things.
“I’m just really thankful to have had what feels like a legacy and to really enjoy it. One of the things I’ve learned along the way is to really enjoy the journey. It’s not about the destination and that’s so true. I was going to retire after my first Olympics and six years later here we are because I’m addicted to the thrill of it and I love it.”