Bill Penner striding on |

Bill Penner striding on

Dave Price

Bill Penner was right there for the running boom of the 1970s. He started running in the Air Force and even progressed to the point where he ran a marathon before disaster appeared to strike in 1980. He well remembers hearing advice from his doctor to give up running and start walking instead.

The decision wasn’t one he took lightly.

“I was doing so much mileage, my back was always stressed so my doctor suggested I start walking,” Penner said. “My first impression was that I’d never be able to get my heart rate up high enough to get the workout I wanted.”

Well, Penner took up racewalking, and today the 55-year-old Carson City man trains daily and competes on a national level for his age group.

Just how serious is he? In 1995, he won national age group championships in the 20-K and 5-K walks at Michigan State University and also won the 3-K national indoor walk in Reno.

He even appeared in a commercial for Disney’s website in a scene on the streets of San Francisco staged to look like a road race scene on city streets, with a stoplight turning from red to green.

Oh, and by the way, the final four digits of his telephone number are 9255 — or WALK.

“I just like walking,” Penner said, flashing a smile after he completed the 5-kilometer course at the Godspeed Wings’ Cross Country Cup on Saturday. “When you learn the proper technique and you go fast enough, you can get your maximum heart rate up to the same level as a runner does. It’s just like getting the RPMs up on your car.”

His time of 31 minutes, 45 seconds on Saturday was noteworthy considering the sand and hills on the course at Western Nevada Community College.

“That’s a whale of a course, I’ll tell you,” Penner said. “It was so steep in places, both going up and down, you can’t maintain your legal form.”

Fortunately, there were no USA Track & Field judges to scrutinize his form. Even so, Penner wasn’t far off the time of 29:48 he turned on the track at Reed High School during the Silver State Games 5K on July 20, an effort that was good for second-place overall. Penner also finished sixth overall at the National 30K Championships held on May 5 in Sacramento, where he was clocked in 3 hours, 8 minutes and 43 seconds.

Last year Penner clocked 54:48 at the Pacific 10K championships. “I made the highest age grade of my life; it was 82 percent and a fraction,” he said. “(The scale) tells you what percentage of the world record you made, adjusted for your age.”

Penner believes he can do even better.

“And with the shape I’m in now, I think I have a chance to beat that when I go back in October. This really has been a good year for me,” added Penner, who will walk the 10K this Sunday when the Silver State Marathon races are held in Washoe Valley.

He hasn’t slowed much in the last 25 years. Consider that in 1977 Penner ran a 3 hour, 24-minute marathon at Sonoma State University and compare that with the time of 4:36 he walked two years ago at the Portland Marathon.

His move from Stockton to Carson City in 2000 appears to have been beneficial.

“My training has been better here,” he said. “There are so many nice roads around Carson City, like Kings Canyon Road, it’s really great. It’s been great to get out of the (Central) Valley to a better climate, altitude and just being in a smaller community.”

This all seems really impressive for a man who was suffering from a bad back when he was in his early 30s.

“I’m very blessed,” Penner said. “This really is a very, very low injury sport, especially when you compare long distance runners and long distance walkers. In my time with walking, I don’t think I’ve had to curtail my training because of injuries, other than needing to change my socks or shoes because of blisters.”

It might not seem that way from watching a racewalker locking the knees — one foot on the ground at all times — and driving the arms. Looks are deceiving, according to Penner.

“It looks awkward, but if you’re using the proper technique and you’re doing it on a smooth surface, it’s the smoothest motion you can have,” he said. “You feel perfectly in balance and in control.”

WHAT: 21st annual Silver State Marathon

WHERE: Starts from Bowers Mansion Regional Park, Washoe Valley

WHEN: Sunday

TIMES: 6 a.m., marathon; half marathon and 10-K run, 8 a.m.; 10-K walk, 8:10.