‘The easiest race in my whole life’

Edwin  - CEO January 12, 2024
Updated 2024/01/12 at 3:03 PM
10 Min Read

Toth donates 2015 World Championships singlet to MOWA


Matej Toth wins the 50km race walk at the World Championships in Beijing (© Getty Images)

As Simon Turnbull narrates in World Athletics Heritage, after 31km of the punishing 50km race walk at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, the race leader could resist no longer. Matej Toth had to temporarily step off the one-kilometer loop course to answer a pressing call of nature.


A lesser soul might have wilted under the pressure. Not Toth.


Quite the opposite, in fact. For the 32-year-old Slovakian, the unscheduled pit-stop simply relieved the mounting physical pressure.


He quickly regained the momentum that had taken him comfortably clear of a loaded field and proceeded to pick up his pace – to such an extent that he finished with a cushion of one minute and 45 seconds.


Eight years on, Toth has generously donated the Slovak singlet and name bib from the day he made World Championships history to the Museum of World Athletics (MOWA).


“It seems strange, but I have to say that this 50km was maybe the easiest race in my whole life,” said Toth, whose dominant victory earned his country their first World Championships gold medal. “I lost maybe 25 seconds with the pit stop but it helped me. It enabled me to get more control.


“I want to keep the feeling of winning here in Beijing. I want to keep the memory of entering this beautiful stadium forever. I just hope I will get to enjoy such a special moment at least once more in my life.”


Toth got his wish at the Rio Olympics 12 months later but Beijing was a big breakthrough victory for him at the age of 32.


It came on the back of a major advancement in March that same year in the annual Dudinska 50, the 50km race walk held in the southern Slovakian spa town of Dudince, part of the World Race Walking Challenge series.


Toth had won the World Race Walking Cup 50km title in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 2010, but it took him a further four years to gain his first major championship medal. That was a 50km silver at the 2014 European Championships in Zurich, with a time of 3:36:21 – behind the world record 3:32:33 set by Frenchman Yohann Diniz.


In Dudince the following March, Toth threatened to break Diniz’ global mark – being four seconds up at 20km (1:26:51) and level at 30km (2:09:20) – before finishing in 3:34:38. That put him third on the world all-time list, behind Diniz and Russia’s Denis Nizhegorodov (3:34:14).


Buoyed by confidence from such a stunning performance on home ground, Toth attacked from virtually the start at the World Championships in Beijing, leading for more than 49km.


At 5km, he led by eight seconds from Brazil’s Mario Jose Dos Santos Jr. At 10km, he was 27 seconds clear, with Ireland’s Rob Heffernan, the 2013 champion, in second place.


The gap grew to 55 seconds at halfway, which the Slovakian reached in 1:51:17. Despite his urgent ‘comfort break’, he covered the second half in 1:49:15, gaining a further 50 seconds on the field.


Toth flew across the line in the Bird’s Nest Stadium in 3:40:32. Australia’s Jared Tallent was a distant runner-up in 3:42:17, with Japan’s Takayuki Tanii claiming bronze in 3:42.55.


For Toth, six months past his 32rd birthday, it was the culmination of more than two decades of race walking graft.


Matej Toth in the 50km race walk at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015Matej Toth in the 50km race walk at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 (© Getty Images)

Young talent


Growing up in Nitra, he tried hurdling and endurance running before getting bitten by the race walk bug. After three months of training under the guidance of Peter Meciar, a local race walking coach and journalist, Toth entered a 2km race in the town of Surany.


“I won in a time of about 10:20,” Toth recalled. “Two days before that race, my parents had bought me new shoes. I’m sure that motivated me to walk that little bit faster.”


By the age of 14, Toth was fast enough to make the international grade. He finished third in the U18 race at the World Race Walking Cup in Podebrady in the Czech Republic in May 1997.


“I remember it was very exciting to the see elite athletes producing top performances,” he said. “It was very motivational.”


Eighth in the 10km race walk at the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz in 1999 and 16th at the World U20 Championships in Kingston in 2002, Toth made steady progress after making the step up to senior international level at the 20km distance.


He was 32nd at the Athens Olympics in 2004, 21st at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki and 14th at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, before slipping back to 26th at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.


Change to 50km – ‘great motivation for the future’


“That was the first major disappointment on my career,” said Toth, referring to his second Olympic experience. “I prepared very hard and expected a top-10 finish but ended up 26th.


“I asked myself some hard questions after the race and wondered if it was time to retire. However, after a discussion with my coach, we decided to change my event from the 20km to the 50km.


“This provided a great motivation for the future and I was determined to prove I could compete with the top race walkers. I trained hard, enjoyed a great winter’s preparation, and in the first 50km race I completed, I set a national record.”


Matej Toth smashes the 50km course record in DudinceMatej Toth smashes the 50km course record in Dudince (© Jan Viazanicka / SITA)

Under the direction of coach Matej Spisiak in Basnka Bytrica, Toth emerged as a major force at 50km in March 2009, clocking 3:41:32 in Dudince. Five months later, he finished ninth at the distance at the World Championships in Berlin, also placing eighth at 20km.


Then, in 2010, came victory over 50km at the World Race Walking Cup in Chihuahua. “That was my first big medal,” Toth reflected. “It was a big surprise, not only for my opponents but also for me.


“It was great to stand on the highest podium and sing the Slovak national anthem. That was the day I realised I could win other major events – one day possibly Olympic gold.”


Rio 2016 – ‘only in the last 500m that I knew I would win’


Fifth at the London Olympics in 2012, and at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, Toth proceeded to follow up his golden breakthrough at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing with Olympic 50km success in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.


Matej Toth in the 50km race walk at the Rio 2016 Olympic GamesMatej Toth in the 50km race walk at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)

In scorching hot conditions, the Slovak kept his cool as Diniz set off at a punishing pace. At halfway the Frenchman was almost two minutes clear but Toth kept his powder dry, eventually overhauling Australia’s Jared Tallent with 2km remaining to claim his country’s first ever Olympic gold in an athletics event.


“It was one of the hardest races of my career,” said Toth. “The weather was even worse than in Beijing. It was only in the last 500m that I knew I would win.”


Toth could not quite replicate his Midas touch at continental level, taking a second silver medal at the 2018 European Championships in Berlin in 2018.


After injury and the Covid lockdown, he mustered himself for one final shot at international glory at the delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021.


At the age of 38, Toth finished 14th in the 50km race in Sapporo – a battling finale for the great Slovakian foot-soldier of race walking.


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