If the game of tag were an Olympic sport, Augie Hirt of Wheaton might have his medal.
"I'd have 10 kids chasing me, and they couldn't catch me," says Hirt, remembering his boyhood in the town of Piqua, Ohio, where he'd walk and run for as long and as far as he could. "I was just doing it because it was fun. I was training to be an endurance athlete before I knew there were endurance athletes."
Now a fit 61 with his hair admittedly a "little long" for a certified public accountant, Hirt is the chief financial officer for The Theosophical Society in America, headquartered on a lush 42-acre campus in Wheaton, just a three-minute walk from Hirt's home.
"Well, a three-minute walk for me," he says with a grin.
For much of the 1970s, Hirt was the top American in the Olympic sport of racewalking. He was named to 13 USA national teams, won seven national championships and set records that still hold up today. But fate denied him a shot at an Olympic medal.
Racewalking, known for the hip-swiveling waddle of its marathon racers who always must have one foot touching the ground, has been an official medal sport in the Olympics since 1908. But in 1976, when Hirt was in his prime, the Montreal Olympics dropped the 50-kilometer portion of the racewalk competition, squashing Hirt's Olympic dream. Hirt had won his first international racewalk in that city in 1974, and the front of the local sports section predicted, "two years later he'll be back," Hirt remembers. "Then, I wasn't there."
His event returned for the 1980 Olympics and Hirt qualified. But the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in Moscow as a protest against the Soviet Union's war with Afghanistan, where Hirt notes U.S. troops now have been involved in military actions for the last 11 years.
"I really don't have any regrets," says Hirt, who embraces the mind, body and spirit philosophy of the Theosophical Society. "Things aren't fair, but everybody's things aren't fair."
After the 50-kilometer race was cut from the Olympics in 1976, the International Association of Athletics Federation sponsored a World Championship in Sweden, where Hirt finished second among Americans and 27th against other elite racewalkers who had planned to compete in the Olympics.
Just days after he returned, Hirt was still jet-lagged and recovering from that race when he decided to enter the Amateur Athletic Union's National 100-mile Championship racewalk around a track in Columbia, Mo. Planning to walk just half of the race and catch up with friends, Hirt, the youngest in the group at 25, was on the receiving end of trash-talking from defending champion Chuck Hunter, who questioned Hirt's maturity and toughness.
As he neared the 50-mile mark in the lead, Hirt was passed by Hunter, who continued to talk trash and tick off Hirt.
"I wanted to talk to him about why he would do that," remembers Hirt, who, 20 or so miles later, caught up to the guy. They did not have a productive chat, but Hirt put the argument and his competitor behind him.
"It's hard to be mad for another 10 hours," says Hirt, who went on to win the race by 10 minutes, finishing in just under 20 hours and becoming the youngest person ever to walk that far that fast. The race was chronicled in a Sports Illustrated article.
"The longer the race, the better I do. Everybody is in physical condition; it's just how strong is your mind," Hirt says. He averaged about 9 minutes a mile over 50 miles, 10 minutes a mile over the 62-mile/100-kilometer race and about 12 minutes a mile to cover 100 miles. Hirt still holds the American track records for 75 kilometers (7:05:46), 50 miles (7:39:39) and 100 kilometers (10:19:00).
In high school, Hirt ran track and cross-country, wrestled and played baseball. He broke his collarbone diving to catch a baseball in the outfield and dislocated his knee wrestling.
He didn't discover racewalking until he was at McPherson College, a small liberal arts school in central Kansas. Another runner filled in for a racewalking team and taught Hirt the basic technique. Hirt usually couldn't beat his teammate in a running race, so Hirt was surprised when they went against each other in a racewalk.
"He was only halfway and I had done the whole 220 yards, and I thought, 'Wow,'" remembers Hirt, who soon set racewalking records. He remains the only athlete from McPherson to grab a coveted Kansas Relay championship by finishing first in the mile racewalk in 1973.
"Once I got out of college, I discovered they had longer races," says Hirt, who had found his niche. He moved to Columbia, Mo., to train with Larry Young, the U.S. racewalker who won bronze medals in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics and remains the only American to medal in the sport. Young is now a renowned sculptor. Another of his racewalking friends is Shaul Ladany, an Israeli racewalker and Holocaust survivor who escaped out a window during the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre of 11 fellow team members at the hands of Palestinian gunmen. Ladany recently celebrated his 76th birthday by walking 76 kilometers.
"All of us at that level are kind of characters," Hirt admits. "You have to be different, not that that's good or bad. It's just different. My racing 100 miles in the dark and through the rain is no different from a single mom staying up all night taking care of a sick infant and then going to work in the morning."
Racewalking gave Hirt a career. Through the Olympic jobs program, Hirt worked part time as an accountant but had a full-time salary that allowed him to train for the Olympic trials. After he retired in 1980, shoe companies and athletic clubs hired him to teach clinics.
"For a while, I made more money from racewalking than I made accounting," Hirt says. "For 30 years, I didn't have to buy shoes."
He started a racewalking club in Chicago that still exists, but his similar effort in Naperville couldn't reach that level. Some people don't even know that racewalking is a sport in the London Olympics.
"I taught Oprah Winfrey one time, and I thought this was going to be really big. Instead, I saw things like kickboxing show up," Hirt says. "I think just the fact that it (racewalking) looks silly to people is why it's never caught on. But what makes this look silly is what benefits you."
A divorced dad with two grown daughters, Hirt figures he's taught more than 70,000 people the technique for the sport, which he says is great exercise and easier on the joints than running. His frame, a half-inch above 6 feet and 166 pounds, is just 8 pounds heavier than it was during his Olympic trials. He walks four times a day with Rose, his 11-year-old golden retriever/border collie mix named after baseball legend Pete Rose, and also takes her on his longer racewalks.
"When we go on my walks, she doesn't goof off," Hirt says, allowing that Rose "is starting to slow me down."
He says racewalking is good training for runners. Years ago, when the accountant in him decided to run in the "Corporate Challenge" race for Chicago businesses, "I won the two-mile run, setting a personal best, without running for 10 years," Hirt says.
He doesn't enter racewalking competitions.
"I've moved on. I just do it for fitness," Hirt says.
He does, however, participate in local running events and marathons, racewalking the course and still beating many of the runners. A few months back, Hirt was racewalking through a 10K race in Wheaton and zipped past a runner who saw Hirt's skimpy blue-and-white striped shorts and quipped, "I just got passed by Richard Simmons."
Jokes about racewalking, which began in the late 1800s as a betting sport, were around before Hirt's career began. The 1966 movie "Walk, Don't Run" features Jim Hutton as an Olympic athlete who never wants to tell people that he is a racewalker. But as other top athletes grow too old for the sports they love, Hirt still enjoys his.
"I just adapted my competitive sport to make it for fitness. Fortunately for me, I can keep doing this," Hirt says of himself and other racewalkers. "We're just kids having fun."