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Catch her if you can

Rita Hildreth can measure her success with a yardstick.

There's 36 inches of space on the measuring device in her Medford home, and the numbers on it are covered by race walking medals from end to end.

The hanging yardstick decorated with awards says all you need to know about the 80-year-old Hildreth.

She added to her collection of accomplishments on Sept. 16 when she won the 80-99 age division and finished 14th overall in a field of 126 at the 44th Journal Jog in Reno, Nev.

Her time was 1:06:26 in the 8K walk.

"I knew there weren't many people in front of me," Hildreth recalls.

Race walking is a long-distance event where one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times.

The rules are tough. An athlete's back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched. Also, the supporting leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straightened until the body passes directly over it.

"It's very difficult on judged races with five or six judges on corners and straightaways watching you," says Hildreth, who has never been disqualified for breaking the rules.

Hildreth got involved in the sport after friend Julie Johnson of Medford sold her on the idea around 2003. The two took walks together for years during their lunch work breaks at 3M in White City.

"Why don't you do it?" Hildreth recalls Johnson asking her. "I thought, 'What the heck, why not?'"

Success followed her decision.

Hildreth was first in her age category last year in the same Reno race (her birthday allowed her to just make the cut).

Before that, she captured top honors in a national 10K event in Spokane in 2008.

And competing in USA Track & Field sanctioned events is nothing new for Hildreth.

Early on, she was doing about seven races a year, including the prestigious Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah. More recently, she has logged about two or three races annually, since travelling is so expensive.

Hildreth's four children are "big supporters," although she admits that race walking isn't the most spectator-friendly sport.

"It would be boring to sit there in the stands and watch someone go around in circles a hundred times," she says.

So, what's Hildreth's winning recipe? She works out just about every morning but Sunday, walking or doing strength and cross training. Before the Reno competition, Hildreth logged five miles or better three times a week, either at the North Medford High track or on one of her own routes.

Hildreth, who has been retired for over 25 years, is also an active bowler. Growing up in Verdigre, Neb., she played baseball for fun with her brothers and participated in basketball in high school.

Almost 900 people entered the 2012 Journal Jog, which began in front of Reno High.

In the 80-99 age division, Hildreth placed first and Virginia Evans (an 81-year-old Reno resident) was second (and 20th overall) with a time of 1:09.18.

John Faillers, 68, won the race walk with a time of 55:25.

Hildreth will race again, likely sometime next year. If the weather conditions aren't too bad, she may compete in Verdi, Nev., in February.

For now, Hildreth will continue to enjoy the pleasant conditions and go on walks often ... except if it's a Sunday, when her time is spent in church or at a bowling alley.

"That's my day off," she says.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com

Rita Hildreth, race walking champion Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch