It’s just gone 5am and most of the Victorian border city of Wodonga is not yet awake. Bella the border collie and Ned the kelpie will faithfully keep up with their master, race walker Michael Hosking, through the darkness in these early hours.
Some will never know this time of day, a few long for it, the certain serenity before the hum of the new day winds up. The still air, the reaffirming birdsong and the skip and scratch of shoes and paws dashing along the street.
For Hosking, it’s just the way it has to be.
“I just have to train in the morning otherwise it doesn’t happen,” he says. A day job at Wodonga Middle Years College where he teaches maths and science another part of his routine.
“There’s no race walking in Wodonga, no one’s really heard of it,” Hosking explains. “I get some strange looks and weird honks from cars going past. They’ve got used to it and now everyone around town knows me as the crazy walking guy with the dogs.”
At Sunday’s Australian 20km Race Walking Championships, Hosking finished as second Australian behind Dane Bird-Smith, securing an automatic nomination to the Australian Commonwealth Games team for Gold Coast 2018. His time of 1:23:10, 50 seconds within the qualifying mark and a new personal-best.
Hosking, now 32, has been driven these last few years, but his path to the Commonwealth Games has been far from direct.
A bit over a decade ago Hosking was chipping away at another gruelling discipline of athletics – steeplechase. It was not something that agreed with his feet, with broken bones refusing the heal.
As can often be the case in the rehabilitation of lower limb injuries, Hosking found his way to cycling and landed himself on the Australian domestic circuit for the next four years, the National Road Series which at the time was working its way through regional cities and towns across Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and NSW. A dozen or so teams battling away on next to no budget, a riot of colour and trash talk. Week-long days of criterium circuits and sprint finishes, the odd climb up over the Great Dividing Range and lengthy sections battling to stay out of the gutter and avoiding the perils of poorly maintained country roads. For a handful of riders, it’s a ticket to cycling’s grand tours, a solid proving ground for some, a way to live the dream and avoid real life, a fill-in while studying for others.
“I was okay, but I wasn’t fantastic,” says Hosking, winner of the three-day Battle of the Border in 2011.
As full-time work teaching beckoned, so did running with Hosking racking the bike. His feet tolerated the load, but Hosking knew that he wouldn’t be returning to his former standards. A milestone loomed.
“When I turned 30 I always said that if I hadn’t made an Australian team, yet I’d go back to race walking,” he explains. “I was a race walker as a junior up until when I was about 16 then I gave it away.”
Come 2016, Hosking made it to the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome in a bid to book his ticket to the Rio Olympics and a place on the start line for the 20km event. His form was on track, his times nudging the qualifying standard. A torn hamstring just days after arriving in Italy, ended his Olympic dream for the time being.
Lining up last Sunday, Hosking knew he was in better form than he had been in 2016.
“I made the decision to go for it and I’d either crash and burn or it would work out. I thought I was in struggle town in the second half, but I managed to hang on enough to get there,” he says.
Having lived on the Gold Coast previously, with wife Dee’s family hailing from the Commonwealth Games host city, the big race in April will very much feel like a home games. Wearing the green and gold will also be a reward for Hosking’s father Garry, a long-time athletics coach. With Garry living in Canberra, the pair catch up on the phone to discuss Michael’s training. A family affair, with young sons Blair and Lewis cheering on their dad while he represents his country.
Upon his return to school this week, a special assembly was called sharing the good news about their teacher. As word spreads around Wodonga, that the ‘crazy walking guy’ is off to the Commonwealth Games, you can bet that the local curiosity will garner a lot more kudos.