Action Jackson can stretch her legs to be the Paula Radcliffe of walking

Teesside's rising star competes in an unusual event but is following famous footsteps on her way to the Olympics. By Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

Johanna Jackson does much of her race- walking training on a two-mile loop around her home village, New Marske. "I also go down to Marske and along the coast road to Redcar," she says, settling on a couch next to a bookcase featuring some of her trophies. If she were to turn the other way along the Cleveland and North Yorkshire coastline and venture down the A174 she would come to Whitby and the eerie clifftop abbey which Bram Stoker used as a setting in his tale of the bloodthirsty Count Dracula.

Not many people outside New Marske and the Teesside area are aware that Jo Jackson, as she is known to family and friends, is a rising star of race walking, that she shattered the British record in winning the Australian 20km title in Melbourne in February, that she is bound for the International Association of Athletics Federations' World Race Walking Cup in Russia next weekend, and that the 23-year-old is an emerging hope for British Olympic success, if not Beijing in three months then in London in 2012.

It would perhaps be different if people knew a little more about the twilight corner of the track-and-field world that she happens to inhabit – Bram Stoker himself, for instance, was once bitten by the race-walking bug.

"Really?" Jackson says, unaware that she has been following in the footsteps of the man who sank his teeth into the Dracula legend. Stoker was a race walker of note, clocking 40min 5sec to cross the line first in the five-mile walk at the Civil Service Athletics Championships in London in 1868. That is 8min 1sec a mile, or 3hr 30min marathon pace.

"I don't think people realise how fast you are going," Jackson says. Her winning 20km time in the Australian Championships, 1hr 31min 40sec – a personal best by 4min 48sec and2min 17sec inside Lisa Kehler's British record – works out at 7min 22sec a mile, 3hr 13min marathon pace. Two weeks ago, the pride of Redcar Race Walking Club broke 45 minutes for 10km, clocking 44min 52sec at the Jeff Ford Memorial Walks meeting in Sheffield. That is3hr 6min marathon pace.

With their swaying hips and regimented heel-to-toe style, race walkers have long been frowned upon, if not smirked upon, by even mainstream members of the athletics community. Charlie Spedding, though, has first-hand experience of the talent it takes to be a first-class race walker. A bronze medallist in the Olympic marathon in 1984 and holder of the English record for the marathon, Spedding was beaten in the Brampton to Carlisle 10-mile road race in 1989 by Martin Rush, an international race walker who was stretching his legs in the running world as an endurance exercise.

"He was definitely 'lifting'," Spedding quipped, alluding to the race-walking offence of breaking contact with the ground, which carries a three-strikes-and-out penalty, and for which Stoker was disqualified retrospectively after his Civil Service Championship success.

Jackson was a competitive runner before she learned to race walk. She won the North-eastern Counties junior cross- country title and finished 12th in the Under-20 race at the National Cross Country Championships, competing against the likes of Katrina Wootton, the UK 1500m champion, and Abby Westley, a European Cup 1500m winner on her British debut last summer. Jackson was also a North-east age-group champion as a triple jumper before John Paddick, a former international race walker and at the time a fellow member of New Marske Harriers, suggested she tried competitive walking.

"I was concerned," Jackson's mother, Maureen, says, "because Jo was doing loads of events and I didn't want her doing another unless she was better at it than cross-country. John said: 'Well, I can tell you in six weeks whether it's worth continuing.' He came back within three and said, 'I think she's got something that's going to make her special'."

He was right. Coached by Paddick, a veteran of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Jackson qualified for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and finished seventh in the 20km walk. Since then she has become a homegrown success, guided by her mother, a former marathon runner who combines coaching duties at Middlesbrough and Cleveland Harriers with officiating as secretary of the North Yorkshire and South Durham Track and Field League. "Some people have said, 'Oh, you haven't done race walking yourself; how can you be capable of coaching it?' "Maureen says. "But I'm an endurance coach and I've coached high jump and triple jump. They're very technical events and, really, it was just a question of doing another technical event, with help from other people, reading different books."

Mrs Jackson is clearly doing a good job, judging by her daughter's performances in Melbourne and Sheffield. "I have coached my son, Mark, who walks and runs, and my eldest daughter, Sarah, who does marathons and half-marathons," Maureen says. "The whole family's involved. My husband, Terry, is a runner. I think Jo's happy that I'm coaching her. I've said to her, 'If you want to get rid of me, it's OK, I'll understand'." The thought prompts a giggle from Jo. "I won't get rid of you," she says.

They make quite a team, these Jacksons: the self-effacing, super-talented daughter who has put her university studies on hold to train as a full-time athlete, and the genial mum, a retired teacher who has found herself learning the trade of an Olympic-class coach in her early sixties.

Race walking has a tradition of producing endearing characters, stretching back before Stoker's time to Captain Robert Barclay-Allardice, who walked 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours for a wager of 1,000 guineas at Newmarket Heath in 1809, while on leave from his regiment in the Napoleonic Wars. Then there was Don Thompson, the insurance clerk from Cranfield in Middlesex who won the 50km walk at the 1960 Olympics after preparing for the heat of Rome by exercising in a bathroom rigged up with a Valor gas stove, and passing out from the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

It was while staying in Australia for the first two months of this Olympic year, taking part in the experiment of living in a house with its air thinned to the effects of high altitude, that Jackson made her British record breakthrough. Her next challenge is the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Cheboksary, Russia, next Sunday, an event that could attract a crowd of up to 75,000. Further down the line, after the Olympics of Beijing and London, the Teessider would like to return to her first love, cross-country, and also take up marathon running.

Like most female endurance athletes, Jackson once dreamed of being "the next Paula Radcliffe". It might yet become reality. As she allowed herself to ponder, albeit with a chuckle: "The Paula Radcliffe of walking... that would be nice."

Fangs for the memories: amazing story of bloody hero Stoker

It was not exactly a horror story, but Bram Stoker's visit to the Civil Service Athletics Championships in London in 1868 ended in controversy. A competitive walker of some note in his youth, Stoker crossed the line first in the five-mile race walk, finishing well clear of his rivals in a highly impressive 40min 5sec. He was, however, subsequently disqualified by the judges for "lifting" – letting his feet break contact with the ground. It was the only defeat of his race-walking career. He was never beaten by a rival walker.

Still, the committee members of the Civil Service Athletics Society were so taken by Stoker's performance that they decided to present him with a silver goblet "in appreciation of his gallant struggle". But it had been more of a struggle for the 20-year-old Dubliner than any of the London officials might have guessed. Abraham Stoker, as he was known until his later adult life, was not able to walk until the age of seven.

He had been confined to bed from birth, suffering from an illness that was never diagnosed. He was still a sickly child at seven, although by the age of 17 he was a strapping 6ft 2in red-haired, red-bearded giant, blazing a trail on the sports fields of University College, Dublin. Excelling at race walking, he also played for the college football team, won the university weightlifting title and was voted athlete of the year.

After graduating with honours in science, Stoker worked as a civil servant at Dublin Castle before moving to London to work for Sir Henry Irving as manager of the Lyceum Theatre. Stoker hung up his racing shoes but spent his holidays on long walking tours in the countryside. It was during one such marathon stroll in Aberdeenshire that he stumbled on Cruden Bay, the atmospheric fishing village where he wrote Dracula in 1895.

The real-life Bram Stoker story featured many dramatic episodes – such as the time he was set upon by a pair of would-be robbers late one night in Edinburgh, knocked them out and dragged them to a police station, and the time he risked his life by jumping from a boat when he saw a man drowning in the Thames. Stoker did not, however, have a happy ending. The walker-turned-writer died of syphilis in 1912, aged 64.