Journalism doesn't do a whole lot for your physique. After a year without sweating, I have two muscles left — one for writing headlines, the other for writing checks. My athletic options have narrowed with age: Running hurts my knees. Biking paralyzes them. Swimming takes too much planning. Tennis requires a partner. So last week I looked long and hard at my sagging body and decided to take up the one sport left — one that, like cybersurfing, didn't exist when I was a youngster. I was ready to roll.
For years I was a proud pedestrian — I scowled at the buns-of-steel set on the Burlington bike path. I resented their graceful moves at the speed of Lycra, not to mention that blow-you-off- the-bike-path attitude. When my husband surprised me with my own pair of inline skates, I was interested enough to put them in the basement, where they mouldered for two years — until last week, when I hauled them, box and all, down to the Boathouse.
The worst thing about learning to "Rollerblade" is getting up off the park bench — a slapstick moment, inevitably witnessed by onlookers, that you just have to get through. The second worst thing was being forced to witness Ski Rack instructor Sven Cole sliding at high speeds on his plastic knee pads. "It's not if you fall, it's when you fall," he says cheerfully before demonstrating how to. Forward, not backward, is the way to go.
The protective gear is also a drag. That is, realizing you look more like the Michelin Man than Beth or Eric Heiden. Beginning skaters are strongly advised to wear wrist, elbow and knee guards — and a helmet. Butt guards are also available, but by the time your glutes are rippling, you'll want minimal interference with your buns. Skating, which ranks between running and biking on the cardiovascular scale, gets to some pretty out-of-the-way muscle groups.
And, like biking, it is a balance sport. Anyone who has been to a roller rink should have some physical memory of the motion. That cramping arch sure felt familiar. So did the aching shins. But because inline borrows from ice, roller and ski skating techniques — in alpine-style boots — there are some new moves to learn
"We spend most of the time teaching people how to stop," Cole explains while skating backwards effortlessly. Striding and turning are easy compared to slowing down. In skating you decelerate by sliding your right heel forward in a sort of sit-spin Russian dance move — not a comforting position when you're losing your balance. It sent this former dancer rolling right into the bushes.
Next morning, amidst a multitude of other mobile recreators, I got to wondering who could brake in a pinch — and who couldn't. I felt a rush of excitement knowing I looked legit on the straightaway. Going downhill was a little harder to pull off. I practically crawled down the small hill between North Beach and the Moran Plant. I discovered the inline boot is designed for speed. The hardness of the wheels, which have to be rotated on a regular basis, and the quality of the bearings, add to the velocity.
I was more worried about negotiating stones, puddles and frost heaves than breaking any speed records. If you think the bike path is a smooth ribbon of tarmac, try rolling along it. I also noticed another thing: switching from sneaks to blades is a bit like upgrading from Tercel to Turbo. Even in my armor, I got the nod from other skaters, while runners and bikers scowled at me. "It's my first time out," I reassured them as I blew by — but not my last. There's no stopping me now.