On a warm Sunday morning in Virginia, Andre Thomas traded in two wheels for eight.
Thomas was one of the competitors at the annual Skate of the Union, an inline skating competition hosted by Skater’s Quest this past June in Chantilly. With social skate events throughout the weekend, Skate of the Union drew skaters of various degrees of skill and experience from across the country and around the world. Each took to the Fairfax County Emergency Vehicles Operations Course to complete 12 laps for a half marathon or 24 laps for the full marathon.
Thomas, 46, from Gainesville, had just started skating again a month before the race nearly 20 years after he last laced up.
“I rode motorcycles, but my wife told me I couldn’t do that anymore,” he said.
On a whim, Thomas found a pair of old inline skates and went out for three miles. He felt good, so he decided to look for local races. A search found Skate of the Union. He eventually bought a new pair of four-wheel skates and wore them at the race for the first time.
“I knew it was going to be fun to follow the pack,” Thomas said a few weeks after the race. But once he started, it was “a lot different than I expected.” Thomas started well, working to keep to his goal of finishing the marathon in less than two hours (yes, a marathon in less than two hours), but he started to struggle after the 10th lap.
“My feet were burning. I wanted to go as long as I could, but at the 14th lap, I was pushing off with one foot. At that point, even with my family rooting me on, I was going to retire.”
A marathon on wheels
It might come as a surprise that long-distance inline skating is a thing. “Skating” rolls on many wheels: roller derby, short-track and long-track ice speedskating, and indoor and outdoor inline skating. There are casual skaters, fitness skaters, competitive skaters and the racers.
But skating a marathon-length course or longer is a different type of beast.
Those who do it tout the thrill of going long distances with less of the pain and anguish that comes with running. Many adult skaters were runners in a previous athletic life who swapped their running shoes for skates to ease the pressure on their knees.
“Skating is a lot easier,” said Jon Deason, a professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University and president of Washington Area Roadskaters (WAR). “The times are almost exactly half. I tried to break four hours [running a marathon] but never did. When I started skating, I broke two hours. My fastest time was 1:49:00. Running is double the intensity and really hard.”
But don’t be fooled. Long-distance inline skating is a challenge, and many skaters take up the sport as part of being fit. Skater’s Quest, a club out of Virginia with 60-plus members, focuses on competitive racing.
“With Skater’s Quest, they are more focused on competition with the road races,” said coach Nathaniel Mills, a D.C. resident and three-time Olympian in ice speedskating, comparing the group’s style with WAR’s more recreational approach. But the group is still more relaxed than some some of the elite racers on the national circuit. “It’s more personal for them, not about cash prizes or a spot on the national team. It’s a bit like a [running] marathon, a notch in the belt,” Mills said.
Like marathoners, skaters travel the United States and the world to compete. Top races this fall include Athens to Atlanta (A2A), the Georgia-based race that traverses 87 miles end-to-end, the NorthShore Inline Marathon in Duluth, Minn., and the 24inlineMontreal, a 24-hour relay race in Canada.
Skating’s uncertain future
The Washington area is a hotbed for skaters, on the roads and on ice. Several national champions in ice speedskating have come from the region, a byproduct of the many Korean coaches who immigrated to the area. The D.C. chapter of Inner City Excellence (DC-ICE), a beneficiary of Skate of the Union, teaches youngsters the finer points of both ice and inline skating. Started by Olympic champion Shani Davis and led by Mills, DC-ICE hosts year-round camps and lessons at the Anacostia Skating Pavilion and Fort Dupont ice arena.
Inline road skating has had a dedicated presence in the region for decades. The Washington Area Roadskaters have skated the streets many times over since 1986 and now boast 500 members. The group still puts on a Friday Night Skate that goes through the District. (Former MisFit Lenny Bernstein took a spin with them in February 2013 and lived to tell the tale.)
But for all the fitness benefits and the thrill of going through 26.2 in 90 minutes or less, inline skating events, particularly the long-distance races, are at a crossroads. Inline skating has grown in popularity in Africa and South America, and this year’s Inline World Championships will be held in Rosario, Argentina, in November. However, participation in major long-distance races throughout Europe and North America has declined.
As of Labor Day weekend, Athens to Atlanta had nearly 60 skaters signed up for the 87-mile race. According to A2A Co-Director Lisa Myers, registration was higher than last year at this time, and organizers are hopeful for 100 skaters on the road on race day. As a comparison, A2A had 719 skaters skate to Atlanta in 2000, 385 in 2006 and 102 last year.
But what the sport may lack in participation it makes up for in passion.
“Skating, to me, is everything,” Maureen Cohen Harrington, a member of the board of directors of WAR, said in an e-mail. “Physical health. Mental health. Accomplishment (at least, sometimes). Fun. Friendship. Travel. Adventure. While other sports subcultures may share many of these qualities, skating is uniquely appealing to me.”
After stopping short at Skate of the Union, Thomas was disappointed but not deterred.
“Hey, I got out there and I tried it. Now I know what I need to do so the next event will be a lot better. I mean, I felt like next year, I’ll be on one of those podiums.”
Before the race, Thomas issued a challenge to his co-workers to join him. Alas, no one did. After the competition, he expanded that challenge.
“I would challenge anyone 45 years and older who have never skated before to go out and give it a try. It’s fun.
Do you have the urge to go the distance on wheels but feel unsure? Here are some suggestions from WAR President Jon Deason to get you moving.
- Get the gear: A helmet and wrist guards are a must, especially for beginners. The question isn’t whether you fall; it’s when and where. It’s part of the sport.
- Don’t give up: Learning to skate is hard to do, and the older you are, the harder it might be. It might seem near impossible at first, but with time and practice, it’s attainable.
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