February 1, 2002

THE OUTSIDER

Just Skating Along,
but Not in Those Clunky Old Toe-Crushers


By JAMES GORMAN

F AIRLEE, Vt. As I stood on the frozen ice of Lake Morey, watching the skaters, who were well into the 50 kilometers they would race that morning, I kept an eye on their feet. Some of them were wearing speed skates of the sort you see in the Olympics. But others had on strange new contraptions.

They were wearing cross-country ski boots attached at the toe to narrow platforms with long blades underneath. The heels of the skaters were free, as they are in many new Olympic speed skates, and as the skaters moved, the rear of the blades would momentarily disconnect from the boot heels.

The skaters' strides were long and smooth, and, I had been told, since cross-country boots are so much more comfortable than regular skates, their feet were warm. Warm feet skating outdoors? Unthinkable.

I've always loved skating for fun. I was never a figure skater. I never played hockey or raced. But as a child, I skated outdoors every winter, on ponds in city parks, on frozen swamps in nearby woods, and one winter on a home-made rink in the backyard, made with a garden hose, snow and cold weather.

Some of my fondest memories are of the innocent pleasures of skating with my friends on Friday nights as a young adolescent. As I remember, we would form a pack, race around the park ponds out of control, buzz adults and small children, steal girls' hats and create the longest, most out of control whip possible. To make a whip, you form a line, hold hands and skate at top speed until the anchor stops dead. The rest of the line whips around him, sending skaters hurtling off to fall in snowbanks or bowl people over.

I know now that this is rude and unsafe and that children should never attempt it. At least not while I'm around. I was knocked down a few years ago by a pack of 10-year-olds. I landed on my tail bone and had to struggle to keep tears of pain from my eyes. The boys gathered round me, looking as if they thought they had permanently crippled me. "Are you O.K., Mister?" the culprit asked. I had never felt so old.

Naturally, the people who run skating rinks try to avoid this sort of accident, which may be why my children have never enjoyed skating as much as I did. At times, we have skated with them on Adirondack lakes, which is a great treat, although not without its hazards to the adults. One year, my brother-in-law fell and dislocated his shoulder. As a member of the Montshire Speedskating Club said to me as I was watching the race on Lake Morey, "Skating is a low impact sport unless you fall."

It was memories of childhood and the pleasure of skating on those lakes that led me to Lake Morey to try out Nordic skates. Nordic or cross-country skating is like Nordic or cross-country skiing. It is popular in Europe's colder countries and involves skating long distances outside, sometimes with great numbers of people.

In the United States it is almost unknown, but it does have at least one fervent promoter, Jamie Hess, who helped organize the weekend of racing on Lake Morey.

His Nordic skating store in Norwich, Vt., is the only one he knows of in the Northeast, and I could find no indications of any other. He is president of the Montshire Skating Club in Norwich. And his Web site (www.nordicskater.com), in addition to offering all sorts of unusual Nordic skate and boot combinations for sale, is full of information on cross-country skating tours in Vermont, Canada, Austria and Sweden.

I called Mr. Hess when I saw descriptions of these tours. He told me he started promoting the sport after a 1999 visit to Sweden, where it is possible to get off a Stockholm subway and skate on a lake for 100 miles. To serve recreational skaters, European manufacturers make skates that attach to cross-country or telemark skiing boots, or even to hiking boots. You can hike or ski into a remote lake, switch to skates and skate across it. Even in a few inches of snow, the skates work.

Before I tried the skates myself, I watched a 50-kilometer race. There were no television cameras and no big crowds. Snowmobilers cruised by, an ice fisherman had drilled holes near the path out to the track, and a few cross-country skiers stopped for a moment or two to watch. There were dogs on the sidelines, and one person who was timing a woman skating near the front kept shouting to her to hurry up. The reason, the timer told the skater and everyone else several times, was that she needed to go to the bathroom, badly.

I asked an official, who I later found out was the president of the Amateur Speedskating Union, soon to merge with United States Speed skating (the organization most involved with Olympic skating), if I could walk to the inside of the one- kilometer track, swept clean of the several inches of snow that covered the rest of the lake. Sure, he said, so long as I didn't step in front of the skaters.

It was about 20 degrees, the sun was bright and I don't think there was one person watching who didn't know one of the racers. Many of the skaters who were not in the lead pack had gray hair. I don't mean to suggest that the top skaters were not flying around the track at a pace beyond anything I could imagine. Rob Kramer of Wellesley, Mass., won the 50-kilometer race in 1 hour 38 minutes 53 seconds. But this was clearly amateur competition, in the best sense of the word.

In the afternoon, the track was open to anyone who wanted to use it, and Mr. Hess was providing skates and ski boots for anyone who wanted to try the newfangled equipment. Several people had driven up from Boston, not for the race but to try out the skates.

I met one of them on the ice and she said, "Look out; it's my first time on skates in a long time." She had been doing a lot of cross-country skiing and liked the idea of this kind of skating.

The best thing about the boot and skate setup for me was that your feet stay comfortable and warm. The boots I used, made for a kind of cross-country skiing in which the motion is similar to skating, have considerable ankle support, but are still much more foot-friendly than the usual hockey-skate or speed- skate boot. And they are warm enough so that you can skate outdoors when the temperature is in the teens without losing any toes.

My own cross-country boots, made for what is called classic skiing, didn't have enough ankle support for comfortable skating. I could manage it, but I could feel my left ankle wobble.

The long blades made gliding easy, although skating is always work. When I tried out my own hockey skates on the same ice, I found out how bumpy it was, how hard it was to get a long glide with a short blade and how uncomfortable my skates were.

I didn't buy new skates, although I was tempted. It wasn't that I didn't like the equipment. But the voice of practicality and global warming spoke to me and pointed out that I hardly ever get the chance to skate for miles and miles on natural ice. I may yet get a pair, however, for the sheer comfort, if I think I can master crossing one foot over another with the long blades.

Or I may look even further into the world of moving outdoors on ice. Mr. Hess also sells skates that attach to hiking boots, and I noticed on his Web site the following sentence: "For ice sailors: New MultiSkates have heavy-duty bindings for extra security."

Ice sailing? I'm going to have to look into that.

Text Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
Photos Copyright 2002 Tom Ward and Andrew Love

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