Speed skaters like sensation of soaring


When Harry Dingle moved his printing business from Catonsville to Laurel a few years ago, the incentive wasn't more space or lower overhead.

He just wanted to be closer to the Gardens Ice House in Laurel so he could go skating on lunch hour.

Dingle, 60, doesn't dawdle on the rink. He's a devotee of speed skating, the sport in which men and women with windmilling arms power their way over glistening ice in an exaggerated half-crouch, like turbocharged versions of Groucho loping across the set of an old Marx Brothers movie.

"When you're skating, you soar like a bird," says Dingle. "You're gliding. You feel the speed and the tilt of the curve. The big benefit skating has is its low impact on your knees."

Dingle belongs to the Maryland-based National Capital Short Track Club, which books 90 minutes of rink time on Wednesday nights at the Ice House. "Short track" is the head-to-head sprint event of speed skating: Small clusters of competitors fly around a 111-meter oval course at up to 30 mph, their hands often touching the ice to maintain balance on tight turns.

Long track is the name for more solitary, beat-the-clock distance races usually skated on a 400-meter outdoor oval. There are also endurance marathons of assorted lengths that Dingle calls "river skating," which is what he used to do as a kid in Patapsco Valley State Park.

"You can get a good workout in an hour and a half of speed skating - if you're willing to be patient with your technique," says David Kennedy, a 52-year-old state government attorney who serves as the club's secretary-treasurer. "It took me years before I felt close to comfortable. It looks so easy."

Contrary to its seemingly effortless appearance, speed skating is a combination of Swiss-watch-precision movements. The blades are longer, straighter and thinner than the ones on conventional skates. That makes for more speed but less margin for error.

"The key," explains Kennedy, who, unlike your typically sleek speed skater, has a stocky, Zamboni-machine build, "is being balanced over your skates and being able to stay low. One, it's more aerodynamic. But the main thing is the geometry of the [leg] push."

Speed skating was strictly a mode of transportation in Nordic countries, back in those pre-Hans Brinker days when blades were made of bone or wood.

The transformation to sport began in 1763 with a long-distance race in the wetlands of England. The first U.S. speed-skating club was founded in Philadelphia in 1849.

America has won more medals in speed skating than any other Winter Olympic sport, the most memorable performance being Eric Heiden's cache of five golds at the 1980 games in Lake Placid.

According to NutriStrategy, a company that makes nutrition- and fitness-related software, a 150-pound speed skater burns 1,056 calories an hour, the same as a runner moving at a brisk 6.5-minute-per-mile clip. The biomechanics of skating is particularly tough on quad muscles: witness the bulging thighs of Heiden and other Olympians.

Harry Dingle got back into skating at age 50 after a decades-long layoff. "One of the reasons I did it was to lose weight," he says, noting he dropped more than 20 pounds. "I feel better. My back's stronger. My legs are stronger."

A National Capital club practice normally draws about 20 people. As is true of many sports out of the mainstream, speed skaters enjoy a secret-society level of cohesiveness. There's no age segregation. Adolescents freely commingle with old-timers such as Jack Curtin, a 76-year-old graphics designer who in his younger days performed at Washington ice shows. His specialty was jumping card tables.

Most he ever cleared in one shot?

"Four," Curtin says, matter-of-factly. "Four with a fire hoop in the middle."

Speed skaters on ice resemble sharks in water: Everyone stays in constant motion. Except for Kennedy (who favors fleece pants and top), everyone wears super-tight, friction-free clothing right out of the Spider-Man Collection.

They divide themselves into beginner, intermediate and advanced practice groups. The advanced skaters, who range from elementary school to high-school age, are coached by Yun Mi Kim, a 24-year-old former speed skater with the Korean Olympic team.

"It's the same thing as a sports car," Kim says of a fine-tuned speed skater.

Indeed, you can get NASCAR neck watching the practice. Round and round and round they go. They work on passing techniques, then hold an impromptu relay race, followed by sprint laps and free skating.

Leanne Titcomb, 48, switched from inline skating about 10 years ago, in part because speed skating demands more technical skill.

"You can't cheat," says Titcomb. "I like the workout, the camaraderie and the technique."

Don Giese, 63, has been speed skating since he was 17. He still goes to national competitions, but that's not his primary motivation for attending Ice House practices.

"At my age," says Giese, "it's to stay in shape."

At 10 p.m., the speed skaters surrender the ice. A hockey league game is about to begin.

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