Skaters keep decades-old fad rolling

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WASHINGTON — I get to do a lot of interesting things for this column. I’ve hiked, biked and Trikked, walked, run and RunAmuck. Most of these forays provide glimpses of fitness subcultures I didn’t even know existed until I gave them a try.

Rarely has this been so true as a recent Saturday evening when I joined the Washington Area Roadskaters for a seven-mile spin around the National Mall on inline skates. Yes, that was me gliding (someone less charitable might say “stumbling”) down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue in the freezing cold, in a gathering snow squall, with four other guys and Bill English’s disco cart.

His what? We’ll get to that. But seriously, when is the last time you strapped on a pair of Rollerblades? The ‘80s? The ‘90s? Then came that Saturday: two hours listening to the James Gang, Cher, Madonna and Weird Al Yankovic at high volume and watching passersby do the Chicken Dance.

Yeah, that all happened. While the rest of us have turned to P90X, spinning and every other fitness fad, a group of folks have stayed on their skates and seem to be having a whole lot of fun with it.

“You’re out there getting exercise without even thinking about getting exercise,” says English, 52, of Silver Spring, Md. “It just happens.” So do beer nights, trips to other cities and weekend skate conventions, as well as very serious sprint and distance races for those inclined.

Who knew? I sure didn’t. And by the way, inline skating is a great workout, especially for a newbie like me. Even the slightest uphill is a challenge in those heavy boots. It’s similar to tackling a hill in cross-country skis.

“It’s a full-body exercise,” says Marc Ostrow of Gaithersburg, Md., another WAR member who was there that night and has skated a marathon in 1:31. He adds, “You get all the benefits of running and more.”

English started skating in grad school in South Carolina in the mid-1990s after his bike was stolen. He and his wife have a son with autism, and English discovered when Billy was 7 that skating was one of the few things they could do together.

“I found that when I had my kid on skates, I could pretty much hold his hand and he’d go wherever I wanted to go,” English recalls. “If he was in shoes, he’d run all over the place.”

Now 25, Billy zooms around roller rinks and occasionally joins WAR for social skates. “It’s really good when you’re autistic to have something that you’re good at,” English says, “and that people appreciate you for.”

On a warm spring or summer evening, events like Saturday’s attract dozens of skaters. At the end of May, aficionados from all over the country will come here for Skate DC Weekend, a full three days of social skating. In June, Skate of the Union will include races for elite, competitive types.

But WAR skates just about year-round, except when there is snow on the ground. On a blustery evening, with flurries in the forecast, I joined English, Ostrow, Jesse Freeman and Tom Wood at the edge of Lafayette Park, directly in front of the White House. I borrowed a pair of English’s skates and wrist guards, strapped on my bike helmet, and away we went. (For the record, WAR asks beginners to take a class or be confident they can stop on a downhill and skate in traffic.)

The first stretch was a slight downhill, which English and Ostrow helped me negotiate without picking up too much speed. After that, I was on my own, though they kept close watch and helped me negotiate some difficult spots. My goal was to stay upright for the entire two hours.

“You do fall. You can’t not fall,” Ostrow told me later. “You’re going to fall for one reason or another.” Miraculously, I didn’t, though not without some close calls. It’s amazing how rough the pavement is in downtown Washington when you pay attention to it.

About 13 years ago, English started carrying a boombox on some skates, because after all, what is skating without music, especially funk, disco and other roller rink tunes? Eventually he lashed together two scooters, hung some powerful speakers from the frame and hooked it all up to an iPod. On a small mast at the front of the contraption, a flashlight shines on one of those spinning disco balls.

As the sun set and the snow picked up, English fired up the disco ball and the party was on. We had been drawing cheers along the whole route, but now when we stopped, someone walking by would often feel compelled to bust a few dance moves, including, yes, the Chicken Dance. Wood recorded it all with a small camera mounted between the two bouncy antennas on his helmet.

Our bar mitzvah on wheels ended near the State Department, where we split up and headed home. My evening finished with a whole lot of ibuprofen, a glass of wine and a new appreciation for an old sport.

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