Distance Skating: Winter's Newest Edge

There’s something immensely appealing about lacing up a pair of skates with long, thin blades and soaring so fast on ice that your snot freezes. I’m not alone in my feelings; participation in distance skating is growing, across open ponds and lakes and on manicured 400-meter outdoor ovals. The two biggest reasons for the sport’s newfound popularity in North America? Winter vacation spots are embracing it as an alternative to snow sports—especially during dry years—and people are discovering that it uses almost the same technique as cross-country skate-skiing. There is, however, a quantum leap in the thrill factor: In skate-skiing you can occasionally work up to Mach speeds, whereas in distance skating you consistently shatter the sound barrier.

Five years ago, virtually no distance skating races were held in the United States or Canada. This winter, at least 20 are scheduled, and outdoor skating tracks are appearing anywhere ponds, lakes, and rivers freeze solid in winter—from Hanover, New Hampshire, to Ottawa, Ontario, where a 4.8-mile stretch of the downtown Rideau Canal is cleared off for skating. One of the first Americans to promote distance skating was Jamie Hess, who became addicted during a trip to Sweden in 1999. Hess quit his job as a software developer and opened a shop in his barn in Norwich, Vermont, to sell traditional speed skates—like the kind Apolo Anton Ohno wore in the Olympics—and nordic skates, made for touring. In 2000 he founded the North American Marathon Skating Association.

The nordic skate consists simply of a standard cross-country skate-ski boot that snaps into a binding mounted on a slim blade 15 to 22 inches long. The blade releases at the heel during push-off, to maximize power, and “claps” back in when the foot hits ice. Nordic is the skate of choice, because so many cross-country skiers already own the boots. They can snap right in and know the technique before stepping onto the ice.

Intrigued by the novelty and speed, my buddy Chad Mitchell and I tasted distance skating during a demo day at a winter carnival on Occom Pond, in Hanover, New Hampshire, last February. We were hooked. Two weeks later, after skating a couple of times on the frozen expanses of Lake Champlain near our homes in Burlington, Vermont, we found ourselves making the four-hour drive to Quebec City for the premier competition in eastern Canada, the 25K Lac Beauport Skating Marathon. Dressed in Lycra layers for an aerodynamic edge, I set modest goals of beating Chad—being the good friend that I am—and the old guy at the start line wearing clunky hockey skates and a baggy Quebec Nordiques jersey.

During the first three laps on the 2.5-kilometer track ringing Lac Beauport, I tried as hard as I could to mimic the long, effortless strides of my more experienced competitors, with surprising success. My downfall proved to be my wardrobe, specifically my lack of wind protection—when I stopped to slip on a pair of Gore-Tex pants, everyone else blew by. I spent the final seven laps playing catch-up, placing 32nd out of 38 competitors. Chad, who came in 29th—four minutes ahead of me—waited to greet me at the finish line. “So, interested in making this an annual event?” he asked as I tried to catch my breath.

“Definitely,” I wheezed, spotting the guy in the hockey skates looking well-rested and drinking coffee. I added, “If my pride has healed in time.”

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