Monday, June 4

"Feet don't fail me now!" Eight-wheeling it at Camp Rollerblade

I opted out of my long Saturday and Sunday day rides or weekend get away with Queenie to reconnect with another wheelie sport, one that I had avoided the last two years. Sunday was the culmination of Camp Rollerblade, a two-day intensive inline instruction course that ran June 2-3. The first day started and ended without a hitch. I cannot say the same for Sunday (more on that later). My previously shattered wrist, now held in place with a titanium implant, made me timid about anything that might cause re-injury. Yet, I continued to think about ‘blading. I enjoyed rollerblading but knew I was doing it incorrectly. So, I decided to get some instructions. Even when I allowed myself to think about what a bad fall would mean for my summer of motorcycle riding, I felt I needed to stop dreaming and start doing. This old mare really “ain’t” what she used to be but I'm not going out without one heck of a good fight! My 60-70 miles of running through my 20s, 30s, and well into my 40s, has left me with temperamental knees, a whining lower back, and a muscular skeletal system prone to rigor mortis if I don’t keep it pliable. For a long time, I’ve desired something to replace the euphoria running used to provide and Tai Chi just doesn’t do it—at least it hasn’t thus far.

Rain in the forecast prompted a change in the camp location. It was switched to a place behind Soldier Field, near the Museum Campus. Yippee! Many activities going on near the lakefront at the same time, such as the Gospel Fest, Breast Cancer Survivors’ Walk, and an antique car show, to mention a few. Although I had planned to ride Queenie to the original site in Hyde Park (the University of Chicago’s Midway Plaisance — hail, hail my alma mater), the new location was an easy bicycle ride from my downtown digs. Loaded up with my gear, I headed out and eventually found the tucked away meeting space that proved tricky to find and invisible from Lake Shore Drive, its closest main road. This below ground space is a pedestrian and non-motorized vehicle passageway for locals and visitors to the museum campus.

Three instructors led the class, which ran Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We split into two groups: those with skating experience and those without. Even though it had been two years since I skated, I fit well in the former group. Tom, our colorful instructor, clearly is a master skater. I like the fact that Tom had a few years on him and wasn’t some young whipper-snapper with whom I might not be able to identify. He was a middle-aged whipper-snapper who gave us boomers hope and made learning fun and challenging. Still, sometimes his approach felt a little jambalaya-like—where everything is thrown into the mix—great stuff comes out but you can’t help wonder what all went into it. I would have liked more structure and deconstruction of the skills presented. Thankfully, there was enough time and ample space to tuck yourself away from the group to go off and practice. Still, sometimes I felt that the skills were thrown at us pretty quickly. On Day 1, Tom complimented us by saying we were a “fast” group and that we were sailing through the skill sets he had planned for the two day course. In hindsight, I’m now thinking we paid a price in appearing more advanced. After all, looks can be deceiving. Then again, perhaps we were expected to extract quality in our subsequent, post-camp practices. We had been given the tools, now it was up to us to hone the skills. Still, I felt I needed more practice there. Whenever I pulled away from the group for solo practice, I returned feeling more confident. However, I would also miss what had transpired in my absence. Catching up, I discovered, presented no major problems.
The class was diverse not only in skill levels, but also in age and ethnic makeup, which always makes for an intriguing gathering. I am sometimes easily annoyed by groups I’m forced to interact with (I know this is TMI about me) but I must say, this was a friendly lot. Lots of laughter, lots of falling--but lots of concern for the fallen. People were amazingly kind to one another. Only one person got on my nerves. When she did, I just skated away.

On a couple of mini breaks, I had an opportunity to work with the other two instructions, both of whom were excellent. In fact, a turning technique that Tom explained to me, just wasn’t sticking--mainly because I had previously learned it incorrectly. Now I was trying to break a bad habit while simultaneously learning a new skill. Chris D., our lone female instructor, showed me her way and I got it right away. Just having other voices and perspectives made all the difference. Carl, a less freewheeling teacher than Tom, proffered clear, systematic instructions that resonated with me.

Although we shared our ample practice space with bicyclists, joggers, and walkers, I never felt constrained by their comings and goings. For me, the traffic control issues occurred mostly among the skaters. In the end, we managed well. Like the participants, there was diversity on the practice grounds we used. We had flat areas, hills, obstacles (e.g., tall yellow poles at one end of the underground walkway) and a long, narrow ramp with some surface challenges that some of us thought would be fun to try. I was breathless climbing that ramp. To descend, we needed to exercise considerable restraint along its entire length while staying in control. And, did I say, it had real-world events happening on that ramp (i.e., bikes, joggers, walkers, baby carriages and pets). For a brief time, some of us were abandoned on that ramp when our instructor was called away on an emergency.

The challenge with descents is speed and maintaining control. Fortunately, falling properly was one of the early skills we learned. Over the two days, I slammed pavement at least seven times. Only two of those falls hurt but only on fleshy parts. The thing about the falling instructions is that it assumes that your survival mechanism, that instinct that tells you to brace yourself and try NOT to fall, won’t take over. It presupposes that your brain will do the opposite of what it wants to do. In reality, when you feel you are going to fall and you are on wheels, you forget about the “ready stance” (i.e., knees bent, body settled down and slightly forward in a seating position), you forget the rule about not straightening up. Eventually, survival mode kicks in and overrides the instructions you’ve been given, which is: fall forward, preferably to your knees. It takes time to learn not to follow your instincts. You tell yourself, forget logic, forget your life flashing before your eyes, don’t straighten up your body, don’t stand tall. But you do stand tall. “Kaboom!” You go down. Hard. When those skates skate out from you, you get real intimate with pavement!

Thus, managing speed on hills is critical. Despite one’s best effort, once control is lost on a hill it is difficult to regain it. Sunday, while I was struggling to advance up that long ramp, another part of the class was off practicing on another hill. Before my turn to descend, we received word that a classmate had taken a nasty spill. It didn’t sound good. He was alert but motionless and in considerable pain. Scott, with whom several of us ate lunch, speculated that our classmate, Tom, had descended the hill too fast and things went out of control, he probably straightened up and fell backward, landing on his side. By the end of class, we learned that Tom would need surgery to repair his broken hip or leg. Thanks go to Chris D., for accompanying Tom in the ambulance and staying by his side.
Two people I met and clicked with are Jen and Jeff. I ate lunch with them both days at Café Society, a neat little south loop café in the Prairie District that bustled with activity; they serve generous portions of scrumptious food. It was a hoot spending some off-skate time with them. On Sunday, Jen’s beau (I’m assuming that from the hand holding) accompanied her to lunch. I had to laugh inwardly when our chatty friend Jeff “invited” them to our lunch table (I kind of felt that couple wanted that brief lunch time together—but that’s just my thinking). Jeff and I could have entertained ourselves with our new lunch mate, Scott. But nooo…Jeff seemed to want us all eating at the same table.

I’m glad I'm an alum of Camp Rollerblade. I learned many new things (how to get up and down curbs—Yes!) and corrected (sort of) a significant turning error. I now feel comfortable taking my skating to the next level. Team Rainbo is planning a marathon (26.2 miles) and a half marathon for late July that I just might try. If so, I’m likely to see Jen and Jeff again. Other than a bruised hip, I came out well.
Finally, I was amazed at the parallels between rollerblading and motorcycling, particularly sport riding. Looking where you want to go; turning your head in that direction; leaning into turns; incorporating the lower body to aid in movement and keeping one’s center of gravity as low as possible to maximize efficiency. I had some moments when I asked myself, “What are you doing, what if you injure yourself and as a result can’t ride the rest of the summer?” You know…that’s a scary thought that crossed my mind both days, several times when trying something challenging. But it’s just another way of not living, of trying to avoid life fully. Allowing fears hold one back is not a good thing. I can do nothing and play it safe and still get hit by a manical cab driver or killed in a car accident. It’s life-zapping to live by fears rather than by faith.

I’ve now read this same statement in various articles: the injury rate in rollerblading is lower than that in bicycling and baseball. Rollerblading is also like motorcycling in that it is a sport many people like to tell others NOT to do. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has been seriouly injuried or worse. Like motorcycle riding, rollerblading is about risk management. This camp required full gear (head, elbows, wrist, and knees). Just as I am AT-GATT (all the gear, all the time) on my bike, I am AT-GATT on blades. Whatever your wheel preference, happy rolling!