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Confessions of an inveterate skateaholic

Confessions of an inveterate skateaholic

An accident teaches an amateur athlete how to age gracefully on eight wheels.
[photo of Pilar Wolfsteller on skates]

The Last Word

My toughest race was the one that was over before it began. 

It was marathon weekend in Berlin – the highlight of the European distance athlete’s calendar. Every September, 50,000 runners and inline skaters descend on the German capital to chase the 42.195 kilometer “blue line” that snakes through the once-divided city. I’m a skater, and I spent the summer pushing myself to my physical and psychological limits, determined to crown my 2009 skating season with a personal best in what was to be my sixth Berlin Marathon. 

But a few weeks before the big day, a dumb training accident cut short my season. Instead of preparing to race on this glorious autumn ­afternoon, I found myself standing on the sidelines with a broken arm that had been surgically reassembled with a titanium plate and seven screws. I felt very stupid. And I felt old. 

About an hour before the starter’s gun, skaters of all shapes and sizes begin to glide through the streets of Berlin. Like colourful ants dressed in aerodynamic suits, futuristic wraparound sunglasses and bicycle helmets, they emerge from every subway tunnel and from around every corner. On their feet: carbon-fibre boots, lightweight aluminum frames, precision ball-bearings, and composite-rubber wheels. Depending on the parts, these high-tech speedskates can cost as much as a year’s tuition at Queen’s. 

The Chariots of Fire theme song blares from the loudspeakers as the clock ticks down. Concentrations sharpen and adrenaline levels rise. I’ve done this a hundred

times before: a final equipment check, then a moment of meditation; I close my eyes and plan a safe escape from the pack as it explodes with nervous energy during those first few hundred metres. But when I open my eyes again, I’m back in the here and now, standing on the sidelines. I’m not in the race. The colourful ants have left me in the dust, cradling my broken arm and my broken heart. 

So…why skate? Because it’s as close to flying as you can come without leaving the ground. But beware: Lose your balance for a split-second as you skim the road at 50 km/h and your overpriced spandex suit, your enthusiasm, and your dignity can be torn to shreds in a heartbeat. Skaters love to tell the story about leaving skid marks of epidermis smeared across the asphalt. Or, hey, here’s a new one: about crashing into a cyclist on a training run, breaking three bones and hearing every one of them snap.

My skating habit began on a warm July afternoon just two years after my Queen’s graduation. I took my first experimental strides on rented inline skates, packaged in rented protective equipment, oblivious to anyone having a laugh at my expense. I had no idea what I was doing…but I was hooked. My own personal yellow brick road stretched out before me, and my first race was a half-marathon six years later.

I skated, and skated. I skated out of my 20s with carefree joy and confidence, into my 30s with optimism and poise. I skated with family, friends, and lovers, through disappointment, loneliness, and depression. I skated into headwinds that ­exhausted me to tears and with tailwinds that carried me farther than I ever imagined going. I skated through some of the world’s most spectacular cityscapes and across some of its most breathtaking rural scenery.

There’s a moment in every marathon when amateur athletes like me wince at the pain while we question our sanity. It’s where our physical strength leaves us, black creeps into our peripheral vision, and we remain upright through sheer willpower alone. But it’s also the place that sharpens our senses and channels our focus. So, too, in life; it’s the moment we decide that quitting is simply not an option. 

Five weeks, three days, and 22 hours after colliding with a cyclist in that ­moment of inattention, I laced up my skates and got back on my yellow brick road – against doctors’ orders but with a childish, self-indulgent, manic glee. This time, accompanied by a new, healthy appreciation of the unexpected speed bumps that might temporarily slow me down, I returned home in one piece and not in several. I will turn 40 soon, and I wonder where my skates will take me next. Because no matter how old you are, it’s just too tough to shake off a bad habit.

Former UP foreign correspondent Pilar Wolfsteller lives in Zuruch, Switzerland

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-1 cover]