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The Sk8ologist
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Veterans on Ice

The Mission

As an old-skool quad skater that never accomplished much on skates, the idea of getting back to real racing aged almost 40 has been lurking in my mind for some time. After watching Rocky XXII (or XXV, don’t remember) I asked myself: Why can’t I compete seriously again? After all, experience count a lot in this sport, doesn’t it? Oh well. Problem is, there are no races for veteran inliners, except that pathetic “World Championship” that certain people insists on calling some second rate marathons around Europe. So I had no other choice than endeavour into the noble blades’ sport. The chosen debut tournament was the Master’s Revival 2007 in Baselga di Piné (northern Italy, see here >>), during the first week of December.

Motivation, objectives, training

I did try ice skating before (see here >>) but although my previous experiences gave me some confidence, it wasn’t nearly enough to face the huge technical challenge ahead of me, as the only ice I have available round here are the cubes for my Scotch. Bearing that in mind, my focus was to work on adequate athletic preparation, experimenting in the meantime an original training method for inlines. As in my heyday I was a pretty decent sprinter (hated anything longer that 1k), I've chosen to attempt a decorous performance in the 500 metres race, speculating that the frozen variety should be similar to the 300 mts time trial on wheels. It turned out I wasn’t completely mistaken! Anyway, last July I wrote down a training program based on ice sprinters’, adapted to my sorry physical conditions and wheeled skates. The goal was to be under 50 seconds on the 500 mts in my first ever international race 5 months down the calendar. So on August 1st 2007, in those wee hours when usually healthy human males awaken up for a certain stiffness caused by hormonal turmoil, I jumped out of bed to start my opening training session. From then on I never missed a session, except one in which I was supposed to skate, but it was raining here… a place that has an average annual precipitation rate of nearly zero.
During the first three months, my periodic improvements were in the order of whole seconds in each distance; afterwards it was only fractions of a second, obviously. Nevertheless, by November’s tests I was skating 27” in 300 mts, 19” in 200 and about 11” in 100 mts. Not bad for an old fart, uh?
Specifically, my aim was to develop useful strength for speed, doing uphill and levered short sprints (with/without skates), plus plyometrics. Never lifted a single weight during the whole period, except the body mass of some willing lady: in spite of that I felt my legs as fast and strong as in 1987. The aerobic base was initially constructed simply with running (a lot), but I had to quit it because I earnt a “rotulo-femoral syndrome” (runners’ knee) via a poor running technique. Before ruining everything, I started to burn miles after miles on my skates under aerobic threshold, and that was the end of my knee problem.
Of course, there were two untrainable factors. At the outset, environmental adaptation was a major issue. I live in an island in which skating in shorts and t-shirt is possible all year long, but I was expected to race on an open-air location at 1000 meters of altitude, boasting sub-zero temperatures, wearing only a light skinsuit. Ouch.
The other factor was technical prowess. As seen from the track’s side, ice skating looks similar to inline skating, but by all means it is not. Taking for granted that information is accurate, I studied everything I could from articles, books, videos. I tried then to translate all that concepts into inlines, attempting to imitate as close as possible ice skating on wheels. I can say now that, although it is not the best solution, an acceptable counterfeit technique can be modelled on wheels. Every day I would skate between 10 to 20 minutes employing such technique: more than that was out of the question, as my butt and legs would hurt immensely.

December came; my overture to the real ice world was approaching. I planned to reach Baselga a few days before the tournament, in order to try to adapt to the cold, the technique, the equipment, etc. While packing the luggage, I thought that at least in the physical department I couldn’t do more that what I did during these five months. Or maybe I could, but hey: I have a full time job and a demanding girlfriend, you know?

Adaptation

I reached Baselga on a Monday evening, after a 19 hours trip. The hotel clerk gave me my key, saying “your mates are awaiting you at the bar”. Since I had no meeting planned with anybody, I took a look at the bar to see who were supposed to be my “mates”. It came as a big surprise to find there the entire Italian National team! I don’t know who did that lady confused me with, but I’m grateful to her for the courtesy.


Baselga: beautiful

Being late I thought that the rink would have been closed, actually a lot of people was still skating there. The hotel is located right in front of the stadium, so I went down immediately to feel the ice. The chilly wind coming from the high mountains and the three degrees Celsius indicated that urinating alfresco would have been suicidal. Who can pinch a 5mm screw wearing a bulky skiing glove anyway? But what really worried me was my inability to skate. I had problems even standing straight on my blades! Did I forget all I learnt, was I too tired? I did a few slow laps anyway, and all I got was an excruciating pain in my left foot, as the boot stroked the ankle bone, a clear sign of awful technique. The first impression was that all I’ve been doing for five months was pointless, if I wasn’t able to get hold of my skating before the tournament. The disturbing concern grew alarmingly the following day, given that after two training sessions on the ice all I was able to obtain was an exponential boost of my foot pain. To worsen things over, while I was stepping out of the track I lost my balance and fell entirely on my bad knee. Depression was beating at my conscience’s doors, and the thought of refraining from the tournament was taking solid form in my mind.

But destiny tends to assist the bold: luckily the Reimann Group came to my rescue! The Swiss Veteran Team, lead by Mr Peter Reimann, along with Marcus, Bruno, Martin and Walter helped me with bit and pieces, starting from my equipment. Peter said that I was an “artist” for skating in such awful kitchen knives, and then proceeded to fix somehow my edges with his tools and expertise.


Peter: Maestro!

Alas, as soon as I touched ground on Wednesday morning, I almost cried in pain: the injury in my left foot became a nasty inflammation by then. When all seemed lost, another miracle from the skating gods materialized in the form of Mr Fabio Viganó, Italian quad world champion and Olympic athlete some forty years ago, all round great guy that in his sixties is still able to skate like an angel and to keep happy a dozen girlfriends around the world.

A true living example of what I want to be when I grow up! Master Fabio took from his bag a pair of complete Maple skates that instantly fell in love with my feet. Stepping on the ice I felt like flying away as a winged skating Mercury, targeting a celestial virgin on Mount Olympus.


Fabio: Maestro!

Once again, I got physical proof that good equipment on your foot means a lot in skating. No more soreness, goodbye instability. From that moment on, my progression was frenetic. A layer of confidence covered my lack of skill; simulated proficiency cloaked a tad my obvious incompetence.
Whilst our veteran group trained nice and easy, a couple of Italy’s national team hot-shots were doing full speed starting drills. Whoa! Are they fast, man?

I stopped to closely watch Ermanno Ioriatti, Italian record holder in 500 (35.04!). To observe these guys doing their thing at such high speeds, one can actually get physical pleasure. They look like Marvel comic book superheroes in their fantastic skinsuits, gliding effortlessly (so it seems) towards the chronometric super-villain.


Ermanno: Master!

As a coach, I’m convinced that our inline athletes -at least the sprinters- should be physically framed akin to ice skaters (Mantia is my ideal paradigm, in fact). To master ice technique takes a lifetime, no doubt, but to convey technique to performance, massive muscular strength must be recruited here. As it is, this sport’s elite athletes display extremely well developed legs, being strength gains crucial for them. I must also point out that the male specimens appear to suffer no effects from the cold bite, as in their inguinal area they seem to carry at all times a bulky piece of Angus beef. To me, the polar climate was catastrophic, it reduced my manhood to peanuts… so I was forced to resort to the trick certain Italian pro skater uses while racing WIC events: a cotton sock carefully placed in the skinsuit’s middle section.

That evening, another inliner joined us on the track: Mr Adriano Remus, a good skater that used to be in Pier Romani’s team. As he was alone at dinner, I offered him some company. Maybe he misunderstood my courtesy, because when dessert arrived at our table, he politely asked me: “Are you homosexual?”. Now, this enquiry is generally submitted to me by gay men with an agenda eager to include me on a page or two. And considering his fashion sense, I might expect Adriano was a fairy queen as well.

But sooner on I heard him chatting on the phone with his female girlfriend, besides this guy does not seem exactly a smartass. So I answered, with equal politeness: yes, I am. “I thought that”, he stated with relief, “your manners are a bit effeminate”. So I closed the issue whit the following phrase: “Indeed. I am an insatiable lesbian, trapped in this exceptionally attractive masculine body”. I bet he’s still guessing what I meant.


Adriano: not gay

By Thursday, almost the whole Italian Masters Team was in attendance at Baselga. I’ve got the honor of personally meeting some ice past glories like Paolo Pezzaglia, Antonio Nitto, Bruno Tonioli, Adriano Salgarelli and Paolo Gemme among others, plus a few quad skaters that were world class back in their day: Flavio Rigon, Piergiuseppe Cavallino and Mario Lucchetta. I found it rather peculiar the fact that also two twenty-somethings were part of the group, Andrea Villa and Daniele Foti (as a matter of fact, for some countries masters divisions start from 20 years old). In addition, there were two ladies: lovely Mrs. Alda Segantin, and charming Mrs. Cecilia Valcepina. My education forbids me to mention their age, but to give you an idea, the first one used to race when skates where made of wood and bones, whereas the second one is about my age but it doesn’t show, and she coaches the Italian Short Track junior team, none the less.
They are a merry bunch, which obviously has a great deal of collective fun going to very cold places to practice their favourite hobby. It really shows that they are fit as felines and happy as hell. A truly cheerful ensemble!

Italian Masters: the real deal

That very night, the moment everybody had left and I had the rink just for myself, I bring out my chronometer and dared to skate a simulation of a 500. Focusing on doing things right rather than fast, I did 50”12. It felt rather slow to me, so I waited for full recovery and had another go, seeking good technique again. Time: 50”01. Even considering my stopwatch manipulation error margin, my spirit lifted off uncontrolled towards the sky. If I’m able to do these times while training, I thought, what would be my mark in the real thing? I ran to the hotel to tell the news to my old new friends: they patted my back acquiescently, but I knew they did not believe me.
By Friday morning they looked me with new eyes: instead of helping me to keep my steadiness, they would dispense tips of advanced technique. I was attempting starting rehearsals (which are also similar but not equal to the inline ones), as well as several corners at high speed. By then I felt comfy and self-assured on blades, occasionally it felt just right! But at the same time I realized I had to concentrate on 20 simultaneous things just to get half a decent technique that would allow me to reach and maintain any significant speed (possibly without slipping on the edges). Quite an impossible task, I reckon: one should be skating like that night and day for the next hundred years. I must have been doing it right anyway, because my arse was hurting big time, as if FIRS’ higher echelons kicked it until exhaustion. So I decided no more skating from then on, in anticipation of racing time the next day. When walking off the rink I wondered if my blades were properly sharpened. I got myself an answer right that moment, when I rubbed the residual ice from the blades with my fingers, accidentally touching the edges… metal cut right through my thick gloves, if it wasn’t for them I couldn’t scratch my ear today.
Late that afternoon pairs were assigned: I really like the fact that in this sport one has to race against the clock in every distance. As it happened, my buddy was going to be divine Cecilia. Perhaps they wanted to take it easy for me in my first call to the international arena; in any case I felt really lucky and was truly honoured to be competing with this graceful lady. After the draw, a cocktail party was launched in the bar, a very nice gathering that proceeded the customary dinner in our hotel. In the lounge I would come across a distinguished capped gentleman that kindly greeted me.

I couldn’t recognize him at first, but then he removed his cap saying “I know you since you were a toddler, you moron!”: it was Mr Fabio Bellotti in the flesh! He would show me his latest boot models (awesome, by the way) and promised that he would send me pictures to publish in my websites. Alas, knowing him I’m sure he won’t ever comply.


Andrea & Fabio: 2 manufacturers generations

Dinner was excellent, wine kept flowing and speeches were made. Afterwards, some of us stayed playing pool or chatting around. I had the good chance of sitting down for a while with the Lollobrigida family: the ladies are super agreeable and exceptionally beautiful; a conversation with remarkably experienced coach Maurizio is a delight to behold. His older daughter Francesca (inline world champion in Cali) is part of the Italian junior team, she was going to compete too that weekend in the Alpine Cup, against the German and Austrian national teams.


Francesca & Maurizio: beauty & beast

I went to bed late; I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time, so I visualized dozens of times my 500 from every possible angle, start to finish. Was I nervous, back to serious time trials after so many years? I couldn’t tell.

The Tournament: day one

Luckily we were going to race in the afternoon, so I could wake up early to have breakfast, take a mid-morning nap and have pasta fro lunch at 11:00. That Saturday started off windy, damp and cold: we were worrying because the forecast announced rain, possibly even snow. But by 2PM the clouds cleared out, the wind stopped almost completely and the full sun shined gorgeously over the rink’s ice from the Alps: great conditions for racing outdoors!
I got to know personally a few more old time stars, like the experienced hard guys Tullio Tommasi and Fabio Ravanelli, or the super nice rookie Michele Messina.
My main concern was my appearance. Do I give the impression to be a neat speedskater, or do I look like Silver Surfer’s little retarded sissy cousin? Once more Mr Viganó lifted my spirits. “Wow, you seem a Norwegian skater”, he said. I’m still figuring out if that’s good or bad, but it sounded out pleasantly to me.

Cecilia, Enrico Fabris, Alda  Daniele among ladies  Tonioli, Sighel, Remus 

I tried to come out with a reasonable warm up before racing: not sure if I succeeded. First pair competing was the overgrown teenagers, Andrea and Davide. Being the youngest of us all and armed with proper technique, they both are understandably faster than nearly anyone here, in most of the distances. Sure enough, Andrea did the best time in 500 that day (45”94). The second pair was Cecilia and yours truly, starting from the outside lane. We both faced the long white straight: I kissed her hand, stating that I felt genuinely privileged to be sharing this fantastic experience with her. Then I placed myself near the line and anticipated the judge’s call. Go to the start!, he shouted. Exactly that instant, I felt for a flash like being Andrew Love >>. I’ve been reading all his tales and chronicles, soaking up inspiration and sympathizing so much with him, that just for a second I sensed I knew exactly what passed through his soul every time he found himself in that very situation. It sounds pompous, I know, but please allow me to indulge in this pseudo-poetic license for a minute.
Ready!, announced the starting judge, pointing his pistol to the sky. I placed myself on the line, assuming what I believe was somehow the right position, not sure if I was ready at all, trying not to start before the gun went off. Next thing should be a gunfire sound; instead I heard two in quick succession. I turn to Cecilia and ask her: “Why did you do that? I am supposed to be the rookie here!”. To my embarrassment and dismay, the judge chuckled and said to me: “Actually you made the false start. After I said “ready”, you cant’ move at all, not even a finger”. Point taken, Sir. Ready!, we hear again. Next thing I know, a superlative embarrassment showcase followed the shoot. I started with the clumsiest style ever seen in skating history, stumbling and faltering, one step pushing with the heel to the ground, the next sticking the blade’s tip into the ice. I was able to half-compose my stride only in time to reach the corner and grasp that Cecilia was ahead of me. Desperation made things worse: my legs happily intermingle while on the first crossing, general balance was suddenly lost and I almost fell flat on my belly. Somehow I touched the ice with one hand, stopped on both blades for a couple of seconds, and vociferously shouted the “f” word. There and then, I though “oh boy, now I’ m going to be disqualified! Etiquette is so important in this sport!” But it seems that on ice –as in space- nobody can hear you scream, so I put myself together and initiated the acceleration process again. At that point the bend was over and Cecilia was still in front: rage was my main fuel, so after a couple of powerful turbo strides I was in command. I recalled the lane changing rule right away, pushed hard to the internal path and aimed to the next bend’s entrance. Ok, time to do cross-overs, but… Once again my speed seemed to be too much for my faulty skills, my legs didn’t respond appropriately and falling was to be inevitable, unless I stood up and gained stability. Another bend with no legs crossing, for f***k’s sake! I tried to repair the damages on the last straight, but instead of focusing on proper technique I was only able to increase my legs frequency and frantically ram forward, as if I was on bloody wheels. I passed the finish line and threw my eyes to the large display: 50”11. Aw, shit. So much so for my stupid visualizations. If it wasn’t for the ludicrous start and hideous corners, what would’ve been my mark? In spite of my sad feat, the old chaps looked impressed and were quick to throw profuse and sincere congratulations to me. I guess they didn’t expect me to be under a full minute, or maybe it is a rather common courtesy form in this environment, so I cheered each one of them, especially Cecilia. She finished only a few seconds behind me, with no training at all and very little skating lately.


The rest of the old timers were generally happy with their own performance, although the Swiss skaters were almost unbeatable. One of them, Markus Ulmer (over 50) would set the best time in every distance except the 500 (only 0.04 seconds behind Daniele). This guy is World Cup material even at his age!
But I wasn’t personally satisfied, having failed my main goal. Men over 50, 55 and even 60 years old fared better than me: I guess its clear evidence that in this sport technique is far more essential than fitness level.
Whilst the junior national teams were competing at warp speeds, we would watch indoors, sipping tea and eating cookies (kindly offered by the organization), still congratulating each other. Came mid-afternoon, it was time to race again, 1500 metres and I wouldn’t know what to expect. Those in the know say this is the harder distance of all, the one that makes you to exorcize the lactic devil. Considering my 500, I thought it was better to try to do things right instead of quick; Cecilia passed me the same advice: “You’d better skate slowly this time over”, she said. “Should I?”, I asked. “Oh yes”, she answered, “you have a fine ass and I’d like to have a better look at it the whole race”. Er, right. However, she started on the outer lane, so by the entrance of the corner she was in front of me. I couldn’t avoid stopping for a moment to proclaim heartily that the best ass in the track was without doubt hers. It was, honest! Then I geared up and pushed forward: I can’t recall the rest of the race except for the fact that since I forgot to ask where the hell the finish line was for this distance, I continued sprinting for 150 added metres, until somebody yelled to stop. Again, I sensed the awful feeling that comes when you didn’t give 100%: as a result, my time was 2’41, exactly what Antonio Nitto forecasted for me after my ugly 500.
First competition day was over, my ice career started as jerky as my technique.

Second day

Sunday started off gloomy, damp and very cold. The night before I slept well, so well that I almost failed to wake up! I got to the track just in time to do a short warm up, put the skates on and step by the starting line. It was like the 500 all over again: preposterous start, comical bends in which I almost plunged to the frozen surface. At least this time I knew where the finish line was, and I’ve got no excuses, as my legs were burning up pretty good by the end of the race.
The older skaters put on a great show, with rather enthusiastic duels to the last man standing, but Alda was by far the most cheered by the crowd. I can safely bet that all of us were moved by her extraordinary bravery: she’s almost 70, you know?
Last race was 3000 mts. I didn’t want to skate that one, but Cecilia insisted we should have a go at it… then she almost backed off! I had no idea how to manage this distance, so Mr Ravanelli, a world class coach himself, suggested to me: “You should start quick, but not too much. Then is just a question of maintaining that speed”. Sounds easier said than done, believe me. The race was going to be in quartets: that means a pair goes off, then another one after 20 seconds. So the young guns started first, with Cecilia and me in their tails. I distinctly remember that I mentally mocked them up, for they all were wearing sunglasses. What for, I thought, there is no sun!
The gun went off, as there was no need to go at full speed on this one, I decided to articulate the best technique I could, just hoping the youngsters would not overlap me after a kilometre or so. First two laps went well and easy, on the third one I started to crave for oxygen (yet somebody shouted “you’re going like a clock!” to me), during the fourth lap my legs were on flames and the onboard extinguisher system failed miserably. As it that wasn’t’ enough, a fine snow flurry started, so every time a flake would hit my eyes I was painfully blinded. No glasses, uh? But I realized that in previous distances I haven’t put 100% to the ice: biting my teeth and putting pain aside, I pushed forward with all my strength. That final lap was my best for almost a second, which means that my regulation was really bad, but it was enough to produce a 5’38… Second best time behind Andrea! (5’32). Until the Swiss masters raced, that is. But I couldn’t believe it anyway, especially the fact that I did remember to perform correctly all the lane changes. Cecilia finished a couple of minutes after us, and I went straight to compliment her, for being a role model for us all. The tournament closed with a spectacular battle between two of the oldest skaters on Earth, who raced in about 7 minutes. Idols!

As soon as races were over, it was awarding time. When my turn came, I refused to jump on the higher step of the podium. Why would I, since there were no other skaters in my age group? What a farce! But the crowd requested my presence there, so I took the chance to experience again an instant of glory, something that never happened since 1988.


Historical: Spanish podium

I got a certificate, the timing protocols and my gold medal, signalling Spain’s first victory ever on international ice skating. And most probably the last one, according to a couple of envious jokers that were standing in the first row…

Tips for beginners switching from inlines

● While designing your training routine, do not neglect strength and build a solid aerobic base. Otherwise, skating could be quite harsh.
● If you can’t skate on ice, dig up your inline clap skates and try to imitate ice technique on them as much as you can.
● Bear in mind that it will take some time to adapt to the new environment and equipment, followed by technique’s infinite learning process.
● Very cold climate can have a negative impact in your physical appearance: act accordingly. And never take a pee outdoors!
● If you are really serious about racing on long track get worthy equipment, namely Maple or Viking (boots and clap blades).
● Watch out your fingers, as those blades cut as hell!
● Don’t be shy and ask questions: people is more than willing to help rookies
● After “ready” is called, don’t move at all!
● Swearing out loud is not allowed while racing
● If racing outdoors, always wear glasses: you never know when snow might fall, or the sun can appear and reflect on the ice
● Bring on your own sexual slave. Females attending these veterans’ events have a tendency to be too young and/or married and/or excessively mature, so there are slim chances of getting laid.  
 

Epilogue

All Masters in the world are tied in into a large association that depends on ISU, (bearing its own statutes, rulebook and calendar) called International Masters’ Speed Skating Committee (IMSSC, see here >>).
From reading past tournament chronicles and my own personal experience, I gather that these events’s atmosphere is particularly enjoyable, since their passion for this sport amalgamates them in a heterogeneous but compact mix, in which heavy-duty friendships are firmly established, and rivalry is practically unknown by them all. One can perceive from miles away their good vibes, and hear from two blocks away their laughter. Only two things are seriously considered here: event organization and to beat their own personal best times. Whenever anybody is able to achieve the second thing, the whole group would demonstrate earnest delight for this success.
This Baselga tournament was in all probability the least important in IMSSC’s calendar, that’s why I’ve chosen it for my debut. Nevertheless, the only difference with similar competitions in Europe, USA and Canada are better venues (with better ice), bigger crowds, and the participation of former Olympic and world champions. Totally absent is that unreasonable zeal I so very often find on aged inliners that mostly are never-beens or newcomers with no racing experience but with an edge. Or perhaps something to prove.
Veterans on ice wear their tight skinsuits with no shame for their tummies, being their main focus to attain technical perfection, while competing only against the clock. All in all, what they really do is keeping alive the Olympic spirit, in other words it’s true and valuable sportsmanship. Plus, their sporting longevity is a lesson to be learnt by our Playstation-proned youngsters.
I strongly recommend all my coevals to try this enriching experience on long track. To anybody coaching children on inlines I would suggest to employ long-track’s racing system as means of educational training method. Fun variants can be implemented (obstacles on track, pursuit, double lane changing, etc), and I can assure the results are more than positive: group’s cohesion is improved as rivalries are almost removed; children pay more attention on developing better technique, and a new form of amusement is guaranteed.

If you have the opportunity to switch from inlines to ice, do yourself a favour and get your blades: you will never be too old. Ice skating will instantly boost our friends directory, and it brings the chance to hunt for perfection forever… or at least until our legs can sustain the rest of our body.

M. Bresin - Pictures: Markus, Fernando Iraci, IMSST


Sock not pictured

With thanks to:

● Peter, Markus, Martin and Walter for their kindness
● The entire Italian Master Speed Skating Team, for their friendship  
 


Applied plyometrics for inline speedskating
Utopia: if I was FIRS president