photo by Steve Penland

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Question

It's time.

I knew that, sooner or later, I would have to address The Question.  And I'm quite certain that this post on The Question will be the most-viewed one on my blog--if only because, every time someone asks me The Question, I'm going to direct them here (maybe I should tattoo the URL on my forearm or something).

Friends have approached The Question in a variety of creative, tactful ways over the years.  

Andrew was the first, I think; during my 3K and 5K in my first only time skating the US Championships, back in 2007, Andrew yelled Question-reminding encouragement in the form of phrases such as "groove it" and "ride the glide."

Later, in Calgary, a young Milwaukee skater (hi, Blake!) said, in an attempt to be encouraging after my dismal 5K performance, "Well, you'll be really fast when you get the technique figured out."

He was referring, of course, to The Question.

When I gave Danny a ride to Milwaukee and back for a weekend of skating, five and a half hours each way, he made it all the way there and almost halfway home before turning to face me from the passenger seat and saying, tentatively, "You know I couldn't go the whole way without bringing this up..."   And then we discussed The Question.

Mel, when I gave her a ride to Milwaukee, didn't make it out of the Twin Cities before addressing The Question.

Local coach and Olympian Jason, who was kind enough to coach me a few times before I met TieGuy, was providing commentary for a race once and was heard to say, during my 3K (with mild surprise), "Wow, Kaari isn't slowing down fact, she's gaining on the other skater."  People who skate the way I do shouldn't be able to keep it up for a 3K, which, of course, begs  The Question. 

And even the nice little old Latvian master's skater that I met at a Salt Lake City event, an Olympian in her day, I think, got in on the action, asking me, with great enthusiasm and heavily-accented English, "You are inliner, yes?"  This was her way of asking The Question.

So what is The Question?  Well, for those who haven't seen me skate (or those who need a refresher), check out this video:
I am the taller skater in blue.  Yes, that's Coach TieGuy in, well, the tie, of course.

And there you have the visual representation of The Question, which usually goes something like this:

"What the Hell is with the crazy tempo?"

As you see in the video, I have a much faster tempo than the girl I am skating against.  In fact, I have a much faster tempo than almost anyone else on the ice.  Typically, skaters take 6-10 strokes on each straightaway (men on the lower side, women higher).  I take 12-14 on windless indoor ice, 16-18 or maybe even 20 on a windy day on slow outdoor ice.

Yes, I skate like a bunny on crack.

And pretty much every skater I have ever met is simply panting to change that.

Except the one who counts--Coach TieGuy.  Hear him in the video yelling (somewhat desperately) "Up the tempo! Up the tempo!"?  TieGuy knows why I have the tempo that I do, and he knows how to make it work for me.

This is one of the things I like most about Coach TieGuy (in addition, of course, to his fine selection of neckwear): he doesn't coach speedskating.  He coaches speedskaters.  Unique individuals with different abilities and problems and capabilities.  And I am, apparently, a speedskater with a lot of "uniqueness."

In skating, technique is just as important as fitness and strength; in general, if you don't do it right you won't be able to do it fast.  However...when you start the sport as an, um, older individual, you may or may not be able to learn to truly "do it right," especially if you're somewhat coordinationally challenged.  So you may have to learn the "most right" way you, personally, can do it.

So take note, people: following is, once and for all, the reason I skate with a high tempo:

Because that's the only way, right now, that I can go fast.

And, all false modesty aside, I do go pretty fast (when the thyroid is behaving, anyway).  In the race in the video above, I skated my Pettit (Milwaukee) Personal Best, a 4:55 3K.  Which is pretty damn good for a 47-year-old woman.  So I have to think that the "crazy tempo" is working for me.

Right now, I have several things that limit my ability to skate "the right way."  I have inflexible hips and an old low back injury, which limit my ability to get "low" and thus have a long push.  I have poor balance and have great difficulty committing my center of gravity over the skate I am gliding on, which makes it difficult to build pressure on that skate and thus generate a good weight shift and powerful push.  In other words, I am only (at this time) capable of short, relatively weak pushes.  So, if I were to attempt to "skate like everyone else" by artificially slowing my tempo and using fewer strokes per straightaway, I would slow down.  Fewer weak strokes is slower than more weak strokes.  So I don't try to artificially slow my tempo just to look like I'm "skating right."  Because I still wouldn't be "skating right," I would just be "skating slow."

Would I like to "skate like everyone else?"  Absolutely.  I hate seeing video of myself skating; I know how hard I've worked, and how hard Coach TieGuy has worked, to improve my technique, and yet I still can't do it "the right way" and I always think I look somewhat out of place when I skate.  

Until I look at my times.  Then I am happy.

TieGuy has figured out how to make me as fast as possible, given my physiology and abilities.  We do work on technique, a lot, and I'm always happy when I master another small skill that will take me closer to skating like a "real skater."  But I'm 47, and I don't have many years left before I won't get faster no matter how hard I train or how good my technique gets.  I want to maximize my speed now, given that sooner or later age will slow me down.  So for now, if I want to be fast, I'm stuck with "bunny on crack."

I hope that answers The Question.


  1. I love this post. I love that you embrace the way you skate and I love that tie-guy coaches speed skaters, not just speed skating. I so needed to read this.

  2. Yeah, I am incredibly lucky to have found a coach who can figure out what I (not skaters in general) need to do to become as fast as I can given my current abilities, physical issues, etc. And I'm glad that my experience can help you with yours! (That being said, I may, just may, have taken the first step towards leaving my bunny on crack style behind. I think improved hip flexibility may have something to do with (perhaps) being able to skate more correctly any rate, if I can make significant technical improvements at this stage, I should give all skaters everywhere hope!