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Backward Man
Skating backstroke at the Northshore Inline Marathon
"You're amazing! Of course, you're also completely insane"

Editor's Note: Earlier this month, Jack Fong became the first person to ever skate the Northshore Inline Marathon backwards — this according to event director Chuck Carlberg. His time was 2 hours, 37 minutes and 26 seconds. Some people may scoff at Fong's achievement. But we can't help but admire this free-spirited skater from San Francisco. He did it his way and showed that just as there's more than one way to skate (i.e.: ice, inline, roller), there's more than one way to skate a marathon.

By Jack Chamberlain Fong
posted Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006


Jack Fong finishes last June's Napa Valley Half Marathon in California.
(photo: Dan Burger)

I'm not much of a speed skater. I just started competing in skate races this year. By and large, I can only sustain a speed of 13 to 14 mph on long distance skates. If I go any faster, I burn out quickly. I do not know how to draft or skate in a paceline. I am, however, a skilled back-skater.

At my first race, the 2006 Napa Valley Inline Marathon in California, I realized that I wasn't even close to being a contender. Most of the speed skaters there were way out of my league, so I decided to create a league of my own. I abandoned substance and went all the way for style by skating the half-marathon completely backwards.

After the race, it wasn't long before I started to think of ways to push myself further. That's when I decided to do a full backward marathon.

After researching inline marathons held in North America, I chose the Northshore Inline Marathon as the race where I would attempt to back-skate a full marathon. I settled on the Northshore because it is mostly flat. I wanted to avoid steep hills like those at Napa. I wanted to be able to concentrate on distance rather than worrying about excruciating uphills and breakneck downhills

I also liked the fact that the Northshore is a point-to-point race with good scenery. I've done 20-plus-mile back-skates around the polo field at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park numerous times, and I've found that my biggest problem is not fatigue but sheer boredom. After ten or so miles, I often find my mind wandering and having difficulty concentrating on the path. There is nothing more boring than seeing the same surroundings and landmarks over and over again. It's much better for me to have a constant change of scenery. And that's exactly what the Northshore offered.

Race Day

Yes, it rained on the 2006 Northshore Inline Marathon. The downpour was probably at its worst during the start of the elite men's race at 7:30 a.m. However, since I signed up for the bottom-tier Wave 9 of the race, I didn't start until after 8:15 a.m. By then, the rain had stopped and the road was beginning to dry. In fact, it wasn't slippery at all.

The skaters of Wave 9 were a fun group. There was no air of competition and everybody was out there to have an enjoyable skate. So was I.

Most of us were doing about 10 mph. At that speed, tar snakes were easy to spot and avoid. I skated the entire race at a Wave-9 pace without any problem.

Several things happened during the race that made it quite memorable.

Highlight No. 1: Comments, remarks, and questions from my fellow skaters.

The most common question I got was: "Are you skating the whole marathon backwards?" To which, my answer was, unequivocally, "Yes. It's my personal goal. I am a nonconformist."

The most unique and interesting comment I got was from a woman who said: "You're amazing! Of course, you're also completely insane, but you're amazing!" I still honestly don't know whether I was being complimented or insulted.

Then there were the jokingly condescending remarks. One man shouted: "You are really pissing me off!" as I overtook him while skating backwards. He followed it with a smile. I can only imagine how humiliating it could be to be passed by a person skating backwards.

To all those people I overtook during the race, I'd like to offer my sincere apologies.

Other interesting remarks from the race include: "Show-off!", "Wrong way ... you're going the wrong way!", and "Is skating forward too easy for you?"

Highlight No. 2: The crowds of bystanders and volunteers.

I was exhilarated to see crowds of bystanders gasp and cheer as I whisked by them. In fact, the cheers of encouragement and admiration from the water-stop volunteers were even more refreshing and refueling than the water they handed me.

Highlight No. 3: The breathtaking views of Lake Superior.

I was never bored during the marathon. My only regret was not being able to take photos as I skated. It is unfortunate that skating and photography don't mix well. I didn't dare bring my fragile SLR camera with me to the race.

I don't know if I'm the first person to ever skate the entire Northshore backwards. Heck, I don't even know if I was the only person who back-skated the race that day. Hence, I make no claims about being the fastest or most skilled back-skater among the 3000-plus marathon participants.

However, I believe I can safely claim that I was the most padded racer that day. I wore heavy-duty elbow pads and two sets of knee pads for double protection during the race. I also wore crashpad shorts on top of my thick jogging pants in addition to my helmet and wrist guards.

I might be crazy enough to skate 26.2 miles backwards, but I'm not crazy enough to do it without protection!

Skate safe!

(Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Eric Edwards, James Prial, David Miles Jr., Rick Abrahamson, Chuck Carlberg and Robert Burnson for their encouragement and help in my long-distance back-skating.)

Latest headlines
a2a Tips: Go the Distance
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Photos of the Northshore Marathon
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Latest headlines

a2a Tips: Go the Distance
Skate Tip: Coping with Smelly Skates
Minn. Town Eyes Skate Ban
Photos of the Northshore Marathon
Creveling, Rookard Win Northshore
Joey Mantia - On Top of the World

Don't Skate Alone ... Find

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