- Longboarding began with surfers looking to practice when they couldn't be on the water
- The sport has grown from five sanctioned races in 2011 to 15 this year
BEND, OREGON (CNN)What is a race?
At its most elemental, it's about who gets from point A to point B the fastest. Humans can run, climb or swim to do it, and we've invented and repurposed ways to add speed using horses, cars, boats, bikes and skis.
Once you have a mode of transportation enjoyed by at least two people, you technically have all the ingredients for a race. Add more people and some organization, rules and competitive events, and you have a sport.
That's the evolutionary story of everything from the Indianapolis 500 and the America's Cup to the Triple Crown and the Tour de France.
You can now add skateboarding to the list: not the little trick boards built for flips, grabs and grinds but longer boards originally built for commuting and now modified for speed.
From college commutes to big-city outlaws
"It started becoming popular for surfers riding them when the waves weren't good," said nationally ranked longboard racer Conan Gay. "Sidewalk surfing" on homemade longboards was obscure for decades, before manufactured versions began showing up on college campusess in the late 1990s. For the cooler undergrads, the option was more stable and faster than traditional skateboards and much cheaper than cars.
In cities, longboarding became what the Segway never did: an alternative way to commute to work.
Longboards are smaller than bikes, less crowded and unfettered by delays, compared with the subway. And they're cheaper than both.
But there is a moment in the evolution of every sport when transportation turns into race. For longboarding, this was in 2002, when 16 skaters in New York raced more than 7 miles from 116th Street to Wall Street, mainly along Broadway. Among those in the nascent longboarding community, word of the "Broadway Bomb" spread quickly.
Now, every third Saturday in October, this "outlaw" (meaning no police barriers from vehicular traffic nor official times recorded) takes place. Numbers are difficult to ascertain but have reached as many as 2,000 skaters in recent years, even as police actively try to stop some of them with nets. The motto of the unsanctioned competition is "You May Die" -- though no one has in its 13-year history. Helmets are a must when racing.
The sport is more accurately described as "long-distance pushing" or LDP -- as opposed to downhill or slalom longboard racing -- and since the Broadway Bomb started, the competition has gone legit. It has an organizing body, the Skate International Distance and Supercross Association, that establishes the rules, coordinates with local officials and insures the racers against injuries. The association also tracks official times for prizes and ranks the best racers, who can reach speeds up to 20 miles per hour.
Competitions are added every year, growing from five sanctioned races in 2011 to 15 this year, with 50 to 150 racers in each. It's even growing internationally, with races in France, Brazil and the Netherlands, where bike-friendly routes have produced some of the best push-skaters in the world.
According to Gay, the race that brought everyone together was the 2010 Hallandale Adrenalina Skateboard Marathon in Florida. It had a $15,000 purse for first place and is where the Skate International Distance and Supercross Association formed.
Long-distance pushing is also making strides, so to speak, in changing the definition of a skateboarder. The athletes who compete in these races are a much more diverse, inclusive, physically fit and supportive "tribe" or "family" (their words) than the stereotype of young punks showing off for bragging rights around a skatepark.
"I live in Massachusetts and skate by myself," said Calleigh Little, 24, who looks forward to competitions to see friends who share her love of the sport. She is a transgender woman who took up distance longboarding after losing her driver's license and needing a way to get to work. Riding long distances helped clear her mind, and the farther she got, the more she considered competing in the sport. She's now planning a skating trip across America this fall.
Longboarders now come from all parts of the country, young and old and of all ethnicities, with the sport as the commonality that bonds them.
This year, it brought more than 60 athletes, including the best in the country, to a new a city on the circuit: Bend, Oregon.
A bend of brothers
Deep in the National Forest country of central Oregon, below the skiable Cascade Mountains and a river running through, lies the picturesque town of Bend.
The town has more than its share of great coffee shops, local brewpubs and outdoor recreation outfitters, including Aspect Board & Brews, where the athletes reunited over beers ahead of racing. Here, Jonathan "Joner" Strauss, one of the founders of the skate association, explained the origin of the next day's race: the Bend Beatdown.
He explained how the race was initially his idea, but it was Gay -- a Bend resident ranked fourth in the world for the most miles skateboarded in 24 hours -- who had to "sell the whole idea to the city" while seeking permission to host the race.
"They had never heard of it [or knew] it's an actual sport," Gay said. "I showed them my board and showed them video clips. They were kind of iffy about it, but they gave me a shot."
Gay found a sponsor that offered $2,000 in prize money.
The Bend Beatdown consisted of two races, a 5K and 10K. Most of the racers, ages 8 to 56, competed in both.
This year, it was a beautiful, sunny day with cool temperatures and a lot of bonhomie. The top-ranked racers were positioned in front, though each was individually timed.
The end of the 10K had a bit of last-minute drama as the front-runner, Colby Cummings, wobbled off the path and lost his pole position.
"There's no room for error," said Andrew Andres, an ultra-skater who won the overall men's final at the Bend Beatdown. "A little pebble or pine cone in the road, and that's it."
Some racers collapsed in exhaustion at the end. At nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, Bend's elevation took a toll on racers from sea level towns, and a few threw up, but overall the result was positive.
"I'm completely stoked. We had a really great weekend. Everyone is already talking about next year," Gay said. "I didn't want the weekend to end."
City officials were pleased too and have approved a second Beatdown for next summer. To alleviate any more throwing up, Gay said, next year he will probably schedule the group drinks the night of the race instead of the night before.
Never be board again
Don't underestimate the power of fun in getting fit. Longboarders love riding, and that doesn't seem to fade even when they do it for 24 hours straight.
"My Zen spot is when my feet hit the board," Andres said.
If you take up this sport, not only is the learning curve relatively short, you won't find your workout routine getting, well, routine. It can become your school or work commute.
The physical benefits of longboarding are mainly cardio and strength training, especially with longer races. Unlike traditional skateboarders, longboarders alternate their kicking legs, building strong calves and glutes with every power push.
Add balancing, switching sidesr on the board, swinging arms for momentum and squatting, and you can see how longboarding works your upper body and abdominals as well, with the added benefit of improved coordination.
"You hear a lot about core strengthening, and longboarding forces the core every step of the way," explained CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "Having tried it recently, I found myself flexing and contracting muscle groups that hardly ever get a workout."
So if you're looking for a friendly, fun, safe (with helmets!) and legitimately cool new sport, consider longboard push racing, the most accessible and trending of the board sports.