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Kayaking exercises the body, relaxes the mind

Liddy Marquez takes her workouts seriously. At 43 years old, she has been a runner and a cyclist, has competed in road races and biathlons, and is training for a triathlon in the spring. Her current workout routine? "Kayaking is my first interest," said the Bel Air mother of four. "I try to get out three to four times a week."

It's not just the exercise that paddling provides, she said. "It's a meditative thing. Kayaking takes me out of the stresses of normal life."

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One of the fastest-growing sports in the nation, kayaking is being embraced by athletes looking for an alternative to the gym as well as those who simply want to get out and experience nature.

Hal Ashman, who operates Ultimate Watersports at Gunpowder Falls State Park, says those who try paddling generally come back for more, though "not necessarily more of what they came for in the first place." Rather, the converts "find a whole new way of taking time for themselves, to become grounded in a serene environment."

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Originally transportation for fishers and hunters, kayaking was turned into recreation by an English barrister named John MacGregor, who paddled his boat throughout Europe, documenting his adventures in a series of books. He founded the Royal Canoe Club in 1866. Kayak and canoe races showed up for the first time in the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, with 19 nations competing.

If you've ever puttered about in a plastic boat, you may wonder about a kayak's ability to provide a strenuous full-body workout. Novices tend to use their arms alone, as they alternately lift and dip the double paddle, only to discover that a little more shoulder action, and some rotation of the torso, helps to push more water and accelerate the glide. Working even harder, a kayaker may find his or her legs pressing against the foot braces in opposition to the arm motion, a technique that Brian Blankinship, who heads the 450-member Chesapeake Paddlers Association, likens to "pumping your arms when you run."

Learning to roll

Initially, the most challenging aspect of kayaking may simply be balance: Common recreational kayaks are about 10 feet to 16 feet long and a couple of feet wide and are made for singles or doubles.

Paddlers sit on a molded seat on the floor of the boat wearing a watertight "spray skirt" that fastens around the opening. Climbing in and out of this wobbly craft can be a challenge. More advanced kayakers, especially those who paddle in white water, learn to "roll" -- flipping the boat in a sideways somersault, a trick that requires a strong hip flex.

According to figures from the American College of Sports Medicine, a 155-pound paddler exerting moderate effort can burn close to 500 calories per hour, compared with 563 calories for biking about 13 miles per hour.

Greg Barton, who won two gold medals in kayaking events at the 1988 Olympics, still gets about 75 percent of his exercise from paddling. Barton, co-owner of Seattle-based Epic Kayaks, paddles three to five times a week, combining spurts of interval training with longer distances.

"I can get my heart rate as high in a kayak as I can running," he said. However, not all paddlers will achieve the same results. "You have to reach a certain level of proficiency to get a good workout."

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But kayaking combined with running or another form of legwork can be an ideal overall fitness program, said Bill Endicott. The former Olympic coach, who lives in Bethesda, has written books on kayaking, including The Ultimate Run and The River Masters. A member of the Bethesda Center of Excellence, a Potomac racing club, Endicott has coached athletes who captured 57 medals in World Cup, World Championship or Olympic events, 27 of them gold.

'Amazing perspective'

Kayaking can be beneficial to anyone willing to put in the work, he said, but "like any sport, you have to learn it."

He points to a friend, a chief of staff in the U.S. Senate, who stores his boat at Endicott's house. "He started from scratch and stuck with it." Because of his schedule on the Hill, "it took him about three years to pick up what most would learn in a few months," Endicott said, "but now he goes out there and whales around for hours. He loves it."

Indeed, there are the hardcore athletes whaling away, but there are still those who take up kayaking for pleasure. The Canton Kayak Club, a collective that owns about 40 kayaks stored around the harbor, has grown from 30 members to more than 320 since it was founded two years ago. For dues of $100 per year ($125 as of 2004), members who take a training session are entitled to "borrow" a kayak whenever the urge strikes.

Restaurateur Charlie Gjerde, who founded the club with developer Bill Struever, kayaks for pleasure, though he has noticed that in the past year, more of the club's members take the hardcore approach. "There are groups who will meet at Locust Point for a fast lap around the harbor. They're definitely doing that for exercise," he says.

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When Gjerde gets out on the water, it's generally a relaxing break from his two restaurants (Spike & Charlie's and Joy America Cafe).

Paddling around the Inner Harbor, he said, "gives you an amazing perspective on the city." He recalls one evening in late summer. The lights were on at Camden Yards; the barges docked beside the Domino Sugars plant loomed above him. Gliding up to pilings near the Tide Point office complex, he saw egrets perched on each wooden post thrusting out of the harbor. The birds took off, flapping their wings above the smooth water. This, Gjerde pointed out, is not an experience you would have at the gym.

Pick up the phone and start paddling

Ultimate Watersports, Gunpowder Falls State Park, Hammerman Area. Offers Summer-Camp Programs for Kids, Events for Corporate Groups, Tours and Classes in Kayaking at All Levels, as Well as Kayak Rentals. Kayak Storage Is Also Available. for More Information, Call 410-335-5352 or See Www.Ultimate Watersports.Com.

Chesapeake Paddlers Association. The group has 450 paddlers, most of whom own their own boats. They meet weekly in Baltimore- and Washington-area locations. They also offer weekend trips and workshops for new paddlers. For more information, see www. cpakayaker.com.

Canton Kayak Club. The group has about 40 boats at four locations around Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Members, who pay $100 per year ($175 for two), are entitled to use kayaks whenever they please, April-September. For more information, see www.cantonkayakclub. com.


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