When Rose-Marie Neumann discovered volkssport in 1992, it opened a new world.
Since then the University Place resident has walked more than 10,500 miles, and she’s seen much of the country and Washington’s roads less traveled. And two years ago, at 69, she started bicycling.
“I probably never would have gone to Alaska if it wasn’t for volkssporting,” Neumann said. “I probably never would have walked to the top of the Crazy Horse monument (in South Dakota) or even heard of Mima Mounds (south of Olympia).
“And I certainly would not have started biking.”
Volkssports, a German term meaning “sport of the people,” are noncompetitive walking, biking, swimming and cross- country skiing events open to anybody regardless of age or fitness level. Around the Puget Sound area, you can find a volkssport event near you every day.
Most are 5- and 10-kilometer walks – volksmarches – and all are free unless you choose to participate in the award program.
“It’s a social event as much as anything else,” said Neumann, a member of Tacoma’s Evergreen Wanderers Volkssport Club. “You can meet friends, walk as a family, get some exercise and explore the city. It’s a very fun activity.”
TACOMA’S GERMAN ROOTS
The genesis of volkssports in Washington is Fort Lewis.
Chuck Repik, like many members of the military, discovered volkssport while serving in Germany, the birthplace of the sport.
“In Europe, you could pick from 400 to 500 walks per weekend,” said Repik, 69, who walked in more than 300 European volksmarches in the 1970s.
In 1982 Repik, with the help of Bob Hren of Tacoma, staged at Fort Lewis what is thought to be Washington’s first volksmarch.
Repik and Hren tried to emulate the German volksmarch atmosphere. Oompah bands and cold beer are standard at German events, but alcohol consumption laws and a dearth of stateside oompah talent makes similar celebrations considerably harder to stage.
Repik, who was able to find an oompah band for the first walk, said more than 1,000 people turned out. That same year, he founded the state’s first Volkssport club, Tacoma’s Evergreen Wanderers.
“Most of the people at the first event were in the military and knew about volksmarches,” Hren said. “But then it started to grow from there.”
Today there are 31 Washington clubs – including 14 in the South Sound – and at least one volksmarch in every county.
ANY DAY, ANY TIME
There are two types of volksmarch events.
There are organized walking events that are similar to a fun run. These are held almost every weekend in Western Washington and can draw 300 walkers, said Carolyn Warhol of Puyallup’s Daffodil Valley Volkssport Club.
Then there are the year-round and seasonal events. These volksmarches and volksbikes – there are no year-round events for swimming and skiing in Washington – can be done at any time. They are listed on club Web sites, in publications and through a national information line (1-800-830-WALK).
The events typically start at a “walk box” at a business. In the box, participants will find a book to sign and maps with turn-by-turn instructions for the route.
For those who want to earn credit toward volkssport patches, the walk box also includes a stamp for your record book and envelopes to deposit your $3 entry fee.
To successfully complete the volkssport event, you must finish several checkpoints along the route. These range from card-stamping volunteers at organized events to questions about landmarks along the route at unmanned walks.
WALKING FOR CREDIT
Diane Wagner of Graham describes volksmarching with just one word: “Addicting.”
At the urging of her Weight Watchers leader, she did a 5-kilometer volksmarch in 1987.
“I thought I made a mistake,” Wagner said. “Then I saw a handicap man pass me and I said ‘I can do this.’”
She’s done a volksmarch almost every weekend since. She walked in every state, every Washington county, at Niagara Falls, around Devils Tower in Wyoming and on the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Wagner says one of the things that keeps her motivated is the volkssport credit program.
Those who participate for credit can buy a passport-size book for $5 to record their events, distance or both. When they complete an event, they pay $3 for a stamp in their record book.
That fee is split between the American Volkssport Association, the state organization and the host club.
Neumann estimates that more than half of volksporters participate for credit.
Once they collect a certain number of stamps, they mail the books to the national association to receive a patch, a pin and a certificate. The first event award is presented after 10 volksmarches. The first distance award is given after 500 kilometers for walkers or 1,000 kilometers for cyclists.
Walkers also can buy challenge books for other awards that include walks that visit waterfalls, islands, historic churches and just about anything else you can think of. Two of the most popular challenges are walking in all 50 states and all 39 Washington counties.
“Some people don’t care about that part of it, but for other people it keeps them motivated,” said Marianne Bastin of Federal Way who recently completed her 1,000th volksmarch. “I think it’s great.”
PRICE IS RIGHT
In a time when most people are trying to save money on recreation, volkssport couldn’t have a better price tag.
“If you don’t want credit, it’s free,” said Mary Blacker of Federal Way’s PEO Pathfinders.
Wagner says the money host clubs get from volksmarches goes to cover the cost of the event.
“There are often fees involved in setting up the start area. I just got a bill for $297 for the porta-potties rental from one of our recent events,” Wagner said.
At an April 19 volksmarch in Federal Way, a lone 35-year-old walker approached the first checkpoint and asked the attendant what he was supposed to do.
“This is just for volksmarchers,” she said.
“I’m doing the volksmarch,” the walker said.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you just don’t fit the mold of a volksmarcher,” she said.
What’s the volksmarcher mold?
Well, put it this way, one Federal Way club calls itself the Over the Hill Gang.
“I like to think it’s because we walk over hills,” said Bastin, who’s in her mid-60s. “But it’s because most of us are in our 60s.”
Bastin and many other volkssporters think younger people aren’t participating because of their kids’ extracurricular activities.
“I think young people are more adventurous and don’t have as much time,” Warhol said.
Bastin, Warhol and other volkssporters hope the younger crowd starts to discover the sport either with their families or once their kids move out.
“If more people try it, I think it will catch on with more people,” Repik said. “It’s a neat, casual way to stay in shape.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497