In step with the world

Sunday, May 04, 2003



Carmen Johnson has walked all over the globe.

For years, the international airline representative was able to combine her childhood dream of seeing the world with her love of walking. But it wasn't until she left the airline industry that she began to explore America.

Once settled in Princeton, Johnson looked forward to her walks, but had difficulty finding companions and interesting destinations. After 10 years, she finally sat down at the computer and started surfing.

"Thank God for the Internet," she says. "I entered `walking clubs in New Jersey' and it put me right into the American Volkssport Association Web site. It opened a whole new world for me. I couldn't believe that this was going on right in my own back yard."

Volkssport means "sports for all people" and originated in Europe.

In 1968, clubs from Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austria founded the International Federation of Popular Sports to encourage public health and to promote peace and understanding between nations. Today there are thousands of clubs around the world. The first volkssporting event in the United States took place June 1976 in Fredericksburg, Texas.

The network of clubs sponsors more than 3,000 one- and two-day walking, biking, swimming, cross-country skiing and inline-skating events annually.

The events are free and follow the AVA mission of promoting safe exercise in a noncompetitive environment. Participants set their own pace, only needing to complete the event before the designated finish time.

Volkssporters can track their progress through the Individual Achievement Award Program. To receive credit for distance and the number of events they participate in, they pay $3 per event. At significant milestones, such as 10 events or 500 kilometers, certificates and patches or hat pins are awarded, which some display proudly on vests, hats or upon the wall.

The volksmarch or 10K (6.2-mile) walk is the most popular event and the one that piqued Johnson's interest. In fact, many of the vacations she takes with her daughter center around AVA programs that encourage visits to such places as Route 66, the original 13 Colonies and national heritage sites.

Johnson and Maureen Penta of Long Branch are co-presidents of the Princeton Area Walkers, an AVA affiliate club.

Penta, who was a walker in the New York marathon, started walking as a way to lose weight. In 1996, she discovered volksmarching while registering for a 20-mile event in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Another walker explained the system and "when I got back, I signed up," says Penta. "Just like that I was already hooked."

-- -- -- On May 18, walking enthusiasts will have a chance to find out for themselves in the 10K Titusville Walk hosted by PAW.

Volksmarch trails are rated for difficulty on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being an easy walk on pavement or well-maintained trail with no significant hills. The Titusville Walk is rated 1+.

Guided by instructions, flags and signs, walkers normally complete a volksmarch in about two hours. At checkpoints stocked with water, candy and cell phones, there will be assistance and encouragement.

Even PAW members participate.

John Kelly of Hillsborough, a PAW assistant trailmaster, says he was apprehensive about doing 6.2 miles, but once he did it he was hooked. Kelly first learned about volkssporting from relatives in the military stationed in Europe.

PAW Treasurer Teri Morosco of Hazlet says she "crawled home" after her first event, but soon got use to it. "One of the nicest things about the walks is it gives me the incentive. It forces me to go to different places and meet new people. Sure you can walk any place you want, but it's an incentive and makes it so much more interesting."

Nancy C. Stenger, AVA president, agrees that volkssporting is a great way to meet people - that's how she met her husband.

Johnson created the Titusville Walk, a new one for the club, because the Delaware River area is one of her favorite places and she wanted to share it with others.

Beginning and ending at the New Jersey Washington Crossing State Park visitor center, the walk follows the canal, winds through Titusville, crosses over to Pennsylvania's Washington Crossing Park and surrounding neighborhoods, and returns to New Jersey.

Participants will have plenty of time to take in the views, watch a historic film at the park visitor center, or enjoy an ice cream cone at the Taylorsville General Store.

"These walks take you to different areas," says Kelly. "By walking, you see it a lot better than if you were driving by. You have time to appreciate it."

-- -- -- Volksmarchers tend to be in their mid-30s to mid-60s. To inspire younger walkers, the AVA created a program for families and youth organizations in which registered teams of adults and youth complete 12 volkssporting events during the year to receive a certificate and medal.

John Budzin of South River and PAW trailmaster found out about the AVA when his wife was researching Girl Scout fitness patches. He called the AVA hotline and discovered there was a walk in Cranbury the next weekend. "I went to the walk, got the New Starter packet and I was hooked," he said.

Local clubs also sponsor year-round events, which are self-guided walks, bikes or swims that are available most days of the year.

Because these events are self-guided, the registration materials and instructions are kept in an AVA walk box at a designated start point, such as a deli or motel. Participants arrive at the start point and ask for the box. If the person behind the counter looks puzzled, veteran volksmarchers know they're dealing with a new employee and have some explaining to do.

The AVA also publishes an annual guide, aptly named "Starting Point," to the 1,400 year-round events in the United States. The guide is only available for purchase by AVA members.

Because many people prefer company while walking, Johnson and Penta have been encouraging PAW members to team up for weekend events.

"Many people started off just walking around the neighborhood," says Morosco. "It's really much more fun walking around different neighborhoods and talking to someone."

Kelly agrees. "I've gone on walks on my own and it seems to take forever. When I get my neighbor to go with me, we start yakking and before you know it the walk is over."

In 2005, the AVA will have its 14th biennial convention in Cherry Hill with three days of business meetings, workshops and walks. Convention participants working toward the goal of walking in all state capitals will want to walk in Trenton.

Johnson says they will probably organize a group walk for the convention, like the one they have planned in September.


For information about the Titusville walk or club membership, contact Carmen Johnson, (609) 921-2020 or (, or Maureen Penta, (732) 229-8169 or ( Registration for the walk is between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. in the picnic area pavilion behind the New Jersey Washington Crossing Park visitor center; finish time is 3:30 p.m. Dogs are welcome but must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet.