ZEN-MASTER SKI RACERS
by Jay Bender
My heart pumps wildly as I crest the final hill just before the long, sweeping descent toward the rifle range. My citizen racer nemesis, Steve, passes me on the climb to enter the range ahead of me. "Breathe," I think. "No, suck air! Try to relax and get that 180 heart rate down as far as possible."
Coming into the range for our fourth and final shooting stop, I fly through my mental checklist: sunglasses up, reach up and open the front snow cover, pole straps off, breathe, relax. I slide into shooting lane four, right next to Steve on lane three. He aims, ready to shoot. "Focus on yourself, not him," I remind myself. Back to my routine; I move into position.
Biathlon is ski racing combined with rifle marksmanship. A race generally starts with a ski leg of 1.3 kilometers, followed by a shooting stop where the racer aims a .22 caliber rifle at a row of five round metal targets. For every target missed, the racer skis one 150-meter penalty loop. Then it’s back out on the race course for another 1.3 kilometer, followed by another shooting bout.
Shifting gears from go-go ski racer to Zen-master marksman is what makes biathlon wild. Hit targets and save yourself a lot of time and energy. Miss a bunch of targets and…. well, you get the idea. He who shoots well usually wins the race, often beating some faster skiers, too.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out….hold, aim, and I squeeze the trigger. CLANK! The metal target clangs down while the white indicator paddle pops up to show a hit. Next shot: squeeze, CRACK! "Ouch, I hate that sound," I shudder, as the bullet snaps against the metal face of the target in a miss. "Focus on the next three," I coach myself. CLANK, CLANK, CLANK. My hallelujah almost audible, I scramble out of the range. Four out of five is pretty good, harder to do than one might think, particularly when your heart rate has only come down to 160.
The idea in biathlon is to ski fast, but not too fast. Going completely anaerobic on the first ski leg absolutely kills the ability to settle into position and shoot well. You will pay dearly for your misses in the penalty loop while someone who skies smarter and shoots better passes you.
Of course, fitness and good skiing technique come in handy, too. The better a skier’s training, the quicker the heart rate will come down from the stratosphere when the skier enters the rifle range, allowing better aim. At the same time, it is a race, and every second counts. Biathletes rehearse every move of a shooting stop and choreograph movement for speed, simplicity and accuracy. The best are in and out of the range with all five targets down in under 30 seconds.
In less than a minute, I leave the rifle range and head into the penalty loop to pay for my one missed shot. There, I find Steve. He sees me. We watch each other, circling the loop. As I finish my lap, I head for the exit. Luckily for me, Steve still circled! He must have had more than one miss. Two? Three?
Out of nowhere, Jeff zips by—a racer Steve and I both passed a while ago. He must have shot "clean" because he skipped the penalty loop! Now, I must pass him all over again. But, both Jeff and I knew Steve was a stronger skier than either of us and would be coming up on our tail. "How fast can I ski this last 1.3 kilometer?" I wonder. "No more shooting to stay calm for, so take the heart rate through the roof and give it all you’ve got!"
Biathlon races have several different formats. Some have only two shooting stops—one prone and one standing sprint—and some with two prone and two standing, as in pursuit or individual. Often races take place over several days, with a sprint one day and pursuit the next. Pursuit start times are based on the previous day’s sprint performance.
Europeans have long dominated biathlon; competitions there draw a hundred thousand spectators and biathlon is the most-watched winter sport. It is less well known in America, yet the U. S. Biathlon Team has made great strides in the last 15 years. Since Josh Thompson’s World Championship silver medal in 1987 US biathletes have had a growing presence and won respect on the World Cup scene with the likes of Jay Hakinen, Rachel Steer and Jeremy Teela."
But biathlon is not just for elite racers. There are hosts of citizen racer biathletes, both men and women enjoying the sport across the country. The junior biathlon scene is growing, too, with hotbeds in Minnesota, Colorado, Maine, Alaska, Washington and New York. Biathlon is on the upswing with new ranges being built and new programs starting up every year.
Finally, I ski through the finish line with Jeff just seconds ahead of me. "Way to go, man! Great shooting!" I congratulate him, as we both look around for Steve. Then we spy him, coming down the stretch. He’d only hit one target on the last stop and had to ski four penalty laps, giving Jeff and me a safe margin for victory. I laugh, "You’re buying tonight, buddy!"
Jay Bender is a citizen racer and biathlete from Washington State. Jay taught alpine skiing at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, during the 1980s and Nordic skiing at Stevens Pass Nordic Center in Washington during the 1990s. A building designer and maker of fine wooden view cameras, he is currently restoring a 1957 Chris Craft runabout.
For more information about biathlon in the United States:
• United States Biathlon Association