Three friends and I had signed up for a clinic to learn biathlon at Tamarack Lodge in Mammoth, California. Each March, Mammoth is the site of the largest biathlon competition in the United States. It’s a race where novices and Olympians rub shoulders, before they are divided into appropriate heats. This year, the Mammoth Biathlon will be held on March 21-23.
None of us had every tried biathlon before, and one friend had never cross-country skied. But Roy Moyer, the director at Tamarack, assured us that we could do it. And then, he told us we’d be using laser guns.
Not Just Kid Stuff
So now I wasn’t worried about my foot, or the safety of my friends, but we were a little disappointed. It was April, the end of the Nordic season at Mammoth, and the snow was thin, so we would be skiing in a campground. As you might imagine, campgrounds, even when vacant, are no-shooting areas. But since campgrounds often arranged in loops, they are perfect for biathlon.
Roy set up a shooting lane in the middle of one loop. This lane had five targets, which could switch from the standard prone (or lying down) position target of 4.5 cm to the larger standing position target of 11.5 cm. In competition, the target distance is 50 m, but Roy put the targets at about half that distance for us.
Ha! I thought, this should be easy: a toy gun and only half the shooting distance.
I was wrong.
While not used in competition, laser guns are used in areas where shooting is not allowed and with young biathletes. When the laser hits the target, a green light comes on.
Biathletes shoot at five targets each time they enter their lane. Although formats can vary, a penalty lap usually assessed for each missed target.
The best any of us in our group shot was three of five targets. There were a lot of penalty laps.
The Real Deal
Biathlon is relatively unknown in North America, although wildly popular in Europe. Mike Karch, a physician who founded the Mammoth Biathlon eight years ago with his wife Kim, is a doctor for the U.S. Ski Team.
Watching Olympic biathlon, he realized that most kids in the U.S. have no way to get involved with the sport. He was inspired to change this. At the 2013 Mammoth Biathlon, over 100 kids raced. Many of them train seriously in the event.
Another 2013 racer, Brit Cogan, used to work for Dr. Karch. He introduced her to biathlon in 2008. In 2012, Brit won the Summer Biathlon National Championships.
“After my first winter race, I totally fell in love with the sport,” she shared. “I enjoy the contrast between skiing fast and raising my heart rate, and then having to slow it down to shoot effectively.”
Carolyn Tiernan, a World Master’s Champion Cross Country skier, concurs. “I enjoy biathlon because it adds another dimension and challenge to Nordic skiing. In biathlon, I have to be able to relax and shoot. It’s not just about skiing fast.”
Yin and Yang
As for my friends and me, we neither skied exceptionally fast, nor hit very many targets. Still at the end of our short clinic, we were pumped.
Biathlon is addictive. On the one hand, we were full of endorphins from skiing as fast as we could (around so many penalty laps!). On the other hand, the challenge of trying to slow one’s heart, to steady one’s hand and to sight one’s rifle is exhilarating. It’s a challenge unlike much else we do in everyday life. It’s a challenge of slowing down and focusing on demand.
Or, as Roy Moyer puts it, “Biathlon is a Yin and Yang sport. You expend a lot of energy in the cross-country portion, then you have to switch to a very calm mode, steady your limbs and lower your heart rate to shoot straight. It’s the back and forth of this event that makes it so appealing to so many people.”
Tips for Success
- Try Biathlon. Take a clinic or sign up for a competition. Most races welcome novices. They often have guns at each lane that you can use, and may provide instruction the day before the race. To find a race or clinic, check out this list of U.S. biathlon clubs.
- Relax. Because biathlon is a new, novel sport, few athletes have high expectations. The pressure is off, so just go and have fun!
- Focus on Safety. You’ll probably be using live ammo, so it’s important to follow all safety instructions. Prior to a race, all competitors attend a safety talk to review gun and ski course safety. Listen to the range master and pay attention to all safety requirements.
- Practice Shooting. If you’re going to get serious about biathlon, developing your shooting skills is important. As Brit Cogan puts it, “I’ve beaten people who are better skiers than I am because I shot better than they did during the race. You can make up a little bit with being a fast skier, but being a better shooter equals less penalty laps which equals less skiing and a faster time.”
- Try Summer Biathlon. A combination of running and shooting, summer biathlon is a nuance of the sport that is growing in popularity. Many biathlon clubs hold summer events. Google Summer Biathlon for more information.
What You Need
Serious biathletes need freestyle cross-country skis, poles and boots, a biathlon rifle with straps, clips and ammunition, and glide wax for skis. Novices can generally show up at a clinic or race with just their cross-country gear.
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