From the first days of training—highlighted by headlong wrecks and time lost trying to coerce my pole straps onto my wrists—my skating has come a very long way. I have also learned some very valuable lessons: Most notably, I have got to replace those fancy Velcro straps on my poles in favor of the traditional, simple loop strap.
But all of my training has overlooked a very important element to the Biathlon: the “Bi” part. Biathletes have to swing from super athlete mode to super stealth shooting mode in a matter of seconds—the dichotomy is perhaps the most challenging part of the sport. And I have completely neglected to develop any shooting skills.
If I don’t want to spend all day skiing (humiliating) penalty loops, I should probably see if I can hit that little black circle from at least 25 meters away (50 meters for elite athletes). So I tracked down Clayton Mendel of Eastern Sierra Armory, and we sped out to a firing range just outside of town.
The targets could easily fit in my hands … and 50 meters is a lot more than one might imagine. This combination makes for an intimidating task. I’m supposed to hit what from where???
Mendel gave me a brief overview of shooting, from safety to position to strategy. First, always point the rifle down range. Next, a review of the prone and standing positions. Then, some tips for success, such as focusing on slowing down when you’re approaching the range (within 100 meters).
Mendel handed me a very elegant rifle he tricked out himself for the purposes of Biathlon (check out his Eastern Sierra Armory!).
Now, on to the details. We started with the prone position—seemingly easier, but you have to hit the tiny inner circle, which makes it significantly harder. Through a weird combination of yoga and kung-fu, I managed to wrap my awkwardly out-of-their-element climber’s arms around the rifle. I have shot a gun before—and managed to shatter a few clay pigeons with my brother’s shotgun—but my firearm dyslexia reared its ugly head every time I tried to reload, and couldn’t remember whether to push or pull the darn lever thingy, or fumbled and accidentally turned on the safety. There’s another five seconds to my race time!
After about 15 minutes carefully sculpting me into prone shooting position, my aim wasn’t too bad! Great. Now on to standing.
This is where an athlete’s anatomy can really help in accuracy: pronounced hip bones provide a steady platform for your elbow, and long arms allow you to rest your rifle on your palm. My boyish frame and negative ape index (“ape index” is a term climbers often use to talk about your arm span vs. height ratio. A negative ape index indicates that your arms are shorter than your height, something climbers don’t usually like—also the bane of my climbing existence) would not give me any inherent advantage. Bummer. Mendel showed me various finger-stacking methods to raise the rifle to my eye.
In the Novice race, we have two bouts of shooting, one standing and one prone. I will spend the next week mentally preparing myself for at least five penalty laps from the standing position. It’s hard enough hitting the thing breathing normally, let alone panting from exertion!
As the race day nears and all of the pieces start to come together, I’m finally realizing just what I’ve gotten myself in for: a great workout, a glimpse of a wholly new world of athleticism, and a hefty dose of humbling.
Biathlon: good for body and mind!
Workouts for the last week before the race
This week, it’s all about tapering off. Cramming may have worked for you in chemistry class, but when it comes to body chemistry, cramming will only damage your capacity to perform in the Biathlon. “This week,” says Alana Levin, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Nordic Coach, “is for your body to absorb all the training you have done. You cannot do any workout to improve your performance this weekend, but you can do a workout that could hurt your race this weekend.”
Levin emphasizes, “your job this week is to feel good, stay healthy, get a lot of sleep, hydrate and eat well.”
Starting Wednesday, drink 64-100 ounces of water per day. This can be water, or a dilute sports drink or unsweetened tea. Then, the night before your race, drink 8-16 ounces of water at 6 p.m. (sipping throughout the hour), then again at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. You should wake up well hydrated, but if you don’t, down a sports drink in the morning.
Eat an early dinner the night before the race. Many folks have their own favorite pre-race meals. When I played soccer as a kid, I had to have rice and scrambled eggs for breakfast. I swore by it. Levin’s favorite pre-race dinner is sushi. For her, sushi “seems to be the perfect mix of protein, carbohydrates, and … it’s light enough for your body to digest easily so that you can go into the race feeling light, yet energized.”
Ski: 30-45 minutes easy ski. Somewhere in the middle, and on flat or slightly downhill terain, add 4-6 speed bursts for 10-15 seconds. Easy ski for two minutes in between bursts.
Interval ski (experienced skiers only): To be completed by Monday: 20 minutes of easy warm up, then 10 intervals at level 4 (“no talk, need to focus”) for 30-60 seconds. Recover for 90 seconds to two minutes, very easy ski.
Target practice: Try to practice using the rifle you will be using in the race, and with live ammunition.
Two days before the race: Day off!
Day before the race: Easy 20-30 minutes ski. After 10 minutes, take a 10 second race start, practicing double pole technique. Easy ski for 50 seconds. Repeat four times. Then, do 2-4 accelerations: start at a moderate speed and go faster and faster so the last 10 minutes is “all out” effort. Remember to stay on flat or even slightly downhill terrain.
Transition practice: During one of this week’s workouts, take some time to practice coming into the range and taking your prone or standing position (imaginary practice is fine). Then practice getting into your gloves and pole straps.
Expert’s note: Levin says, “the top racers will have simple straps on their poles or the click in/click out pole grips. They also are either not wearing gloves or they have gloves with a removable sleeve over the trigger finger that they slip back.”
This week’s To Do list
Watch a biathlon! Rest your body and stoke your psyche by watching some of the Biathlon World Championships: http://www6.biathlonworld.com/en/home.html
Wax your skis! Brian Ellison at Brian’s Bicycles & Cross Country Skis is a great resource for this. Tell him you’re competing in the Biathlon and he will set you up with a great race waxing.
Last but certainly not least … sign up for the race at esnsa.org! At the same time, get your name in for the laser gun clinic on Friday, March 23, and get some great shooting tips from some of the best, including Mendel.
Good luck, and have fun!
I know I will!
How to get to the event
The races will be held at the Reds Lake Basin near the Outpost Restaurant behind Chairs 13 and 14 at Mammoth Mountain.
Participants with a Mammoth Mountain Season Pass can alpine ski or snowboard to the site via Chairs 11 and 12 heading to the backside of the mountain (Chair 13 and 14 area).
Participants without a season pass can purchase a special event Biathlon ski pass ($15–purchased at registration) which allows one time access to Chair 11 and 12 in order to ski to the backside.
Non-participant spectator/family passes can be purchased at standard USSA Ski Event rates: adult: $66 for a one-day ski pass. Teen: $52 for a one-day ski pass. Child: $27 for a one-day ski pass. Senior: $56 for a one-day ski pass.
Alpine/snowboard equipment is strongly encouraged to travel to the biathlon site.