Mammoth Winter Biathlon: Effort of blood, sweat, joy

One look at the course map for the 2011 Mammoth Winter Biathlon and you know this is serious business.

It resembles an Olympic course.

It has a stadium built into the hill that looks out to the shooting lanes and across the lanes where competitors will pass three times during the course of the race.

Thus, spectators will be able to keep up on who’s in the lead, how often the lead changes, who is shooting when and who’s taking their penalty laps.

“Biathlon is changing and becoming much more spectator friendly,” said Race Director Mike Karch.

In its fourth year, it has matured by leaps and bounds. Karch expects between 200 and 300 competitors for the March event, continuing its growth. In its second and third years, participation doubled, from 98 to 168 entrants.

In addition to the well-planned racecourse, participants will find improvements at the shooting lanes, of which there are 20.

“We’ve got 20 World Cup shooting mats, thanks to Measure R,” Karch said. “No more yoga mats that blow away in the breeze. Rifles will be on the mats, ready for competitors to pick up and shoot.” Those, too, are courtesy of Measure R funds. Karch is happy to now have kid-sized rifles.

“We’re taking it up a level in terms of our equipment and the number of people we’re exposing to the sport,” Karch said.

“And we’re taking it up a level in our sponsorships.” While Ford has signed on as Title Sponsor, the biggest sponsors are Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, U.S. Forest Service, Mammoth Police Department, the Town of Mammoth Lakes through its Measure R funding, and Eastern Sierra Nordic Ski Association (ESNSA). Sponsorships are still available. Contact Karch at

Encouraging junior development
One of Karch’s goals is to up the funding for Mammoth’s Nordic junior development teams. He runs all proceeds through ESNSA, turning half the funds back into the Mammoth Biathlon and half to ESNSA to buy uniforms, wax and other team necessities.

Training young athletes in the sport of biathlon will get a boost this year from the Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation. According to Karch, Rusty Gregory purchased $10,000 worth of laser rifles and targets, which the foundation will use during the Mammoth Invitational for a mini-biathlon up at Red’s Lake. Following the fundraiser the foundation will donate the rifles and targets to ESNSA. “This will enable year-round training for the kids,” Karch said.

“Shooting trains kids to calm down.” With that comment, Karch touched on the fascinating physiological aspect of biathlon. The dynamics of cross-country skiing and shooting are so opposite, it takes a huge effort to move from one to the other. “You have to go from heart-pumping exertion of the skiing to the quiet, calm, focused shooting portion – quickly,” Karch said.

“You need to take your heart rate from the 160s down to 80 in order to shoot.” Since there is a decrease in visual acuity with hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, during a biathlon, the rapid lowering of heart rate helps with focusing on the target.
No doubt the excitement of the Mammoth Winter Biathlon will be heightened by the announcing of Whit Raymond. The accomplished commentator is the voice of Ironman triathlons. Called the best show in endurance sports, Raymond has deep knowledge of the events and his enthusiasm keeps spectators on the edges of their seats.

A growing spectator sport, the Mammoth Winter Biathlon has created the “Nordic Walk.” To get to the stadium from Tamarack XC Ski Center, rather than skiing or snowshoeing the three miles up through the Lakes Basin, there is a lovely three-quarter mile route to the event. The Nordic Walk and the water stop along the way are sponsored by Snowcreek Athletic Club and Double Eagle.

The event
The Winter Biathlon is a three-day event, with clinics all day Friday, so that entrants can become comfortable with the rifles.

Saturday is racing for all kids and beginner adults, at 3K and 6K distances. All shooting is from 25 meters.

Sunday is the big race day, with 10K racing for all adults, shooting at 50 meters.

A new category for this year’s event is adaptive skiers. Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra received funding to train Wounded Warriors in biathlon. Up to 20 racers will compete in a 6K race on Sunday, shooting from 50 meters.

Races will go off in waves, 20-person mass starts. Start and finish are both in front of the stadium crowd. Racers take off and ski loops of 1K, 2.5K and 5.16K, circling back into the stadium to shoot (five shots each loop). And repeat again. The last loop brings them through the finish line.

If and when competitors miss a shot, they must take a penalty lap, which is at the opposite end of the course from the XC loops. A penalty lap is 150 meters in length, and according to Karch, if one should miss all 10 of his shots, he’ll ski an extra mile in penalty loops.

Bravo, volunteers
An event like this one calls for volunteers, a lot of them. One hundred fifty volunteers contribute the 1,500 hours it takes to stage the Mammoth Biathlon. Karch, himself, may be the biggest volunteer. For four years, it’s basically Karch and Hank Garretson, the exuberant founder and leader of ESNSA. This year Dave Schat of Sierra Star and John Urdi of Visit Mammoth have pitched in on fund raising help.

“Biathlon is a very strong international sport,” Urdi says, and this event, with its visibility, can attract world-class athletes. “Training at high altitude attracts World Cup athletes in the winter as well as in the summer.”

For Karch, who has seen the huge enthusiasm for biathlon in Europe while there as U.S. Nordic Combined Team physician, there is a twin goal of promoting biathlon in the Eastern Sierra from the bottom up with kids and citizen racers, and from the top down by bringing top-notch and Olympic caliber athletes.

For the long-term dream, Karch looks to a permanent biathlon range here in Mammoth. Karch and Garretson are working with MMSA and USFS to make that happen. Biathlon course designer John Morton will return to Mammoth in the spring to mark out a permanent, year-round course.
Urdi is not alone in commenting on the phenomenal drive and passion of Mike Karch. He says the biathlon is on course to grow from one week to a two-week festival down the road, perhaps even becoming a stop on the World Cup calendar.
Stride on.

Winter Biathlon: March 26-28