Fifth Annual Biathlon a success

As my last week of training before the Biathlon inched along, I found myself constantly referencing Alana Levin's workout recommendations to be sure I would be ready.

 I took particular note of her nutrtional advice, and focused on hydrating and eating the right foods.

Fixing my attention on these details allowed me to ignore the fact that I was getting just a little bit anxious. 

The current National Geographic features the epic story of Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, a prominent mountaineer who just summited K2, becoming the first woman to climb all 8,000 meter peaks with no supplemental oxygen. One line in particular caught my attention: “While [her husband] relished how the sensation of fear in his stomach revealed the margins of his ability and compelled him to pay attention, Gerlinde strove to block out fear with the quiet calm that possessed her when she was absorbed in what she had to do.” 

Biathlon may have quite literally nothing to do with a climb like K2, but I was clearly avoiding my own fear by busying myself with the things I knew I had to do: like eat and drink.

If I could ask Gerlinde just one question, I would ask her if she had crazy dreams the night before their summit attempt. The night before the Biathlon race, I tossed and turned to nightmares of falling on my face in front of hundreds of people. 

For Gerlinde, perched near the top of the world in a cramped tent, well into the death zone where there is not enough oxygen to sustain life, in sub freezing temperatures, winds howling, I can only imagine what kinds of dreams she might have had. Or perhaps being a professional, she has all that under control. 

I, on the other hand, in my cozy king size bed in my warm house, was freaking out about a cross-country ski race. Amateur.

Pre-race jitters are nothing foreign to me, fortunately, and I soon realized that’s what was going on. I did my best to relax, but mostly just accepted the jitters for what they were, and focused on my one and only goal: not falling on my face.

To warm up, I decided to skate ski in to the race location near chairs 13 and 14 on Mammoth Mountain. Mike Karch, event coordinator and the fittest dad I know, said it was a bit steep in one spot, but that I’d be fine and would get up the hill with just three short breaks. 

Having CrossFitted with him once, I took this as both encouragement and expectation—I had better get up that thing with only three breaks! 

The trail was uphill right off the bat, and after only 10 minutes I was already huffing and puffing, and hoping I would find out around the next corner that I had already climbed that steep hill.

I turned the corner, and saw the hill ahead, just past chair 12. I reluctantly passed the loading zone for the chairlift, my mind trying to reason myself into being lazy, “conserving my energy for the race.” I resisted. 

Three breaks later, I looked down and realized I was past the steep bit.

Phew. First success of the day.

Finally arriving at the race site, I found folks I knew and chatted, watching the kids’ races. I couldn’t believe how fast they were skiing. I couldn’t imagine skating that fast, and I’m sure I didn’t.

Finally my race time was here, and I found myself heading to the start line. But I’m not ready! I thought, suddenly realizing how new it all was to me.

Three… Two… One… and we were off. With tons of people around me at first, my only thought was to get my own space so I didn’t crash into someone. Slowly, the crowd diffused, and I could concentrate on not falling in peace.

Of a total of ten targets to shoot with the rifle, I managed to hit all five targets from prone position (only 25 meters in the beginner adult category, as opposed to 50 meters for the masters and elite racers), but only two from standing. Three penalty loops and another lap later, I crossed the finish line. I was giddy with glee—I hadn’t fallen once! I looked around and noticed there were still a lot of people skiing their last loop, and some still shooting their last round. Funny, I thought.

The next wave raced, and I watched, psyched to have succeeded in my goal of not falling on my face. It was a great day.

After all the races for that day were completed, they went on to awards. I noticed that the ladies climbing onto the podium for second and third place had finished after me. “And in first place…” the announcer called my name.

Not only did I succeed in my only goal of not falling on my face, but I managed to win the beginner women’s category. I’m not sure which success was more exciting.

Perhaps the most positive experience from the whole event was my interaction with the elite athletes attending the race. They helped us learn to shoot at the laser clinics, and were always approachable and conversational. 

More than that, when I asked them about their interest in the sport, they just seemed to glow. I sat down with Corrine Malcolm and Mark Johnson after the race. Corrine is currently on the U.S. women’s Biathlon team, and Mark is on the men’s team. He had been very close to competing in the Vancouver winter Olympics. The two of them came into the sport in completely opposite ways. 

Mark grew up in a town with a rich Biathlon culture. His introduction to the sport was more traditional—it was a popular thing in his small world. He excelled, and his coach told him he would probably qualify for Junior World Championships. Particularly attracted to the idea of traveling outside of northern Minnesota, Mark went for it.

Corrine, on the other hand, grew up very athletic, but was not at all a skier. She was known to have her mom drop her off somewhere so she could run home. She ran track competitively, but after too many injuries, her trainer recommended she do something else for the winter, so she tried cross-country skiing. 

She hated it at first, but not long after, she found herself falling in love with it. The shooting came even later, when she realized there was much more training support for cross-country skiers in the world of Biathlon (after all, though it may not be huge in the U.S. yet, it is the NASCAR of Europe!).

Biathlon has much potential in the U.S., and Mark and Corrine agree that there is something special going on with the sport in Mammoth Lakes. Most communities with Biathlon races have a rich Biathlon culture, some history, some infrastructure. Mammoth Lakes has a Biathlon because Karch made it his mission to bring it here, and the enthusiasm snowballed around him. No established culture, no history, no infrastructure (yet). Just passion. 

Mark and Corrine both agreed that in all of their experience racing in other U.S. venues, they haven’t seen another community so excited about Biathlon. Here, people are “reaching out of their own interest.” There is no big connection to any international event or venue. Just passionate outdoor enthusiasts fascinated by a new sport, and coming out to play in the snow together.

As for our Biathletes, Mark, 24, with a chemistry degree from Williams College, is deciding if he wants to apply for medical school this year or next year, and taking Biathlon seriously, so long as it’s still fun. Corrine, 21, after taking time off to train with the women’s team, is deciding if she can finish her senior year at Montana State University this coming year while still training on the U.S. team. In the meantime, she is enjoying watching her own skiing skills skyrocket after numerous games of sharks and minnows with the kids she’s coaching—even the best can benefit from playing kids games.

As for my future after this column, I am considering doing a similar one next winter, with the goal of climbing K2. Maybe my luck will be similar.

Just kidding! I’m sure that one would take much more than six weeks of training, even for the best climbers.