An Unexpected Reason to Train

Kevin BrookerDecember 15, 2007

If you’re like me, the idea of making time for regular exercise just because it’s good for you is not enough. There must be a goal motivating us to skip watching T.V. and go run in the rain. Drop a few pounds? What, are you nuts? Eating cake for breakfast and grabbing a few pretzels from the jar at each pass is no big deal. Stretching? Only for the remote.

At the age of twenty-two with no responsibilities, taking two or three hours a day to workout was normal. Married at twenty-four, the next ten years with no kids and self-employed was perfect for rescheduling jobs to spend time in the mountains. Be it climbing frozen waterfalls, windswept peaks or hiking for turns, staying in shape was easy, almost a given. What made it possible? Time and no schedule. Enter Olivia, my first born.

The first six months were spent steeped in denial my life would change. Too much time was spent wondering how so many people allowed children to alter their lives and degrade them from active people into down-trodden couch potatoes. Then reality hit like the handle of an iron rake left tines up and stepped on. My wife went back to work. The flexibility of self-employment once used for goofing off was pressed into service and I became Mr. Mom.

Waking up to a twenty-degree day with three inches of fresh adhered to dry styrosnow soon transformed me from vibrant to bitter. The norm used to be going outside to play. Now, here on a perfect winter day stuck inside changing diapers and reading books with one word on each page.

Staying active was simple enough but the volume of activity was drastically reduced. Daycare became a time cage. As long as the day was completed between 8:00AM and 5:00PM everything was okay. Arrive at the care center at 5:05 and be hit at the rate of $1.00 per minute. Three late episodes per year and we would be asked to leave.

Being jaded or snobbish by viewing any workout shorter then 1 hour a complete waste of time. Sixty minutes was just barely enough time for warming up. What about those great days when everything is fun and timeless and just being in the moment? Forget about ever seeing them again. The daycare monster was ever lurking to stomp out any joy found in just pushing myself. Whenever the opportunity arose to live in the manner accustomed to in my life BC (before children) also faded away. One trip hiking for turns I was knackered halfway up the trail. The ski down was a survival fest since my body was so drained and my will to have fun, gone.

When Olivia was three, we were looking through old photo albums. One picture grabbed her attention. It was me tied into a belay high up on Rodger’s Rock at the north end of Lake George, New York. I was shirtless doing a lame impression of the Incredible Hulk. Bent at the waist, arms spread to the side forearms down and flexing for all I’m worth. At 6’1” and 155 lbs, I would never to be mistaken for the Hulk, but the guy in the photo is obviously fit.

“Daddy, how come you don’t have muscles anymore? How did you get your slug body?” she asked with penetrating curiosity.

I wanted to blame her arrival. After all, this is America. We are never responsible for our actions. I’m a victim of daycare and the system requiring both parents to work and be responsible. I couldn’t do it. The Thing, the one brain cell in each of us having some sort of universal high-speed connection to enlightenment and truth chimed, “Liv, I just don’t make the effort anymore.”

“Why not? You have time to watch T.V. and play with your computer.” Her answer was correct and cut deep. She turned the page and talking about the dog replaced her thoughts of slug-bodied Dad.

I grabbed the half empty beer and drained it in one long self-reflecting pull. She was correct. The time and ability to remain fit was available. Just make a few concessions, find discipline and commitment. But for what goal? There was no reason to lose fifteen pounds and raise my VO2 max. Right then I gave up. No way am I going to spend the time and energy to stay fit to live an extra few years or just plain feel better about myself. I was broken and apathetic.

Jump forward three years. Still the same slug body but now my back hurts and I am stressed to the point of not sleeping very well. Beers help the stress but really only mask it. The angst from working for myself, cash flow headaches, a second child and deep-seated feeling of responsibility is crushing me. Enter an idea. What if my kids want to become involved in non-mainstream sports? How do they find information and get started?

Mid December 2006 and a list of ideas begins to gel. Cross-country skiing is difficult to try when living in Connecticut. Finding a winter sport a Vermonter might not have easy access to was a challenge.

One asset for Vermonters is Lake Placid, New York. The Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) oversees sporting events taking place at the 1980 Winter Olympic venues. Bobsleigh, luge, skeleton, ski jumping, biathlon, and speed skating are activities we all know about but how to become involved or try it? With the help of Vermont Sports Today magazine I was granted press credentials and attended a bobsleigh event sponsored by retired race car driver, Jeff Bodine.

Jeff used his knowledge of racing cars to put together a team to design and build the sleds used only by the Americans. Chassis Dynamics does the design/build and Bodine puts up the cash and finds sponsors. The sleds are known worldwide as BoDynes and since starting to use them, the U.S. has won medals and Word Cup titles. The event was a blast and really amazing. If you ever have the chance to watch bobsleigh live, do it.

After the BoDyne event was over the press were supposed to drive the sleds but it was raining. The ice covered track considered too slippery to be safely driven by rank novices and I missed the chance to drive a bobsleigh. Bummed out but not discouraged my attention moved to biathlon which always sounded cool. Skiing and shooting are both enjoyable so why not?

Fortunately, for me and the article, Vermont is home to the Ethan Allen Biathlon Range (EABR) in Jericho. The range is a world-class facility having hosted several military biathlon World Championships, NorAm Cups, Olympic Trials, and weekly club races sponsored by the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club (EABC). The range is also an Olympic Development Center of Excellence. EABR is the finest biathlon center in the US and this includes the Olympic venues of Lake Placid (Mount VanHovenburg) and Salt Lake City (Soldier Hollow).

The advent of the internet has made finding information on any subject much easier. A quick search and contact information for EABC was obtained. With a sense of anticipation my fingers entered the phone number. With each unanswered ring I became hesitant and closer to sending an email. On the fifth ring, an answer. “Hello.”

“Yeah hi, hello. My name is Kevin Brooker and I do a bit of freelance writing and was hoping to do a piece on getting started in biathlon. Just calling looking for some information.”

“Great. Come on up and we’ll get you started.” replied the voice.

“Cool. When would be a good time?”

“We have Masters practice tonight starting at five o-clock. Do you have skis?”

“Yes, but no rifle and it’s been a while since I did much skiing.” My reply was sheepish at best.

“We have loaner rifles for novices. Do you know how to get to the Ethan Allen Firing Range?”

“Yes I do, Who am I speaking with?”

“Sorry. I’m Patrick Coffey. The coach for the biathlon club. Come on up and I’ll answer whatever questions you have and show you around. The best way to learn about biathlon is to try it and I think your idea for an article is great.”

It was 3:30. Frantically searching for my ski togs, filling a water bottle, grabbing a snack and on ten minutes notice, ditching the family. Forty-five minutes into the drive and only half way to the range, doubt began creeping into my thoughts. What was I doing? I had tons of work piled on my desk, not much spare cash, and here I am escaping it all to write an article on speculation someone will buy it.

Ever since I was a kid the idea of biathlon was fascinating. Watching the 30-second clip shown during the ’76 Olympics had me dreaming about holding one of those ultra-cool looking rifles, skiing into the range, fans cheering while I shot targets and skied off to a gold medal. The cross-country skiing was okay and not nearly as cool as the idea of being a downhill racer. Having a gun and shooting made cross-country skiing acceptable. Growing up in Connecticut, at best it was a dream.

The road leading up to the range was hard packed layers of sand and snow with just enough traction requiring careful application of the throttle to keep the wheels from spinning or force them to break loose. A bit of drifting into the parking area was just the jolt needed to break the funk hanging in the cab of the truck.

While walking to the range carrying my skis, poles and clothing stuffed inside a bright pink knapsack bestowed upon me by Olivia, skiers carrying rifles skated past. My childhood dream of actually trying biathlon was congealing and solidifying with each step taking me closer to the firing point.

“Patrick?” I asked the lone figure standing in worn Sorrels, hat pulled down over his ears and torso wrapped in a well used coat.

“Yes, I’m Patrick” he replied, “How can I help you?”

“I’m Kevin. We spoke a couple hours ago about writing the biathlon article.”

“Yeah. Sounds great. How do you want to do this? Tonight is Masters training and we’re running some range procedure drills. I brought down some extra rifles and we can get you shooting and skiing. Sound okay?”

“Sure.” A huge effort kept me from giggling with excitement. Walking to the locker room building, gunfire erupted behind me. I turned to watch an athlete sling the rifle to his back, grab his poles from between his feet and skate off. It looked so effortless and elegant.

Now, dressed in old winter cycling clothes I skied to the firing line.

I found Patrick. “Just treat me like anyone else who decides to try this. The idea for the piece is trying new sports and I want first hand experience.”

We stood at the point, the place on the firing line where the athlete stops to perform the shooting phase of the race. The safety lesson was the first thing taught.

“Keep the bolt open and the barrel pointed up or at the target. After you’re in position and ready to shoot, close the bolt, fire at the target, re-bolt the rifle for each target and before you get up, open the bolt and place the rifle here.” Patrick’s voice was casual but the look in his eye was serious. “Having fun and doing well is important but not even close to good safe range habits which always come first. Remember this and you’ll have a great career as a biathlete. Forget it and I’ll escort you off the range.” He handed me the rifle.

We spent a bit of time setting up my prone (on my belly) position since it is more stable and novice friendly. I’d also shoot at the offhand (standing) targets which are 11.5 cm in diameter or about the size of a compact disc. Experienced biathletes shoot prone at a target 4.5 cm diameter which is about the size of a half dollar. The distance between the athlete and the targets is 50 meters. Ten minutes later Patrick handed me a loaded magazine. Five shots for five targets. I slid the magazine into the receiver, set my position, closed the bolt, aimed and squeezed the trigger. The 4 kilo rifle had very little recoil and after opening my eyes there were only 4 black targets. I started with 5. The next shot dropped another target, then three more. My first try and I went clean hitting everything. The smile was a display of pure joy and pride. Loading another magazine and dropping five more. This was fun. My first 20 shots hit 19 targets.

“Go ski a bit and come in with a pulse on. It’ll be a bit different” Patrick assured me.

Being horribly out of ski shape the 1 kilometer range loop might as well have been 20. The slight elevation gain up to the firing line forced me to apply effort and not coast into my assigned point. With a breathing pattern similar to a steam fired freight train hauling a huge line of cars, I set myself onto the mat and slipped a loaded mag into the receiver.

Taking aim with a pulse on was very different from being calm. Now with each heartbeat, there were many in rapid succession, the target had the appearance of a strobe light as it moved in and out of the sights. Each breath complicated the ability to hold the rifle steady. Closing the bolt and it was time to find out if I had the makings of the biathlete dreamed of when I was a kid. Either luck, skill or some cosmic joker sent the bullet to the target for a hit. Rebolt, aim squeeze and another target turned white. The next three were misses. Removing the mag and leaving the bolt open I stood on wobbly legs. A huge smile parted my face. The rest of the session was spent skiing the range loop and shooting. Patrick gave advice and encouragement. We quit when there was no more ammo on the line.

“Did you enjoy this?” asked Patrick.

“Yeah. I did very much. I hope I can walk tomorrow. My legs and arms are fried. It was really fun.”

During the drive home all of my thoughts were related to the past two hours. Each circular reflector marking the road, a sign, or taillight of the cars ahead was a target. It’s difficult to say what was more fun; the shooting or being active with great focus. Doesn’t matter because right there on the drive home I decided to shed the slug body and become a biathlete.

There were many obstacles to overcome. Time to train, money, family and 20 extra pounds of me that had to go. For the first time in years there was a reason to train, a goal and all I needed was the discipline to go after it.

About the author: Kevin is 42 years old, married with two children and living in Post Mills, Vermont. He began racing bicycles at sixteen and continued pursuing individual sports. After a six-year layoff, Kevin is returning to athletics racing in biathlon events and will write about the pitfalls and triumphs of mounting a comeback to competition.


Izhmash Rifle: Russian American Armory

Skis: Ski Trab

Boots and bindings: GoFaster

Clothing: Reliefwear:

Cobble Mountain Hammock:

Plant Furniture Company:

New England Radon Control:

Kevin Brooker

Kevin is 42 years old, married with two children and living in Post Mills, Vermont. He began racing bicycles at sixteen and continued pursuing individual sports. After a six-year layoff, Kevin has returned to athletics racing in biathlon events. He has written numerous articles for FasterSkier, including a series on his return to racing and his current "How It's Made" series.

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply