After making the decision and commitment to become a biathlete, it was time to get started. It’s the second week of May, leaving six weeks until the big summer race at Ethan Allen. The event: a 6K sprint race on Saturday with results setting the start order for the 6.5K Pursuit on Sunday. These distances assume no penalty laps are needed. Not having a rifle to practice with at home meant making the 90-minute one-way drive to the range in order to shoot. With limited time and money for gasoline, at best there were 600 practice rounds between now and the race. It was guaranteed I’d be spending some time on the P-loop: my race would be longer.
In summer biathlon, competitors run instead of ski between shooting. The rifle is not carried but racked at the shooting point. The runner enters the point, grabs the rifle, shoots, returns the rifle to the rack and heads out on course. My goal is to enter as many races as feasible, since the best training for racing is racing. I want to learn racecraft. How hard can I push before the accuracy falls off and I start running more P-laps? This dry land training will be the cornerstone to my success on snow.
In addition to physical fitness, there are several other things required to kick off a successful biathlon career. It is becoming evident that owning a rifle is key to having any amount of success. Making the rifle acquisition a bit more daunting is that I shoot left handed. Lefty biathlon rifles are not easy to find on the used market since there are so few of them to begin with. Ethan Allen Biathlon Club has a well-stocked gun cabinet, but they are all right handed rifles. Shooting lefty on a right handed gun works, but taking advantage of the specialized nature of a biathlon rifle is very much compromised. My first equipment purchase needs to be a rifle. My skis, a clapped out pair of Fischer RCS, will suffice to get me going.
I’m a firm believer speed can be acquired in several ways. Spending money on light and fancy equipment is one. Hauling around unnecessary weight will make you slower. But new gear is expensive; losing 15 pounds of me is less expensive and carries more benefit. Money is tight so a rifle can wait. Time to start exercising and stop visiting the pretzel jar.
My first workouts are embarrassing. The out and return run to the end of the road is .6 mile, takes twelve minutes, and I ache for the rest of the day. The goal is to add the distance of one telephone pole to each run. Having a visual target to increase the workout load seems the right way to stay motivated. My lower back pain has me worried. If it doesn’t go away or becomes more intense my biathlon career is over. Worst case is adding injury and living with chronic pain precipitated by over-ambition. Face it, Brooker, you’re 41 and trying to recapture some youth. Don’t be stupid.
Fortunately, several of my friends were active in their younger days and are now trying to get back some bit of fitness. Andy, an ex-collegiate ski racer now optometrist, gave me a short set of stretches he uses to relieve his lower back pain. Best part is his reasoning as to why I should start stretching. Grabbing his anatomy book while pointing at pictures he explains:
â€œKevin, you’re old and stiff now and I bet your pelvis has tilted forward which puts pressure on the lower back. Its what happens to me and all of us as we age. We need a bit of curvature or lordosis but the excessively forward tilted pelvis adds pressure. I bet your thigh muscles are also tighter from running. This pulls your pelvis down and forward as the muscle tightens up and adds pressure to your back. You gotta make it relax by stretching.
â€œAlso,â€ he pats my gut, â€œyou need to fix the belly and get the abs to firm up to support the front of the pelvis and help keep it stable and from rotating too far down. Sorry, man, you need to do the basic sit-up or something to make that sagging front of you firm again.
â€œAnd, if you want to go fast on skis you’ll need strong abs for poling. Might want to fit in some push-ups and other body weight exercises and firm up a bit. Dude, you’re looking pretty soft.â€ He laughs.
As much as it hurts my psyche, Andy is correct. Each workout finishes with the recommended stretches. My four-year-old son, Nathan, and six year old daughter, Olivia, join me on the floor. They copy my poses and as a family we stretch. Returning from a run, the kids stop what they are doing and tug at my arm. â€œCome on Dad, we have to stretch.â€ More realistically, they stretch and I reach for my toes. Imagine two little Gumbies and the rusted Tinman. My toes get no closer but my back feels better so the stretching must work.
Race day and the training run approaches 5 k. I can tough out the event. Patrick (the Ethan Allen Coach) has lent me his rifle for the race. Today’s goal is just to finish and have fun. Toeing the start line and try to relax. The field contains two National Summer Team members and a bunch of guys who look very fit. The race begins and within 10 seconds I’m off the back and steadily losing ground. The trail is hilly and I am soon running alone.
The prone (on the belly) shooting goes well and I drop 2 targets dreading the extra 210 meters (three laps of seventy meters each) on the P-loop. The end of the second race lap: slap of footfall and heavy breathing grow louder. I look back to see the leaders running shoulder to shoulder. I’ve been lapped. Their race is finishing as I re-enter the range for the final stop. The offhand shooting goes just okay and leave with 4 P-laps to run. Nearing the middle of the final race lap I see a runner ahead. Can I catch him? Knowing it’s better to not chase and save a bit of me for the Pursuit race the next morning the competitor inside takes over and chases anyway. 100 meters before the line I pass the target and avoid finishing last but at what cost? For the next three hours I am afraid to sit down fearing my tree trunk feeling legs will petrify. The next day I’m shot and opt out of the race distance and instead run the shorter novice length race. The shooting is okay and I run quite a few P-laps and still manage to finish dead last even though my race is half the length I planned.
Tyler, the gentleman who won the day’s race, is also a lefty. After a race the range usually remains open for training. I approach Tyler sheepishly asking about his rifle. He answers my questions and makes a generous offer. â€Run a clip or two. I have to head inside so take your time.â€
Wow, a real left-handed rifle. The stock fits the curve of my hand and not having to reach over the rifle to rebolt is just amazing. I shoot like crap, my mind clouded by the wonderful feeling of a rifle that fits. Just holding the rifle and experiencing what it’s like to shoot a proper handed gun has made all of the training to date worth while.
Driving home, my body is knackered and stiff. I’m feeling nervous about my ability to get out of the car. Physically suffering but you’d never know it from the smile. With an average finish tied for dead last I had a huge amount of fun. My weight is down, back hurting less and I’m not as stressed out as I was six weeks ago. Am I fit? Not even close to the goal, but on my way to being able to call myself a biathlete.
Pain and suffering are an expected portion of racing.
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. You can read more about Kevin at www.6qbiathlon.com.
Izhmash Rifle: Russian American Armory www.raacfirearms.com
Skis: Ski Trab www.chi-townsports.com
Boots and bindings: GoFaster www.chi-townsports.com
Clothing: Reliefwear: www.reliefwear.com
Cobble Mountain Hammock: www.cobblemountain.com
Plant Furniture Company: www.theplantfurniturecompany.com/
New England Radon Control: www.neradon.com
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.