This wasn’t Nathan Smith’s first time in a mass-start rodeo. The 28-year-old Canadian biathlete, who turns 29 on Christmas, had raced a 15-kilometer mass start in his first Olympics last winter. That was his first one — and he crashed out of it in a downhill pileup in the first 500 meters.
Sunday was going to be different — at least he’d know what to expect. Starting in the last of 10 rows in bib 30 out of 30 racers, Smith knew he was at a disadvantage from the get-go and tried not to stress over it on the first lap.
Not long into the final IBU World Cup race in Pokljuka, Slovenia (the last one of the circuit’s first trimester), Smith watched as a few competitors crashed in front of him. Fortunately, he saw the chaos coming and had enough time to move around them.
“I knew that if would take really strong skiing to maintain position because these are the 30 fastest in the world,” Smith reflected in an email on Monday.
Meanwhile, two of the top men in the overall World Cup, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen in bib 1 and France’s Martin Fourcade in bib 2, set the pace out of the start. The third-ranked man in the World Cup at the time, Russia’s Anton Shipulin went with them. All three started in the first row.
Another Russian, Timofey Lapshin, who start in bib 29 near Smith, lost a ski on that first lap. By 2.2 k, Shipulin was leading a three-man train with Fourcade and Svendsen, and American Lowell Bailey was up to 11th, four seconds behind them. His US Biathlon teammate Tim Burke was another three seconds back in 17th, and Smith trailed by 11 seconds in 24th.
By the first shooting stage, all 30 racers lined up in their designated lanes, and Smith headed to the farthest mat from the exit — all the way off to the left. Then he missed his first shot.
“I’m not sure why I missed the first shot, but I had to be super, super careful after that,” he wrote.
It worked, he added, as he knocked down the next four targets — and went on to hit 18 straight on Sunday. Smith left the range in 20th, 33.7 seconds behind Shipulin, who cleaned, followed by Austria’s Dominik Landertinger 1.9 seconds back in second, Fourcade 3.5 seconds behind in third, and another Austrian, Simon Eder 4.8 seconds back in fourth.
The top 13 men after the first prone all cleaned, leaving Svendsen, who missed one, 21.7 seconds back in 14th.
The two other North Americans in the race, Bailey missed one and Burke had two penalties to put them in 26 and 28th, respectively, 46 and 54 seconds behind.
On the next lap, Fourcade took the lead, ahead of Landertinger, Shipulin, France’s Jean Guillaume Beatrix, who left the range in fifth, and Eder.
By the time the second prone rolled around, a large group of about 10 men entered the range together. Landertinger cleaned quickly, Shipulin matched him, as did Eder, Fourcade, and Beatrix. All five left the range within 1.6 seconds of one another.
Smith hit every target to move to 13th, 34 seconds behind.
“Shooting was excellent after that [first stage],” he reflected. “After the second prone I knew it was gonna be a great race.”
Bailey and Burke both cleaned to improve to 21st and 24th, respectively, both about a minute out from the lead.
Shipulin led Fourcade, Landertinger, Beatrix, and Eder through 8.2 k, then Fourcade took charge after the third stage. He quickly cleaned his standing shots, and Beatrix, Shipulin, and Sweden’s Fredrik Lindström, who had been hovering in the top 10 with perfect shooting, did as well. Eder had one penalty, Bulgaria’s Krasimir Anev jumped to sixth with clean shooting, and Smith found himself in seventh with another flawless stage.
“I had to reset once in the first standing but other than that there were no problems until the last few shots of the race,” Smith wrote.
The wind picked up for the men’s afternoon race, after a mostly calm-and-bluebird week in Pokljuka. It was still sunny, with more of a headwind coming at the athletes as they shot into the range.
Bailey also cleaned his second-straight stage to move to 19th (+1:07), and Burke had one miss to drop to 25th (+1:31).
Beatrix led around 10.6 k into the penultimate lap, with Shipulin and Fourcade right on his heels. Lindström fell 20 seconds off the pace, followed by Eder, and Smith was another nine seconds back — up to sixth, and just ahead of Anev and Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic.
Shipulin took his turn leading at 11.2 k, followed by Beatrix and Fourcade, while Lindstroem and Eder hung together in fourth and fifth, about 13 seconds ahead of Smith.
Shipulin led into the range for the last time, where his first miss of the day put him 8.1 seconds back in fifth behind Eder, who cleaned, and Fourcade, who missed one but shot quickly to stay within three seconds of Eder.
Lindström finished the stage out with 20-for-20 shooting, the only man to do so, to leave the range in third, 7.2 back, and Beatrix missed one to head out fourth (+8.0), just ahead of Shipulin.
Smith missed his final shot to drop to 11th, but left the penalty loop feeling like he had a lot left to give — 37 seconds out at the time. Less than three seconds ahead of him, Germany’s Andreas Birnbacher in eighth, France’s Quentin Fillon Maillet in ninth and Russia’s Dmitry Malyshko in 10th were within reach.
“I really struggled to hold it together and those last three [stages],” Smith explained. “I almost felt dizzy trying to aim and concentrate from the pressure. That shot cost me a position where I could’ve been fighting in the lead pack for a medal.
“I almost felt dizzy trying to aim and concentrate from the pressure.” — Nathan Smith (Biathlon Canada), after placing ninth in Pokljuka mass start
“I held back behind a couple guys and waited to attack at the top of the second last climb,” Smith added. “I made a good gap on them and almost shook [Slovenia’s Jakov] Fak [who left the range in 12th], but he surged again on the next hill and got in front of me.”
At the front of the race, French teammates Beatrix and Fourcade led side by side up a hill, and attacked together to try to drop Shipulin, Eder, and Lindström — and perhaps each other. Beatrix picked up the pace again with about a kilometer to go, and Fourcade went with him, as did Shipulin trailing off the back of the breakaway.
Beatrix fell, apparently tripped up by Shipulin, and the Russian pounced on the opportunity to get ahead, attacking up and over the last rise to drop the field, soaring down into the stadium well ahead of Fourcade, as well as Eder and Lindström, who also passed Beatrix.
“I would like to apologize to Jean Guillaume; sometimes these things happen in sports, but I did not mean anything and did not do it on purpose,” Shipulin told the IBU media after the race.
Fourcade backed him up. “I think this is a part of the game,” he said. “I am 100-percent sure that Anton did not do it consciously. It kept me from battling Anton on the final stretch, but I have only to blame myself for not winning today; I missed one shot on the shooting range.”
Shipulin took the victory in 35:16.8, while Fourcade finished 1.2 seconds back in second, and Eder outsprinted Lindström in a photo finish for third (+1.4). Beatrix took fifth (+4.8).
“I am the guy who benefitted from the ‘wheel-banging’ in the last loop,” Eder said. “I might have been fourth! This is biathlon; I did not give up and you can see what happened!”
Norway’s Tarjei Bø placed sixth with a single penalty on his third stage, Moravec took seventh with one miss on his second prone, and Fak edged Smith by 0.6 seconds for eighth (+29.8).
For Smith, ninth stood as his second-best World Cup result (after tallying two eighth-place finishes in a sprint and pursuit last season) in his second-ever mass start. After finishing 30.4 seconds behind the winner, he posted the third-fastest shooting time, seventh-ranked range time and eighth-fastest course time.
“Mass starts are a lot different than pursuits. It’s nice to get one under my belt now and I hope to do a few more this season, too,” Smith reflected. “I’m very happy with yesterday’s race and it’s a perfect way to cap off a strong trimester. It gives me extra motivation to rest up and train over the Christmas break.”
“I’m happy with the season so far. A bit disappointed that I missed a few medal opportunities due to last standing misses,” Smith wrote. “Skiing hasn’t been on average quite as good as last year yet, but it has been more consistent. My two best skis so far though are definitely at least as good as anything I did last year. Prone has been amazing, but standing needs to come up just a little and then I will be where I want to be.”
He’ll spend his holidays mostly in Vernon, British Columbia, with his girlfriend, Emma Lunder, and her family. After that, Smith planned to head to Canmore for a week, then back to Oberhof, Germany.
In the final shooting stage of Sunday’s race, Bailey had another penalty and Burke missed three to drop to 22nd (+1:25.7) and 28th (+2:29.8), respectively. Bailey held his position to finish 22nd with two penalties, 1:34.6 behind Shipulin, while Burke moved up one spot to 27th (+2:32.3) with six misses.
“I was actually pretty satisfied with most of my race today,” Bailey said in a US Biathlon press release. “I felt better on the ski course and the shooting was pretty decent. The only issue was early on in the first prone stage. I had some trouble with my rifle and probably lost an extra 25 seconds getting that figured out. This made it pretty hard to recover and catch the rest of the pack. Other than that, I’m satisfied with the race and looking forward to the Christmas break.”
Fourcade regained the World Cup lead, and Shipulin moved up to second, 25 points back and just one point ahead of Svendsen — who finished 17th with four penalties on Sunday — in third overall.
(Stay tuned for women’s mass-start report)
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.