WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — It’s 17 degrees outside and I’m lying on my stomach in the snow with my cheek against a rifle, focusing through concentric circles on a small black dot 50 meters away.
I take a deep breath and squeeze the trigger half way. While letting out the second deep breath, I pause, hold still and ping — the black dot turns to white and I smile.
I repeat the process on the next four targets, enjoying success each time, before pushing myself off the mat. I stand on my cross country skate skis while slipping my gloved hands into my pole grips and glide away from the biathlon range both pleased and intrigued.
The day before when I signed up for this “Try It-Biathlon” clinic, part of the annual West Yellowstone Ski Festival, the woman at the counter asked if I also wanted to register for the biathlon race the following day and I said: “I’ve never shot a rifle before and I don’t know if I can hit the broad side of a barn, so let’s wait and see.”
Turns out I’m a good shot, so I signed up for the race, which ended up being in one of the more challenging cross country ski competitions I’ve done. I’ve been Nordic ski racing for more than a decade and have won three National Masters medals, but biathlon moved the difficulty bar up a few notches.
It combines the physical demands of Nordic skiing with the psychological control of marksmanship.
Cross country skiing is a full-body activity that places extraordinary demands on your arms, shoulders, legs, core and lungs. Nordic ski racers also must master the fine art of picking the perfect ski wax to match snow conditions. Biathlon requires all of those skills, but adds an 8-pound rifle that’s strapped to the skier’s back with a specially designed harness and the discipline to calm everything down in an instant to fire off five shots in between skiing laps.
Biathlon races start off with a lap around a course that ends in the stadium where skiers lie prone on a mat and empty a five-bullet magazine before skiing the course again. Racers must ski one lap on a short penalty loop for each missed shot.
Racers shoot twice prone and twice standing in between the loops on the course before their final lap to the finish line. The standing targets are 11.5 centimeters — about the size of a coffee cup saucer. Since shooting from on the ground is a bit easier, the targets are smaller — 4.5 centimeters or slightly less than 2 inches, about the size of a silver dollar.
Many a heart has been broken by a race leader who cruised into the stadium to the roar of the crowd but cracked under pressure and missed one shot while the skiers breathing down his neck “shot clean” — hit every target — and took over the lead.
“There’s great drama with the head-to-head races,” said Max Cobb, the president and CEO of the U.S. Biathlon Association, based in New Gloucester, Maine. “It’s all about being able to hold it together when you’re having a good race and you have to hit your 18th and 19th shot.”
Biathlon started as a training exercise for Norwegian soldiers. It’s not surprising that the most decorated Winter Olympian in history is Norway’s star biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who has won 13 Olympic medals — eight of them gold.
I’ve always been intrigued by the sport, but I fell in love with the skill and excitement of biathlon while covering the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia for Gannett and USA Today. The races were held in the evening so they could be broadcast live in prime time to Europe, where the sport is insanely popular. World Cup biathlon races in European venues can draw crowds in the tens of thousands.
Biathlon remains an exotic and illusive activity in the U.S., but it’s growing in popularity, Cobb said.
Driving the sport’s growth in the U.S. is the strength of the U.S. Biathlon Team and the dedication of former racers who are running biathlon centers across the country.
In addition to the West Yellowstone biathlon clinics hosted by Marc Sheppard, the owner of Altius Handcrafted Firearms, and the Auburn Ski Club Training Center biathlon range near Truckee, California, run by former Olympian Glenn Jobe, new biathlon centers are popping up in Casper, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana; and Lebanon, New Hampshire, Cobb said.
These local clubs promote the sport by offering “Try It Biathlon” clinics so people can see what it’s like without having to buy a rifle.
The Washington Biathlon Association keeps the sport fresh year-round by hosting mountain bike and running biathlon races, and of course, cross country ski-biathlon.
Bob Vallor, the group’s president, said clinics help racers learn how to get in and out of position, and how to shoot under pressure. The organization purchased about a dozen rifles that people can use as they learn the sport.
Betsy D. Smith, a biathlon coach in Winthrop, Washington, oversees the Methow Valley Biathlon club and offers a rifle safety certification program for skiers.
Safety is No. 1 on any biathlon range, she said during my course on Dec. 5, so we started our class by learning the parts of a rifle, how to fill a magazine with five bullets, and how to load the magazine into the rifle. We spent time on the floor getting comfortable opening and closing the bolt lever and spotting through the scope.
Then we headed out for some shooting.
A skier’s glove is attached to the grips on their ski poles, so the first step as you enter the range is to free your hands from the poles. The rifles have small snow covers over the sights and muzzle so the next step is to flip those caps open. Once in position, the skier loads the magazine and uses the bolt-action level to place a bullet in the chamber — racers never ski with a loaded gun.
I was taking the safety course with a 9-year-old boy so we did mini races after each round of shooting to get our heartrates up before the next set. That’s where I learned the importance of controlling your breathing as you’re about to fire.
The clinic and race at West Yellowstone followed by my biathlon experience at the Methow Valley range and I was hooked. My winter ski race plans just took a new direction. Next up, the Biathlon Masters International Championships next year in Finland.