A week or so ago, I had the opportunity to participate in what has emerged as North America’s second largest biathlon in Mammoth Lakes, California. This event is the brainchild of a local orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mike Karch, who became interested in the sport a few years ago, and the annual Mammoth Biathlon has garnered the interest from kids as young as five years old who never tried cross country skiing, to individuals with disabilities using sit-skis and other adaptive devices, to elite skiers who have trekked to Mammoth to compete at the oxygen-deprived 9,000+ feet of elevation.
Mammoth sits in the high Sierras, near the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park – just over a one-hour flight from Los Angeles when the weather is cooperative or a five-hour drive when it is not. While it is dominated by Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, founded by long-time ski legend Dave McCoy in the 1950s, the region has now become a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts of all types and a mecca for Olympic marathon runners such as Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall, who have made Mammoth their permanent home.
My business partner, John Morton, and I have been helping Mammoth with envisioning and designing the preliminary plans for a permanent biathlon and Nordic venue there. The now 200-participant Mammoth Biathlon has attracted the attention of the US Olympic Committee, the US Biathlon Association, the US Nordic Combined Team, and the US Ski Team. Currently, though, the location of the event has moved depending on snow conditions, permission from the US Forest Service, and cooperation with Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, as well as negotiating a no-shooting policy within the municipal boundaries of Mammoth. When this year’s biathlon notices began to hit our email, we decided that one of us should go and support this tremendous effort, even though our formal work had ended in December. We flipped a coin, and I was the lucky winner.
While I have been racing off and on in cross country skiing since college, with a particular flurry of activity during and after grad school at UW, I have not put a rifle on my back in a competition since the mid 1980s. At one point, I had visions of being a competitive biathlete, participating in the 1984 Olympic Trials in Lake Placid, though my results were certainly nothing to write home about. After 26 years or so without shooting, I was intimidated by the fact of a) competing at 9,500 feet, coming from about 400 feet here in Vermont, b) not having undertaken any ski race for what was a dismal winter here in the East, c) feeling quite old compared to the small army of US Team Members and other elite athletes who had been recruited to the event by Mike Karch, and d) shooting a top-end biathlon rifle under perfect conditions the day before the races and splattering my shots all over the place.
As a preamble to my personal battle, the Saturday consisted of the youth, novice, and adaptive skiers. The elite skiers and folks such as myself competing the next day worked the range on a picture-perfect High Sierra day. The range had 20 points, and competitors skied in to use the community rifles bought for the exclusive use of the biathlon program in Mammoth. Seeing kids as young as five years old shoot a .22 caliber rifle was inspiring, particularly with the looks of joy on almost all of their faces. But the real highlight of that day was the competitors in the adaptive division – who included those with various disabilities, some as a result of recent tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was working one of the lanes on the range, and there is some distance from where one enters the range to the eventual shooting platform. Because the range was created in a location not perfectly flat, it was slightly uphill, so the adaptive competitors on their sit-skis and some on regular skis had to negotiate up what would be a gradual grade for many of us but quite challenging for those without the use of their legs. Each of these competitors had a companion, available for a periodic push or to help them along the track. The inspiration, which I am sure choked up a number of people on the range, including me, was seeing these athletes double-pole with all of their effort – each push progressing them a few inches, then to a complete stop – while refusing a push from their companion. At least one of these competitors “cleaned” their shooting – which could be in various positions or configurations as their bodies would allow. I have to admit that this marksmanship made my next day look fairly pitiful!
My own race day arrived on Sunday, and the weather had taken a dramatic turn; a classic Sierra snowstorm was brewing by the time the Elite wave took off at 10:00 AM. The National Team members all lined up together, and their 7.5K course with four bouts of shooting (20 shots, each miss a 75 meter penalty loop) led to a very exciting finish, with the race decided in the final shooting round standing. My wave was still an hour and a half away, and the snow started to come down at a steady rate. My nervousness was dispelled a bit by seeing even the elite racers labor on their last laps, a result of the 9,500 feet of altitude (which is over 3,000 feet above the legal limit for any official FIS or biathlon race certified by the International Biathlon Union). I knew I was going to be in for a real struggle.
After the Elite skiers had raced (which included all of the National Guard skiers, some of which were clearly of elite status, and others who had just started cross country skiing in the past couple of years), the Open division racers – including myself – lined up in a series of three waves of 15-20 skiers each. By the time my wave lined up, there was a fresh 4” of new snow on the trail and piling up fast. I went out comfortably, but, as always, had far more confidence in that first minute than what may have been the most prudent pace to ski – taking the lead after the first 500 meters or so. There were some worthy ski competitors, one being a recent female skier from Bates College. I came into the range flushed with the excitement of being in the lead, and my range procedure memories of 26 years ago came into focus as I dropped into the prone position at point #1.
I must divert my race diary for a moment to provide an important fact of clarification, as difficult as it is to admit. First, some background. Biathlon has two styles of shooting – prone (lying down) and standing. For both styles, one shoots at a target 50 meters away which appears the size of a CD disk. For standing, the target is set so that one shoots at the exact size of what is seen. For prone, however, one sees the target but is only given credit for shooting at a small circle within what is visible – approximately the size of a Kennedy half-dollar piece. Basically, standing is far more difficult than prone, thus the reason for the difference in target size for the two styles of shooting. For the officials working at the range, one sets the metal targets according to whether the athletes are shooting prone or standing.
Now, before entering the race, I had told Mike Karch that there was nothing “elite” about my current biathlon abilities so I thought it fitting to enter the open/masters division instead of humiliating myself against 20-year-olds fresh from taking the top five places at US Nationals in West Yellowstone. But I only learned the day before the race, when I was talking with another biathlete, that, for the open/masters division, we would be shooting prone at targets set for standing. For biathletes, this is the equivalent of shooting at the broad side of a barn.
Beautiful photos from Jim Stinson
I happened to mention this to Mike Karch, saying I was a bit embarrassed knowing that I was being handed what should be five easy shots – especially compared to a “real” biathlon event. Mike explained that he did this so that those new to the sport would not be completely discouraged in their shooting and face the possibility of skiing ten penalty loops for the open/masters race. I understood and went to bed the night before the race with some silent comfort that I would not screw everything up the next day, as I should be able to easily go 5/5 in the prone and at least get a couple standing.
On the morning of the race, Karch told me that, based on our conversation the day prior, he decided to have the open/masters athletes shoot the “real” prone targets. Gads, I was back to panic mode. This meant I couldn’t just lollygag into the range and plunk out five shots, but I would have to face my 26 year gap in shooting practice.
But, there is one final twist to this discussion of pre-race target size logistics. At the last minute – literally as the first open/masters skiers were on the start line, Karch radioed to the range, “Use the standing targets for prone.” Thank god! He did this to speed up the overall timing of the event (remember, each missed target means a penalty loop, and the earlier waves were skiing lots of loops, which, by the way, were conveniently located to ski around the announcer, who had a great time making fun of everyone as they skied each loop – a brilliant venue design move on the part of Karch).
So, back to the race. I’m coming in for my first loop, with a healthy lead – I take my prone position. I move my hips around to find my natural point of aim, see the target in the sights and squeeze the trigger. A metallic plunk sounded followed by a white disc covering the black target, indicating a successful hit. Yes. 2nd shot – hit. 3rd shot – hit. 4th shot – hit. I then saw that my female competitor had already come in and was leaving the range, so I felt a bit rushed. I aimed, fired, and the target stayed the same dark color. Damn – a penalty loop, but even worse, the embarrassment of not cleaning prone on standing targets. The announcer didn’t realize this nuance, but anyone with knowledge of the sport would realize this was a huge blow-up on this first shooting phase.
I tore through my 75-meter penalty loop, mustered all I could to get up Heartbreak Hill, and realized I had a very healthy lead on my wave as they were skiing multiple penalty loops (and, to their credit, most had never shot in a competitive biathlon race). The thrill of being in the lead – something I had not experienced in quite some time – masked the pain my oxygen-deprived body was feeling. The announcer was blaring my name, the spectators were ringing their cowbells – I was back in my glory days (as limited as they were, in reality). Of course, I came into the range skiing much faster than I should have and as I went through my range routine and set up for my standing position, I knew I was in serious trouble. After blowing snow out of the sights, I settled in and could barely hold the rifle focused on any area even close to a black target. And, this time, I had to hit a bona fide target size. 1st shot – miss. 2nd shot – miss. 3rd shot – miss. I heard the announcer make some sarcastic remark about how I had cleaned my prone but clearly there was something wrong this time around. 4th shot – miss. My female nemesis had entered the range so I had the choice of sitting there waiting for my pulse and breathing to settle down, and possibly save the 15 seconds of skiing an extra penalty loop, or just take my chances again and get the shot off. I chose the latter strategy. 5th shot – miss. Damn! Some have compared biathlon to running 20 floors of stairs, then threading a needle. For me, it just felt like being dunked in the pool too long by the bully in 5th grade, panicking that I would never get back to the surface.
Entering the penalty loop, which I had to focus very hard on to count five loops, the announcer spared no mercy in his remarks. “There goes Lindahl again – he must be getting quite dizzy by now.” “Nice job, Lindahl, you get more for your money just like golfers do by taking more strokes.” Smartass…
I finally left the penalty loops and, fortunately for me, my other competitors were taking their loops. Though some had actually hit the targets, I had established a fairly good lead coming into the last loop so I knew I would be able to hold on. What I did not know was how other competitors in other waves would perform, so I pushed it right until the end, relying on the smooth skating technique from skiing many times during a Snoqualmie Pass dump, and collapsed over the finish line.
The end result was far better than I had imagined. 1st place in my age division, and 2nd place overall in the open division, which had somewhere around 50 or so competitors. I still felt some guilt at not having raced with the elite class, but I was grateful not to have to ski an extra two loops (and suffering the potential humiliation of an extra two bouts of shooting).
I learned after the race that I had actually cleaned my prone bout – the metal target had some snow on the white disc for my last shot that made it look to me as if it were still dark. The athlete is responsible for counting shots and penalty loops (which are checked by the officials after the race), so there was no one to blame other than my middle-aged eyesight.
Karch had a full podium ceremony, even for us old wannabes. And the medal I took home is one that will have a special place on my desk, though that may have been different if I had not cleaned all the prone shots on standing targets.