In this photo taken Nov. 23, 2015, Associated Press reporter Martha Bellisle takes her first rifle shots during a "Try-It Biathlon" clinic at the West Yellowstone Rendezvous Ski Trails center, in West Yellowstone, Mont. Cross country skiing is a full-body activity that places demands on arms, shoulders, legs, core and lungs, and racers must also master the 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 and the discipline to calm everything down in an instant to fire off five shots in between skiing laps. (AP Photo)

In this photo taken Nov. 23, 2015, Associated Press reporter Martha Bellisle takes her first rifle shots during a "Try-It Biathlon" clinic at the West Yellowstone Rendezvous Ski Trails center, in West Yellowstone, Mont. Cross country skiing is a full-body activity that places demands on arms, shoulders, legs, core and lungs, and racers must also master the 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 and the discipline to calm everything down in an instant to fire off five shots in between skiing laps. (AP Photo)

Biathlon combines the speed of skiing with marksmanship

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.

In this photo taken Nov. 23, 2015, biathlon racers practice on the firing range at the West Yellowstone Rendezvous Ski Trails center, in West Yellowstone, Mont. Cross country skiing is a full-body activity that places demands on arms, shoulders, legs, core and lungs, and racers must also master the 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 and the discipline to calm everything down in an instant to fire off five shots in between skiing laps. (AP Photo/Martha Bellisle)

In this photo taken Nov. 23, 2015, biathlon racers practice on the firing range at the West Yellowstone Rendezvous Ski Trails center, in West Yellowstone, Mont. Cross country skiing is a full-body activity that places demands on arms, shoulders, legs, core and lungs, and racers must also master the 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 and the discipline to calm everything down in an instant to fire off five shots in between skiing laps. (AP Photo/Martha Bellisle)

More in Life

File
Minister’s Message: Who is this man?

Over and over again, they struggle to rightly name who he is and what he’s up to

A still from “Casting Maya,” a film about Ascension Bay on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is seen in this screenshot. From Pure Films, the short will be one of nine shown at the International Fly Fishing Film Festival on Aug. 10 in Kenai, Alaska. (IF4/flyfilmfest.com)
Anglers’ night out

Annual International Fly Fishing Film Festival returns to Kenai

Candy pecans make a sweet snack to enjoy on excursions. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Road trip reimagined

Candied pecans accompany more subdued wandering

Robert C. Lewis photo courtesy of the Alaska Digital Archives 
Ready to go fishing, a pair of guests pose in front of the Russian River Rendezvous in the early 1940s.
The Disappearing Lodge, Part 1

By the spring of 1931, a new two-story log building — the lodge’s third iteration — stood on the old site, ready for business

Viola Davis stars in “The Woman King.” (Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.)
On the screen: Women reign in latest action flick

‘The Woman King’ is a standout that breaks new ground

Artwork donated for the Harvest Auction hangs at the Kenai Art Center on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Auction, juried show to showcase local talent

Kenai Art Center will host its annual Harvest Auction this weekend, juried art show next month

Sweet and tart cranberry pecan oat bars are photographed. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
Cranberries to match the bright colors of fall

Delicious cranberry pecan oat bars are sweet and tart

Will Morrow (courtesy)
Take a chance

The fact of the matter is, you can find a way to hurt yourself in just about any athletic endeavor.

Alaska Digital Archives
George W. Palmer (left), the namesake for the city in the Matanuska Valley and the creek near Hope, poses here with his family in 1898 in the Knik area. Palmer became a business partner of Bill Dawson in Kenai in the last years of Dawson’s life.
Bill Dawson: The Price of Success, Part 5

Thus ended the sometimes tumultuous Alaska tenure of William N. Dawson.

File
Minister’s Message: Plenty

The Bible story of Joseph in Egypt preparing the harvest in the seven years of plenty teaches us some vital lessons

A still from “Jazzfest.” (Photo provided)
DocFest could be the golden year of documentaries — again

Homer Documentary Film Festival returns for 18th year with solid mix

From left: Lacey Jane Brewster, Terri Zopf-Schoessler, Donna Shirnberg, Tracie Sanborn and Bill Taylor (center) rehearse “Menopause Made Me Do It” on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Applause for menopause

Kenai Performers’ new play takes aim at ‘not the most glorious part of womanhood’