Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cross Biathlon?

Cross Biathlon. Apparently that's the new tag for summer biathlon, which is a sport that combines cross country running and rifle shooting. Over the weekend, I competed in my first summer biathlon and first biathlon since the nineties. Back then, I was neither a shooter nor skier. I'm still not a skier, but have spent a fair amount of time shooting and carrying a long gun during my tour with security forces at Fairchild. That and having the skiing replaced with running, it seemed that I'd have a fair chance of being competitive.

On race day I'm up and on site about a half hour before a required safety class. I have lots of questions and haven't met my Washington National Guard team mates, so I figured it would be best to be early. After registering, the range official told me (not asked me) to follow him to the range because he had things for me to do. I'm a pretty generous guy, but he didn't know me, ask me for help and completely disregarded my statements about going into this without experience, equipment or help to that point. Still, I followed him and helped for a bit until I went looking for my team. He followed me out front and told me that I needed to get back to work. This happened after the event as well. Apparently the competitors are also peer pressured into volunteering to the point that it's almost a requirement. The events wouldn't happen otherwise. I'm not sure what the entry pays for, but it's apparently not for an event management company. Makes no difference, but it's an off putting way to be introduced to the sport.

Later my team mates showed and were very generous and helpful. One was willing to talk me through it as if I knew nothing. That was what I needed so I didn't have to guess and hope I got things right. When it comes to firing a weapon, there are rules that you follow absolutely. In the heat of competition when pushing physical and mental limits, you have to know these rules well for safety if nothing else. I'm also a little bit competitive, so I didn't want to fumble around trying to figure things out when the competition was leaving me in the dust. Between the safety video and questioning and my team mates, I was comfortable that I would be able to do this. Perhaps I wouldn't do it really well, but I had enough to compete and learn more at the same time.

I didn't have a competition 22 rifle of my own, so I was loaned one from the range/Washington Biathlon Association. I was given time to sight in the weapon, make some adjustments and even try shooting a round after an easy warm-up. It wasn't going to be like the heavy breathing and racing HR during the race, but it was another step forward. I also got to watch the women who raced before the men, so after that, I was ready to give this thing a try. I was more nervous than really big triathlons, but I was a rookie in a sport I wasn't prepared for like a rookie triathlete would be.

The men started based upon their bib number. I have no idea how they're assigned, but I was given #25. #24 was a guy named Kato (I hope I got that right) who normally wins these based on being the fastest runner and also shooting very well. He would be my carrot as he started 30 seconds up on me in the time trial start. The course would be alternating between the red loop (with a tough hill to descend and climb) of .84 miles and a blue loop (without the hill) of .61 miles. We'd run red, then shoot prone (lying down), then run blue and shoot prone, then run red and shoot standing, then run blue and shoot standing and finish the race with one more red loop. The four bouts of shooting consist of 5 metal targets each. When lying down, the target is 1.8 inches and when standing, the target is 4.5 inches. These targets are 50 meters away.

I was glad to start with the run and was really excited to start behind the top guy. I ran a controlled first loop (red), but that hill was really tough! I closed the gap on #24 a little bit, but figured the real damage would come on laps 3, 4 and 5. 100m from the range, there's a sign that simply has 100m printed on it. This is to ease up to catch your breath and prepare to shoot the tiny targets. I had already eased up a bit before that, but cruised in, grabbed my weapon and headed to the first open lane. Despite having thought about how I wanted my clips facing in the weapon, the way I grabbed them and inserted them was not the same. My clip ended up being loaded backward, so I had to fumble with the weapon to get the clip out and reloaded. After that, I struggled to get my arm band clipped to the sling. This is supposed to significantly improve accuracy. I'm told that first time competitors miss every target on every round, so anything more than zero was a bonus.

When I finally got around to shooting, there was an uncomfortable awkwardness of trying to line my sight on the target and keep it there with my heart racing and lungs taking in and exhaling giant quantities of air. In triathlon, there is precision in transition, but with diminishing returns it's very little lost time when you're not perfect. In biathlon, a miss in this format is a 30 second penalty. So if you are taking your time to try to get it right, but miss anyway, you've essentially been penalized twice! I thought about just firing them off quickly, but decided to take my chances and begin the learning process so I am more competitive in the future if I get to do more of these. I missed the first three, but hit #4 and finished with a miss. Hitting a target was great, but I spent 1:45.68! Normal range times appeared to be :30 to 1:00 and people seemed to hit somewhere around 50% of their targets. Hitting 20% and taking about a minute longer was not good at all.

Lap 2, Kato was too far ahead to get a good gauge on how much I was closing on the run, but I pushed the pace and kept rehearsing what to do in the range. I was passing a lot of people and wished the run was a lot longer. When I got to the range, I was a lot calmer and avoided making the mistake of putting my clip in backward and only had to hook my arm band once. I only hit one target, but was only there for 1:26.96. At this point, I figured I could start pounding the run. I had little hope that I'd hit anything while standing, so with us being on the red loop again, I wanted to start making up time where I could. It was a gut wrenching effort, but I never closed enough to see Kato until the range just as he was about to leave.

On my first standing range effort, I accidentally grabbed the wrong gun out of the wrack, but that would only be a minor set back. Holding that weapon still enough to feel like I had a snowball's chance of hitting that target seemed very unlikely. Still, somehow I hit it once and was on my way in 1:25.75. Not bad considering the lost time grabbing the wrong weapon, but not having to hoop my arm band and not having to position myself lying down and getting up again saves time. Lap 4 I had the exhausted feeling that I have in sprint tris, which makes me feel right at home in the house of pain. I started running better and closed the gap to Kato enough that I was able to see him way ahead of me again in certain spots.

My final range time was really tough, but it was probably the first one where I felt like I had a rough routine free of mistakes, even if it was cumbersome. I got through it in 1:07.70 while hitting a single target again. It's still slower than what others were doing, but I wasn't handing away time like I was Kenenisa Bekele who can drop a 4 flat mile like it's not a big deal. Heading out onto the run, I was only about :50 down on Kato who started :30 ahead of me, so for the actual competition time, things were looking more respectable. I ran that last lap (red loop) as hard as I could, but only got :15 back to finish :05 behind him. When the penalties were added, he hit 7 more targets than I did, which equates to 3:30.

In the end, I was 3rd behind a team mate and Kato who won with a total time that was 3:35 faster than mine. Not too shabby I suppose. Had I been better on the range times, which were like really bad transitions, I could have been another 1:45 faster and probably finish 2nd. After the race I helped pack things up, enjoyed a podium picture and figured this could be a great sport for me to make some extra money with (military pay) and help keep things interesting while I continue to get back into shape.


Spokane Al said...

Congratulations Michael. I can only imagine trying to sight in on a target when the heart and breathing is sending that rifle barrel all over the place.

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