"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

The two aspects of biathlon

By on July 25, 2017 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments

By Jaana Hatton

Chris Fletcher starts at the U.S. Nationals at Donner Pass, CA, in 2015.

The group dashes through the snow-covered landscape as if chased by a pack of wolves.

Their skis cut into the snow and the legs push for momentum. Thrusting and pulling with the poles they gain more speed. With teeth clenched and their breath exhaled in frosty clouds, the group moves like a swarm of giant inchworms.

Their rifles sway left and right in rhythm of their body movements. Fast, faster — they try to out-do each other. Suddenly, the motion slows down and then halts. The atmosphere changes in an instant.

The skiers fall onto their knees and with a rehearsed motion, reach for their rifles. In the blink of an eye, they have entered into a zen-like calm with eyes focused and the breath under control. They stretch on their stomachs on the icy ground and remain completely motionless to steady their aim.

One target, one bullet. A single chance to hit it. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. It’s the only sound you will hear. And the second the shot has been completed, they jump up and the chase starts again.

That is how the sport of biathlon is carried out.

I recently met with Jim Fletcher of Wenatchee, who is a biathlon coach and event official. My interest in the activity is more or less an inheritance as I grew up in Finland where biathlon is a national sport.

“I started 13 years ago,” Jim said. “I took my son, Chris, to the Methow Valley ‘Try Biathlon’ event in 2004. He was hooked and I joined in as a score keeper for my son’s team.”

Methow Valley is the only location in our area that offers a youth program.

A lot has taken place since that time. Jim participated in his son’s training and also learned how to coach others. He took an online course offered by the Canadian Biathlon Association and became a certified “Chief of the Range.”

Four years into their participation in the sport Jim and Chris had a unique experience: testing the Olympic venue in Canada in 2008. They took part in the British Columbia Cup at Callahan Valley, which had been set up for the following year’s Olympics.

“Biathlon can also be done in the summer. Instead of skis, we use mountain bikes or run,” Jim explained.

Chris and Jim went to the 2009 Exhibition mountain bike race at West Yellowstone. The sport is a good incentive to travel.

“Chris’ current goal is to participate in the World Masters in Finland in five years,” Jim said.

There is little equipment involved in biathlon, but the transportation of the rifle is always an issue. There are permits and paperwork that need to be submitted and one can expect questions at airports. The importing country has to approve the gun. The skis are much easier to handle.

January through March is the busy time for Jim. This past winter he attended eight races over three months, which meant six weekends of events.

Jim’s enthusiasm for biathlon may seem surprising considering his day job at the Small Business Development Center in Wenatchee.

In the office, he spends hours making business plans and looking at statistics, financial data and business regulations. He sits at meetings and helps people with their business strategies. And on the weekends he is outdoors at Mother Nature’s mercy, giving instruction in target shooting and beating your competitor.

But wait, that isn’t so different, after all. In both cases, he is the coach, the analyst and the mentor. Only the surroundings change.

“We race in any weather,” Jim pointed out. “The only things that might stop a race are very cold temperatures or high winds.”

The Nordic Center at Steven’s Pass is the venue most used for biathlon races in our area. The center offers to help in the sport from Jan. 1 onward.

“Last year we had 40 people at the beginner’s clinic,” Jim said with a happy smile. “We are always hoping for more participants, especially in the younger age groups.”

The “younger” groups means people under 50. The participants seem to be mostly older, but certainly fit and enthusiastic.

This year three people from Washington participated in the World Masters and did quite well: Dave Shaw placed 13th in the age 60-65 sprint group, Bryn Black placed 6th in the women’s age 45-50 sprint group, and Martha Bellisle was 1st in the women’s age 55-60 sprint group.

“Our total membership is currently 50, mostly Seattle residents.”

People practice the skiing, running and biking portions of the sport on their own or with groups, and go to shooting ranges for target practice. In our area the Fancher Heights range is available for biathlon practice.

“Every race is different,” Jim said. “The weather is never the same, even throughout the day, the snow can be fast or slow.” Nature creates the conditions, and the racers must be prepared to adapt.

The race time is 80 minutes. In the individual race there are four shooting stops and five laps. For each missed target there is either an extra lap of 150 meters or a time penalty. Biathlon also has such races as mass start or sprint, each with slight variations to the rules.

“I like biathlon because it’s challenging. The challenge is within you, trying to beat yourself each time. And you never know until the end who is going to win,” Jim said.

Jim enjoys the outdoors, and that’s what biathlon is all about. Being out there, come rain or shine.

“I will keep doing this,” Jim reassured. “It’s fun to help newcomers, and I get to meet a lot of people in the races. As far as coaching, I think my strength is the mental part, helping people believe they can do well.”

That is the fascination of biathlon, the two skills that have to be developed: mental focus and physical stamina. Likewise, the contestant needs calmness for the target shooting and competitiveness for the skiing. As in any sport or most anything we do in life, the mind rules the body.

The next in-state biathlon event will be a Cross and Mountain Bike Biathlon event on Aug. 20 in Tukwila, just south of Seattle.

For more information, go to the Washington Biathlon Association website at www.wabiathlon.org.

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