Caffeine, numerous studies have shown, enhances performance in endurance sports. And as a runner, I’ve come to depend on my morning cup (or three) before lacing up my sneaks. But on a Monday evening in Jericho, I’m grateful that even though I’m about to embark on a run, my last cup of java was hours ago.
That’s because I’m holding a .22 caliber rifle. Loaded. With bullets that could definitely do some harm, according to John Madigan of the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club. “It’s lethal, but safe,” Madigan says, assuring me that his club hasn’t had any accidents in the dozen years he’s been there. “Well…” He pauses. “Maybe a little road rash from falling while racing.”
Thanks to the Vancouver Olympics, and the recent Biathlon World Cup success of Lake Placid-area native Tim Burke, more Americans are getting fired up about biathlon — specifically, winter biathlon, wherein elite athletes alternate cross-country skiing and shooting. But here at the Ethan Allen Firing Range in Jericho, trigger-fingered fitness buffs train and compete all summer long. Instead of gliding over the snow, they run or roller-ski over asphalt and trails in between blasting bullets at a target.
And now almost anyone can join the fray: A summer race series that has drawn about 25 participants for the past few years aims to introduce biathlon to beginners, too, with a novice clinic that runs for an hour before the actual competition.
The race series is scheduled for Thursdays in July and August, but thanks to some twice-weekly training sessions in June, I’m here to try on the sport for size. The serene summer scene may look like part of a resort, but I later learn this place has serious cred: The Ethan Allen Firing Range, which has one of only three internationally licensed biathlon courses in the U.S., helped Vermont pioneer the sport in the ’70s. Membership in the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club, which includes access to rifles worth thousands of dollars, costs just $50 per year. The club uses the range as a guest of the National Guard.
Joining me are fellow newbie biathletes Rayne Herzog of Shelburne Health & Fitness and personal trainer Charlene Adams, who reveals that she has some solid target-practice experience.
Unlike Adams, I’ve held a gun about three times in my life, but Madigan doesn’t seem concerned. He goes over the basics that he promises to any rifle rookie who shows up in July or August, demonstrating how to align the rifle’s sight with the targets — five 4.5-inch holes about 55 yards away. He also reminds us to point the gun either up in the air or down the range, not at each other or him, and to keep the bolt open when we’re not firing.
Looking around at some of the male “masters” biathletes hitting target after target, I’m dubious about my marksmanship, but Madigan has some encouraging words for those of us wearing sports bras: “Women, if anything, are better than men,” he says, adding that 30 to 40 percent of the summer race entrants are female. “Overall, they have higher percentages of success.”
After learning how to load the bullets into a clip and to squeeze the trigger (gently), I lie on my stomach on a black mat to try a practice round on the target station. In biathlon — summer and winter — athletes shoot either from this prone position (at even smaller targets, 1.8 inches in diameter) or from a standing position, at the 4.5-inch targets. Right now, I’m happy to be lying down; the rifle feels surprisingly heavy, and the targets look distant and wobbly. But I steady myself and manage to shoot four of the five targets, hearing a satisfying thwap as a paddle flips up to cover each successfully shot target.
After receiving a few high-fives from my fellow marksmen, I’m thinking, Not bad. That is, until I run.
In the summer biathlon series, racers run a lap of about one mile, shoot, race another lap, shoot again and then race a final lap. If they miss a shot, they have to run a small penalty loop near the firing range. The whole thing is timed to produce a winner.
My run through the woods is nearly as fun as the shooting, thanks to the bucolic setting at the 11,000-acre Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in the foothills of the Green Mountains. A gentle breeze rustles the trees, and the air holds the scent of pine, while the strains of “The Piña Colada Song” float from the biathlon club’s speaker. You’d never know we were on a U.S.-government-owned troop-training site.
When I barrel into the target area, though, I’m a mess. The challenge of biathlon is calming yourself down enough to shoot straight while your pulse is racing wildly — the sport has been compared to threading a needle after sprinting up several flights of stairs. A heavy, lethal needle.
Barely able to catch my breath, I lie down and position my rifle, but I can’t even find my targets, let alone shoot at them. “It’s not unusual in a race for somebody to shoot somebody else’s targets,” says Madigan. “But it’s not a good thing.”
After finally sighting my targets, I shoot. And miss. And miss. And miss again, hitting only one of the five targets. Still, Madigan assures me this is very good for a beginner. My competitive spark becomes a flame when, after Adams mistakenly hits a flagpole, Herzog manages to shoot five out of five.
We move on to the standing position, learning how to shoulder the rifle correctly and brace it with an elbow on a hip. Madigan explains that there’s a special technique to shooting well that is especially important in the even-more-shaky standing position: Exhale about 60 to 70 percent, then bring the rifle down on the target and shoot while holding your breath for a fraction of a second. As Madigan points out, the biathlon is both a physical and mental exercise: “It’s a huge mental game to do this sport well,” he says. “You’re not allowed to react mentally to your hits or misses.”
Having competed in dozens of road races, in which most miles are like the next, I’m ready for a sport that will train my brain as much my body. So I decide to run another loop before shooting from the standing position. Again, I appreciate the rigors of biathlon; though I’m in top shape, which should help me recover my breath quickly, I just can’t get the sight alignment right and not only miss five out of five but hear a disheartening “ping” as one of my bullets goes astray.
“Don’t worry,” says Madigan with a laugh. “We can replace that light.”