Summer biathlons are one of the more unusual races in which I take part. Like the winter Olympic sport, the sport combines two disciplines – running and shooting.
The running is five laps of 800 meters. You run the first lap, then come to the range and shoot. You shoot four times and then there is a finishing lap. So, if you shoot perfectly, you run 4,000 meters.
The shooting is all done with .22 caliber, bolt-action rifles. In each shooting round, you have five shots to hit five knock down targets. The targets will flip from black to white when they are hit. For every shot you miss, you either have time added onto your total or you need to run a 100-meter penalty loop.
If you miss every target, you add on an extra 20 laps, or 2,000 meters. So to be competitive, you need to both run well and shoot well, but these two skills are in opposition. Running relies on fast motion while good shooting relies on stillness and minimum motion. Economy of motion is important in both, but with biathlon you need to go from locomotion to no motion as best as possible.
That challenge is the fun of the sport. Each race is a test of being able to go fast and slow, of large scale and small scale precision, and of mental toughness for big and small things.
In running you need the big muscle coordination. In shooting, the big muscle coordination generally ends once you get into the firing position. In most biathlons, you shoot two rounds prone and two rounds standing, which is also called offhand.
I should say something about the targets. They are all of nothing, as I mentioned above. Either you hit, and they flip from black to white – no penalty lap! – or you miss and run more. The targets are placed 50 meters (164 feet) out from the firing line. The targets when you shoot prone are smaller because you have the ground to steady yourself.
In the prone position, the targets are 45 millimeters, or about 1.8 inches. In other words, about the size of a silver dollar or the inner ring on a CD. The offhand, or standing targets are 115 millimeters or about 4.5 inches in diameter. These are about the size of a CD. At a 164 feet, those targets look awfully small.
About the rifles – there are no scopes or optics on any kind. You can have special target sights, but nothing that magnifies the picture. The rifles can have bolt-action or straight pull, but they are one shot at a time. This is good, because it makes you slow down and think about your shots.
You do not run with the rifles. They stay racked at the range. Typically, there is a run walk line where you come in from running the course, walk to the rack, pick up your rifle by the barrel, carry it to the firing line, get in position, then load, aim, and fire.
Even with the walk line, your heart is still pounding pretty good by the time you get to that line. Then it is the process of breathing, getting into position, and steadying yourself for each shot. It is a great time.
I first read about this in a Boy’s Life magazine when I was in the scouts. I thought it sounded like a great time. (The article can be found here: https://books.google.com/books?id=2GYEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA34-IA4&dq=summer+biathlon&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAGoVChMI9o7Yz7KGyAIVQVc-Ch0ixAfR#v=onepage&q=summer%20biathlon&f=false.) Then I did my first one in Seattle in 2006, with the Washington Biathlon Association. (http://www.wabiathlon.org/) My more recent ones have been at the Pemigewasset Fish and Game Cliub. (http://pemi.org/biathlon.html).
Harvard Sportsmans Club (http://www.harvardsportsmensclub.com/) also occasionally hosts biathlons.
One of the great things about biathlons is twice I have been on the course with Olympians. I didn’t come close to their performance, but it was great to meet them.
If you are a runner who just likes to go fast and hard, then biathlon probably isn’t for you. But if you are a runner who likes a challenge and likes to mix it up, then definitely take a chance on summer biathlon when you get the opportunity. Most events are very welcoming of beginners.