In the summer, biathlon training consists of learning to shoot precisely —because there’s no snow, so skiing’s not an option, and it sucks learning the technical aspects of shooting a rifle in the freezing cold.
Right now, on the grey shoulders between summer and winter, kids train by running or biking the trails around the biathlon range off Grey Mountain Road, to get their heart rates up before target practice. It’s important for their hearts to be beating hard when they shoot; if they get used to shooting with a non-elevated heart rate, they won’t know how to shoot in a race.
Control over ones heart rate and breath is an integral part of biathlon. During a training session in mid-October, ten of the older athletes — between 12 and 17-years-olds — run or bike up to the gun range in a scraggly pack. They adjust their rifles — which means zeroing them in on a target for maximum precision and accuracy — then take off to run another loop of trail.
Two of the more serious athletes return first, red-faced but methodical. They take their rifles off the rack, sling them on their backs and walk the two metres to their shooting spots. They unhook the rifles from their shoulders and sprawl, with legs spread wide, on their stomachs, and both clean their targets — they hit all five of them. The targets are around the size of a toonie. They take off running again. They practice elevating their heart rates, then slowing them as they round the bend to the range.
The other, less competitive and younger, athletes return and follow the same routine.
It’s a good sport because the athletes can decide how competitive they want to be.
Dennis Peters is the “organizing coach, I guess”. He is one of five coaches monitoring the training session. He says some kids push themselves; some do it more for fun.
He says it’s a good team: “the kids really like each other.”
Which is important, because the biathletes train all year long — in the summer, to hone the aforementioned gun skills, and two-to-three times a week, now. When the snow flies, it’ll be four times a week.
Emma Marnik is 12; she’s been hooked since her first day on the range. It was an open house, like the one the club held on Oct. 19. It was a challenge, that’s what drew her in. She wasn’t good at shooting. Plus, “it was such a beautiful day.”
She was eight.
Now, Marnik likes shooting more than skiing, but she loves pretty much everything about biathlon “apart from single-loading shots when it’s freezing.”
A lot of the athletes are home-schooled kids, so Marnik gets to meet and be friends with people she wouldn’t otherwise know. Her non-biathlete friends tell her she must be a really nice person, because she gets to take out anger by shooting guns all the time.
Bill Curtis is another coach. His daughter was a biathlete, but she’s in university now. Curtis stuck around; he says it’s a great community. He says not to tell anyone, “you can’t see it now because it’s cloudy,” he says, and gestures broadly at the horizon, “but imagine the view when it’s clear.”
He says coming to the range is like entering another world, one that not too many people know about.
He says hitting a target brings instant gratification. A kid can look at it and say, “I just did that”.
There has been some sort of biathlon organization in Whitehorse for around 25 years, and the number of biathletes ebbs and flows. Now the tide is high — there are 20 athletes. Four years ago there were six.
Peters says it’s fun for the kids. At the last Arctic Winter Games, the Yukon was the only team besides the Russians to win medals in the sport. This winter, some of the older biathletes will race in Canmore, Whistler, and Prince George.
The first race is in November. A lack of snow can put a damper on training. Peters indicates a distance of about a foot with his hands to show how much snow the kids need to train on — they’ll use rock skis until it gets deeper than that.