Mammoth Winter Biathlon shoots to keep top spot
Racers at the 2011 Mammoth Winter Biathlon set their sights on their targets. (Photo: Jimmy Barnes)
The fifth annual Mammoth Winter Biathlon returns this season on March 23-25, bringing much-needed excitement to an otherwise humdrum winter. A combination of intense exertion and calm poise, the event offers a racing opportunity unlike any other.
Mammoth Biathlon founder Dr. Mike Karch explained the unique nature of the sport: “The appeal is the combination of two sports which exist at opposite sides of the athletic spectrum. Shooting requires a Zen-like quiet mental focus. Cross-country skiing requires an all-out cardiac threshold effort. It is an incredibly intense and difficult sport.” Dr. Karch equated the biathlon to playing golf, but sprinting between the holes.
The Biathlon race begins with 20 racers skiing one lap and shooting five shots. For each missed shot the racer takes a 150-meter penalty lap. This means that should a racer miss 10 shots, they will ski almost an extra mile in penalty laps. The final race lap brings racers to the finish line.
The appeal of the Mammoth Winter Biathlon has spread rapidly since the event’s inception. The Biathlon, which is now the largest in Northern America, nearly doubled its participants from its second to third year, rising from 98 to 168, while last year saw a record 220 racers.
What’s more, Dr. Karch reported that of those 220 racers, 40 were “elite” athletes, or professional racers from World Cup to Olympic teams, and 111 were “tourists,” or visitors from outside of the area between Lone Pine and Walker. These numbers suggest that the Biathlon is quickly turning Mammoth Lakes into a high altitude training destination for a sport with a growing following in the U.S., and that the event generates much needed tourist revenue during the typically slow months of March and April.
When asked if he could have anticipated the success of his event, Dr. Karch laughed. “I had no idea it would grow like this,” he said. “It’s just taken off. This year we’re getting people from as far north as Washington state, and as far east as Vermont. It’s just amazing.”
Dr. Karch initially founded the Biathlon race out of a desire to provide local kids with an opportunity to learn about and participate in the sport. “I traveled to a lot of Nordic World Cups as the U.S. Nordic Combined Physician,” he said, “and to see the amount of enthusiasm that Europeans have for the sport was inspiring.” Dr. Karch hoped to kindle the same enthusiasm in kids and adults alike, and so far, the event is doing just that.
To accommodate the growing demands of racers and spectators, the Biathlon course has moved to a new location this year at Red’s Lake, below Chair 13 and 14 at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. The previous location near Horseshoe Lake offered two challenges: a long transport (almost 3 miles) for spectators to the course, and “incredible wind,” Dr. Karch said. “We keep moving [the event] to test different sites,” he explained. This year, Red’s Lake will offer easier transport for spectators, who have only to hop on a ski lift and ride down to the course, as well as greater wind protection.
Karch also noted that the course itself is changing. It will now be composed of a repeating “fast loop” of 1.5 km, with several built-in hills to give between 15-20 feet of elevation gain. Also, unlike past years, most of the course this year will be visible to spectators. “We’re moving toward a very tight, arena-like format,” he said. “It’ll be more spectator friendly, and as a racer, it should feel faster. It’ll be more fun to ski and to watch.”
Racers this year will include a range of participants from Junior National to World Cup team members, the National Guard, Wounded Warriors, disabled athletes from Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, and thus far, kids from age 8 to adults of 78.
The ATSN/Pursuit Channel, which aired a 20-minute documentary on the event last year, will be on hand again to capture the fun.
Nick Proell, one of two athletes 16-17 years old representing the U.S. at the 2012 Inaugural Youth Winter Olympic Games in the Biathlon, explained why he plans on coming to the Mammoth Biathlon this year: “The Mammoth race is definitely offering much more coverage [via the ATSN/Pursuit Channel] and a lot more racers than an average
Biathlon race in the U.S.,” he said. “I wanted to come because of the coverage and because of the opportunity to meet new athletes interested in such a great sport.”
Although less snow this winter means less of a local economy, and therefore less disposable income for potential local participants, Dr. Karch remained hopeful that this year’s race would continue to place the Mammoth Biathlon at number one in North America. “Last year at this time we had 100 [racers] signed up,” he said, “and we ended up with 220. This year we have about 110 registered. We’ll see what happens this week.”
Registration for the Biathlon closes at midnight on March 20.
While last year’s race was nearly canceled due to a dump of 10 feet of snow five days before the event, this year the issue, if any, would be lack of snow. But Karch said the dry winter shouldn’t negatively affect the course. “We have at least 8 inches of snow up there now, and more expected this week. That’s enough to run the event well.”
Helping to run that event are some 200 volunteers, led by Volunteer Coordinator Kami Boyer, who has been working for a month to ensure that the Biathlon will run as smoothly as possible. The event will also be supported by last year’s Title Sponsor, Ford Motor Co., plus many other sponsors at different levels. In addition, Dr. Karch noted the generosity of major sponsors Charlie and Maxine Comfort, Jon Bourne, and Doug Eberts.
Intended to inspire a younger generation to pursue the sport of biathlon racing, half of the proceeds from the Mammoth Winter Biathlon will go to the Junior Nordic Racing program. The other half will go toward next year’s Biathlon, which Dr. Karch hopes will one day have a permanent venue. One thing is for certain: the event, and the sport, isn’t going away any time soon. “Once people try it, it’s almost addicting,” Dr. Karch said. “You can never perfect it.”
The Saturday, March 24 race will be a 3k for Juniors 8-19 years old, Wounded Warriors and Beginner Adults. Sunday, March 25 offers a 4.5k race to Masters and Seniors, as well as a 7.5k race for “Elite” athletes. All races begin at 10 a.m. Laser Gun Marksmanship Clinics will be offered on Friday at noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m.
To register for the Biathlon, go to Active.com.
To volunteer, contact Kami Boyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.