HOLDERNESS – When most people think about cross-country skiing, marksmanship isn’t the first thing that pops into their head. But the biathlon combines two events that seem completely unrelated: skiing and shooting rifles.
On Saturday at the Pemigewasset Valley Fish & Game Club, competitors mixed the laser focus required with shooting with the endurance of Nordic skiing.
Toni Piper, who volunteers to organize both summer and winter biathlon events at the nonprofit club, said the sport has its roots in survival skills practiced in the snow-covered forests of Scandinavia, where people hunted on skis with rifles slung over their shoulders. Steadiness and patience are needed skills according to Piper, mixed with speed and endurance, the epitome of mind over matter.
Jeff Clark, who was among the volunteers helping run Saturday’s event, explained that individual biathlon events are time trials – competitors are up against the clock. Fastest time wins. Using small-bore bolt-action rifles that fire a .22 caliber sub-sonic rimfire cartridge, competitors alternately ski and then shoot.
In an event designed for those new to the sport, participants on Saturday were skiing an 800-meter course that was groomed by the Squam Trailbusters Snowmobile Club. With hearts still pounding from the skiing, participants then made five shots from a prone position at a CD-sized target 50 meters away, before skiing another lap. They ultimately made 20 shots inter-mixed with skiing. Missed shots were assessed a 30-second time penalty.
Concord’s Jenny Betournay said she likes the extra challenge of combining Nordic skiing with precision shooting.
“It’s really fun when you hit the target and really frustrating when you don’t,” she said. Betournay and her husband, Scott, who is the assistant cross-county skiing coach at St. Paul’s School, regularly compete in biathlons and are entered in the North American Biathlon Cup race in Jericho, Vt., Feb. 2-3.
Center Conway’s Sean Doherty, one of the most decorated young athletes in biathlon history, got his start in the sport at the Pemigewasset Valley Fish & Game Club when he was just 12 years old, according to Van Shirley, who was helping time skiers.
During his career, Doherty has captured four gold, four silver and two bronze medals in individual competitions at junior world championships. He was named to the U.S. Olympic team in 2014 and again in 2018.
“Some real world-class biathletes have come from New Hampshire,” Shirley said, pointing to Nordic ski standout Alex Howe of Gilford, who raced his first biathlon in Feb. 2015 and who was most recently named to the United States Biathlon Association’s Senior National Team for the 2018-2019 season.
While the local biathlons have attracted some seasoned competitors over the years, Piper said, novices are encouraged to come and instruction as well as rifles and ammunition will be provided for a nominal fee. The club’s next winter biathlons will be held on Feb. 23 and March 9, and participants can choose to ski or snowshoe. Summer biathlons during which competitors can walk, run or mountain bike will be held on May 25, June 15, July 6, Sept. 21 and Oct. 19. More information can be found on their website at www.pemi.org.