For the past two weeks, I’ve been in Europe racing in IBU cups (the international biathlon circuit thats below the world cup level) and doing what I like to call “riding the biathlon rollercoaster.” First was IBU cup 4 in Otepaa, Estonia. Along with being my first international biathlon races this year, these races were also a “trials” for moving up to the world cup, though I was trying my best not to think about that and just race. International biathlon races are so different from racing in the U.S., where there are usually about 5 competitors in each age group and its always the same people. Even on the IBU cup there are teams from about 20 different countries, the range is packed full of biathletes and coaches, and you suddenly get the feeling that you’re competing in an actual popular sport. Everything is super organized and official. Its always a little bit of a shock, but in a good way–it makes you feel energized, and you feel like you fit in skiing around in your USA adidas stuff–most of the other teams have Adidas too.
We had a team time trial two days before the first race, and I didn’t shoot that well, but I was happy with my ski time–it was a good confidence-booster before the IBU-cup race, at least as far as skiing went. The first IBU cup race was an individual-format race. That means that it was 5 loops of 3k, and each miss in shooting meant a 1-minute time penalty. The individual race is an especially good one to shoot well in. But it was really windy, which makes shooting tough, especially standing shooting. I hit every prone target, but managed to miss 7 between my two standing stages–which meant that 7 minutes got automatically added to my time, and I ended up 23rd. I’d been the second American in both of those races, which meant that if I wanted to go to the world cup, I needed to have a really good one in the last race in Estonia. It was a sprint race, so only two shootings, and I missed 3 in prone and 2 in standing–50% is not a good shooting percentage. So I was already bummed as I was walking out of the finish area when an IBU official came up to me and said “Do you know what you did?” Thats not something you want to hear from an IBU official. It turned out that I had cross-fired–shot on the wrong targets. That meant that technically I hadn’t hit any of my targets in standing and since I had only done 2 penalty loops, I would be penalized 2 minutes for each of the three penalty loops that I hadn’t done. With 6 minutes added to my time, my already mediocre result was now downright abysmal. The rollercoaster was at a new low point. I would not be going to the world cup.
But I was not done my IBU cup racing yet. The next stop was Ostrov, Russia. At 7:00 am the day after the race, we piled into a big tour bus along with the Austrian, Korean, Kazakhstan, and Brasilian teams and started the drive over into Russia. Theoretically, Ostrov was only a 3.5-4 hour drive from Otepaa.
The adventure was just beginning.
First of all, just getting in to Russia is interesting. We were told to expect about 40 minutes of waiting at the border. After at least an hour of waiting and then getting our passports checked, we found out that we had just cleared the checkpoint to leave Estonia–a bit further up the road was the Russian customs station. Right. All in all it took 3 hours, and lots of help from some russian interpreters who were sent to meet us by the hosts, before we’d gotten ourselves and our rifles into Russia. The rifles were then promptly whisked away to be locked up–for the rest of our stay in Russia, they would be locked up, and we could check them out for training and races only, and then they were to be checked back in right after.
Driving through the Russian countryside and towns was eye-opening for me. I sort of felt like I’d gone back in time. In the country most of the houses are very old and weathered-looking, usually made of wood. Many of them have beautiful intricate wooden trim or are painted in bold interesting colors. They are surrounded by gardens, woodpiles, orchards, old barns and sheds. But then as when you pass through towns, you get a sense of how most of the population lives; in large, soviet-era, crumbling concrete apartment buildings. Rows and rows of them that look nearly identical. Apart from a few concrete factory buildings and things, there was very little sign of an economy–stores and things were few, small and hard to pick out. I have to admit it looked pretty bleak.
The next surprise was when we stopped at the venue, only to be told that our hotel was another hour away. While most of the other teams were in the same boat, this was not an ideal situation. We would spend at least 2 hours every day on the bus–usually more, since there was usually waiting at either end of the trip.
One of our translators helped me explain to the kitchen staff that I couldn’t eat gluten, which helped out the food situation a lot…but the food was still my biggest struggle in Russia. There were very few vegetables. I ate lots of white rice pudding-porridge with margarine in it for breakfast. That was usually pretty much all I raced on. But I learned that I could race on an empty, grumbling-with-hunger stomach–that was a good thing to learn. By the end of the trip, I was in a calorie deficit and couldn’t sleep very well because I kept waking up hungry.
The venue had never hosted a big IBU biathlon race before, and they put in so much effort to make the event happen. The trails and range were quite new and really nice, and there were hundreds of volunteers all over the course and everywhere. There was an opening ceremonies compete with lots of russia singing and dancing and other performances.
Right from the start, I had good races in Russia. The first race was a mixed relay, and I was scrambling. I was excited to get to really ski head-to-head with the other girls, and I found that I could ski with them! I cleaned prone, and left the range in 3rd, behind a German and a Norwegian. I skied that next lap with them, and was surprised to learn that I could keep up. I just tried to relax as much as possible and have good technique. When I came in to standing, I accidentally stopped at the wrong point and the officials yelled at me to move down. So I lost a bit of time, and it also got me sort of worked up. I was feeling shaky in standing, and I missed 3–which meant that I had to hit all three of my relay rounds to avoid the penalty loop. As I started hand-loading the first relay round, my right leg started to shake uncontrollably. I have no idea how it happened, but I managed to hit all three of my spare rounds despite the shaking leg. I’d lost a few places, but all I felt was relief! Our team ended up 7th–not a bad result for us!
Next was a sprint race, and had 1 miss in prone and 2 in standing–not the best shooting. But I felt really good skiing and ended up in 18th. That meant that I got to start the pursuit (the last race) in 18th, right in the mix. I was psyched! I couldn’t sleep much the night before the race from a combination of hunger and excitement. Pursuits are fun races (especially if you shoot well) because you’re near people the whole time and you can see yourself move up and down in places depending on how you shoot or ski. In the first prone stage I had one miss, and moved up to 14th. I cleaned the next stage and moved up to 10th. With one miss in the first standing stage, I’d moved into 8th. I was sort of in disbelief! I tried to take my time and be careful in the last standing stage, but the adrenaline in my system took charge, and I ended up missing 3 in the last stage…as I did my penalty laps I saw most of the girls that I’d passed skiing by onto the course. In the end I placed 16th–I’d still moved up, and most of all, I’d had fun!
That night we left at 1am on the bus to head back to Estonia, and then to Munich and then home. I had decided that I didn’t want to go home yet. I felt like I was improving and learning in each race, and I wanted to keep doing biathlon races in Europe. I decided that I would change my ticket home from Munich, and try to find a place to stay and train in Ruhpolding, Germany. From there I’d try to find a way to race in some regional european biathlon races. It was going to be an adventure! But before I changed my ticket, I wanted to talk to Jonne, my head biathlon coach, just to sort of make sure that my plans were OK.
And when I got the call from him, he said that I had been named to the next World Cup in Antholz, Italy. Since the races there were only 4 days away, I would fly to Munich and the drive to Antholz that night. I was so happy and so tired, I couldn’t really even make sense of it. I hadn’t really slept in 40 hours by the time I made it to Antholz at midnight the following night and collapsed into bed. When I woke up the next morning and looked out at the beautiful mountains across the lake, and went downstairs to a breakfast buffet loaded with delicious fruit and cheese and things…I was pretty sure that I had died and gone to heaven. And I would be racing the World Cup!! It felt like a dream..and it still does!!
Alright, this blog is already way too long, so I’ll write more about my first World Cup in the next one! If you made it this far…thanks for reading, you’re the best!