SOLDIER HOLLOW, Utah - For the first time in a number of years, the Utah National Guard hosted the National Guard Bureau Western Regional Biathlon Championships Feb. 5-6 at Soldier Hollow, Utah.
Civilians, members of the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guardmembers from Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Montana, Arizona, Oregon, Wyoming, Texas and Guam were among the competitors.
The contest was the first major biathlon event hosted at Soldier Hollow since the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and Army Capt. Jason Elphick, coach of the Utah Guard biathlon team and organizer for the event, said it took some doing to have everything ready to go for the competition.
“We had three weeks to put it all together,” Elphick said.
“This is the first Guard event that I’ve been to,” said Dean Cahow, one of the civilian biathletes at the competition. “The organization has been great. I don’t know how experienced these guys are in putting on events like this, but it’s been terrific.”
“It’s remarkable,” said the chief of competition, Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Gary Wallin of the Utah National Guard’s 211th Aviation, crediting the cadre of 25 Soldiers who worked in sub 10-degree weather to prepare the venue.
“This place looked exactly like it did during the 2002 Games—minus the 25,000 people that were here.”
Biathlon combines the athleticism of cross-country skiing with the precision of marksmanship.
Competitors ski a series of loops with a seven-pound, .22-caliber rifle strapped to their backs. In between laps they fire at a series of five, 4.5-inch targets from either a standing or prone position. For each miss a skier completes a 150-meter penalty loop as they leave the shooting range for their next lap.
“When the skier is out on the course their heart rate is well above 130 beats per minute,” Wallin said. “They come into the range and have to change their mindset from being a skier to being a shooter. They need to get their heart rate down to 90 to 100 and then be able to literally ‘thread the needle’ and shoot those targets that are 50 meters away.”
Day 1 for the individual competition saw snow flurries and temperatures in the 20s—balmy compared to the training and preparation days earlier in the week. The men skied 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), and the women covered 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles). Competitors shot twice during the race, once standing and once prone.
Civilian Mark Sheperd took top honors for the men, while 1st Lt. Barbara Blanke of the Army Reserve’s 328th Combat Army Support Hospital led the women.
On Day 2 for the pursuit race the sun was bright with temperatures in the 30s, and the men and women were to ski 12.5 kilometers (7.8 miles) and 10 kilometers, respectively, with four trips to the shooting range. Skiers left the starting gate in the order and timing that they finished on Day 1.
“It was gorgeous out here,” said pursuit silver medalist for Guard biathletes Army Capt. Dan Morken, 489th Brigade Support Battalion, Utah Army National Guard. “It was a chance to red-line it and then come in and hold your breath and try to hit some targets.”
“Today was a fun race,” Blanke said. “It was a lot faster track--you could relax and glide.”
Several skiers spoke of the camaraderie and friendly competition among racers and supporting one another, regardless of experience or athletic ability.
“There are some amazing athletes here, and then there are people all the way down to complete beginners on skis,” said Air Force Maj. Julie Dietrich of the 192nd Airlift Squadron, Nevada Air National Guard. “Everyone supports everyone else. It’s very mutually beneficial.”
“It is fun to feel like you’re part of a bigger family and encourage those people when you’re out there racing,” Blanke said, nearly drowned out by the shouts for a fellow competitor crossing the finish line. “You hear all the yelling; somebody is cheering somebody else on.”
Skiers felt that the mix of military and civilian skiers was also a big plus.
“It’s essential that we have races where new Guard people can be knocking heads with civilians on a regular basis because it raises the level of everyone,” said Army Spc. Andy Wilkens, skier-coach for the Colorado National Guard team, who took individual gold in both events.
“The civilians get to see what we do in the military and it adds a different flavor to things for us.” Blanke said
Speaking for civilian competitors, Cahow was very pleased with what he saw and promises to be back.
“The satisfaction and enthusiasm from the Guard for the event is really cool to see,” he said. “We hope you do it again because we’ll definitely come out for it.”
Final results for the competition saw the Wilkens-led Colorado National Guard take team gold, Utah placed second, with Morken as their top finisher, and Montana was third.
The top three finishing teams all finished within nineteen minutes of each other.
“As a team, we didn’t expect to have results this good,” Wilkens said. “We’re really amped about it and looking forward to going to the Guard championships in Vermont [next month].”
As exciting as competitions are, however, Airmen and Soldiers know that biathlon’s bottom-line benefit is that it helps them do their military job better.
“It’s different from carrying around an M-4,” Morken said. “But you’re building skills with rifles and mental awareness of what it takes to come in and try to shoot with everybody watching you while you’re pegged on the heart-rate meter.”
“The more you shoot, the better you’re going to be,” Wallin said, who is a 30-year veteran of biathlon and a Veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom. “We give you a .22-caliber rifle here, but the shooting positions [and] the shooting techniques are exactly the same as if you were going to combat and shooting a weapon.”
“I still consider myself to be a Soldier first,” Blanke said. “These skills are valuable to be taught, no matter what you find yourself doing.
“There is absolutely nothing harder that you would love than doing biathlon.”