The Fool on the Hill

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Shooting from the prone position at the U.S. National Biathlon Championships

"Some people just don't know when to quit." The phrase keeps bubbling up in my head despite my every effort to keep it back, and I'm starting to get impatient. This hill shows no sign of letting up, and very soon my ability to stay upright on my skis is going to be in serious jeopardy. "I need excuses, and I need them now!" I sternly demand. But my brain, ever the contrarian, returns the same analysis, resolutely refusing to help. This is all the more frustrating considering the unwanted torrent of feeble excuses my brain routinely releases in much more mundane and manageable circumstances. Now that I'm really in a jam, I need some "A" material, and all I get is crap.

Making a mental note to write up my brain for insubordination when this is all over, I file away this latest round of rational thought in the folder marked "worthless" and once again review my four main options:

Option 1: Quit.
The old standby. Tried. True. Timeless. Its elegance and simplicity have always made it attractive, and I can't help thinking that it might be the best choice for me right now (I personally have quit many times, and its short-term benefits are quiet compelling). There is the small problem of sneaking past the course officials without being seen, of plowing two or three miles through deep snow and trackless wilderness to avoid the grandstand, the starting gate, the shooting range and all the other skiers. That'd be tricky, but it's doable. Then just throw my skis and rifle and all my other junk in the rental car and drive like hell back to Jackson Hole, change my flight and head back to sweet, sweet Jersey. No more skiing. No more hills, no more lactic acid hell. Just hug my wife, play with my kids for a while, take a nap on the couch and forget this ever happened.


Pat, Tom and Rod (The guys I came out with from New York) would be a little perplexed, but I could figure out an excuse and leave a note at the condo before I left. When I got home I could send out a preemptive e-mail to everyone whom I (stupidly) had told about the trip. My wife knows me well enough, she wouldn't say a word, she'd just let me sleep it off. Nobody really cares about biathlon anyway. I could make up whatever I want.... Say that I did really well. They wouldn't even be able to find the results of the race on the Internet. They'd just have to take my word for it. Hmmmm... the quitting thing is looking pretty good; let's take a look at the other options and come back to this later.

Option 2: Take a quick breather.
Another mysterious product of my faulty brain, this option comes up regularly despite its complete lack of merit. It sounds so reasonable: Stop for 60 seconds, let the muscles rest a bit and catch your breath. Then continue with renewed vigor and resolve, having made the superior tactical choice. The only drawback to this is that it has never worked for anyone, ever, anywhere on earth. Stopping for "just a sec" during an endurance event is comparable to taking a "quick look" at the core of a nuclear reactor just to see if it is melting down or not. It is a sure route to quitting without thinking through an adequate escape plan, thus maximizing the humiliation without gaining even the smallest short-term benefits of just flat-out quitting. Cross this one off the list.

Option 3: Collapse.
The up-and-coming choice, this is rapidly becoming the most likely outcome with each second that I continue to reject actions involving making a decision. Collapse has many of the humiliating fatal flaws involved in Option 2 above, including what seems like the quite real possibility of actually dropping dead. Its only merit is that it does not involve making a decision of any kind. I can just sit back, keep trying to ski up this nasty little hill, and it'll happen all by itself. Risky, embarrassing, potentially deadly — better to come up with a better option before this just happens on its own.

Option 4: Keep going.
This is by far the stupidest one, really. When I found out that the first race was going to be 20 kilometers rather than the usual 10, I really should have just politely disappeared. My metabolism was recoiling at the altitude of West Yellowstone (6,600 feet), leaving me completely out of sorts before the race even began. My resting heart rate had inexplicably doubled, settling in at about 90 beats per minute, my bowels were not working right, I got winded getting out of the car, and I had mysteriously forgotten how to ski during the trip from New Jersey. I felt terrible, and just for encouragement I was going up against the best biathletes in the country, two of whom had just completed the European World Cup circuit and were in the top 60 in the world. Twenty k was not only farther than I had ever raced in my life, it was farther than I had ever skied in my life.

That's it. That's all I can come up with for options at the moment, and they all have equally (or nearly equally) fatal flaws. This whole biathlon thing is not shaping up very well at all.

When this all started back in December, Nationals seemed like a such a great idea. I was fresh off a great summer of training, and despite the rocky start (see Happiness is a Warm Gun on a Cold Day) I was feeling fresh and confident. Once the season started, however, and I did a few actual races, I quickly realized that the little local events in New York State provided plenty of competition for my budding skill level. I'd finished in the middle of the pack a few times, but several times more toward the end, and once at the very, very end. The locals had put up a solid fight, my shortcomings were all clearly identified, and I was ready to call it a season by the end of February.

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