Happiness Is a Warm Gun on a Cold Day

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Today I'm firing my gun for the first time, and it feels good. I'm on the target range of the Saratoga Biathlon club near the south shore of the Sacandaga Lake in upstate New York. I'm on skis, and there is a cleverly designed harness on my Russian-made .22-caliber rifle that allows me to carry it on my back as I wend through the woods between shooting stops. The air is cold and it is difficult to hold the rifle still with my heart pounding, but I actually hit a few targets and finish the course without collapsing. At the moment, it appears that I have managed to become competent in a winter sport involving firearms while training over the summer — in a hot place with no snow where it is illegal to have guns.

It all started during the Lake Placid Olympics in '80, when I first saw a short segment on biathlon and it seemed like the coolest winter sport ever (skiing with a rifle on your back — come on!). After the '84 Sarajevo Games my friend Erik suggested that we train for the Calgary Olympics, and the idea caught on. We set about to educate ourselves, but in the pre-Internet 1980s it was tough to find any information about the sport, so we just made it up, happily skiing around the hills in southern Oregon with rifles on our backs, using the wrong skis and the wrong technique over the wrong distance, with the wrong type of ammunition fired through the wrong rifle at the wrong distance at the wrong type of target. We were caught up in the romance of it all and didn't have the slightest idea what we were doing. It was great fun and the details be damned.

That phase lasted a season or two, but life, school and work soon intervened, and the idea faded into the background for more than a decade. By 1999 I had moved to New York, started a family and was starting to settle down. I was in the idea business, which meant long hours sitting at a computer, and as interesting as it was, it caused the bathroom scale to show mysteriously high numbers when I stepped on it in the morning and left me feeling restless and disturbingly normal. The biathlon idea resurfaced and I couldn't get it out of my mind: It offered a real challenge (skiing and shooting do not go together easily); it provided hope for my long-lost Olympic aspirations; but most importantly, it gave relief from the ordinariness that I felt creeping into the corners of my comfortable life.

The call of Valhalla

Biathlon also tapped into a lurking element of my Scandinavian pride (I am of Swedish heritage). I remember reading about vastly outnumbered ski-borne Finnish troops' earning the nickname "white death" for repeatedly confounding and outmaneuvering the Russian army during the Second World War. I also remember an account from 1943 of a group of Norwegian commandos who successfully skied overland all the way to Sweden (over 250 miles) after blowing up a Nazi heavy water facility that was a key component in Hitler's attempt to manufacture an atomic bomb. More than a few sports have some type of military component (e.g., the marathon), but the vision of my Nordic brethren frustrating totalitarian invaders using superior tactics, marksmanship and skill on skis completed the intoxicating vision. By late 1999 there was no doubt: Biathlon was gonna be the sport for me.

In January of 2000 my wife and I took a trip to Lake Placid and I took my first-ever ski lesson at the facility at Mt. Van Hoevenburg. The instructor was very patient and professional during the hour that I displayed no detectable ability on skis. Whatever experience I had from my first largely imaginary foray into the sport in the '80s was worse than useless. The specific technique used in biathlon, called "skating," proved immeasurably elusive for me, despite the fact that I was in the hands of a veteran coach in a one-on-one lesson. By the end of the day I had showed only a few fleeting glimpses of competence at this technique, in contrast to my instinctive affinity for various ways of catapulting myself facedown in the snow. It was a sobering dose of reality for what had up to that point been a pleasant but purely imaginary endeavor. As I sat slumped in the car on the way home, feeling heretofore unknown muscles in my ass (pivotal for skating, largely unused while sitting at a desk) tighten and cramp, there was no doubt that it was going to be a long haul.

Hanging on to the dream

Denial then came into play. Heavily. In a sort of inverted post-traumatic stress disorder, I slowly began focusing in on all the cool things that had happened. The few moments of balance and control I had felt on the skis (out of hours of pounding and snow-eating) and the excitement of working out on the actual Olympic course at Lake Placid (even though I was as far from Olympic glory as I was from being an astronaut) were much more vivid in my memory than the nasty, discouraging, humiliating, painful part of the trip, and by the time my ass stopped hurting I was ready for more.

I managed to work out on real snow a few more times (and it was not nearly as bad), but the coming of spring complicated things. Even in Lake Placid, the snow lasts only three or four months a year. Leaving eight months of hot, snowless weather when the nearest skiable snow is at the Arctic Circle. I contemplated various "dry land" training methods — Rollerblades and running drills and special excercises — but I realized these were for people who already knew what the hell they were doing. I was bad at it, let's be honest, and I wasn't going to become a better skier if all I did was go on 10k runs, or hop around on one leg through an obstacle course all summer (one of the dry-land drills I read about). The only answer was daily practice, and the shimmering hot streets of Manhattan were mocking me in a most unyielding fashion. The answer to this problem came in the form of Rollerskis — strange-looking Rollerblade-type units that, when used with special poles, can simulate the feeling of cross-country skis on any paved surface, snow or no snow.

Armed with my dry-land skis, I could train during lunchtime in Central Park practically every day all summer, and the proposition became significantly less ridiculous. All I had to do was get over the slight drawback of making a spectacle of myself every day. Speeding through the park at the height of summer on strange-looking wheeled units attached to Day-Glo Nordic ski boots and preposterously long poles is one of the few ways to actually attract attention in New York City. It took some time to reconcile my inherently low-key Scandinavian temperament with the whole public-spectacle thing — the unself-conscious stares, the involuntary comments, the tourists scrambling for their cameras etc., etc. For the first few weeks I just gritted my teeth and applied my "gotta finish what I've started" attitude to get through my all-too-public workouts. However, after I got over the initial revulsion at attracting so much attention to myself I began to realize that it really wasn't so bad. There was the occasional person of limited imagination who would state the obvious ("Hey buddy, there's no snow out here"), but the overwhelming reaction was surprise, curiosity or outright encouragement. This grew on me after a while, and I finally comprehended the fact that standing out from the crowd can actually be a good thing (which, to be honest, had never occurred to me in my entire life). After a few months I hardly noticed that anything odd was happening — just another day, just another workout, just another crowd of schoolchildren yelling and pointing.

Cold blue steel, sweet fire

The other strange component of training for this sport in the city is that it involves guns. In Oregon everybody has guns. It's like having a chain saw or a motorcycle — hazardous but indispensable for life in the country, and the laws of the land reflect this attitude. Rifles, pistols and ammunition were readily available in Oregon at the sporting goods section of Kmart or any other big department story, right alongside the sleeping bags and fishing poles. It was just no big deal. In Jersey City, where I live now, however, guns are associated exclusively with crime, criminals and mayhem, and the laws of the land reflect that attitude. Last spring I was poised to purchase a newly minted Russian biathlon rifle called the Izhmash Biathlon 7-4. I contacted Caso's Gun-a-Rama in Jersey City and they said it was readily available, and everything was in place to make the order when the proprietor asked "Can I have your permit number, please?" I indicated that I didn't know what he was talking about. He said to go to the police station and fill out the forms and they'd issue the permit in six weeks.

Six weeks rapidly turned into six months as I navigated through page after page of tricky self-contradicting forms and a bureaucracy with absolutely no interest in issuing any gun permits to anyone in Jersey City. This was the biggest hurdle yet, and the temptation to smuggle in a rifle from Oregon was overwhelming (federal laws regulating interstate transport of firearms are surprisingly lax; I could have flown from Oregon to Jersey with a rifle as declared luggage and nobody would have blinked an eye at Newark International). I just couldn't stand the fact that I was losing six months of training because of some silly laws that put my single-shot .22 (an unlikely weapon to use in a mob hit) in the same category as an Uzi. Anyway, in the end I refused defeat but stayed within the bounds of the law, constructing a dummy rifle from an Internet printout that simulated every aspect of my Izmash, right down to a laser system to register a hit or a miss. I practiced with this mockup out in the shed in my backyard until I cleared the permit with the cops and got the real gun. The man can't touch me now.

Since I'm on the topic, I'm just going to come right out and say it: I love my gun. I know I'm bad; I know that as a thinking person I'm supposed to be repulsed by tools of violence and sense the evil that lurks at the very core of all firearms, but that is not the case. I love it and there is no denyin'.

I love the engraving on the receiver stating that it is an IZMASH BIATHLON 7-4 with the "N" and the "S" in the Cyrillic backward-letter style (the funny letters add to the no-nonsense Iron Curtain credibility of the thing and it just makes me crazy). I love the little "accuracy stamp" on the barrel from the Russian Bureau of Weights and Measures, certifying that the barrel has met strict tolerances for accuracy and precision. I love the little paper test target it came with where the (Russian) factory technician shot five shots at 20 degrees centigrade and five shots at -20C to confirm the accuracy of the barrel (the warm group is clustered within about an inch, the cold group about an inch and a half). I love the clips on the buttstock that hold four extra magazines (for quick loading during a race). I love the sights that have extra-large adjusting knobs so you can re-zero quickly during the race if the conditions or wind changes. I love the pull action bolt, which allows for a much quicker cycle of fire than a regular bolt action (the International Biathlon Union rules allow for a competition rifle to have a five-round magazine, but the athlete must cycle the action manually between shots). I love the two-strap harness that holds it securely on my back but allows me to take it off and prepare to fire in just a few seconds. I love the little metal flaps that snap in place over the sights to keep them clear of snow during the skiing intervals. I love the surprising heft of the thing; you pick it up and get the distinct sense that to ski very far with it on your back and then hold it steady enough to hit a four-inch circle at 50 meters is an activity most certainly undertaken by men — oh, and the untold platoons of Nordic Amazons who could twist me into a pretzel. Now that I can handle the thing, and make a decent show of myself as a ski-borne marksman, I realize that my gun has contributed directly to an increase my self-esteem. This makes me love it even more.

Frozen shots

So here I am, on a real biathlon course, on the right skis, shooting with the right kind of rifle at the right distance. It is a strange sensation to have something imagined for a long time take shape in reality. All the time spent out in the backyard aiming at a target only a few feet away, and all the time "skiing" on pavement without a trace of snow in sight, is now being translated into the real thing.

It ends up being a day of extremes. I do actually finish the 10km time trial, hit a few targets while standing on skis, and employ a ski technique that is much improved over the flailing and falling that took place during my punishing first lesson 11 months ago. This is great, but it is eclipsed quickly by a reality that only the most hopelessly deluded can miss: On any objective scale I still suck at it quite badly. Really.

The other guys are good, I am not. I am at full throttle, flirting with total cardiovascular collapse, and they pass me talking and laughing. I miss every shot at a shooting stop, taking 60 seconds to complete the five-shot cycle; they hit every shot, taking 12 seconds to complete the cycle. "What is so fun about this?" I think during a dark moment of the day, as I get lapped by another skier, taste blood in my mouth that is spraying up from my heaving, overtaxed lungs, and catch a ski tip on a tree, causing me to plow into the underbrush and knock my head on my gun barrel. "This is not fun... this is just dumb... stop... please." Finally, the casual clockings we keep in the time trial reveal that I only need to cut my time in half in order to be competitive. Even my own formidable powers of denial are feeling the strain.

The thrill of defeat

But the negative won't last, even as the ass-kicking reaches comical proportions. The 10 seconds of proper technique that I briefly employ sends chills up my spine. Hitting three out of 15 at a shooting stop feels like winning a gold medal. "Whoo hooo!" I yell, skiing out of the firing range "Whoo hooo!.... look at me, I'm a biaaaaaaathleeeete!" Just 10 seconds after finishing the workout my mysterious selective memory starts working its magic and all I can remember are the few brief moments when it went right. Everything else is instantly gone — the floudering, the struggle, the moments of being earthbound and ungraceful. At the end of the day, its like it never happened.

It's also nearly impossible to stay discouraged when talking to the other members of the club. Everyone there is very friendly and encouraging, and I realize that 15 minutes spent talking to someone with experience (one of the skiers who is there, Curt Schreiner, has been to the Olympics three times as a biathlete) is worth about six months of figuring things out on my own using trial and error. Brought together by a sport enjoyed by a very small number of people in the U.S., biathletes definitely stick together.

So it ends, my first day skiing and shooting for real. The ugly realizations about my skill level combined with the thrilling few moments of excellence leave me confused as to whether this was a victory or a setback. On the drive home, however, the selective memory circuit kicks into overdrive: The good becomes more radiant and the bad fades until I feel flush with success. I find myself inexplicably looking forward to the next trip, scheming how to improve.

There are several races coming up in the next few months and my calendar is marked in red. I'm planning on heading out to Wyoming in March for the National Championships, and the Olympic Trials start on December 26, 2001, in Utah. In all likelihood, the future is going to hold more of the same brain-twisting good/bad madness that has come along so far.

I sure hope so.