A few weeks ago, I could have told you that Mammoth Lakes sits in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, but that’s all I knew about it. I wasn’t aware that it receives an average of 400 inches of snow and 300 days of sunshine a year. I didn’t know that hundreds of Los Angeles residents flock to Mammoth Mountain every winter weekend to ski. I hadn’t heard that many elite endurance athletes, such as marathoner Deena Kastor, choose to live in Mammoth Lakes for the altitude advantage (town sits about 8,000 ft). Nor did I realize Yosemite National Park lies just to the west and the town itself sits in one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world with lots of interesting geologic features, such as hotsprings and fumaroles (steam vents). Sounds like a pretty neat place, doesn’t it? However, one of the most surprising things that I didn’t know about Mammoth Lakes is that it is home to North America’s Largest Biathlon Race.
The vision behind Mammoth Lakes Biathlon comes from Doctor Mike Karch (right).
Mammoth Lakes’ biathlon program began four years ago under the leadership of Mike Karch and his wife Kim Escudero. As a National Nordic Combined Team’s doctor, Mike traveled to Europe and experienced Scandanavia’s enthusiasm for Nordic sports firsthand. He returned home determined to bring that energy to his own community, choosing to start with the sport of biathlon. First he acquired some rifles and convinced his friends and coworkers (including half the doctors from the local hospital) to try out the sport. Then they “volunteered” (with a little encouragement from Mike) to help organize what would become an annual event.
Mammoth Lakes biathlon has grown into a popular, multiday production. (Photo credit: Jim Barnes)
In four years, the Mammoth Lakes community has accomplished a lot. Despite the lack of a permanent range site and a record snow year (600 inches and counting) they constructed a temporary range the day before the first race on National Forest land that was several miles from the nearest automobile access point. Even with limited range access, 300 participants and countless volunteers (including a construction company to help build the range) signed up for the weekend of clinics and races. There were race categories for everybody, with separate divisions for kids, beginners, intermediates, advanced, elite, Wounded Warriors, and disabled athletes. The range itself featured 20 targets with mats, and a fleet of rifles and laser rifles (much of this material was acquired through town and community recreation funds). With the help of Mammoth Mountain, race organizers secured Ford as the title sponsor for the event. Versus/Outdoor channel offered to broadcast helicopter footage of the races (although the helicopter was replaced at the last minute with ground cameramen due to weather concerns). Whit Raymond, the commentator for Ironman World Championships, came to town and brought energy to race days with his announcing. Mammoth Lakes is a wonderful case study for what can be done to promote Nordic sports in North America.
The Mammoth community is very welcoming and determined to make biathlon happen. Britt Cogan (left) and Joe Walker (second from right) entertained visitors Lanny Barnes (second from left) and myself when they weren't busy volunteering or competing themselves. Britt and Joe are regular participant's of Mike Karch's "dawn patrol" (catching the sunrise on skis above Tamarack), and they love to mtn bike and alpine ski. Everybody in town is an athlete of some sort and many have been very successful in their sport(s).
Since Mammoth Lakes doesn’t have a local community of experienced biathletes yet, Mike invited myself and several other National Team members to fly to town for the weekend, stay with host families, and participate in the elite race. I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Immediately following Nationals, and with about four days notice, I found myself on a plane again heading west.
I am very grateful to the Will family (Doug, Sherilynne, and their son Jason) for hosting me while I was in town. All three are avid runners and skiers, and became some of Mike's first recruits to try out biathlon. Jason (bib 33) won the second heat of the elite race. His father (background in the same suit) also competed.
The first day of the three day event was comprised of shooting clinics for beginners and kids. Due to a large snow storm, the clinics were moved inside and the 22 caliber rifles were swapped for laser rifles.
Raleigh Goessling, a Junior National Team member, and I spent a day delayed in the airport. We arrived in time on Friday to help Altius Firearm’s Marc Sheppard with the day’s last clinic.
The first scheduled day of racing (Saturday) was also modified due to blustery whiteout conditions. All the kids, Wounded Warriors, beginner, and disabled athletes had to settle for a ski race instead of a biathlon race. One of the primary goals of the community is to build a base of local biathletes, so it was particularly disappointing that the kids didn’t get to shoot. However, everybody still had fun and the day was a grand success.
Sideways wind at the range site on Saturday.
Some of the medal winners from Saturday’s ski races:
Tamarack cross country ski center with about 25-30 feet of base.
The final day of races included the intermediate, advanced and elite categories. Races were delayed a couple hours so road crews could blast for avalanche control (an almost daily occurence in town) but the delay didn’t seem to bother anybody. Conditions were still windy, but much tamer than the day before. The easterner in me was psyched about how sunny it was, although the locals dismissed it as “mostly cloudy.” I raced in the elite race with my National Teammates, some national guard biathletes, and a few other experienced athletes. It wasn’t pretty; racing at 9,000 ft sure hurts on only two days of acclimation.
Thanks to Jim Barnes for this photo
Spectators of all ages came to watch. Shuttles throughout the day helped spectators travel the long climb to the stadium.
Several vendors set up tents alongside the stadium and many people bought Mammoth Lakes Biathlon cowbells, T-shirts, and hats.
This competitor was the crowd's favorite. Wearing jeans, a button down shirt, and no gloves, he competed with a pair of fat touring skis and his own 22 caliber rifle slung over his shoulder. The entire stadium cheered when he mastered the strong winds to hit a few standing targets.
Setting up and taking down the stadium was a logistical challenge, due to deep snow and a several km trek from the nearest road. Mike hopes to find a more permanent range site in the future that the community will be able to train on year round instead of one weekend a year.
I decided to stay in town several extra days along with my teammate Wynn Roberts. I had a great time going xc skiing, alpine skiing, sledding, night mountain biking, horseback riding, and exploring some of the area’s geothermal sites. I hope to make it back in the next few years for future biathlon competitions and some high altitude training.
Skiing with Mammoth's junior xc ski team. Wynn brainstormed some fun races and relays.
I try to make it out on alpine skis at least once a year. This year I avoided eastern ice. Left to right: Jason Will, myself, Jill Morrison (a high school buddy from Lyndonville who now lives in the area) and Wynn. We finished the day with painful sunburns.