I lay sprawled on my stomach on a rubber mat spread across the snow, my knees bent, the toes of my boots still locked into my cross-country skis. Fifty meters away, a series of five circles that looked like Oreo cookies loomed against a white background. Then, for the first time ever, I fired a gun: a .22-caliber rifle. I hit the target and the Oreo turned white, as if it had been swallowed whole.
On a cold, sunny Saturday in January, I had come to Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway, Utah, to learn about biathlon, a hybrid of cross-country skiing and target shooting that originated in Scandinavia, where people have long hunted game on skis. Perhaps you’ve seen it on an Olympic broadcast: Cross-country skiers sprint along a course, rifles slung across their backs, then skid to a stop at a shooting range midrace, trying to slow their breathing and heart rate enough to aim at five tiny targets.
Until recently, I didn’t know much about this niche sport. But then I covered the Winter Games in Beijing last year and discovered that it was hardly obscure. If the media center at the cross-country skiing race venue hummed with journalists, the biathlon media center felt more like a presidential campaign hub two weeks before the election.
Among international television audiences, especially in Europe, Olympic and World Cup biathlon competitions are big. According to Eurovision Sport, a broadcaster of competitions, each television broadcast of a World Cup biathlon competition in the 2021-22 season reached an average of 27.2 million viewers.
I soon discovered why: It’s exciting. Races range in distance from 7.5 to 20 kilometers, and competitors stop at the target range four times during most of them, shooting twice while standing, twice while prone. For every one of the targets each round they miss, they have to ski a 150-meter penalty lap on a separate track. It can look like a three-ring circus of athletes in motion.
All this led me to Soldier Hollow, 50 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, a site built for the 2002 Olympics. Here, amid a backdrop of rounded peaks topped with meringue-like dollops of snow, 22.5 kilometers of meticulously groomed trails roll across meadows and gentle hills. During the winter, Soldier Hollow offers private biathlon clinics that combine shooting and skiing (from $125 per person), and in the summer, daily sessions at the shooting range only (from $50 per person).
Mark Burnham, the Nordic center manager at Soldier Hollow, says that about half of the guests who take a winter biathlon clinic already cross-country ski and want to try shooting. The others are first-time skiers, or are still fairly new to the sport.
I joined a group of eight friends from Salt Lake City. Our instructor, Mix Broadhead, doled out some ski tips, since we were at various skill levels. Then we skied down a gentle incline to the biathlon range.
Mr. Broadhead (whose name tag read “Galaxy Cat”) talked to the group about biathlon’s history and explained the rules. He showed us the backpack-style harness that athletes use to carry their rifles, which weigh seven to eight pounds. He explained that for our introductory experience, we’d all shoot while prone and have short stands to support the rifles, an aid that competitive biathletes don’t use.
As the first half of the group took their places on the mat, the Bubble Wrap-like pops of shots began, followed by a faint smell of gunpowder. A rabbit bravely ran alongside the range before darting away. Shooting was “a little nerve racking, but slightly easier than I expected,” said Celia Pietsch, 33, who, like me, was a first-time gun handler. She hit four out of five targets during the round. But there was a catch — we were shooting at targets set for standing athletes, even though we were lying down. That made it easier, like hitting a beach ball off a golf tee.
For the next round, instructors set the targets at the actual prone level. Ms. Pietsch hit only one of them. Steadying the target within the sight — at this point, it seemed more like a pinprick than an Oreo — was challenging. And we hadn’t even come racing in on our skis. “I was breathing minimally, but every breath moved the target a lot more than I expected,” said another clinic participant, Anna Pardee, 32.
Of course, athletes rely on strategies to achieve the calm and precision needed for the shooting segments. They’ll start to slow their pace about 400 meters ahead of the target range, said Phillip Radu, 16, a competitive biathlete for Team Soldier Hollow who assisted with the clinic. But there’s a fine line between coming in too quickly and not quickly enough. “You can’t go slow too early,” Mr. Radu explained. “If your heart rate drops too much, then a lot of blood gets into your heart and makes your rifle shake. You want to keep your heart rate around 140 when you’re shooting.”
I asked Mr. Broadhead if hunters who take Soldier Hollow’s biathlon clinics have an advantage and was surprised when he answered that many of them struggle at first. That’s because the triggers on the types of hunting rifles sold in the United States are typically harder to pull than those on biathlon rifles, he said, so hunters often need to learn a little more finesse. Picture driving a Ferrari the way you would handle a Toyota Highlander, without easing off the controls.
I’m far from the only one interested in biathlon. Soldier Hollow’s summer clinics at the range have drawn about 2,500 people annually, while the winter sessions bring in about 250 people, said the general manager, Luke Bodensteiner, a two-time Olympian in cross-country skiing. Meanwhile, the center just added biathlon to its weekly ski race series.
The adult masters’ program at Crosscut Mountain Sports Center in Bozeman, Mont., has been growing steadily for the past four years, said Seth Hubbard, who coaches the center’s elite biathlete team and also runs amateur clinics. Crosscut hosts a couple of biathlon races annually, with no previous experience required, as well as private lessons ($165 each for up to three people). “We want people to walk away thinking, ‘That was awesome. How can I do more of that?’” Mr. Hubbard said.
Other places to try out biathlon include the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont, which offers one-hour private lessons (from $35 per person); Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the Discover Biathlon program (not currently offered, but scheduled to resume next season) includes a cross-country ski lesson and instruction at the target range ($95); and Ariens Nordic Center, in Brillion, Wis., which offers weekly introductory sessions ($20 per person) that will continue through the summer at the shooting range.
Back at Soldier Hollow, I skied a “race” lap, slowing down well before the range, as Mr. Radu had advised. Taking measured breaths, I tried to relax as I aimed at each target, pulling back the bolt between each shot. To my surprise, I shot clean, meaning that I hit all five targets. Do I have a future as an amateur biathlete? Unlikely, given my comparatively slow pace. Would I try it again? Absolutely. In terms of fun, I felt like a winner.
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