My favorite sport at the winter Olympics is the biathlon. It is not nearly as popular as alpine skiing, snowboarding or figure skating, and I admit there is something a bit esoteric about the combination of cross country skiing and marksmanship shooting. I like most shooting sports, and I grew up cross-country skiing every winter in Rochester, but it is not only my personal affinity for these pursuits that makes it my favorite.
What really catches my interest is the intentional combination of these two distinct disciplines – skiing and shooting. One, skiing, requires tremendous strength and aerobic ability. When you watch the athletes, they seem to be sprinting for the entire race, no matter how long the track may be. Their arms and legs are massive and muscular, and their speed and endurance compete with those in any sport. Strength and endurance thin the pack of competitors, and you can tell that they are pushing their heart and lungs to the limits with each stride. Occasionally, they rest and coast downhill, but for most of the race they are working at full throttle.
Then, comes the shooting.
Depending on the specific biathlon event, athletes spend between 20 and 25 seconds at the shooting range. Having already precisely zeroed their .22 rifles before the competition, top competitors shoot all 5 targets in 7-10 seconds. Targets are either 11.5 cm (4.5 inches) or 4.5 cm (dollar coin) and are placed at 50 meters.
While you can’t be a top competitor if your skiing strength is not adequate, races are often won or lost in the shooting portion. For each miss at the target range, athletes must run a 150-meter penalty loop. This adds significant time, and more than a token number of misses means you will not have a possibility of winning the race without an unrealistic lead.
50 meters is not that close when we are talking about hitting 5 targets the size of a small coin. And the task is complicated by the fact that any small movement in the sights of the rifle results in a miss down range.
In order to hit all the targets, the athletes must be able to slow down the full steam ahead pace of the skiing portion, and achieve an almost motionless calm before pulling the trigger. Target shooting of any kind requires slow and methodical breathing, and a conscious reduction of even slight movements of the body. This is extremely difficult under ideal circumstances, and nearly impossible with your heart rate and breathing elevated from sprinting or distance skiing.
Biathlon marksmen must be able to slow their breathing and their heart rate, and work diligently to develop the ability to do so. At the level of top competitors, marksmen strive to be aware of their heartbeats (even that can throw off the sights) and to pull the trigger IN BETWEEN TWO INDIVIDUAL HEARTBEATS.
Unlike during the skiing portion, in this part of the race, strength and speed play no part, and in fact, create errors. Even a small movement at the rifle, a tiny fraction of an inch, can result in a miss 50 meters down range. What is required is focus, method, calm, and minimal movement. An acute awareness of body and breath allows for hits and gets the athlete back on course faster.
The spiritual message of this sport is powerful, and conveys an important aspect of mastery of any endeavor – arts, athletics, marksmanship, or religious discipline. If the target were only one meter away instead of 50 meters there would be no need for the intense change of pace from sprint to calm. When our goals in life are simple and easy, errors in preparing and executing for them are less significant. If you have a specific goal that can be accomplished by tomorrow, there is very little that you could do to upset your chances of hitting your target and achieving your aim. However, when your goals in life are farther away, lifelong goals, or complex goals, things that cannot be accomplished quickly or easily. If they require a combination of steps to get there, then any small disruption can set you off target. If your goal is to go to the museum, you can simply go and pay the admission. If your goal is to become an artist, the time and perseverance required will be vastly different.
We all have goals. Some are more immediate and therefore easier to get to, and some are more remote, requiring longer commitments, complex relationships, practice, mindfulness, slow and steady pacing. Whatever your goals in life may be, it is, I believe important to identify the “distance to target.” Lifelong goals of self-discovery, mastery and wisdom demand that we become aware of our breathing and our heartbeats, the internal rhythms that measure our path and that we aim carefully and slowly, between the small vibrations of life, and then pull the trigger.