Hugh Pritchard, Biathlete

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Hugh Pritchard
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1 November 2000

It rained all yesterday afternoon and last night, and felt quite cold. This morning there is quite a good covering of snow on top of the Rauschberg. This is at the same altitude as Tauplitz, so very good news. The forecast for today was for the rain/snow boundary to move a bit higher, but it should come down again later in the week.

Training with the group yesterday morning: a LSD roller-ski combi, which went OK. Had a good siesta after lunch, only awoken by the sound of the rest of the gang shooting on the range. Had I known they were shooting again I would have set my alarm - but I did not. It was raining heavily and getting dark, so I opted for a session in the gymn until I got crowded out - junior biathletes and junior langlaufers, their coaches arguing about who normally uses the gymn at that time on a Tuesday. In the end they shared it, one group moving some of the equipment into the changing-room next door; I could not stand the noise, and left them.

 

3 November

Drove to Hochfilzen yesterday to train on the range and roller-ski track there. A nice, friendly track, though quite short (they say 2.5km). I had forgotten how the sun on the range there is: when I arrived it was bitterly cold, with a heavy frost on the ground. Soon enough, though, the sun got onto the firing point and it very quickly became quite warm. Started off thinking that the targets were not falling very easily, and sure enough the Austrian coach came over and pointed out that the two lanes that Peter Moysey and I were on had modified targets, with smaller hit areas. Once we got going, the wind got more and more, so we kept having to adjust sights, which was good practise.

Hochfilzen is the most dreary, prosaic little biathlon venue: half of the course is visible from the bank by the range, and most of the rest from the back of the barracks. There are no trails disappearing mysteriously off into the woods as at Lillehammer or Ramsau - in fact there are no woods. It is a mystery to me how they get the snow to stay there, as there is no shade over much of the course. This is a contrast to Ruhpolding (Hochfilzen is some 300m higher), where the sun never shines on the range in Winter. In fact, come to think of it, I have seen some pretty atrocious snow at Hochfilzen: one year I took the train back to Pontresina, as I was so disgusted with being rained off the Hochfilzen range on Boxing Day.

After lunch of Wiener Schnitzel at the Hochfilznerhof we drove to the Großglockner, intending to run up from the car-park by the toll to the top. It turned out that the sign saying '5km' was misleading: it was actually 5km to the start of the scenic stretch of road, and the best views were quite a lot further. After a heated debate with the boss at the tollbooth who thought we were mad to want to run up this road with the strong wind blowing the fresh snow about, we set off and ran 5km up the road, climbing some 500m, then back down to do some speed work and ski imitation drills (bounding etc) down the bottom. A small herd of eerie-looking European bison spectated, lending a neolithic flavour to the scene.

About 3-4" of wet snow at the car-park at 1100m, which bodes well for Tauplitz. The snow on the tops around Ruhpolding has gone now, after a couple of very warm days (22°C this afternoon), so there are obviously different weather systems about. Plenty of precipitation is forecast for the weekend, so we may be OK.

 

4 November

Pouring with rain last night and all day today. Rare glimpses of the hills revealed snow down to about 400m above the valley, which bodes very well for Tauplitz next week.

Did my last training session at Ruhpolding this morning: a classic roller-ski combination, in continuous rain, at 6°C. I got a little chilled, and my hands and feet were decidedly cold. But I shot well, which was a nice way to end, and after an unpleasant session like that will be glad to put my roller-skis away for a few months.

The Germans never bend their training to the weather. This is not because they are tough, but simply because if they did not train in the rain, they would never train at all. In England it is easy to substitute an indoor session if it is pouring outside, on the assumption that it will be better the next day. Perhaps Scotland is different.

There was a 'ski-bazaar' in Ruhpolding today and tomorrow: I took in half a dozen pairs of old skis and marked them up to sell for a pittance. As I looked at some of the other stuff for sale, the organiser took two of my pairs away within a minute of their being put down, so I obviously underpriced them. If any of the others sell I will be very happy: I would far rather they got used by someone than rotted away in my cellar.

 

5 November

 

Day off: the first of two, as I move to Tauplitz tomorrow for the final phase of training before starting the race season. The big training is all behind me now, and only sharpening and tuning remain, with a few blasts to make sure that all cylinders are firing.

First snow of the Winter over RuhpoldingA pleasant day's motor touring in glorious sunshine, with a little dusting of snow on the tops of the hills. Drove to Berchtesgaden, took a stroll around the Königsee and the town centre, then on to Bad Reichenhall, with its mediaeval fortifications and 17th century centre.

Some success at the ski-bazaar: sold 5 pairs of skis and 1 of poles, and lost 1 pair of skis (presumed sold). All were ridiculously underpriced, but at least they will now be used, and the proceeds will cover the cost of my current stay at the biathlon centre.

Now I have to pack my gear to put my Summer training stuff into storage and dig out what I need for the snow season and races. This is a bit I always hate, and I wish my computer would play Wagner's Ring a lot louder.

 

6 November

Latest news is that the snow in Tauplitz is not yet skiable, so we are going to Ramsau to ski on the glacier. That leaves a dilemma as to whether to take roller-skis: given that I also have to take different boots just for roller-skiing, it is a lot of baggage for what will hopefully only be a couple of half-days training. On the other hand, it is a wonderful roller-ski track at Ramsau.

 

8 November

Ramsau. Skiing on the glacier in the mornings, running and shooting on the range in the afternoons. None of us has roller-skis, which is a great shame as the roller-ski track is so good.

Ramsau very different now from a week ago: before there were hundreds of skiers training on the glacier and roller-ski track, now about four team. Victor Maigourov seems to be here alone, which seems strange, given what one hears of how disciplined the Russian team is.

It snowed last night at the lower lift station, at 1700m, but only an inch. Generally, the weather is not bad enough to indicate snow in Tauplitz, and we have committed to staying here until Friday.

 

10 November

Awoke this morning to (very) light snowfall outside and a raging sore throat. A sore throat for me usually adumbrates a cold, leaving me a dilemma: do I pack in as much training as possible before the cold forces me to take three days off, or do I retire to bed in the hope that I can ward off the cold before it takes hold? This time I have elected to take time off, so am lying in bed with time to read and write.

We are staying in a fairly typical 'pension' (something between a B & B and a hotel); there is an apartment with a kitchen, which I and 3 others are in, and the others are in double or triple rooms. We get 'Vollpension' (full board), and are the only ones in the place. As a team of 13 out of season, we get good value at some £18 per head per night. However lift passes are expensive (over £10 per day), and we may be charged a daily fee to use the range. So not the world's cheapest training camp venue - but there is not much alternative in this part of the world.

I share a room with Mike Dixon, the grand old man of the team. It is many years since the team even had a coach older than him. I am the second oldest but least experienced. There are no new faces since I was last in the team in March 1999.

Mike has had a fascinating career in skiing which would take ages to recount; perhaps if I get bored I will write it down. More importantly, he is the deepest thinker in the team. My learning method is almost entirely conscious and analytical, so it suits me well to be in close contact with him.

Skiing is such fun: I punt around the glacier with a big grin on my face; yesterday I got carried away and went far too fast to start with, because I was dreaming about Britain's first ever world cup medal, and my pivotal role in getting the relay team onto the podium, far in the future...

The snow situation is somewhat difficult. At this time of year one would like to be doing quite a bit of high-intensity skiing, but this is difficult on the glacier because the thin air does not allow the muscles enough oxygen to work very hard. One would also like to be doing ski-combination training (biathlon race simulations, etc), which we cannot, unless we take targets up to the glacier (possible, but unconventional and very tiresome).

So we do gentle skiing in the mornings, working primarily on technique, and running or ski imitation drills and shooting in the afternoons. Unfortunately none of us has brought roller-skis, a mistake I will not make again (I elected to leave them behind because of the baggage volume: if I want to roller-ski, I also need to bring boots with Salomon bindings, due to the ludicrous situation whereby I have different bindings on my snow and roller gear.

The equipment supply situation is getting ridiculous. I put in my order as required at the end of July, and my cheque was cashed 3 months ago. The latest story is that our team race suits will arrive in January, halfway through the season. This piles insult upon injury: the national team pays for the privilege of wearing Adidas suits in televised world cup races, yet must go half the season looking like a gang of tourists in old mix'n'match kit. All offers will be considered.

However, Alpina have been kind enough to give several of us boots and bindings, which is good news. Their equipment is every bit as good as their Salomon rivals', but is much less widely used in the Alps (in Scandinavia it is more common), which I guess comes down to marketing. Alpina are also much more helpful to deal with than some other suppliers - one of the team has just switched to Alpina from Salomon: despite a long-standing contract, he got fed up with having to ask repeatedly for new boots, and racing in old boots because he was reluctant to buy new ones when under contract to receive them free.

Of course, if you get medals at world level, everything becomes a bit different. Sport is all about money for everyone but the participants; and the rank and file participants are the least important consideration when it comes to organising and marketing. Even national team members' interests are secondary to those of the sponsors, as shown by the debate between the swimmers sponsored by Speedo and the British Olympic Association sponsored 'exclusively' by Adidas in Sydney. In many ways historically 'professional' sports such as tennis do better in this respect - would administrators ever insist on the Davis Cup team all using the sponsor's rackets?

The disparity between organisers' and participants' interests is strongly apparent in the skiing sports. Cross-country is a sport with huge competitive participation, several annual races having over 10,000 starters. It is simple and easy to understand, and requires good old-fashioned virtues to excel. Yet it receives less media coverage and therefore sponsorship monies than ski-jumping or biathlon, both sports with tiny participation bases and complicated and expensive infrastructures. Why?

The obvious difference is that the German-dominated International Biathlon Union has bent over backward to make its events more appealing to the public, in particular television. So we have mass starts and pursuit races rather than time trials, seeding according to television's convenience rather than results and courses that repeat the same loop 5 times rather than using several different loops.

Cross-country's Scandinavian-dominated administration is in contrast very conservative: when Sweden's Gunde Svan turned up at the World Championships with a single ski-pole 10' long, the Norwegians protested and it was immediately banned; when skating technique was invented the Scandinavian countries tried all sorts of ways to prevent it being used; Thomas Wassberg of Sweden got round a rule requiring him to use stick-wax for part of the course by waxing on parcel tape, and ripping it off when he no longer needed it. Sprint races have now been introduced to the world cup despite Scandinavian opposition. Mass start and single day pursuit races were tried and have been withdrawn as a result of Scandinavian opposition.

It is interesting to note that in many of these cases it is the athletes who make the innovations, and the 'administrators' who resist.

On the other hand, the vast majority of racers compete only for their own pleasure, and choose races (when they can) of a format they like, rather than of a format favourable to television and sponsors. It is only a very few individuals who benefit from a sport's being 'telegenic'. One might say that the sport as a whole benefits as more people are encouraged by the television coverage to take it up, but that is somewhat meaningless: the sport is not a person with emotions and so on.

 

11 November

Despite all my precautions, I am the one who has gone down with a cold. I awoke yesterday morning with a sore throat, so thought I would be canny and spend the day in bed. By evening I had a running cold and quarantined myself. Today I have an atrocious cold, and felt worse than I have for a very long time - I rarely get colds, and cannot remember one as unpleasant as this. At supper I sat at an isolation table in the corner with sweat running down my face, despite a low oral temperature.

Still, it could be worse. The training at the moment is not at all good - we cannot do the high-intensity skiing we would like to do because there is no snow at a reasonable altitude; and the range is so crowded that we can only book 2 lanes for our team of 11. Moreover, I will have recovered by the time of our first selection race a week tomorrow, while anyone who catches the cold from me will not.

 

12 November

My cold already a little better, so I went to the range in the morning with the other sickos to do some static shooting. This still needs some work.

Tomorrow we move to Engadin as there is supposed to be 60cm of snow there, and a new biathlon range at Zuoz. This is all a bit of a surprise as Engadin is known more for its cold temperatures than for its early snow, and biathlon training used to be very much improvised there.

Engadin is at about 1,800m altitude (Zuoz a little lower), which is OK. We are all well acclimatised now (in Ramsau we live at 1,100m and ski at 2,600m, and at the Tignes camp last month we lived at 2,100m), so we will be able to do the hard sessions we need.

 

Tuesday, 14 November

A depressing drive to Engadin yesterday: piles of snow at the side of the road showing that there had been a great deal of snow; but persistent rain compressing and slowly washing away what was left.

After an Odyssean trail of pensions, tourist offices and sport sekretariats we ended up in the St Moritz youth hostel, a v satisfactory place with good food and facilities, the rest of the team turning up later in the evening.

This morning I went out for a classic in the rain, with a waterproof jacket and my sandpapered skis. The rain turned to snow and is now looking promising: it is great to look up at the snowflakes falling thickly and follow them down with the eye.

 

17 November

Extraordinary, uncharacteristic weather for Engadin: continuous precipitation alternating between snow and rain. Today we had to dig the buses out, and shooting training was a disaster in the heavy snow - we could barely see the targets, and quickly got cold and wet despite spare gloves.

 

20 November

Our first test race: individual 9km with 4 shoots, and 40" penalties. Strictly not a selection race, but it probably has some influence.

I raced despite not having done any hard sessions due to my cold, and found it very hard to get going; my heart rate did not get over 170 until the last hill, and I felt like I could not find the throttle pedal.

But I shot reasonably: missed 0220 in rising wind. Missing 2 in a visit is always annoying, but a total of 4 (80% hits) is what I regard as 'par'. I finished 3rd, a second behind Jason Sklenar, with Mark Gee well ahead. This is OK in Mike Dixon's absence, but I could really have done with beating Jason.

When I leave the firing point, my sequence of drills is trigger finger back on, glasses down, then hands through pole straps. My Adidas glasses were misted up, but I left them down as I knew where I was going; however getting my pole straps on blind was a bit of a challenge, and I skied off the track. Such an little error of judgment cost me a place in this race, and potentially a place in the world cup team.

 

21 November

'Rest day' - but not all rest days are equal, and I was not able to get my mind away from biathlon, so am not entirely refreshed. Aber egal.

Interesting discussion of mental strategies for shooting - in Mike Dixon and Mark Gee we have two of the most reliable shooters in biathlon, and coach Ian Woods was a shooting specialist before discovering skiing, and then an excellent biathlon shot as well as a deep thinker.

Ian used a numerical system of arousal ratings: he would ski at 9 (10 being besrkr), and as he approached the range would count down until he got to 2 (chilled) on the shooting mat, then would go back up, and start shooting on 4.

Mike taught himself to shoot in a garden, and when he approached the range would transport himself from the hectic mid-race environment to his tranquil, green garden, and this qualitative shift would help him to switch attentional focus from skiing to shooting, which he otherwise found difficult (his first Olympics was as a cross-country skier).

Neither athlete used these strategies exclusively, and Mike was saying that last Winter, when he shot his best ever statistics (generally in 35-37" per shoot), he would simply empty his mind and shoot on automatic. This is great if you have really excellent motor skills, which Mike has.

 

22 November

Entering the range at St Moritz (I don't usually ski like this: I have just come up a very steep hill and am barely moving!)Some high-speed combi training this morning: 4 short loops flat out, with relay format shooting (ie 8 rounds for each shoot), racing against Mike Dixon and Mark Gee. After the second shoot I was in the lead, but Mike caught me and left me standing. Had another go, with Kurt Sumner also racing; I was last at halfway, but cleared my last two shoots without needing the spare rounds, and got well ahead of Kurt. This was nice, as it gives me a psychological edge for our selection races on Friday and Saturday.

These last few weeks are a critical phase of training: the transition from roller-skiing to snow has to be carefully managed, as there are several important factors to be incorporated.

  • Remembering how to ski is the first thing; we got a head-start on this by using the glacier in October.
  • Then there are the hard sessions: these remind one about skiing fast, as well as training the body to cope with racing stress, and maintaining the ability to shoot under stress. This really suffered with our having to ski on the glacier initially (can't do much hard stuff at that altitude), and then my being ill.

 

23 November

The psychological battle is a fascinating thing. We have four places on the World Cup, and three athletes who are certain for these; the one remaining place has about four or five athletes going for it. I am one of these last, and have been 'thinking positive' - I talk of when rather than if I am on the World Cup circuit - and this rubs off on the others. For example, one of my rivals, who has just as much right as I to expect to be on the World Cup, was asking if he could buy my spare poles, as I would be able to get new ones at the first World Cup. Another says that he would be quite happy to go back down the European Cup: he may be joking, but even joking about it influences one's expectations.

I may not be the best biathlete, but I think I am winning the mental side. All I have to do now is shoot straighter and/or ski faster than the others.

25 November

Well, it didn't happen.

In the second race yesterday, I missed 4 of 10, which is pretty bad. Tom Clemens was 30" quicker than me over 7km, and missed 3, so beat me comprehensively.

Today I had a great ski time: Mike Dixon lent me a pair of skis which performed fantastically in the fresh snow, using every expensive wax I had in my box. And I skied very well, to get a time 18" off the fastest (over 15km), ahead of World Cup racers Mike Dixon and Jason Sklenar. Unfortunately I shot atrociously, for no particular reason. Tom had a bad shoot, missing 6 of 20; I missed 8, so he goes to the World Cup - and is extremely difficult to displace.

This is very disappointing as it makes it very difficult for me to achieve the results that will enable me to qualify for the Olympics. However, it is not yet over, and my next task is to get some (or a lot of) good shooting results on the European Cup circuit, as this will put me in good stead either to replace an under-performer on the World Cup (unlikely) or to go as reserve to the World Champs (more likely, but less beneficial as reserve really means ski technician and tea-boy).

 

27 November

Obertilliach, Osttirol, Austria (1,400m)

About a foot of snow here, and most of the tracks are in the forest, so they stay quite cold. I am taking another day off today, as I am coughing phlegm and my nose is running. I hope that it is a setback to my recovery from last week's cold rather than a new one, so that I can start training again tomorrow. The amount of pills I am taking is ridiculous - vitamins, minerals, fish oil, echinacea, propolis... surely they should bring my immune system back to a non-athlete's level?

We have to buy our own waxes in the European Cup team, so we all sat down this morning and pooled an order to send to the reps at the World Cup race at Antholz. We will get these a lot cheaper than retail prices, but nevertheless it will be a horrifying amount of money, especially as we lose the economies of scale that a team waxbox has (you can't buy less than 1 tub of Cera F, which retails at £70, for enough for 3 or 4 pairs of skis...). Most of us are sticking to Swix and HWK, with a couple going for Toko. It gets complicated when you have too many different manufacturers' lines to choose from, and there is no point in having more than you can realistically test the day before a race. On the other hand, if the rumour is that X's PQR99 wax is going well, and you don't have it, that is a bad way to start a race. But as Fritz says, just worry about hitting the targets.