Hugh Pritchard, Biathlete

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Hugh Pritchard
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4 January

Forni Avoltri

In Italy for the European Cup races at Forni Avoltri. A proper, laid out biathlon centre, with ski cabins for each team and a central building with cafe and loos: a far cry from most of the European Cup events, which are held in a field in the middle of nowhere with not so much as a portaloo in range.

The downside is that Forni Avoltri is in one of the most backward parts of Western Europe. We cook on a wood-burning stove, no-one in the hamlet we are staying in speaks a word of anything but Italian (most of the 'Italian' biathlon venues are in the Südtirol, and are German-speaking), and there are none of the trappings of wealth one sees in Austria or Switzerland.

The tracks at the biathlon centre are nice to ski on, winding through the forest. I had heard tales of the shocking climbs and descents here, but the lack of snow means we are doing a very peculiar 20km on Saturday, with loops of 6, 6, 3, 3, & 2km, made up mostly of a repeated 3km loop: plenty of scope for getting this wrong. The gradients are also odd, as there are long stretches where one is unsure which technique to use: V2 seems slow, and V1 ridiculous. The answer is probably to start too fast, so that one quickly becomes too tired to have the choice.

Skied at Sappada this afternoon: apparently a big cross-country stadium, it certainly has tracks a lot more demanding than most biathlon centres: long, steep hills with descents to match. We had a great afternoon's skiing, the highlight of which was a pile-up on one of the fast descents - I was at the back and had a grandstand view, with enough of a gap to avoid joining in.

In all a hardish day: I did a short training race this morning (on my own - the others are on snow for the first time in over 2 weeks), and got carried away skiing on the great tracks with a little gang at Sappada this afternoon. This is an experiment: for the races before Christmas, before a weekend's racing I did a hardish session on the Tuesday and took Thursday off; I felt bad for the Saturday races. This time I am doing a hard session on the Thursday.

Ski-preparation is one of the most maddening things (and there are a lot of them) in biathlon. Tonight, for example, I changed the bindings on a set of skis I got from a racer who retired last year, because I think they may be good this weekend, almost severing my thumb in the process. I then did some prep on them because I did not know what kind of state they were in (3 applications of different waxes, with a lot of brushing, scraping and scrubbing). I then scraped two more pairs (I put the same storage wax on all my skis, so that I only have to scrape them before testing), so that I can test three pairs tomorrow, chosen on the basis of the weather forecast (rain). However, when I finally left the ski-room, it was not raining but almost clear; and the ground was just freezing. If the snow is frozen in the morning then my ski selection will be completely invalidated (ice and slush require different skis).

 

5 January

Forni Avoltri

Official training: divided into men in the morning, women at noon because that is how race times are. Everyone is there for the last chance (and for many teams their only chance) to practise on the range. I shot well today - very well prone, and reasonably standing, so am confident for tomorrow.

6 January

Forni Avoltri

Racing well: for the first time this season I had a good standing shoot, missing 1 of 10; but I had a bad prone shoot, missing 3 of 10 (I had also had trouble grouping to zero). I felt really strong, and had great skis - I was overtaking people on both the downhills and the climbs. I had one mishap when a ski came off on a sharp bend - this happened in Obertilliach with a different pair: I discussed it afterwards with Andi Birnbacher, and I will check both my boots and all my bindings this afternoon, as losing skis is obviously unacceptable.

So, 3 of the major variables went right (stand shoot, skiing form, ski speed), and 2 factors went badly (prone shoot, lost a ski). I also had quite a hectic time before the race trying to apply a fluoro powder at the last minute. This should be more manageable tomorrow, as I have a better idea now of what will go well (although it was raining reasonably heavily when the women raced this afternoon)

Sunday, 7 January

Forni Avoltri

It poured with rain all night, and we wondered whether there would be enough snow to race, but with changes to the course and schedule the races ran. I was off at number 3, an opportunity as the track would deteriorate fast as it was skied. I tested my skis and was astonished to find that my finest pair (which I had tested and rejected yesterday) were fastest through the puddles. I put some fluoro powder on them, and a 1mm rill to help disperse the suction, and they worked fine.

Once started, the race was not bad: one just accepts the conditions and applies some thought as how to make the best of them - dodging the puddles and looking for the white snow (saturated snow is grey or colourless, and snow is a lot faster than water to ski on). I realised as I was shooting prone that my zero was high, so aimed low for the last 2 and hit; my tactic for standing was 'fast and aggressive', but for some reason I missed the first 2 - twice more around the penalty loop was a trial.

So, a moderate race, but a reasonable result (24th, for 10.8%). Interestingly, Marc Walker missed only 1, but was 30" slower than me: probably a reflection largely on his having started later than me.

9 January

Ridnaun

Ridnaun: we left Forni Avoltri in the rain, which soon turned to snow and slowed our progress; it snowed or rained more or less the whole way. Ridnaun is at 1,350m, and is bedecked in fresh snow. It must have been pretty warm before, as there is a lot of water about, but the skiing is fine.

Having scrimped on our catering the last few weeks, we have pushed the boat out and gone for full board. This is nice in many ways, but we get a meat course at lunch and two at supper; I would declare vegetarian but they get omelette twice a day which would drive me mad. We are in appartments about a mile out of town, but eat in town.

Entertaining evening in the Sonnenberg - four of us, two Norwegians (Jon-Arne Enevoldsen who coached the British team a couple of years ago, and his protégé), and the German revelation Hanna Möller. We met Hanna in St Moritz, when she was training with her club; she is now in the national team (with none of the team gear), and won her first two international races - and she has another two seasons as a junior. Someone with a lot of potential, and unusual in that she speaks to us.

Oh, and the German coaches: they patrolled the bar several times as if looking for miscreant athletes (perhaps they let Hanna sit with us as she does not have the uniform), before sitting at the next table. Fritz Fischer is a very entertaining character who needs to be mocked as much as possible, if you can fit it between his mockery of everyone else.

The course this morning looking a lot better than when we skied on it last night; I did a little hard session, but not as hard as the one I did two days before last weekend's races: that would make a lot of hard sessions, and could end up being too much. I shot badly in my hard session, then Bev suggested we do a little shooting contest, four shoots with very short skiing, and coming into the range together. That kind of presentation really focuses the mind better, and I shot very fast, missing 2 of 20, which is pretty good for me. Bev shoots a fraction quicker, but was not hitting today (she usually shoots well). I then bashed the standing shooting a bit, and it is now a lot more solid.

The range here at Ridnaun is somewhat unusual, in that the sun shines on it from behind (most ranges are in the shade). The sun shines on both the target and the foresight, and when we zeroed (0915) was shining straight down the foresight tube; later of course it shifted. This all contributes to a sight picture that changes through the session - or between zeroing and racing: not easy.

12 January

Ridnaun

A shocking hard sprint race yesterday, the most painful biathlon race I have ever done. I skied hard from start number 2, and skied more or less alone the whole race. Marc Walker was directly behind me, and the contrast in our racing styles was emphasised: I always try to run my own race, and find that if I am aware of what anyone else is doing on the range, I shoot badly. My pacing is such that I do not have much to spare for tactical bursts of speed. Marc, on the other hand, is a very interactive racer, who can always recount what anyone else was doing during the race - so, for example, he knew how many targets I had hit, how many shots I had fired when he reached the firing point, and is strongly motivated by the sight of a rival in front of him.

In this case, we both cleared our prone shoots; I missed 2 standing, while Marc missed 4; he had gained on me somewhat through the race, but dropped back on the last loop.

Andi Birnbacher at the exit from the range at RidnaunThere is a notorious hill in the Ridnaun course: 27m high, it is desperately steep on the way up, and again on the way down. When I first came here I remember getting furious with myself for repeatedly 'wimping out' on it in training - the fastest and easiest way to take a hill like this is straight down, no braking or turning. But the temptation to brake is sometimes irresistible: cross-country skis are not designed for stability in a fast schuss, and it is easy to crash. This time it seemed less bad... And the climb: last time it was deep in soft snow, and for the first time I saw serious racers doing the 'teddy-bear' skate in a race. Now, of course, far easier.

In today's pursuit race, I shot 1121 (ie 5 penalties). This is not a catastrophic result, but is far from good enough. I zeroed well, and conditions were good, so there was no excuse for missing prone shots; my standing result was better than my season's average - but still unacceptable.

Tonight is the infamous Ridnaun party, and tomorrow the relay - not an important race for most people. Then we drive to Serre Chevalier for the TA champs and a hectic racing schedule.

With so many races so close together, good recovery is vital. This means

  • a 'recovery drink' within minutes of finishing (about 50g carbohydrate, 20g protein and perhaps a teaspoon of creatine): obviously this needs to be very palatable
  • another recovery food soon after the finish (eg white bread roll with jam)
  • a meal within 2 hours, and vitamins
  • sleep, straight after the meal.
  • a light recovery session in the afternoon - usually easy jogging or classic skiing.

Of course, on top of this comes looking after today's race skis, and preparing skis for tomorrow's race, so it is a full schedule on race days.

 

15 January

Serre Chevalier

Selection for the reserve place at the World Championships will be on the grounds of consistent performance at both European Cup and National Championships races.

We have done four (individual) European Cup races since the new year; I have been top Brit in all of these, and also in one of the four before Christmas (second in the other three). My results are the second most consistent of the teams (behind Joe Brooks, calculated as standard deviation of %s). So far, I must be doing well, but of course there are still the nationals to come.

 

16 January

Serre Chevalier

First race at Serre Chevalier: a classic leg of the 10km cross-country relay. A bit of a shock, as it is a very long time since I did anything but slow training on my classic skis. Waxing conditions were straightforward, as it was cold, although the very abrasive snow indicated a stronger binder than we had. So I skied a reasonable race, some way behind Brian Cole and Billy Rogers, but that is OK: I don't need to be going fast now, and I don't need to ski classic fast at all. The main thing is to get plenty of rest over the next week, and work on my shooting.

 

18 January

Serre Chevalier

Raced 15km classic - the shortest 15km I have ever done, in 33 minutes, which was nice. The wax worked well and I did a reasonable run, although still a bit stiff from Monday's race. None of my team had skied before last week, so it was good to see some of them getting near the top half of the field. It makes me wonder what the people at the back of the field are doing.

Down to the spa in the evening for an hour's relaxing soak in the sulphurous waters: a much-needed relief. Then exhausted to bed for an early night and a lie-in - we are not on the range until noon today.

I am being driven slowly mad by having only one slipper with me: I can't bear to buy another pair because I think I will find the missing one when I get back to Ruhpolding. Meanwhile I am walking at a tilt, with one wet sock and making alternating slapping and slipping noises on the stone floor.

 

20 January

Serre Chevalier

Relay biathlon yesterday, sprint today. Working on trying to shoot fast, and succeeding. Although I know that shooting slowly will not help me hit more, it is always tempting when I hit the firing point to say to myself "OK, take it easy and make sure". These two days I have stuck to the plan and shot fast, and missed one of each shoot; in the relay someone timed me at 41" for my standing shoot - pretty reasonable given that I had to hand-load a 6th round.

So, yesterday the fastest time by 2', and today by 3'.

I am trying to make some changes to my ski technique, and it must look pretty ropey at the moment. I have analysed Raphael Poirée's skiing, as his is the most 'mannered', and therefore easy to analyse, of the biathletes, and am trying to incorporate some of what I think are the fundamentals of his skiing into mine. The two particular elements are:

  • balancing on a gliding ski with the hip outside the vertical plane of the ski (this is particularly obvious in Poirée and Niogret, and several others of the French team; it is the reverse of how some Germans, especially Zellner, balance)
  • weight transfer from the gliding ski forward onto the poles, with the weight remaining directly above the ski. This is more subltle, and the concomitant compression of the knee over the driving ski is the cause of the curious flexion in the ankle of the hanging ski, and of the sharp acceleration of the gliding ski at the pole-plant that you can see in a side-view video of Poirée.

While I am trying to acquire these two elements, I find it very hard to think of both at once, and stumble and trip like a novice. But when it works, it is fast and powerful; it is quite strenuous as it does not go slowly.

 

Wednesday, 24 January

Driving from Serre Chevalier to Ruhpolding

The patrol race on Monday: one of my bugbears. 21km of classic skiing on and off track, carrying a rucksack weighing 18kg. As I am a much better skier than the others in the team I carry the lion's share of the 40kg total patrol baggage - so the whole thing is quite tiring. We managed OK, and the weather was good, so not too much suffering. But my knee does not like the movement of wobbly classic skiing, which is what I do with a rucksack out of the spoor.

So another Serre Chevalier meeting is over. I have a great sentimental attachment to Serre Chevalier: it was the scene of my first skiing and biathlon races in 1993, and I have done exactly the same race programme every year since. My team-mates come and go - none has lasted more than 3 years so far - but there are always at least a couple of very interesting people; and the meeting as a whole is quite sociable, as there are plenty of teams that do not take the racing desperately seriously, while the good racers are generally not under much pressure, as the competition is not intense.

Disappointing to see so little snow as we drive over the Brenner Pass - and what there is being washed away by the rain.

I would like to do a private training race in Ruhpolding tomorrow, as there is a race on Saturday, but it looks like I am catching a cold, so I will have to see how I feel in the morning. In any case there may be no snow...

Saturday, 27 January

Ruhpolding

National Championships Sprint Biathlon. Feeling good well psyched-up. Terrible snow conditions - desperately warm, and the 'snow' is totally transformed (ie it is really only powdered ice). Early the tracks are frozen and fast, but once they have thawed and been cut up they are very soft and hard work - especially the climbs, where one has to lift the skis high to get through the mush.

When I saw the start list last night I was therefore horrified to find myself the at the end of seeding group 2 - with all the other national squad athletes in group 1. This could have been a serious disadvantage if the track slowed quickly after the start (which I think in fact it did). Luckily I was at the team captains' meeting where the start-list was published, so I was able to speak to the Technical Delegate, who said that this was clearly an error as the intention had been to use an 'elite group' seeding method, and promised to sort something out.

So, after much confusion I eventually started in group 1, following some very difficult decisions on what skis to use, and the usual last-minute decision to apply a fluoro-powder. I wore my Ukrainian team race-suit (complete with matching go-faster headband), as I find it helps me psychologically to differentiate myself from the others, who mostly wear the British team suit - if I want to produce an extraordinary performance, I wear extraordinary clothes, eat extraordinary food, and so on, thereby distancing myself from those whose performances I want to better. Oh, and I forgot to check my boots for stones, and skied the whole race with a wobbly ski as a result. Perhaps this held my attention from the normal distractions

I skied hard from the start and felt good about it, which is not usually like me (negative statement there: I should really reinforce the hard skiing mentally: "that's just like me!"), and shot slightly cautiously (breathing twice between shots, probably 40 seconds), somehow missing the last prone shot. I had a slight focus problem here, and should have worn earplugs. More demonic skiing, and a reasonably quick standing shoot - clear - for my best shooting performance ever in a sprint race. Knowing I was in with a chance I piled on the power to get to the finish in second - well down on Tom Clemens (in his first ever clear run!) and a little ahead of the Grand Old Man (Mike Dixon), with another clear run.

So, a great race from me, and one with which I am very satisfied (a rarity in biathlon). Although I have had national gold and silver medals before, they have always been in the absence of the world cup squad, whereas today everyone was racing, so there is nothing at all to detract from the result.

 

28 January

My thighs hurt, which is not at all normal after a biathlon or ski race. I must have done something unusual yesterday.

 

Monday, 29 January

Ruhpolding

Relay nationals today. I raced in a scratch team with Tom Clemens, Scott Baines and James Brain (I went 2nd): more or less a cert to lead for the first three legs, and indeed we got overtaken only on the last leg, to finish 2nd (not that there is any significance to the final placing, as scratch teams are hors concours).

My legs were still hurting from the sprint, and I found I was not able to do the dynamic new V2 technique that I have been working on. But I was quick up the hills despite the rapid breakup of the track; and the shooting: shooting without excessive caution (breathing twice between shots, but shooting confidently), I cleared both shoots in 5. This is the first time I have cleared in a race, and I am delighted. A pity to do it in a relay when I could have missed 3 without being disgraced (in the relay one has 8 rounds to hit each set of 5 targets), but nonetheless a big breakthrough, and one which I must follow up tomorrow in the 20km.

I used the Rossignol skis that I bought from Jason again today, and they seemed to go well. I am afraid to give him the money in case that takes away the magic.

 

30 January

Individual race: 20km, 4 shoots. The snow started to fall as I got to the biathlon centre, and the skis that were good for the last two races did not seem to go as well as the other pair I brought. I zeroed fine, and started with only one minor panic when I realised that I had brought the wrong skis into the start pen.

For some reason I was not in the mood for really fast skiing as I was on Friday; but it is OK to start a 20km conservatively. I missed 1 in each of the 1st two shoots, and cleared the third, after Jason Sklenar had caught me and I stepped into his slipstream. Entering the range for the last time I heard the announcer say that Mike Dixon had left the range with a total of 2 penalties. That meant that I was probably about 10" up on him, and would probably win if I shot clear on that last shoot. Of course, having thought that I was sunk, and missed 2.

In all, not a satisfying performance. I do not like to miss as much as this, was not skiing well, and had moderate skis. However, it was enough for 3rd in the national champs, so it will have to do for now.

I was told today that I am to be one of the squad of 5 for the World Championships in Slovenia, leaving tomorrow: there's nothing like advance notice. Then tonight a rumour surfaced that there is no snow in Pokljuka, and that the decision will be made tomorrow as to where the Worlds are to be: so we will probably delay a day.

So, another nationals over. By far my best results to date (my previous national medals were all won in the absence of the World Cup team), with a 2nd, a 3rd and the best relay leg. These results establish at least an overlap with the performance of the World Cup team, and were rewarded with nomination to the British team for the World Championships - as one of the 5-man squad, rather than as reserve for the 4-man team..

This is the first big step up the ladder, and I have now to make some progress towards qualification for the Olympics: this means top results - both to qualify, and to displace one of the others from the World Cup team for the remainder of the season. I suspect that the latter will be harder than the former.