Hugh Pritchard, Biathlete

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Hugh Pritchard

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November 2001

Wednesday, 7 November, Vuokatti, Finland.

Dawn on the lake at VuokattiWinter training, on snow at last without the handicap of altitude or the frightful tunnel. There is about 5km of skiing, entirely on artificial snow - there is only the lightest dusting of snow off the tracks.

The German men are here, and the Japanese, Slovenes and Czechs: a very small fraction of the biathlon world. Also a few cross-country racers, Nordic combiners, ski orienteers and locals. The range has only 20 lanes, so it would get tricky with many more teams. Especially with the Germans, as today, taking 5 lanes for only 1 person shooting.

Comical shenanigans getting here. Crazy traffic on the motorway getting to Heathrow; finally arrived, to find that nobody knew where my ticket was. Turned out that Fred had it. Where was he? 40 miles away in a traffic jam. He arrived a day later than the rest of us, after a night in Helsinki. I got my 70kg of baggage on for no extra charge, no rifle as hand baggage this time.

The weather in the Arctic always seems amazingly calm; they must have storms sometimes but generally it is just quiet, gentle winds, long twilights.


Saturday, 10 November

Day off tomorrow, and about time too.

'Power sprints' today: up the biggest, steepest hill available (which is not all that big or steep), and over the top. The idea is to get the muscles used to working harder and more powerfully than they have for a while - a quick adaptation, so one that I could afford to leave til now. We now have about 7km of tracks available, all artificial with about an inch of snow off the tracks.

Used a pair of Rossignols today - I have been using some Fischers for training. The Rossis are so much better to ski on, so much more solid and predictable.

Having booked late, we have to move rooms a couple of times. Yesterday some of us moved into a palatial chalet in the woods: single bedrooms, a sauna, dishwasher, washing machine, tumble drier, fireplace, underfloor heating... it is rarely as good as this.

Richard Godfrey, head of physiology at the British Olympic Medical Centre, is with us as physiologist and dogsbody, in which roles he will also attend the Olympics and some world cups. Battery of tests each morning: 'What are you testing now?' 'Yer ear' 'Yes, but what are you testing for?' 'No, that's u-r-e-a'.


11 November

Woke to the depressing drip-dripping and roaring wind that mark a sudden thaw. When it got light we were surprised to see that it was not raining: the warm wind was melting the snow in the trees.

Made a start on my new Rossignol skis: 6 pairs, a total of 10 waxings for each pair and a lot of scrubbing and brushing. I did 3 hours and got the first 2 steps done, a great way to pass a 'day off'.


13 November

Desperately cold this morning: I couldn't ski longer than about 3 minutes without stopping to warm my hands, so I couldn't warm up properly. Wished I hadn't shaved last night. And only -16°C - we might be racing colder than that, so I have to learn to cope with it.


Friday, 16 November

Yesterday morning while we were training 6" of snow fell in a blizzard which made for some interesting shooting. So now at last we have real snow to ski on, and some tracks outside the floodlit 7km. This afternoon Tom and I went for a classic ski, and did some great new loops in the dark - it is dark by 4pm, but with snow on the ground you can nearly always see enough for an exciting ski.

This morning training races: a short sprint and a short pursuit. I shot a terrible sprint with 4 misses from 10; in the pursuit I missed 3/20 to finish with the second fastest time.

Got an Email from a local business at home: the Wire Belt Company, which makes conveyor belts for the food manufacturing industry, has put a cheque in the post, which is very nice, and almost covers my outrageously expensive new skis from Rossignol. More on them later.


Monday, 18 November, Joensuu, Finland

Drove here yesterday to do selection races at Kontiolahti. Nice to be in a town at last: we walked into the centre last night for a feeding frenzy in a sweet shop and visits to the cinemas and bars.

Training at Kontiolahti today: cold, not much snow, and the tracks in a poor state. The sun comes onto the targets from behind, which is more or less my favourite shooting conditions.


19 November

Did a little training race of my own this morning. Desperately cold: -17° on top, presumably colder down by the lake. Going down the long fast hill towards lake level the cold seemed to bore its way through the gap between my hat and glasses into the middle of my skull, and my cheeks felt like they were getting frostbitten.

The B team was supposed to arrive here from Kiruna last Sunday for a selection race tomorrow, but their bus broke down so we postponed the race to Thursday (we are also doing some Finnish races here Saturday and Sunday). But it is a shocking long drive from Kiruna, something like 550 miles, but the roads are not fast even without snow.


Friday 23 November

Back to the endless grind of ski-prep, testing, prepping... Our wax room at the Kontiolahti stadium

Selection race yesterday: Individual format, but only 15km on the tough hills of Kontiolahti. I started 30" behind Jason, and seemed to be gaining marginally on him; I don't know how he managed to finish 90" up on me having been 4" down with one loop to go. He is capable of monstrous things, but that is weird. Shooting a bit moderate: 0212, total 5 missed. I finished 5th, last of the existing world cup squad. That does not earn me a start at the first world cup, but at least it keeps me in the squad. I have to do better tomorrow in the sprint. Vladimir Dratchev starts 30" behind me, but I don't suppose I will be able to stay with him, even with the rocket skis I discovered today.

Yesterday's race was forecast to be at a temperature of -1°. The thermometer just kept dropping, and we eventually raced at -14° (with the wind doing its best to rip the flags from their poles, but that is another matter), quite a difference in terms of skis, wax and clothing. Today we were told that tomorrow is likely to be -4° with 10cm fresh snow. But already tonight the sky has cleared and the thermometer is dropping...

Behind me tomorrow start Ville Raikkonnen, the Sprint bronze medallist from Nagano, and Vladimir Dratchev, who was dropped from the Russian team last year, so has not been dope-tested for 12 months. I'm sure he has been training hard too, so I may well see both of them.


24 November, Kontiolahti

A happy day: a really good race, for 4th place, top Brit by a reasonable margin (and therefore top in the 2nd selection race). I got up on the podium to be presented with - a kettle! (Dratschev got a food processor!) And suddenly I am back in the running for the Olympics (I need to average top 3 in the selection races to guarantee a start in the World Cup, and the opportunity to qualify for the Olympics). Click here to go to results page.

Tiresome waxing until late last night; went out for a 25' jog with Tom, getting back a little after 10pm... Tom has been talking a lot about the ability to push through the pain of races as an important determinant of speed, and I think he is right: today I was prepared to hurt myself much more than I was on Thursday, and I skied a little faster than the others - I even held Tom off over the last loop when he emerged from the penalty loop to chase me round.

Tomorrow the pursuit race, and a chance of squeezing into the cash prizes. But for us it is really an individual race, as that is how the results will be analysed for the purposes of selection. That puts me at a slight tactical disadvantage, being in front for the others to chase - but the gaps are enough that it is not so different from a time-trial start.

So, a selection of skis prepared with a selection of waxes to cover tomorrow's possibilities, a half-hour jog and an early night as I am very tired.


26 November, Helsink Airport en route to UK

So, I am selected to one of the 3 start places for the first World Cup race, the Sprint in Hochfilzen on 6 December. Despite a disappointing race yesterday (I had a couple of shooting disasters: fired a round off the target (a 'negligent discharge' in army-speak), dropped two rounds in my last shoot and had to pick them up off the mat), I squeezed into 3rd place in our overall selection rankings.

It seems that with each successive race there is an even stronger requirement to perform at the very limit of my ability. This is a real change from racing on the European Cup, where a fatalistic attitude tends to prevail, as individual race results do not have much significance. It is also pretty stressful: each day's performance can and will affect whether I start in the following race, and therefore the shape of the entire season.

Amazing to hear of Ole Einar Bjørndalen's 2nd in a cross-country World Cup race yesterday. One always thinks that the skiing specialists must be a lot faster than the biathletes, but it ain't necessarily so.