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I know, I know, the race season ended two weeks ago. But I have these really cool pictures from Khanty-Mansiysk that I want to share. Khanty is a fascinating city in western Siberia and it was the site of our last races. Hannah and I made it a point to get out and see as many sights as possible. Every day we found something new.

Wandering around the City

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IMG_1132.JPG(photo credit for this one: wikipedia, because my camera battery died)

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Locally crafted boots for sale at a vendor

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IMG_1107.JPGBirch park in the middle of town

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IMG_1111.JPGOur hotel

A visit to Archeopark

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Biathlon

IMG_1116.JPGElaborate Opening Ceremonies

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IMG_1104.JPG(Photo: NordicFocus/USBA)

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Reindeer waiting to bring winners to flower ceremony

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Eager Russian fans lingering by the athlete exit

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9 pm one evening and there was a knock on our cabin door. A couple of strangers stood on the doorstep and we knew immediately who they must be. The question was, which one of us were they looking for?

As elite athletes, we are subject to random drug tests at any time, in any place. We have to submit our detailed whereabouts to anti-doping authorities. Occasionally their agents come knocking and collect urine and blood samples. It is an inconvenience that I gladly endure to keep our sport honest and clean.

It turns out the pair was looking for me that night. Unfortunately they would have to wait awhile for a urine sample; I had gone to the bathroom minutes before they knocked. They sat down at our dining room table and settled in. After a few minutes, one of them asked about a guitar leaning against the wall.

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My teammate Clare, never one to be shy, immediately picked up the guitar and started playing ’99 Luftballoons,’ the first German song that came to mind. We all knew the tune (in English it is ’99 Red Balloons’). And that’s how our team sing-along with the anti-doping agents started.

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We soon moved on to Bob Dylan, Peggy Lee and John Denver. Then our visitors introduced us to some German songs by Reinhard Mey. Everyone jokingly blamed me for prolonging the party as long as possible, but eventually the dictates of my bladder did win out. The anti-doping agents collected what they came for and went on their merry way. That evening will be long remembered as my most hilarious and entertaining drug testing experience. It was also a great reminder of just how awesome my teammates are. (Thanks for taking some bold musical initiative Clare!)

Luftballoons had been on our mind all week, well before the sing-along. Inzell, the village where we were staying, was hosting a hot air balloon festival. In the mornings we would see 10 or so balloons floating above town. Sometimes they landed next to the ski trails.

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Another highlight of Inzell was the abundance of fresh powder. If the training plan says do 3 hours of over-distance classic skiing, that means find a steep pasture and fit in as many runs as you can, right?

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A full morning of tele turns with Sean.

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Of course, all of the fresh snow created other fun challenges too. Our Czech rental van had minimal power, a broken defrost system, but lots of character. To get up the hill to our cabin, we’d have to get a running start, skid around the bottom corner, and hope no delivery vans were on their way down. If all the passengers jumped up and down in sync to get traction, we sometimes could make it.

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Over the years, we have become good friends with Stefan and the family Schwabl who own the cabins where we stay. They have done so much to help us feel at home. One afternoon, Suzi, Stefan’s daughter and the girlfriend of one of our wax techs, invited Clare and I to go horseback riding. We joined her and her neighbor, 11 year-old Julia, for a lovely loop around the neighboorhood.

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Before Julia went home, I gave her a Ruhpolding race bib. A couple days later she returned and brought me a gift. It’s my featured hotel room decoration for this week in Nove Mesto:

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“Don’t forget to also have fun, Susan.”

These were my father’s parting words of advice when I left Vermont after the holiday break and headed to Oberhof, Germany to continue the biathlon season. Over the years, I’ve noticed that my dad intuitively understands what motivates me to compete. His comment, and the fact that he felt the need to make it, caught me off guard. What was he seeing that I wasn’t? Of course I’m having fun, aren’t I?

But at practice a couple days later, I found myself wondering. It was “Oberhofing” out, a combination of freezing rain, fog and biting wind. After just a few minutes of skiing, I was shivering, encased in a shell of ice. As I lay down on the sopping wet shooting mat and struggled to load a magazine with numb fingers, the question began to creep in: why am I doing this?

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Lots of rainy weather: I don’t think I’ve ever cleaned my rifle so many times before in a two week period.

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Lowell racing in rainy Ruhpolding. (Photo: USBA/NordicFocus)

The rest of that week I continued to struggle. On race days, I went through the motions and did my normal routines, but it felt like a difficult chore. It wasn’t simply the uninspiring weather that threw me into the funk. I felt burnt out going into Christmas after racing while sick and probably didn’t give myself enough time to recover. Plus, while my results so far this season have been solid, I wasn’t living up to my own high expectations. Despite putting forth my best effort everyday, I didn’t come away feeling satisfied. Clearly something was missing. Biathlon turned stale because I was forgetting one of the key ingredients: fun!

And so the next World Cup week became a quest to find the fun again. Along the way, I looked for inspiration from my teammates, our staff, my competitors, and the thousands of Ruhpolding fans.

For the first day of training at Ruhpolding, I came up with two unusual goals and shared them with my coach. I felt a need to be a little goofy and creative, and to spice up my normal routines.
Goal One: Incorporate some telemark turns into the training.
Goal Two: Find an object somewhere at the venue and bring it back to decorate my hotel room; something that might make me smile when I see it.
Mission accomplished: I curved some big sweeping tele turns down the Fischer-S hill and rescued a chewed-up half of a pinecone from the middle of the ski track. It wasn’t the prettiest looking pinecone (or šiška as Gara our Czech wax tech called it), but interesting nonetheless, and a reminder that perfection is grossly overrated.

The best part about racing at Ruhpolding and Oberhof is the ambiance. Few other stadiums attract such huge crowds of passionate, drinking, singing, flag-waving fans. It’s a scene. They arrive hours early so they can find a good spot to watch and they’ll brave any sort of weather. Their enthusiasm is contagious and racing along the fan-lined fences is like skiing through a tunnel of pure sound. It’s easy to find zen-like mental focus when you can’t even hear yourself think.

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Ruhpolding’s stadium has capacity for over 13,000 people.

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Thousands more line the course. Photo: Hannah Dreissigacker

One evening, I was hanging out with the women’s team and we were chatting about various things we were each struggling with. Annelies came up with an idea to do some art therapy together. We started with a blank piece of paper and took turns drawing for 30 second bouts until we filled it up. Here’s what we came up with:
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Perhaps my favorite moment from the week came during the men’s relay. Heading into the first exchange, Team USA was leading thanks to an incredible performance by Lowell. The TV cameras zoomed into the the second leg athletes waiting for the tag off. Our youngest guy on the the team, 19 year-old Sean, stood there grinning from ear to ear.

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He was about to be tagged off to in the lead with the fastest guys in the world chasing after him. These guys were much older, stronger, and certainly more experienced than him but he was welcoming the challenge. In Sean’s smile, I recognized an attitude more important than results can ever be. It was the same spirit that brought me so far in biathlon in the first place, but one I had misplaced recently. It was a perfect reminder of what I really should be striving after.

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Competing in the mass start at the end of the week and feeling back on the right track (photo: Hannah Dreissigacker)

A Look Back at Östersund

Before shifting gears to the next World Cup venue in Hochfilzen, Austria, I wanted to share some pictures from the past week in Östersund, Sweden.

Daylight in Scandinavia is fleeting during December months. The sun never gets very high. However, sunrise and sunset can last for hours and we saw some spectacular colors.

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You’ll notice that winter is late in coming to Sweden; we raced on snow that had been stockpiled from last winter and protected under a big layer of sawdust. A couple days before the athletes arrived, the organizers rolled it out into a 4 km loop. Unfortunately, this has become a common phenomenon in recent years as winter weather around the world has become unrealiable.

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Since many of our races were at night (or late afternoon), the stadium was well lit. The lights brightened the whole sky and could be seen from many kilometers away.

IMG_0991.JPGA distinguishing feature next to the race course is the Arctura tower. It stores hot water for the entire town.

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Before the races, the IBU (International Biathlon Union) asked all the teams do so some photo shoots for media purposes. Here Tim is getting instructed on exactly how to stand.

We had several races in Östersund: a mixed relay, an individual, a sprint and a pursuit. These next five candid race day photos are courtesy of our team doctor Marci Goolsby:

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Waiting for my start.

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Lapping in front of the stadium on my way to the shooting range.

IMG_0981.JPGThrowing my rifle back on my back after completing a stage of standing shooting.

IMG_0982.JPGExiting the finishing chute post race.

IMG_0983.JPGAfter each race, athletes are required to go through a “mixed zone” for the media. I rarely get asked for interviews in the mixed zone, but a Russian TV crew honored me with a request on Sunday.

Back at our team wax cabin post race, I made an unpleasant discovery. Snow conditions suffered from warm weather at the end of the week exposing several rocks on the course. I remember feeling some stones underfoot a couple times in the last race that brought me to almost a complete stop. One of my best race skis sustained some serious damage:

IMG_0993.JPGThose two long white lines used to be part of my ski. I’m hoping it can be repaired. Wax tech Tias (above) tells me that even if the gash is patched well (which we will certainly try), water may be able to leak through the side and weaken the core, so it might be a lost cause.

Everyone is hoping for some better snow in the coming weeks.

Race Day Routines

This weekend marks the start of World Cup racing. On Sunday, we will put on the red, white and blue and represent the USA in the season’s first mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden. Over the winter, we race in about 30 competitions around 10 different countries, but our race day routines always looks the same. Here’s how I approach a race:

The Evening Before

We have a short team meeting to go over race day logistics and discuss strategy. Afterwards I write myself out a detailed schedule for the next day. Among other things, it includes when I plan to wake up in the morning, when I will eat meals, what time I must leave for the venue and when I should start warming up. Having a plan to follow simplifies race day preparations for me. It takes away extra stress, allowing me to focus on only one task at a time. It gives me confidence that I will fit in everything I need to do for the race.

Race Day

First thing in the morning, I go for short walk or jog outside to help the body wake up and to get a feel for the weather.

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Sunrise over the biathlon range in Sjusjøen, Norway

I eat a hearty breakfast (and lunch if the race happens to be in the late afternoon or evening).

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One of my staple breakfast combinations: Yogurt, museli, almonds, banana and blueberries.

An hour before I have to leave I pack a backpack with everything I’ll need, including some dry clothes and a snack for after the race. I warm up the nervous system for shooting by doing some dryfire drills (indoor shooting practice without any bullets).

IMG_0962-0.JPGYou can often tell if a biathlete has been living somewhere if there are rows of little black dots (targets) taped to the wall.

Upon arrival at our team wax cabins I put on my ski boots and race bib and head to the course. I may need to meet up with one of our wax technicians to do a final test of my skis and choose the fastest pair for the given conditions.

IMG_0957.JPGChristian, our newest wax technician comes from Lillehammer.

Rifle zeroing opens an hour before race time. On my way I stop at equipment inspection to get my rifle’s trigger weight checked to make sure it is not too light. I then shoot some magazines on paper to check that my rifle’s sights are accurate. My coach looks at the bullets’ grouping through a scope and gives me corrections if needed.

IMG_0961-0.JPGCoach Jonne helps zero my teammate Annelies.

I finish with a “confirmation,” a hard loop skied around the stadium followed by shooting one more magazine to make sure my grouping stays centered with a higher heart rate. Then I load my magazines for the race and bring my rifle to the starting pen.

During the remainder of my time, I warm up skiing around the course. I use the opportunity to inspect the day’s snow conditions and I adapt my race plan and strategy if needed. 25 minutes or so before my start time, I do three minutes of race-pace effort and several short full speed pickups. 10 minutes before race time I report to the starting pen. I receive my race skis from our staff and bring them to equipment inspection to get marked. I pick up transponder timing chips that must be worn around my ankles.

IMG_0959.JPG Adjusting the transponders.

With less than five minutes to go, after some last minute jogging to stay loose, I shed my warm up clothes. I triple check that I loaded all my magazines. Then it is time to line up at the start gate. The race is on! As soon as I am on course, the pre-race nerves go away.

IMG_0956.JPGLining up for the start during a small race last weekend with the German team in Sjusjøen, Norway.

Our World Cup race season begins this Sunday with a mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden (9:30 am EST in the US). Like all our World Cup races, you can stream it live.

Saturday morning I woke up from a dream about packing for the winter. More specifically it was about packing long underwear tops. I was debating whether or not to bring a certain item with me to Europe. There were several factors to consider. “Would this shirt be warm enough to wear under my race suit in sub zero temperatures ? Would the material become reasonably clean with hand-laundering in a bathroom sink? Would it hold up to four and a half months of constant use?” I always have a lot of different things that need to fit in my luggage so I allocate space for four long underwear tops, no more. After finally deciding to reject that particular top (a different wool one would be a better option), I woke up from my dream. All that agonizing and I hadn’t actually started packing yet!

While racing the World Cup circuit, we live out of our duffel bags and we move almost every week to a new country and a new hotel room.

20141117-204625-74785916.jpgOur first stop for 2014-15: cozy cabins in Sjusjøen, Norway.

For both logistical reasons and to minimize travel day anxiety it is important not to overpack. Everything must have a purpose. I now have a pretty good idea of what I need and what I can do without, but it did help to make a list of exactly what I was traveling with at the end of last season. I used it as a reference as I scrambled on Saturday to pack for an entire winter.

So far I haven’t noticed anything major that I forgot. However I had a good laugh in the shower today when I realized I brought two bottles of conditioner and no shampoo. At least that’s an easy fix.

This afternoon we arrived in Norway. It’s our home for the next 10 days of training before we head to Sweden to start the World Cup race season. Tomorrow morning we will get on snow for the first time and next weekend we will do a tune up practice race with the German team. After months of skiing on pavement I’m looking forward to the real deal!

20141117-210440-75880546.jpgTonight’s scene in Sjusjøen: stadium and shooting range

Four years ago, we welcomed a Finn onto the National Team staff when US Biathlon hired Jonne Kähkönen to be our head women’s coach. This summer, he finally got the opportunity to share a full dose of Finnish culture with us when we traveled to Scandinavia for a training camp.

The women’s team spent a week and a half training at next winter’s World Championship venue in Kontiolahti, Finland. Kaisa Mäkäräinen, reigning World Cup overall champion, joined us for most of our training sessions and showed us around while we were in town.

20140729-141208-51128537.jpgTraining on the Kontiolahti range. Sometimes we had three nationalities represented at practice: Hannah, Katja Yurlova from Russia, Kaisa, myself and Annelies.

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One day we drove to Koli National Park to do some uphill rollerski intervals: 3 times up southern Finland’s biggest “mountain.”

20140729-141135-51095449.jpgMt. Koli wasn’t very high, but it had a gorgeous view. Hannah observed that it felt a lot like Elmore State Park back home.

20140729-140637-50797154.jpgScenic views along the climb. Photo: Jonne Kähkönen

20140731-230108-82868316.jpgFor a couple afternoon workouts, we did some orienteering. Orienteering is wildly popular in Finland with new courses set up a couple times a week and we decided it would be a good cultural experience. Plus hunting down the controls made a two hour training run go by incredibly quickly.

20140729-141127-51087128.jpgTeam BBQ night in Joensuu. Clockwise: Hannah, Jani (physio), Kaisa, Erika (Jonne’s wife and our cook this week), Jonne, and Annelies.

20140729-143106-52266435.jpgNo BBQ is complete without a game of cornhole.

Two factors made it a real challenge to get enough recovery between workout sessions. The first was a blazing Scandinavian heatwave. Our solution to that problem was to swim post workout and any other time the heat started getting to us.

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20140729-141131-51091182.jpgAnnelies enjoying a lakeside swing.

The second challenge was the endless hours of daylight. I had never been in such a far northern place during the summer. The sky stayed light well past my normal bedtime which made me feel wide awake at 11:00. I still haven’t figured out how to adequately deal with that…

20140729-140636-50796193.jpgA local newspaper reporter asked me what the best part of summer training camp in Finland was. Wild blueberries of course! Photo: Hannah Dreissigacker

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