It's something about the insanity of biathlon that lures people in: First, ski fast and hard. Then, stop, drop and try to shoot five targets while your thumping heart makes the sight on your .22 rifle bounce like hail on a tin roof.
Now, do it all again but this time, shoot from an even more challenging position: standing.
Exactly the point.
"It intrigues people because it's a combination of two completely opposed sports: The cross-country ski racer is going really hard, and the shooter has to be really focused, calm and deliberate," said Auburn Ski Club biathlon coach Glenn Jobe. "Combining the two sports is one of the most challenging endeavors you can make in athletics."
Biathlon is a sport most Americans glimpse just once every four years, when the Winter Olympics put it front and center. If you watched biathlon during the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, chances are you saw Jobe race in the 20-kilometer event.
Now 61, Jobe still competes in masters races on occasion, but his main focus is introducing people to the sport, which he does through clinics at the Auburn Ski Club's facility next to the Boreal Ridge ski area.
If you want to learn biathlon in California, this is where you go. The next-closest ranges are at the Soldier Hollow Cross-Country Ski Resort in Utah and at West Yellowstone in Montana.
In February, about two dozen youth and adult skiers participated in one of the club's clinics. Some had no shooting experience while others were more familiar with guns, but the message for all of them was the same: safety, safety, safety.
"When I take my rifle off my back, it points only up in the air," Jobe told participants. He showed them how to open the rifle's bolt, and how to insert a fluorescent green "bore flag" into the chamber, indicating the rifle is not and cannot be ready to fire.
After the lecture, students went out to the range, where attendants stood at each of 10 stations, ready to help participants get into the prone firing position, properly shoulder a rifle and take shots at black metal targets 50 meters downrange. As an extra safety measure, attendants worked the rifles' bolts for the shooters, ejecting spent cartridges and chambering new rounds.
Mischel Twining of Tahoe Vista said she's been doing a lot of Nordic racing, but she came to the clinic because she wanted to try something new.
Before the clinic, she'd fired a gun only once in her life. How did she do?
"Lying down, I did OK," she said. "But standing up, I hit once out of 15 shots."
Like many participants, she would come back with skis the next day to participate in a novice race. For safety, novice racers would not carry guns during the race unless they had safety certification, and attendants would be on hand at the range to help them.
When Twining finished the race, a friend told her he thought she'd finished first in her class. She laughed, and quickly admitted that she was the only woman in her age class, but she seemed pleased nonetheless.
"It was a lot of fun and very upbeat," she said.
And despite not being a "gun person," Twining said she felt very safe during the event because of the strict gun-handling requirements.
While she isn't quite ready to spend $1,000 or more on a biathlon rifle of her own, she said she would definitely do biathlon again.
"This was fun and I would suggest this to anyone, any skier like myself who's never done this before."
Interest in biathlon usually peaks around the Winter Olympics, but Auburn Ski Club Nordic director Sally Jones said she has seen sustained momentum in recent years. Northstar-at-Tahoe built a biathlon range two years ago on the 50th anniversary of biathlon as an Olympic sport, and that accessibility helped feed growing interest.
Northstar closed that range after just two seasons, but with interest in biathlon still high, the Auburn Ski Club opened a range at its facility next to Boreal Ridge.
The range there is temporary, which means the club has to close some trails during biathlon practices, clinics and races, as well as set up and take down the range for each use. But the club is seeking a grant from the National Rifle Association to build a permanent range.
"Once we have the permanent range," Jobe said, "this program will continue to grow."HOW TO LEARN BIATHLON
The Auburn Ski Club holds clinics in which novices can learn rifle safety and handling skills at the club's facility next to Boreal Ridge in Soda Springs. The next clinics, for people ages 14 and older, will be April 1 and April 21. The cost is $40 for club members and $60 for nonmembers. Rifles and ammunition are provided. Check the website for other details.
The club also holds "Open Range" days Dec. 1 through April 30, when biathletes with their own rifles and safety certification can practice.
The club's next race for youths, novices and pros will be April 22.
Information: http://auburnskiclub.com/nordic/ biathlon
HOW BIATHLON WORKS
Biathlon races come in a variety of distances and styles, but the fundamentals are consistent:
Race a set distance using any cross-country ski style, carrying your rifle on your back.
Stop at the range, drop into a prone position and shoot five targets at 50 meters.
Pay a penalty for each miss usually ski a 150-meter penalty lap or have a minute added to your time.
Ski the course again.
Stop at the range and shoot five targets from a standing position.
Pay penalties for misses.
Ski the course again.
Repeat as directed.
Olympic event distances range from 7.5 to 20 kilometers, and there are two to four shooting rounds