The following is the text from an article club member Nick Oredson wrote for the Time Magazine website. For the original article (with a picture) please click here.

The Fool on the Hill

The further adventures of's resident biathlete, in which our hero takes on the event's elite and survives barely


"Some people just don't know when to quit." The phrase keeps bubbling up in my head despite my every effort to keep it back, and I'm starting to get impatient. This hill shows no sign of letting up, and very soon my ability to stay upright on my skis is going to be in serious jeopardy. "I need excuses, and I need them now!" I sternly demand. But my brain, ever the contrarian, returns the same analysis, resolutely refusing to help. This is all the more frustrating considering the unwanted torrent of feeble excuses my brain routinely releases in much more mundane and manageable circumstances. Now that I'm really in a jam, I need some "A" material, and all I get is crap.

Making a mental note to write up my brain for insubordination when this is all over, I file away this latest round of rational thought in the folder marked "worthless" and once again review my four main options:

Option 1: Quit.
The old standby. Tried. True. Timeless. Its elegance and simplicity have always made it attractive, and I can't help thinking that it might be the best choice for me right now (I personally have quit many times, and its short-term benefits are quiet compelling). There is the small problem of sneaking past the course officials without being seen, of plowing two or three miles through deep snow and trackless wilderness to avoid the grandstand, the starting gate, the shooting range and all the other skiers. That'd be tricky, but it's doable. Then just throw my skis and rifle and all my other junk in the rental car and drive like hell back to Jackson Hole, change my flight and head back to sweet, sweet Jersey. No more skiing. No more hills, no more lactic acid hell. Just hug my wife, play with my kids for a while, take a nap on the couch and forget this ever happened.


Pat, Tom and Rod (The guys I came out with from New York) would be a little perplexed, but I could figure out an excuse and leave a note at the condo before I left. When I got home I could send out a preemptive e-mail to everyone whom I (stupidly) had told about the trip. My wife knows me well enough, she wouldn't say a word, she'd just let me sleep it off. Nobody really cares about biathlon anyway. I could make up whatever I want.... Say that I did really well. They wouldn't even be able to find the results of the race on the Internet. They'd just have to take my word for it. Hmmmm... the quitting thing is looking pretty good; let's take a look at the other options and come back to this later.

Option 2: Take a quick breather.
Another mysterious product of my faulty brain, this option comes up regularly despite its complete lack of merit. It sounds so reasonable: Stop for 60 seconds, let the muscles rest a bit and catch your breath. Then continue with renewed vigor and resolve, having made the superior tactical choice. The only drawback to this is that it has never worked for anyone, ever, anywhere on earth. Stopping for "just a sec" during an endurance event is comparable to taking a "quick look" at the core of a nuclear reactor just to see if it is melting down or not. It is a sure route to quitting without thinking through an adequate escape plan, thus maximizing the humiliation without gaining even the smallest short-term benefits of just flat-out quitting. Cross this one off the list.

Option 3: Collapse.
The up-and-coming choice, this is rapidly becoming the most likely outcome with each second that I continue to reject actions involving making a decision. Collapse has many of the humiliating fatal flaws involved in Option 2 above, including what seems like the quite real possibility of actually dropping dead. Its only merit is that it does not involve making a decision of any kind. I can just sit back, keep trying to ski up this nasty little hill, and it'll happen all by itself. Risky, embarrassing, potentially deadly better to come up with a better option before this just happens on its own.

Option 4: Keep going.
This is by far the stupidest one, really. When I found out that the first race was going to be 20 kilometers rather than the usual 10, I really should have just politely disappeared. My metabolism was recoiling at the altitude of West Yellowstone (6,600 feet), leaving me completely out of sorts before the race even began. My resting heart rate had inexplicably doubled, settling in at about 90 beats per minute, my bowels were not working right, I got winded getting out of the car, and I had mysteriously forgotten how to ski during the trip from New Jersey. I felt terrible, and just for encouragement I was going up against the best biathletes in the country, two of whom had just completed the European World Cup circuit and were in the top 60 in the world. Twenty k was not only farther than I had ever raced in my life, it was farther than I had ever skied in my life.

That's it. That's all I can come up with for options at the moment, and they all have equally (or nearly equally) fatal flaws. This whole biathlon thing is not shaping up very well at all.

When this all started back in December, Nationals seemed like a such a great idea. I was fresh off a great summer of training, and despite the rocky start (see Happiness is a Warm Gun on a Cold Day) I was feeling fresh and confident. Once the season started, however, and I did a few actual races, I quickly realized that the little local events in New York State provided plenty of competition for my budding skill level. I'd finished in the middle of the pack a few times, but several times more toward the end, and once at the very, very end. The locals had put up a solid fight, my shortcomings were all clearly identified, and I was ready to call it a season by the end of February.

But there it was on my calendar: U.S. Biathlon National Championships, March 22-26, West Yellowstone, Mt. There was a plane ticket, a hotel reservation, a rental car, and about 40 people who knew I was going. I didn't see any way to back out, even though I felt like all the plans had been made by some other guy (a younger, faster, much more eager other guy). In final days before I left, I drove back my growing feelings of doubt with caffeine, a sense of humor, and by "compartmentalizing" my doubts (of course, only criminals and drug addicts use "denial").

The taxi deposited me at Newark International with an impossibly large pile of stuff. Multiple pairs of skis, poles, clothing, waxes and a portable ski bench only rounded out half the load. The other half included various shooting accessories including, of course, my rifle. During my years of working summers in Alaska I transported firearms regularly during travels to the last frontier. However, no matter how many times you do it, there is nothing like walking through a crowded airport with a fully functional firearm and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in your bags. It never ceases to amaze me that you can just casually walk up to the baggage check, and say, "There is a firearm in the black case." The check-in people will not even bat an eye. They ask you if it is unloaded, they open the case and look at the gun (you can't have more than 100 rounds of ammo in the case with the firearm itself), and then send it down the little conveyor belt to go into the plane. You can't joke about having a gun in your carry-on, but you can check an assault rifle, five handguns and 1,000 rounds of ammo in your checked bags if you really want to.

So I get on the jet and scream down the runway, going through the motions of having "fun" on my "vacation," but all the time wondering when this will stop feeling like something insane and start feeling like something that makes any kind of sense.

All the way from Newark to Dallas I worry. I worry about my job. I worry about money. I worry about my family all the usual stuff that just seems to build up regardless of what I do. We layover in Dallas, I make some phone calls back east, and it doesn't help the wall of worry is still lingering at the fringes and pestering me just for spite. We take off again out of Dallas and head north over Kansas and the heartland before hitting some serious Rockies.

It is incredibly beautiful, and the snow slowly covers more and more of the mountains as we go north, until the entire surface of the Earth is white as far as the eye can see. This is definitely not New Jersey anymore and I feel my shoulder relax a notch or two. The plane lands in Jackson Hole, and I experience the immense pleasure of navigating an airport terminal that is only about 100 feet long. Walk 50 feet, get your luggage. Turn, walk 20 feet to the pay phone. Turn, walk 20 feet to the rental car window that has no line and a bright and helpful person behind the counter.

Contrast this with the Dallas or Newark airports, which sprawl for miles and miles and require their own mass transit systems to navigate. Things seem to be looking up. My feeble credit card thankfully is not declined and I am actually able to get my car without an incredible battle, a confusing and enraging argument, or some unexpected monstrous charge. They just run my card and give me the keys and directions how to get to West Yellowstone. Unbelievable.

So I happily drive out through Jackson, up over the incredible Teton pass (hammering the little chainsaw engine they put in this pipsqueak car as it tries in vain to find the right gear for going 70 mph up a 10 percent grade). I savagely step on the gas and dare it to blow a gasket, reveling in the guilt-free/worry-free magic of a rental car. I come over the hill into Idaho, not really knowing what to expect. To my left are the shining Rocky Mountains, sun glinting down through the clouds, a tremendous early spring day. To my right and up ahead it looks like the frozen wastes of Kamchatka.

Five feet of snow covers the low rolling hills, and the only clues that the area is farmland are the combines and grain elevators strategically placed along the side of the road. The hills roll on and on, blending with the dark storm clouds in a ever-deepening gray gradient in which the horizon never comes. The map tells me to take the road leading directly into the darkest, grayest, coldest-looking section of the entire horizon, and I pause for a moment at the junction heading north. But I am encouraged by my scrappy little orange Sunfire and its full tank of gas, so I step on it and plunge headlong into the gray. The sunlit mountains fade slowly behind me, and I enter a cold world, hoping that spring is just around the corner. It is beautiful, as only nature's adversity can be.

West Yellowstone is a slow town this time of year. It has big, wide streets, plenty of places to park, lots of hotels and gas stations, but no actual people, cars, dogs or anything else visibly moving.

I'm sure the hordes will be back, but the innkeep explains that this is the dreaded shoulder season in this part of the country. The winter attractions are all but over, the summer is still a month or two off. So I have come at a marginal time for a marginal sport on a marginal budget during a marginal time in my life. Great.

I meander through town, actually having arrived ahead of schedule, driving up and down the streets looking for some sign of life. I realize what a nonstop blast of movement, noise, conflict, talking, laughing, yelling, cell-phoning, honking and jackhammering I am subjected to during every single second of my current urban existence. I find myself on a quiet street, in a quiet town in a quiet part of the country during a quiet time of year. I stop the car in the middle of a main street, just to see if anything will happen. Sixty seconds nothing. Two minutes nothing. Five minutes nothing. Finally, after I don't know how long, a lone pickup truck comes up the road. I watch in the rearview mirror as he approaches, and casually drives past me, giving me a mildly quizzical look, and keeps going on down around the road. I contrast this with the instant fusillade of honking, yelling, fist-waving and litigation that a microsecond of hesitation during any traffic maneuver elicits in my current metro area of residence. This clears up any doubt that I am far away from home. I get out and walk around, just to get a sense of the place.

Walking down the street brings on another surprising revelation (surprising for me anyway). After an uneventful block or two, a vague uneasiness begins to settle in. There is an unattached bit of anxiety floating around, waiting and watching for something that is expected but not happening. I realize that I haven't been nearly run down like a dog by a taxi in several minutes. "This just can't be right" says the threat manager inside my brain. "You're long overdue for a taxi close call, approach next intersection with extreme caution". Using my watch to time the waves of anxiety, I realize that I have become acclimated to being nearly run down by a speeding, weaving, soulless vehicle approximately every four minutes while walking the streets of New York. If it doesn't happen on schedule, I get nervous.

I realize that the deserted streets are creeping me out, and decide to go for a ski.

In hindsight I can see clearly that this was a golden opportunity to quit. Nobody knew I was even there! I could have made up any story I wanted. Gone home, flown to Vegas, had some fun driving around that fantastic country or anything else that came to mind. It was all laying there in front of me and I blew it.

I went skiing.

I relaxed a little.

I thought "Boy, this isn't so bad, this might be kind of fun".

Stupid, stupid me.

That night my freinds from the Saratoga Biathlon Club arrived from New York. We had rented a large log cabin/condo unit that was preposterously comfortable and settled in preparing for the races that were going to start in a couple of days. Tom, Pat Rod and I trained in the mornings and spent the rest of the time waxing skis and talking strategy. It was good company, I was learning a lot and the thought of quitting didn't even cross my mind.

Too bad.

My next big chance came on race day, but for reasons that seem completely silly now (you're not a quitter if you don't actually start, right?) I ignored all the clear signals I was getting and kept pretending I was an athlete. Before the race actually starts, all you need to look like a contender are some cool sunglasses, decent equipment, well-placed logos on your gear and a plausibly athletic stature. I made sure I had all of these before leaving the bathroom on race day, which allowed me to fake it just that much longer. It was also a beautiful day, the scenery around the venue was spectacular, and there were banners and flags and more biathletes than I had ever seen in one place. The U.S. national team, the Canadian national team and the U.S. Army team were all there looking sleek and serious, and it was a big thrill just to be rubbing elbows with Olympic hopefuls and folks who had been recently competing on the World Cup level. During equipment check I recognized Dan Westover, a veteran of the American '88 Nagano team. There was a powerful charge in the air, and I got completely caught up in it, utterly forgetting that what I really needed to do was get out of there quick, because once the race began, the whole fantasy was going to crumble very, very quickly. I didn't. I warmed up and zeroed my rifle along with my teammates from the Empire State, and before I knew it, I was out of the starting gate and out on the course.

It was too late.

Things actually went OK for a lap or two. I hit a few targets during my first shooting stop (including my first shot of the race, which produced an unexpected thrill), and there was a rolling section after the big downhill that had a tailwind and a tremendous view of the Yellowstone plateau (rolling terrain with a tailwind can make anyone feel like a champion). There were a few moments where I thought, hey, this might not be so bad.

It was not to last. Fatigue finally overcame adrenaline, and the inevitable disaster occurred during the long steep downhill on lap three. The combination of a tight turn, treacherous icy, slushy snow, some extremely inauspicious ski work, and good old fashioned physics all conspired to whipsaw me off the trail in a savage, ass-splaying, crater-creating, laughter-eliciting wreck. I hit my head on my gun barrel. I landed facing uphill. My arms were crossed and my poles were interlaced with my skis in a most confounding fashion. The two course officials who happened to be standing there watching the corner saw the whole thing and chuckled discreetly as I floundered in the deep snow untangling myself from my equipment and trying to remember what my name was. I could tell they were not there to mock the competitors, they just found it too funny not to laugh. It must have been a doozy.

Despite my disorientation and my hind quarters feeling like they had been run through some kind of juicer, I finish the downhill and hit four out of five at the next shooting stop, regaining my composure somewhat.

Shooting remains my strong point in biathlon, and it always gets me through the tough times as I work my way out of being a novice skier. It was tricky finding resources on biathlon shooting, but my Oregon upbringing seems to have given me an advantage in the marksmanship department that has been a pleasant surprise. Even though there is almost no apparent relationship between the plinking and goofing off I did with rifles since I was a little kid growing up in Oregon (I got my own .22 rifle when I was 12 years old) and the specialized technique used for biathlon, it seems that my general confidence and affinity with guns is a big help. It's a good thing that I have some advantage, because I need it.

Whatever confidence my shooting brought on quickly faded once I got back out on the course for lap four. Feeling my energy reserves dropping by the minute, I downshifted to "survival pace." Not designed to win races, or increase my self-esteem, or pass anyone or cut my 10k split, this tactic is designed to allow the completion of the race without a major physical breakdown.

This maneuver inexplicably failed on the hill of lap four. As I came into the steep grade of the hill I stepped on my right foot and planted my right pole in the snow. Next I went to push with my right pole and step onto my left foot, thus moving myself forward. Instead of the expected motion forward, this reliable method of propelling myself on skis resulted in net zero progress. I've fallen down skiing countless times, I've stumbled, I've crumpled, I've flopped. I've jammed a pole into the snow between my skis and raked it up my crotch. I've explored just about every awkward motion possible while trying to ski, but up till today, I have never simply stopped moving forward, despite every muscle firing in the right sequence and straining to move me forward. After a surprised moment in this strange equilibrium I let out a wheezy grunt and gently slumped forward. From this position my body somehow found one last drop of adrenaline in my already taxed gland and it squirted into my bloodstream. With this as fuel, I managed to stand up and continued my lurching progress up the hill, but this breakdown upgraded the crisis from "serious" to "red alert".

So there I am. Stuck without an exit strategy, looking for the fourth time at the long sinister uphill that I know I have to do this time, and then once more, before I can take a right turn at the bottom of the hill and go toward the sign that says "Finish." (I don't consider crossing the finish line one lap short. I'd rather viewed as a quitter than as just plain dumb). If this were the last time up the hill, I know it would be different. The last time you have to do anything awful it usually goes pretty smoothly. We have an automatic "last time" circuit that kicks in and can get us over the hump most of the time. But this was the dreaded "second to last time," for which there is no magic brain circuitry or motto to get you through. It is just another trip up the hill, and if there have been several before this (in this case, three) then you are guaranteed to be pretty tired and running short on simplistic tricks from some sports psychology book.

I scramble through my four options again, and reject them all. Now hopelessly dazed, I enter the thick fog of the lower cerebellum, mindlessly repeating the physical motion of skiing. In situations like this, the reptile part of our brain takes the last instruction from the conscious mind and just goes with it until the heart stops beating. The rhythm of my skis on the snow is mesmerizing. I let go of any strategy, or any planning, or any long-term thoughts of any kind. There is just me and the hill and the sound of my skis.

Time stops.

The next thing I notice is that something has changed. I don't know what it is right away, but somewhere off in the fog a signal is coming through that there has been a development on the pain front. The early reports are confirmed, and I get a solid telex with the words, "sharp drop in pain level in legs and upper body, believe hill to be leveling out." My compromised IQ takes some time with this, and after a moment concludes that this development merits investigation. I take a look at some of the other readings coming in and also notice a slight increase in the oxygen supply to my brain. This increase in turn bumps of the efficiency of the whole system and I slowly start thinking again (albeit at a low level). Finally the visual cognition comes in with a signal and I can confirm decisively that I have crested the hill.


This was not some kind of glorious transcendent moment of sport. It was not the gritty aging champion somehow finding a way to overcome the detriments of age for one more comeback. This was not a refusal to leave the game despite a crippling injury, nor was it a duel to the finish with an old nemesis. This was just slobber-mouthed, dull-brained, lactic-shocked, mouth-breathing, eyes-rolled, pray-to-God, stumble-forward, ears-back, nose-running, beyond-exhaustion, knock-kneed, autopilot maneuver that out of sheer luck resulted in topping the hill rather than waking up in the hospital. It was as heroic as falling down a flight of stairs or slamming your hand in a car door.

A pure fluke.

As I start down the descent, it slowly dawns on me that I'm home free. I've got some easy skiing, a shooting stop, and then it'll be my LAST LAP. My clever escape plan fades into the background, and I start thinking how I'll celebrate finishing. This reverses the negative cascade of thinking that has engulfed me for the last 10 minutes, and I start feeling positive and having fun. I don't shoot so well (hitting two out of five), but I have a much easier time on the last lap.

As soon as I'm across the line I feel elated. It is hard to believe that it is really over, and I wander around the finish area mingling with the other exhausted competitors in a happy daze. After half an hour I'm still feeling great, but my heart sinks when I see that the results are posted. I distinctly remember being passed many, many times during the race by folks going at absolute warp speed relative to my feeble plowing. I also distinctly remember not passing one single other skier. One thing that would ruin all this good feeling would be a dead last finish with a five-minute gap between me and the dude who was second to last (a distinct possibility considering that the only external reaction I received from anyone during the race was involuntary laughter). It would be tricky to spin that into a success, even with the considerable level of endorphins in my blood right now. When the moment of truth comes, I am pleasantly surprised. I have to follow the list up from the bottom several names (five) before I come to mine. Wow. I suppress a public victory whoop (I came in 40th! I came in 40th!) knowing that it would not be appropriate in the dead-serious atmosphere surrounding the results board. I save my reactions for later, quietly absorbing my place (and the places of my teammates) before moving off out of the hubbub. Later in the day I come back to the same board when nobody is around. The banners are still up and there is the echo of something dramatic still hanging in the air. I sit and listen to the wind in the lodgepole pines and have my own quiet, private moment of celebration.

The next race is on Saturday, and it does not involve nearly the drama of the 20k. It is shorter, for one thing (12.5k), it does not involve the hill of death, and my body feels like it has actually acclimated slightly. The format is also different, and from my standpoint psychologically favors the shooting component more. During the first race, every missed shot translated into a one-minute time penalty. This format provides an enormous incentive to shoot well, but does not really give the same mental boost as the penalty lap format used during the second race. In the penalty lap format, there is no time penalty, but you must ski an extra 150-meter loop for every shot missed. Since I am a better shooter than skier, the shooting range becomes my only place of potential glory in this kind of race. I hit all five targets during my first prone shooting bout during the race, and get the thrill of skiing past the penalty area knowing that clean shooting had just bumped me up eight places in the standings. This is the nearest thing to actual "victory" I feel during the entire competition (of course, this feeling fades quickly as my slow skiing allows all those people to pass me easily once back out on the course and thoroughly kick my ass).

When the results go up I see that despite feeling so much better during the race I finished 40th again. Everyone else must have felt better too, and it all evens out with the same result. My shooting was much better the second day and I actually ended up being tied for fifth place for overall best shooter. This is just the scrap of success that I need to turn this whole thing into a fantastic victory. A little number-crunching and I see that I outshot two of the three members of the U.S. National team and four of the five members of the Army World Class Athlete Program. Both these teams train full-time and compete internationally, so beating them in any aspect of the race (despite the overall mammoth margin of loss) is a huge boost. This shooting performance (hitting 14 of 20) becomes the high point of the whole series for me.

We return to our lodgings, eat an improbably large meal and talk over the events of the day and our training plans to get faster over the summer. The conversation inevitably turns to the Salt Lake Olympics and the next series of dates marked in red on all of our calendars. The trials start on December 26 at the Soldier Hollow venue in Utah. I still haven't exactly figured out how to "qualify" for the trials (aren't they supposed to be open to everyone?) and this is one of my projects for the summer. There is some kind of points system involved, but it is unclear if it is related to this season or next season (by the time the trials arrive, there will have only been two sanctioned races in the U.S.). There is also some sort of petition that needs to be submitted, so I need to figure that out as well. I think back to last year and the insane battle of red tape it took to get a rifle permit in Jersey City and feel some confidence. If I can convince the Jersey City police to let me have a gun, I can do anything.

And then it is over. We all begin packing, and I once again load my huge pile of stuff into my tiny car in preparation for heading back to Jackson Hole. It is at this point that my thoughts turn back to the tri-state area for the first time in several days. I start thinking about my family and my job, heading back to the mayhem of life in the web-lane. I realize how much time I was spending fighting to control the future in my day to day life. In a ski race there are so many factors that are obviously out of your control, that you've just got let go, do the best you can, and accept things as they come. This is a very healthy attitude to have towards life, and five days of racing and training has pummeled it firmly in my skull. I think if I can hold that thought, I'll be in great shape back at home.

Its all about the here and now, baby. Just don't pass out before you hit the top of the hill.