What: Colorado Biathlon State Championships
When: Feb. 16-17
Where: Snow Mountain Ranch
More info: coloradobiathlon.org
Eldora ski instructor Mirka Gores loved cross-country skiing, but said she always found the sport boring until she discovered biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and shooting.
She moved to the Front Range from the Czech Republic eight years ago, and said she found a deep sense of camaraderie within the Colorado Biathlon Club when she started racing three years ago.
"I was looking for motivation for skate skiing," she said. "I get bored and the shooting is another element to it. I feel like it's a progression in the sport I was doing before."
Gores and other local biathletes will race this weekend at the Colorado Biathlon State Championships at Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park. The sport, which is made popular every four years as the winter Olympics invade living rooms across the world, includes various distances of cross-country skiing and either two or four shooting components, depending on the event.
At last year's state championships, Boulder's Brian Woodard, 42, won the men's state title, finishing more than a minute ahead of the second-place finisher.
Woodard began competing in biathlons in 2006 after years of running and Ironman triathlons. He learned to cross-country ski when he moved to Colorado six years ago, and was fascinated by the Olympic biathlon competition in Turin, Italy, that year.
Woodard said it took him about two years to really "get the hang of" the sport.
"It's not a very popular sport in the U.S., so finding a resource to describe shooting and training, the information is not as available as many other sports," he said.
In a biathlon, the athletes ski distances ranging from six to 20 kilometers while stopping at a shooting range two to four times. Athletes shoot from two positions, prone and standing, in a sequence that varies by event.
The most difficult component of biathlon races, Woodard said, is getting his heart rate down to concentrate on hitting targets 50 meters away. Athletes carry a .22 caliber rifle, weighing around eight pounds on their backs. Traditionally, athletes must hit five circular targets.
"It would be the equivalent of running a 5K and then you have to stop and a thread a needle," he said. "Not only do you have to shut your heart rate down, you always have to focus on a target."
Woodard said he enjoys the sport because it gives him a break from swimming, cycling and running, while the cross-country skiing keeps him in shape during his off-season.
"It gives me a break from my body pounding the pavement," he said. "It gets monotonous. Skiing gives you an excellent way to continue training, at altitude, doing cardiovascular exercise, but it adds some variety. You're adding the complexity and challenge of a shooting format."
Another Boulder competitor at the weekend's races, Ben Blaugrund, competed in his first biathlon season last winter.
Blaugrund, 39, has also skied and cycled competitively, though nothing has been as difficult as the biathlon's shooting component.
"It's almost comically humbling," he said.
What he found appealing about biathlons is the strategy and preciseness needed to win. In other endurance sports, Blaugrund said, the athlete who pushes that hardest often wins. But pushing hard won't help you hit a small target, he added.
Missing targets means athletes incur a penalty of an extra 150-meter lap on skis, or an extra minute of time added to their total. Blaugrund said often it's the athlete who slows down and takes the time to hit all the targets who wins, not the person who skis the hardest but misses shots.
"I've been in endurance sports for a long time, and it ultimately really comes down to you do only as well as you're willing to totally suffer and kill yourself," he said. "(In biathlons) maybe not suffering as hard will allow you to hit one or two more targets."
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.