Bitter wind numbs fingers and carries the sound of a train whistle miles across the western Minnesota prairie as Sgt. Danelle Card walks across her yard to a makeshift shooting range.
Card is practicing for the biathlon, a competition in which competitors ski as fast as possible for several kilometers with a .22-caliber rifle strapped to their backs back before stopping to shoot at five very small targets. They take the 50-meter shot after skiing two or three kilometers.
From Jan. 23-27, she'll be among National Guard soldiers from eight states who will be at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, Minn., to test their skiing and shooting skills. The Guard sponsors the regional biathlon competitions for guard teams from across the country.
"I don't like the cold but for some reason I keep doing this," said Card, 32. "I love the competition, it's something different."
Winning not only brings bragging rights, but the right to compete against national teams from around the world. Camp Ripley will also host the Guard's national biathlon competition in late February.
Card, who works full time for the Fargo, N.D.-based Predator unmanned aircraft mission, practices for the biathlon is done on her own time. She trains at the small range set up near her home in rural Hawley, Minn.
It's tough to practice skiing when there is barely enough snow to cover the ground, but she tries to practice shooting two or three times a week.
"When you're shooting, each shot you miss you do a penalty lap, or you have time added to your total time," Card said. "It can add a lot of time and be the difference between placing and not placing.
The challenge is to shoot precisely when your heart is pounding. Frozen fingers, add to the difficulty.
"To me it's the most rewarding part, because you get the instant gratification with the metal targets," said Card, who has been shooting since she was a girl. "You either miss or you don't."
During a recent practice, Card hit four of the five targets. In a competition, the one miss would mean a penalty lap.
This is her second year competing in the biathlon. Last year, she won the novice competition and was named to the U.S. All Guard biathlon team. Often, she said, people don't understand the biathlon she competes in.
"Everyone always asks you how your swimming and running was, even in the dead of winter when you come back from a competition," she said. "They don't really understand the biathlon."
Card's occasional practice partner, Robby Meland, is also in his second year of competition.
A long-time marathon runner from Bismarck, N.D., Meland is a part-time Guard member who first put on skis a year ago. After last year's national competition he was asked to join the national development team.
That gave him an opportunity to spend several months last year traveling with the National Guard's elite squad competing against and learning from some of the best biathletes in the world.
He is working on his marksmanship before the regional competition next week at Camp Ripley.
"I don't have a range where I can go skiing and shooting together, so I'll end up doing 50 pushups and then shooting — 155 to 165, that's where my heart rate will be for a race," Meland said. "So that's where you want to practice your shooting."
After shooting, Meland and Card took to their skis, and made laps around a small frozen lake nearby, the only place with enough snow for a groomed trail. It gave them a chance to fine-tune skiing skills.
"Technique is the most important part of skiing," Meland said. "Everything in Nordic skiing is about efficiency. So I can have the biggest gas tank but if I'm not having my technique down I have to work twice as hard, so somebody will be beating me if they have to use less energy."
Meland hopes to be competing for a long time.
"I'm 29, and I'm looking at it as something I can do for the rest of my life," he said. "It's a sport that you do get better as you get older, sort of like distance running. Our best skiers right now on the U.S. team are 34, 36."
But improving his biathlon times might have to wait. Meland's engineering company was just notified it likely will be deployed to Afghanistan in the spring. He'll be commanding the Jamestown, N.D.-based 817th Engineer Company. The unit of about 100 soldiers from 34 North Dakota and 8 Minnesota communities is assigned to clear roadside bombs.
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