Note: This is part of an interview series dealing with the sport of biathlon which plays a central role in my upcoming novel Bolt Action Remedy.
Today, I welcome Eric Chandler to Steel City Intrigue.
Eric Chandler has written for Flying Magazine, Silent Sports Magazine, Northern Wilds, Minnesota Flyer, and Lake Country Journal, to name a few. Literary journals like Grey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick and Sleetmagazine.com have published his fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. He’s a member of Lake Superior Writers, an Active Member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild.
He’s also an Air Force veteran with twenty years of experience flying the F-16. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He enjoys cross-country ski racing and marathon running. He lives with his wife and two children in Duluth, Minnesota. His website is https://ericchandler.wordpress.com/.
Unlike most Americans, you were introduced to biathlon in high school. What drew you to that sport?
I was on the high school cross-country ski team in Plymouth, NH. I came in third in the state my junior year. That was the same season as the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. I watched biathlon on TV and it interested me because I knew how to shoot. I thought if I took above average marksmanship and above average skiing together, maybe I could really be somebody.
There was a biathlon clinic at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire in October 1984. Lyle Nelson was one of the main instructors. He had just competed in Sarajevo in the 1984 Olympic for the US Biathlon Team. He was a West Point graduate who held the obstacle course speed record there. Later, he carried the US flag in the opening ceremonies in 1988 in Calgary, his 4th Olympic games. So, when a guy like that told me I had some potential at that clinic, I got really excited that I could make something of myself.
I went out and blew my entire life savings (around $1800, if memory serves) on an Anschutz biathlon rifle. We got it from the dealer the night before my first race and assembled it with my dad. I came in 5th out of 30 guys in my first race in January 1985, beating the whole NH National Guard team. I was hooked. I raced the rest of the winter and did pretty well.
The following year, I was getting screamed at during my freshman year at the US Air Force Academy. My budding biathlon career was “overcome by events.”
You’ve gone on to compete in biathlon during your time with the U.S. Air Force and the Minnesota National Guard. For those not familiar with how biathlon competitions are organized, can you tell us who you were competing against and about some of the venues?
I raced on my own time when I was in the active duty Air Force. I’m not sure Uncle Sam would want to claim my race results. My first assignment after pilot training was at Eielson AFB in Alaska. When I wasn’t learning how to be a wingman in the F-16, I was out skiing. There was a biathlon range at the Birch Hill ski trails in Fairbanks. I raced there a few times in 1994. I came in third in the Alaska State Biathlon Championships that year. Because there were only three guys in my category. I let the Biathlon Club in Fairbanks have my rifle for a couple of years when I got sent to Korea. They loaned the rifle to novice biathletes so they could get into the sport.
Fast forward to 2009. I was in the Air National Guard in Duluth, Minnesota. One of my buddies, Eric Nordgren, suggested that I join the state team and go to the Guard Championships at Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho, Vermont. (Eric’s brother Leif is currently on the US Biathlon Team.) I was the 42-year old commander of the 179th Fighter Squadron in Duluth. I wasn’t busy at all (snort). Sure, why not? Unlike, the Alaska races where I was racing with civilians, these were purely National Guard events. The Army National Guard is pretty much the torch-bearer for the sport. The military and biathlon are closely intertwined. The teams were made up of National Guard members from all around the country. Everybody from brand new biathletes to Olympic team members and people who were part of the military’s World Class Athlete Program. A pretty wide spectrum, but all members of the National Guard. I always wanted to ski at Camp Ethan Allen, so for me, to ski on those trails was pretty awesome. It’s a world-class venue, built all around biathlon.
The following year, in 2010, I competed in the Central Regional Guard races. They were held at Camp Ripley, near Brainerd, Minnesota. Another world-class facility designed just for biathlon. Due to conflicts with my pesky Guard job, I didn’t get to go to the national championships that year.
I did some open citizen races that year at our local ski trails called Snowflake. There’s a biathlon range there and a man named John Gould recruited me to help coach some of the biathlon club kids. After a couple of winters of barely seeing my own skiing kids, I finally put the rifle back in the attic.
The good news is that Olympic biathlete Kara Salmela helps coach my daughter here in Duluth in a local cross-country ski program called Nordic North Stars. Biathlon’s a pretty small world. I was only barely involved, but I loved the challenge. I still follow the sport. I’ve taken both my kids out to shoot at the range, but they didn’t catch the fever. They both race straight cross-country skiing, so I’m still overjoyed.
Apparently, I dip my toe in the biathlon waters about every ten years or so, so maybe I’ll break out the rifle again here in a few years.
As a writer you have an impressive resume that includes both fiction and nonfiction pieces. In addition to what you’ve published on your own, your works have been featured in literary journals, magazines, anthologies. Do you prefer one style or platform over the others?
I started out writing non-fiction pieces for magazines. Almost always about family adventures in the outdoors. Stories about XC skiing, running, hiking, and paddling. Stuff like that. About ten years ago, I wrote a few pieces about the military for the local newspaper. My first money for an article came from Silent Sports magazine, based in Wisconsin. For the last ten years or so, I’ve been writing regularly for a publication called Northern Wilds in Grand Marais, Minnesota. I compiled several of my articles into an e-book called Outside Duluth.
About five years ago, I took a workshop from a local writer named Felicia Schneiderhan on how to develop as a fiction writer. I’ve written several short stories. I even self-published an e-book called Down In It. It’s a stretch to call it a book. It’s either a novella or a really long short story. Anyway, it was difficult. I have a new respect for people who write whole novels. I can only seem to find enough energy for short stories in the fiction world.
About three years ago, I started writing poetry. I’ve had a fair amount of success getting them published especially the military oriented ones. I view poetry as a type of nonfiction. When there’s a small scene or object or dialogue that’s interesting, I’ll write a poem about it. Some of these small topics are like mental photographs and poetry seems to be better for things like that. I don’t invent anything in poetry. I try to make sense of small pieces of the real world with poetry.
So, in short, I like nonfiction. Fiction is hard. You have to invent every last thing in fiction, and I’m pretty lazy.
You created something for yourself called the Wave One Project. Tell us about this “mighty quest”.
There’s a race 90-miles from Duluth called the American Birkebeiner. It’s a 31-mile ski marathon from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin. It’s inspired by the real Birkebeiner race in Norway that celebrates the origin story of the country of Norway. Two warriors called Birkebeiners (“birchleggers” for the birch bark protection on their legs) protected the infant crown prince from enemies determined to kill him. They skied and carried him across a mountain passage in a blizzard to save him.
Anyway, that’s more than you wanted to know. I’ve skied this race (North America’s biggest cross-country ski race) 13 times since 2001. Over 5000 skiers compete in the 50k ski marathon. They start in seven giant waves of around 800 skiers each. Your placement in the waves is based on your result in the previous year’s race. Last year, I skied a good one, so I moved up into Wave 2, based on the chart at the race website.
Since this is my 50th year on the planet (I turn 50 in June) I figured I’d crank things up a notch. I want to ski well enough to earn my way into Wave One. Hence, The Wave One Project. I’ll have delusions of grandeur and try to become more fit. It’s just a way to have fun with my ski training. You run out of ideas to motivate yourself after several decades of skiing and running. I hired a coach to build me a training plan. I’m blogging about my training experiences in the lead up to the race. I must be serious.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in learning biathlon?
Live near a biathlon range. That’s not a joke. Like a lot of winter sports, the facility/venue drives the event. You need a place where you can ski and shoot. Many clubs near biathlon ranges have events where they invite novices to try out the sport. Look up your local club and find an event for newbies on the calendar. A clinic for new biathletes was how I got the bug.
If you get into the sport seriously, you have to think of it as a single discipline. It’s much more than a skier who shoots. (Or even less likely, a shooter who learns to ski) You have to think of it as one discipline. An incredibly challenging discipline at that. Good luck!
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, a Thriller Award finalist which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
Watch for my new book, BOLT ACTION REMEDY, in October 2017!
Former Pittsburgh narcotics detective Trevor Galloway has been hired to look into the year-old homicide of a prominent businessman who was gunned down on his estate in Central Pennsylvania. When Galloway arrives, he determines the murder could have only been committed by someone extremely skilled in two areas: Skiing and shooting. He believes the assailant should not be too difficult to identify given the great amount of skill and athleticism needed to pull off the attack. When he discovers the victim’s property is next door to a biathlon training camp, the situation becomes significantly more complicated.
Galloway makes plenty of enemies as he sifts through stories about lucrative land deals, possible drug connections, and uncovers evidence suggesting the homicide may have been elaborate suicide. As he attempts to navigate through an unfamiliar rural landscape, he does his best not to succumb to an old drug addiction, or become confused by one of his occasional hallucinations. Oh, and a Pittsburgh drug gang enforcer known as The Lithuanian—if he’s even real—is tracking Galloway and wants to take his eyes. Galloway would rather keep those.
In Bolt Action Remedy, the typically quiet streets of Washaway Township, Pennsylvania become the epicenter of a mystery involving elite athletes and old grudges. For Galloway, the problems keep piling up and somebody out there believes problems should be dealt with by employing the most permanent of remedies.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology