Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Zerfas makes National summer biathlon team

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Photo courtesy of Julia Bayly
Patricia Zerfas powers through the rifle lane on day one at the 2007 North American Summer Biathlon Championships in Fort Kent, Maine, last Thursday. Zerfas, 44, of Kensington, finished fourth at the event.
Kensington resident Patricia Zerfas, 44, thought it was slightly odd when, as she crossed the finish line Sunday at the Tenth Mountain Ski Club summer biathlon in Fort Kent, Maine, she was approached by a race official and told she’d be followed for drug testing.

But it soon became clear that was a good thing. A fourth-place finish overall — the biathlon consisted of three races over four days — earned her a spot on the United States National Team, which will compete in September at the 2007 International Biathlon Union Summer World Championships in Estonia.

‘‘It’s definitely exciting,” said Zerfas, who will make her first international appearance in Estonia. ‘‘When I found out, I had just finished and was very exhausted and this woman came up to me and was like, ‘You’re on the national team, you need to be drug tested and I need to stay with you.’ That’s how I found out; it was kind of weird. But it’s so exciting.”

Biathlons are usually associated with the Winter Olympics, as a sport combining cross-country skiing and riflery. Athletes ski around a cross-country track, where the total distance is broken up by shooting rounds where participants must hit five targets. Summer biathlons combine cross-country running with riflery.

Last weekend’s event featured three different formats. Thursday, Zerfas finished fourth in the sprint, where athletes were lined up and starts were staggered by 30 seconds. In Saturday’s pursuit, she again finished fourth. The first-place finisher in the sprint started first in the pursuit, and each competitor chased after waiting out her time gap from the sprint.

Zerfas closed out the competition with a second-place finish in the mass-start event Sunday. The top four cumulative finishers earned a spot on the national team.

Zerfas only started running when she was 25, as part of a weight-loss program. But she developed an affinity for it. She participated in one biathlon about 20 years ago, but that was it. She was in graduate school — she got her master’s degree from the University of Maryland and does medical research at the National Institutes of Health — and didn’t have the time or money necessary to train properly, travel and compete.

Zerfas kept running in her spare time, but several stress fractures actually forced her to abandon the sport for a few years in her mid-30s. She spent that time participating in speed walking competitions, and dabbled a bit in orienteering, where athletes are handed a map and compass and must navigate themselves through a course.

Zerfas, recently the top female finisher at the 46th Washington’s Birthday Marathon in Greenbelt, only got back into biathlons this summer. She participated in two last month, winning one in New Jersey. The event this past weekend was just her third.

Scheduling training around her full-time work hours, Zerfas spends about an hour at the shooting range four days a week, puts in 50 miles of running per week and spends three days lifting. She’s smarter about her regimen now, careful not to overextend herself, and is confident she’ll be able to stay relatively injury free.

‘‘The biggest thing, in my 20s and 30s, was that I was always injured,” Zerfas said. ‘‘With stress fractures you can’t run at all for eight weeks and they take eight or nine months to get over. It’s quite discouraging. Now, I’m working with some good coaches. I have a personal trainer, I’m going to the weight room.

‘‘Whenever I can, I try to run on trails, because it’s less impact. And I’ve learned that you shouldn’t train all seven days of the week. I think when I was younger if I took one day of rest, I wouldn’t have had all those injuries.”

If Zerfas can keep herself healthy, she intends to stick with biathlon. She enjoys the competition and working toward a goal. And now that she’s earned her spot on the national team this year, she would like to defend that spot in coming years.

‘‘I like the challenge,” she said. ‘‘I know I can still improve a lot and can do a lot more. I want to keep improving and compete for a few more years at least. ... To do so well [in Maine] is so exciting. It’s unbelievable. Everything hasn’t sunken in yet.”