Biologist Patricia Zerfas, who recently
placed third overall
in the U.S. National Biathlon Games, is set to compete in the 2007 International Biathlon Summer World Championships
in Estonia. The event will combine cross-country
running with riflery in three races, Sept. 4-9.
"I never thought I'd get on the team," says Zerfas, who has worked at NIH for more than 11 years, currently as an electron microscopist in OD's Diagnostics and Research Services Branch. "It's all kind of a surprise."
Zerfas's athletic trajectory is so uncommon that it makes her an outlier.
"I'm 45," she says. "And the other woman going with me to Estonia? She's only 15. It's very unusual
for someone my age; it's the first time I've been on a national team. A lot of them have been to the Olympics; I've never competed on this level."
Zerfas didn't come up through the typical programs and training camps. Before the U.S. games on July 15, when she won her spot, "I'd only been doing shooting for 7 weeks," she says. To compensate, she ran superfast: "I made up huge in running."
The three cross-country segments will vary in length: for the sprint she'll go 3K, for the pursuit and mass start between 5 and 10K.
Once she found a shooting coach, she had 6 weeks to train before flying with her husband, Dr. Jesse Blankenship, to the games in Otepää, a resort and parkland. Up until now she's competed in only two biathlons so her sports career shows a meteoric spike. Although she's always been active, she didn't start racing seriously until 5 years ago.
"Before that," she notes, "I was in grad school, then working; I didn't have time to train." Now each week she spends 4 hours at the shooting range, runs 50 miles and spends 3 days lifting weights.
Meanwhile, she's got a paper coming out on a gene found in Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus that causes human infections and allergies. Because athletic competition
offers a way to escape job pressure, she says, it actually helps her focus on her scientific work.
I can't think about anything else out there" and in Otepää, she'll be dashing over forested hills and shooting a .22 rifle at a target 50 meters away. "Here," she says, "a lot of my images are at about the 10,000 level [of magnification]. Out there, I don't even wear glasses."