By Phil Lindeman
For the past few weeks, residents of Eagle have noticed a curious but familiar sight: fifth graders from Brush Creek Elementary School running and biking en masse throughout town, often during the middle of the school day.
The students aren’t pulling the athletic equivalent of hooky – they’re preparing for the school’s annual biathlon, an end-of-the-year tradition as exciting and intimidating as the eventual move to middle school. Like graduation in early June, it’s a moment they’ve waited for since kindergarten.
“These kids have watched the race since they were young, and now it’s their chance to get out there,” says Shelli Fullhart, the school’s physical education teacher and race founder. “It’s a huge tradition for them, and we’re the only school in the area to do it.”
On Friday morning at 10 a.m., the gym-class training pays off when all 68 fifth graders compete in the biathlon, a four-mile trek crisscrossing the school and portions of the surrounding Eagle Ranch community. The 12-year-old race is as old as the school itself, and this year’s event marks a milestone: For the first time ever, most of the competitors weren’t born when Fullhart sketched out the original route. But they’ve become intimately familiar with it in their young academic careers, cheering on as classmates sweated through the mile run and three-mile bike ride.
“It has just become this huge event. Little did I know that in 12 years, the whole community would get into this,” Fullhart says. “You have parents and people from around town who all come out and cheer. The other students make signs, ring cowbells, have pompoms – it’s all very cool.”
Confidence on the course
The Brush Creek biathlon began as a small, passion-filled personal project for Fullhart, a former triathlete and avid mountain biker. When the school opened, she was elated to notice how many kids rode their bikes to school. The racks in front of the main entrance were filled to the brim every morning – a familiar sight just about anywhere in the cycling-crazed town – and she immediately devised her first long-term lesson plan.
“I came up with the idea that first year on the first day of school,” Fullhart says. “Going to middle school can be tough, so I wanted to tap into something the kids already enjoyed, and a biathlon was perfect for the fifth graders. It gives them that bit of extra confidence they need to move onto that next step of life.”
In the span of a few years, the biathlon took on a life of its own. The running portion has stayed the same – students still follow a route Fullhart designed specifically for the race – but the bike course has changed several times as the community grew and shifted. The fire department got involved several years back and brings a ladder truck to the finish line, while the police department controls traffic at a handful of busy intersections. For the first time this year, the Eagle Valley Middle School band will join the firefighters at the finish line, playing up-tempo tunes for the racers and showing appreciation for a tradition the band members recently enjoyed.
“Kids who wouldn’t go out and do this on their own suddenly have a chance to bike and run,” says Stacey Coulter, who has had three children compete in – and win – the biathlon. “My kids, to this day, talk about the biathlon. They’re naturally competitive, and we love how it challenged them.”
After watching the biathlon for over a decade as a parent, Coulter says the competitors continue to surprise her. Each year, the first children to finish help pace their classmates who aren’t as fast – a heartfelt part of the tradition the students added on their own, with no prodding from teachers or adults.
Along with community support, Fullhart is consistently surprised by the energy her fifth graders bring to the race. She has seen everything from townies to mountain bikes to the occasional high-end road racer, and will personally buy a thrift store bike for kids who can’t afford them. Hundreds of students have raced throughout the years and each one has crossed the finish line, including those with special needs. On Friday morning, a student with cerebral palsy will compete using his walker and a modified bike, and in past years kids with autism and down syndrome conquered the course.
“Everyone at the school is pretty active, but we have such an incredible finish to this thing,” Fullhart says. “We have the very athletic kids who get really intense and train outside of school. It can obviously be a bit harder on the more inactive kids, but even they get excited to be out there.”
Biathlon’s last year?
As with many long-standing traditions, former participants look back on the biathlon with a certain mix of nostalgia and gratitude. The first class of Berry Creek graduates are now juniors in college, and Fullhart notes many have competed on the Eagle Valley High School track and cross country teams, as well as in local events like the Vail Recreation District mountain bike series. But it could be the last year of the biathlon: Due to district-wide budget cuts, Fullhart could lose her job next year. A group of parents, many of whom have kids who did the biathlon, started fundraising on their own to save the teacher’s job.
“It’s an incredible thing she does there,” Coulter says of Fullhart. “She would never talk about it, but her job is on the line. People really want to see this continue – Shelli is one of those teachers who will always be a part of (the kid’s) lives.”
Although her children graduated long ago, Coulter would hate to see the biathlon disappear, and Fullhart along with it. Both agree the event is much more than a race.
“It’s not about winning. I just want these kids to do their absolute best and they do,” Fullhart says. “I’ve had a lot of kids come back and thank me, saying this has given them the confidence to do anything. It’s not just about racing – it’s all aspects of life.”