By, Caitlin Gregg
*Editor's note: The original release of this article incorrectly stated Caitlin competed in the 2010 Sochi Olympic Games. Caitlin actually competed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
About the Race:
- The American Birkebeiner AKA "Birkie"
- Spans 51 kilometers from Cable to Hayward for Skaters, and 55K for Classic Skiers
- North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon
- Attracts over 10,000 Birkie/Korte skiers
Waking up the morning of the largest cross country ski race in North America and the largest cash purse in the country ($10,000) I look out the window to check out the weather. Temperatures still haven't dipped below freezing, meaning that this will be one of the warmest American Birkebeiner races in recent history. It isn't uncommon for a big temperature swing on race day, but the last few years it has been a cold snap. The body takes time and energy to adjust to changes in temperature and fueling become even more important. My nutrition changes somewhat from warm to cold.
A lot can happen along the 52 kilometer trail from Cable to Hayward and this is one of my most important days of my year. My fitness is strong but I know that sometimes that isn't enough in a big competitive race. Some of my biggest fears are a broken pole or a missed feed station where I knew my custom INFINIT was waiting. With the trail winding through the woods my team has scouted out the various logging roads and snowmobile crossings where they will be able to connect with me on the course, there are six of them.
In the past I have noticed other athletes not feeding in the first 20 km and I know that they are the ones who will drop off the lead pack first. Myself, I have my nutrition pretty dialed in so I make sure to feed a lot. It is so important that I ski with a bottle of my custom formula and swap it out for a new one every 5-10 kilometers at the checkpoints we have scouted earlier. I see the Green hat of my service team my mother-in-law or sister-in-law and receive my first 3 bottles perfectly. We cross the 4th road and I look for my feed. Unfortunately my friend is not there, they must have gotten lost on the many unmarked back roads you must take to get there. I still have a little of my custom INFINIT mix left and have been feeling good so I should be good until the next feed zone.
I have tried to make several attacks on the group but the warm snow has meant the course is fast, I can get a small gap but the group working together can bring me back and I am unable to break away. I see my friend at the 5th feed and I take my full bottle.
A few kilometers later one of the largest climbs of the course is coming up. The Infamous Bitch Hill, with 12 km to go to the finish I make my move. At the top of the hill it is down to me and a French Racer who wears the red leaders bib of the FIS Worldloppet Cup. I can see she is hurting but I can't shake her, when I try to get her to lead she slows the pace down and I worry the others might catch us. I attack again and again. Now we are on a lake and the draft advantage makes it too hard to get away. I continue to pull at a constant pace. With 1 km to go we climb off of the lake and on to the streets of Hayward. Leading across the lake is not a smart move in this race. Now is when I know my fueling really comes in to play as I gear up for the finishing sprint. I make another attack and focus on the finish line ahead. I don't hear the breathing of anyone behind me, I glance left, I glance right, I have crossed the finish for my 4th American Birkebenier title.
Nearly 2.5 hours of racing and it all came down to the final sprint. I can't hold back the enormous smile on my face from crossing the finish line first. This race has literally changed my life as it helped me pay off my debts from training for the 2010 Olympics, it bought my husband and my first house, it helped me coach him to his first Olympic Team (2014) and allowed me to win a medal at the 2015 World Championships. The best part now is that 8,000 of my friends, training partners and sponsors are also about to come across that finish line. This race is the focal point for many cross country skiing community and part of the lifestyle that I love so much.