FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships is brought to you through the generous support of The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vt.
MIDWAY, Utah – At the 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships, winning by any margin is enough to make most competitors’ day. Not so for Caitlin Gregg of Team Gregg and Madshus, who won Wednesday’s 20 k freestyle mass start with a time of 55:33 and a lead of over three and a half minutes, a gap that has not been seen at the national level in recent memory. Unsatisfied with a mere win, Gregg set a blistering pace that left her fellow racers in the dust after the first few kilometers, ultimately resulting in her fourth national title.
“I had a game plan. It was to try and see what kind of a gap I could create,” Gregg said in post-race interview.
The 20 k race started out like most. The gun went off and the 78 women fought to find the best place they could in the sea of brightly colored spandex. “We were all in front and then I let some people step in front of me thinking that I would relax,” said Rosie Brennan, eventual third place finisher and skier from Alaska Pacific University. “Then I looked up again and Caitlin [Gregg] was gone.”
With an extensive history of success in skate mass starts like the Birkie, Gregg knew to take the first few kilometers easy to see how she was feeling and to observe how well her skis were running. After the first few downhills, she realized that she had skis like rockets.
“I’m risking the rest of the field getting all tangled up and falling on each other, just siting around here and trying not to pull,” she said. “At the top of the second big climb I took the lead. Once I started going, I finally got into my groove. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
As Gregg took off, only one skier attempted to stick with her. Chelsea Holmes of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, who eventually finished second, took what she thought would be a short ride to the front of the pack. Instead, she realized that Gregg wasn’t going to slow down, but it was too late.
“It was brutal. I felt like a child; a small, floundering child,” said Holmes. “I didn’t think [Gregg] was going to actually go that hard.”
Holmes did her best to stay with Gregg through the first lap, but a five meter gap turned into 10, which then turned into 20, and pretty soon she found herself alone on the course with the blue and white Team Gregg suit off in the distance and a hungry Brennan coming up from behind.
”That was one of the harder races I’ve done, knowing that there were people behind me, catching me,” said Holmes. “I was very deep in the pain cave the entire time.”
However once Brennan overcame her near the end of the second lap, she was able to rest a little while the two worked together. “I think that was a good thing,” she said of Brennan catching her.
After watching the men’s race, where initial breakaways were slowly reigned back in, Brennan assumed she would just relax and slowly catch up to Holmes. “Once I got there I thought we could work together, but this course is so hard,” said Brennan of the 5 k olympic course that the women completed four times. “There is no rest. Even when I was following [Holmes], it felt like I was maxed out.”
While the race for second was being waged between Holmes and Brennan, another pair was skiing behind them to keep their position on the challenging course. Kate Fitzgerald (APU) and Caitlin Patterson of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project used each other to try and close the gap between them and Holmes and Brennan
“We were switching leads out there, which made it a lot more fun; way more fun than skiing by yourself,” Fitzgerald said. “We were chasing Rosie and Chelsea. They were like a carrot over there.”
“It was fun to work together with her. I don’t think either of us would have been as strong without each other,” said Patterson. “For a while I thought maybe we could get them, it seemed like we were closing for a little bit. But they definitely didn’t die and they had a pretty strong push at the end.”
In the end, the pair was unable to reach the second and third place finishers. Fitzgerald skied across the finish line in fourth and Patterson followed in fifth.
While the two pairs were working behind her, Gregg was continuing to surmount an increasing lead. With each glide of her ski she gained more confidence as she made her way around the hilly course.
“The hills were so tough, and for some reason I’m silly and I love that,” she said with a laugh.
Even though it was apparent that nobody would be able to catch her, she never slowed down. “I wanted to see what I could do and I just felt too good. It was really fun, and I definitely skied relaxed and there’s definitely that point where skiing relaxed is faster.”
Testing her limits wasn’t the only motivating factor for Gregg in Wednesday’s 20 k. In an Olympic year where there are many strong women who have already met the criteria for the Olympics, she needed to prove that she was more than worthy of a spot in Sochi.
When asked about whether or not the Olympic Games were an influence in today’s race, she recalled something Pete Vordenberg, the former U.S. Ski Team Head Coach, said to her before she made the Olympic team in 2010.
“He said ‘when you’re on the bubble, the best place to be is not on the bubble.’ And if you’re not going to be on the bubble you’re going to have to make it pretty apparent,” she said.
She did her best to make it apparent, and skied the fastest time each lap. By the time the next competitor had crossed the line Gregg had already finished over 3:36 before.
With many strong American sprinters, Gregg knew she had to shine in another discipline. She also knew that there would be a 30 k skate race in Sochi. A smart and calculated move, she saw the chance to demonstrate that she could be a strong contender in that race.
“[The 20 k was] that opportunity to make it easy for them. Don’t leave any doubt in their minds. And so [today] was my attempt to do that.”
While the U.S. Ski Team coaches are waiting to announce the Olympic team until the 21-22 of January, Gregg and her husband, Brian, have plenty to do in the meantime. On the same day that Gregg was crowned national champion in the 20 k and her husband placed second in the 30 k, both were scheduled to fly to Europe to compete in the period II World Cup races taking place in the Czech Republic.
The couple qualified for the World Cup by taking the top spots in the SuperTour standings, and if all goes well, she’ll continue her quest to “get off the bubble,” while competing at the World Cup level. However, the most important thing is that she and her husband are on the journey together.
“I cannot express anything better than being able to share this with my husband,” said Gregg, who upon her husband’s second place finish broke out into a fit of emotional exuberance. “It’s a great way to end our nationals. We’re going to get on that plane and we are just going to have all sorts of war stories, and then crash something fierce on that flight.”
– Alex Matthews contributed reporting