Note: This article has been updated to correct Caitlin Patterson’s birthplace. She was born in McCall, Idaho.
The clang of a cowbell is a sound Caitlin Patterson has heard plenty of times during a ski race — but never while running — at least until she raced the 33rd edition of the World Mountain Running Championships (WMRC) July 30 in Premana, Italy.
In her debut WMRC, which she qualified for in June, the 27-year-old Patterson discovered that for the mountain running fans of Italy, spectating is almost a sport in itself. Crowds of people cheering lined much of the 13-kilometer, two-lap course, and to Patterson’s surprise, within close range to the racers.
“It definitely felt like there were a few cowbells being rung that were about the size of my head, and then a few being rung almost into my head,” Patterson said during a recent phone interview from Craftsbury, Vt. “But it was really neat to see how enthusiastic the Italians were about the race. … I have certainly never seen that many people with cowbells and cheering.”
The race started in the city’s center and wove through Premana’s cobblestone streets for almost a kilometer before transitioning to trails. Unlike the rock- and dirt-covered mountain courses Patterson has run in the U.S., this race incorporated close to 3 k of pavement.
“We started in the town itself and wound through these really narrow city streets, some of them so narrow I probably could have reached out and touched the walls with my hand,” Patterson said. “That first section of manmade mountain course was different than I might have expected. … Probably three of the race’s 13 k was on pavement, which not exactly anything I had prepared for.”
What she had prepared for was a fast start. Prior to heading to Premana, Patterson, who skis for the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) based out of Craftsbury, planned a couple distance runs with Vermont native and 2011 WMRC champion Kasie Enman (Enman also competed for the U.S. women’s team at this year’s WMRC).
Though neither of the runs the two went on involved intensity or hill workouts, they did involve conversation about what to expect and how to tactically attack the race. While finding a competitor to race behind is often helpful in a mass-start ski race, Patterson learned the opposite is true for mountain running.
“In skiing, you want to find someone that you can follow and draft off of. That’s a good tactic in a skiing mass start,” Patterson said. “But in running, especially on the downhills, when you’re just sending it over obstacles, it’s actually not a good idea to be right behind someone because then you can’t see what’s on the trail. Kasie said, ‘If you can, get around people so you have clear visibility of what’s ahead.’ ”
Patterson spent most of her race in company of racers from other nations, runners she had never met before.
“I didn’t know who I was racing with…,” Patterson said. “The first time up the climb went fairly well for me … but it was kind of humid and we were in the full sun almost the whole time and I don’t handle heat very well. So I was really struggling with the heat for most of the race.”
Despite not being a heat-thriving racer, Patterson raced to 23rd overall (out of 64 finishers), with a time of 1:12:14. Allie McLaughlin led the U.S. women’s team in fifth with a time of 1:06:06. Her teammate Addie Bracy followed in eighth (1:07:46), and Kasie Enman placed 13th (1:09:11).
Kenya’s Lucy Wambui Murigi won the race in 1:01:26, while Austria’s Andrea Mayr placed second (+1:17) and Germany’s Sarah Tunstall finished third (+2:49).
The three-top scoring American women (McLaughlin, Bracy and Enman) lifted the U.S. to the overall team title, six points ahead of home-team Italy in second. The Czech Republic was another nine points back in third.
“It was cool to have this opportunity to race and feel like I could put myself out there and see what I could do, but not have any pressure from myself or anyone else,” Patterson said.
Patterson is not the first nordic skier to find success in mountain running, nor is she the only one in her family. Her brother, Scott Patterson, a member of Alaska Pacific University’s elite nordic team and the U.S. Ski Team B-team, won this year’s Mount Marathon in Seward, Alaska.
“We, as skiers, seek out adventure,” said Patterson, who was born in McCall, Idaho. “We’ll be like ‘Huh, I want to go run up this mountain for my training,’ and then that ends up translating well [to mountain running]. … I think there are a lot of skiers out there who, if they wanted to do some mountain running, they probably could do it well.”
Though her current focus is on qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, she also indicated that setting her sights beyond snow sports is not out of the question. She flew to Europe more than a week before the WMRC to watch this year’s Dolomites Skyrace, 23.5 k mountain climb and descent in northern Italy that’s part of the Skyrunner World Series.
“I could really see myself doing some of those longer races at some point,” Patterson said. “My focus is very much on skiing, especially now that this is over, this has been a little adventure, but then we’ll see.”