Just over 24 hours before race day, Caitlin Patterson’s mind was made. The pre-registration deadline for the 2017 USA Track & Field (USATF) Mountain Running Championships in North Conway, N.H., was up and she was going to spontaneously do it. Written down in her summer plan was to enter few footraces, and this one promised both a challenging field and relatively short, two-hour drive from her training base in Craftsbury, Vt.
The competition also offered an opportunity to tune up her race tactics. Patterson, 27, had raced to eighth in last year’s U.S. Mountain Running Championships uphill-only edition at Loon Mountain and was curious how she’d fare in a race with downhills (U.S. Mountain Running Championships alternate between uphill-only courses and ones that feature both ascents and descents).
While the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) skier planned on getting a lot out of the race, she hadn’t planned on getting selected to the U.S. World Mountain Running Championships team. But by the end of the women’s 10-kilometer run — a two-lap course which featured nearly 2,500 feet in total elevation gain — that’s just what she got. Patterson finished fourth overall, qualifying her for the 2017 World Mountain Running Championships in late July in Premana, Italy.
“That was definitely a shock and not something I was expecting, to be able to run into fourth place,” Patterson said on the phone last week, three days after racing in North Conway. “That’s part of why I put myself in there, though, is because the race atmosphere can get you to do things you maybe wouldn’t otherwise.”
The three women that finished ahead of Patterson were all World Championships team veterans: Addie Bracy (last year’s U.S. Mountain Running champion) in first, Allie McLaughlin (2014 U.S. champion) in second, and Kasie Enman in third (2011 U.S. champion).
Patterson was the final woman to qualify, finishing in 56:42, 2 minutes and 46 seconds off Bracy’s winning time. Though perhaps a rookie in comparison to her competitors, Patterson didn’t let that detract her from racing how she wanted to.
“I did a lot of power walking in that race, just on the steep stuff,” Patterson said. “I could see the top-three women in front of me and I would say most of them were running it. But walking worked better for me and the way I’m built.”
With World Mountain Running Championships slated to take place on July 30, and the time coinciding with a rest week for Patterson, she plans to make the trip to Italy. The trip’s flights, food, and four days of lodging will be funded through the World Mountain Running Association and running organizations such as U.S. Track and Field and the All American Trail Running Association. In the weeks leading up the race, she hopes to do some training runs with Enman, who also lives in Vermont. The weekend before to the U.S. championships, Enman won the Vermont City Marathon.
“If nothing else, [I want to] chat with her about what to expect over there,” Patterson said. “I was entering this race partially … so I could run with some other women and learn from them.”
With those World Championships on the horizon, Patterson’s main focus this season remains skiing. She planned to enter a few more running races this summer before heading to New Zealand with her team in August.
“The Olympics are on the radar for this coming winter, but we’ll see what I can do,” Patterson said.
Beyond making the 2018 Winter Olympics, she also is hoping to eventually make her way onto the U.S. Ski Team (USST). Her younger brother, Scott Patterson, was nominated to the USST B-team last month, and the news hit her as somewhat bittersweet.
“I was really happy to hear he made the team,” Patterson said. “Of course, I wish that I could be there, too, but I know the rationale behind that I haven’t quite made that jump yet.”
Breaking that bubble, as she acknowledged, is no easy task. There’s the nine-hour time change between her and her coach, Pepa Miloucheva, when she’s in Europe. There’s also the physical toll traveling takes on her body.
“I feel like every year I should get better at traveling, and I do to some extent … going back and forth to Korea [for the PyeongChang World Cup] was great,” Patterson explained. “But for some reason the travel going from Period 1 back to the U.S. — so that was France back to Montana — that went really badly and I got very sick. That was very difficult, borderline devastating, for nationals racing.”
In a way, Patterson’s description of being an on-the-cusp athlete is somewhat of a catch-22: the only way to improve her international racing is to race internationally, but doing so can make domestic racing difficult, with certain domestic races being the ones she needs to do well in if she is to continue racing at an international level.
“I actually probably got the most nervous I’d been the entire season before U.S. nationals,” Patterson said. “After I’d been in Europe, where the racing is extremely tough and such a high level of competition, my expectations were, if I have a really great race, I can crack into the [World Cup] top 30 or so. Whereas coming back to nationals, I felt like I was the person who was in Europe and I’m one of the favorites.”
Another point Patterson made was the idea of creating more opportunities for U.S. national-team and non-national-team members to compete against one another. This spring, Patterson received an email invitation to an athlete meeting led by athlete reps, Rosie Brennan (USST B-team member), Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy), and Anne Hart (Stratton Mountain School). Topics discussed included: SuperTour Calendaring, SuperTour Points, Seeding, Pole Length Rule, and Selection Criteria. Close to 30 athletes–from both the SuperTour circuit and USST–were in attendance, according to Patterson who also attended the meeting. Many present agreed with the following:
“We as a ski community, as much as possible, would like for the U.S. Ski Team athletes who don’t make the criteria to race upcoming World Cup races or don’t make the criteria to race the Tour de Ski, to be sent back and have to race U.S. nationals,” Patterson said. “Maybe that will happen, I won’t really believe it until I see it.
“It’s tricky,” Patterson continued. “Of course I’m still trying to figure it out myself. Kris Freeman made some good points that maybe the system of qualification isn’t working so well if so much has to be decided by discretion. But I guess in the end, the best way to do it is manage to race so fast, that it puts all doubt aside and show you just belong on there. Get off the bubble for sure, because there’s a lot of us trying to make that jump.”
Even if last season didn’t earn her a nomination to the USST, Patterson is happy with the progress she’s witnessed in her skiing over the past few seasons, last year’s being particularly gratifying.
“I really enjoyed my time in Europe during Period 1 this past winter,” she said. “It was a very positive experience and everyone was so excited to be there. And I think in many ways, it was a more positive experience than when I’ve been over there later in the season, when a lot of those athletes who have been racing in Europe really start to want to come home.
“I respect the coaches’ decisions and I think they have good rationale on their side,” she continued. “I’ve been making good progress with my skiing, but I know that I need to prove unquestionably that I belong there on the ski-team ranks. There’s an extremely strong women’s team right now, which of course is great, but makes it really hard to get onto it. So I’ll keep trying and keep doing everything I can. Luckily I have a very supportive team here in the CGRP. So I can keep pursuing skiing, but hopefully make it to the Olympics one way or another.”
Currently, CGRP sponsors, especially Concept2 and the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, cover CGRP athletes’ in season race and travel expenses. In the summer, lodging and food at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center are also paid for by CGRP financial supporters. For other outside expenses, Patterson relies on prize money she earns throughout the season.
“No one in the US is in cross-country ski racing for the money, we’re in the sport because it’s an amazing way to stay fit and get outside, push your limits and compete, and inspire and help others along the way,” Patterson wrote in an email on Thursday. “I’m really not sure how long I’ll keep skiing at this competitive level. I have no definitive plans to stop, but I also don’t plan to keep going forever, as there are many other meaningful things I know I can do with my life. For now I’m living in the moment and the immediate future, giving everything I have to the pursuit of skiing my best, and enjoying the process and the journey.”
Though perhaps headed to World Championships in a different sport than she would have expected, Patterson indicated that for now, her nordic ski career is where she will stay.
“I’m really not sure, I haven’t given that any thought before.” Patterson wrote of a future in mountain running. “Mountain and trail running has always been something that I’m fairly good at because I’m training to be a skier, and I have a natural tendency towards an aerobic body type. I enjoy the races, and would like to improve my speed and consistency at running races, but I can’t really imagine continuing to be a competitive athlete but not focusing on skiing.”