Caitlin Gregg likes to joke that each time she and her husband enter a ski race, it’s like the couple is buying a pair of lottery tickets in the Megabucks.
Saturday, at the finish of the American Birkebeiner marathon in Wisconsin, Gregg hit the jackpot, eking out a victory over Estonian Tatjana Mannima on Main Street in Hayward after 50 kilometers of racing. Her reward: the winner’s prize of $7,500.
“It’s huge,” she said. “This is definitely what we were hoping for, from either one of us.”
After her win at the Birkie in 2011 helped allow her and her husband Brian Gregg to buy their house in Minneapolis, this dose of Birkie cash will help keep the couple on sound financial footing as they train for next year’s Olympics in Russia.
The money was far from guaranteed, though, as Gregg had to fend off four other women in a sprint to the finish—after Mannima, there was Craftsbury’s Caitlin Patterson, who placed third, Italian Antonella Confortola in fourth, and Sun Valley’s Nicole DeYong in fifth.
While Gregg, 32, was clearly as fit as anyone else in the field, she also credited her experience with getting her to the line first, with two previous Birkie podiums under her belt. Mannima and Patterson were both competing in the race for the first time—and for Patterson, the race was her first-ever 50 k.
Gregg’s team, meanwhile, has held camps in Hayward, and her husband lived in the town at one point in his career.
The couple is so tight with the locals that when Gregg had a problem with one of her poles a few kilometers into the race, she skied no more than a few hundred meters before running into a friend, Kay Wilson, standing with a replacement—Brian Gregg had supplied her with one.
“He knew that Kay was familiar with the race,” Caitlin Gregg said. “We literally skied, like, a hill and a half, and I looked up, and Kay was there with these poles, and I just yelled at her. She was a pro—it was so seamless.”
The women’s race split up quickly, with the lead pack thinning out to roughly a dozen athletes near the course’s high point at around 10 kilometers, according to Patterson.
That group fractured even further around the 30 kilometer mark, and then, by the time the skiers reached the top of “Bitch Hill” at about 40 kilometers, only five women were left after some strong skiing by Gregg and DeYong—and they all pushed hard over the top to make sure that no one would be able to catch up.
“We definitely skied the rest of the downhill aggressively fast,” Patterson said. “Then it was five of us going all the way, to the last few corners before the finish.”
For Patterson, just knowing that she’d made the top five was a victory in and of itself: the Birkebeiner pays prize money to the top six athletes.
“I was kind of watching the rate of attrition,” she said.
Patterson gave both Gregg and DeYong credit for keeping the pressure on, and shaking the group of five free from the rest. For her part, Gregg said that DeYong—who’s actually a coach in Sun Valley and doesn’t even consider herself a racer—was “the fittest athlete out there, by far.”
“Tons of energy,” Gregg said. “I was really impressed.”
But as the leaders approached the finish, it was Gregg who ended up controlling the race when she somehow found herself at the front of the pack going across Lake Hayward, a few kilometers from the finish line.
It’s a notoriously bad spot to lead—the other athletes can tuck in behind, saving their energy for the sprint. “It’s all exposed, and windy, no turns—you can’t really do much,” Gregg said. “I remember thinking: ‘Oh, Brian is going to kill me for taking the lead here—this is such a rookie thing to do.’”
But rather than panic, Gregg made the most of her predicament, skiing along at what she called a hard pace, but still comfortable.
Patterson tried to make a move before the trail narrowed at the end of the lake, but there wasn’t any room.
“I sort of got shuffled into the classic tracks, and had to backpedal a little bit,” she said.
Then, Mannima managed to sneak by Gregg on the right, and took the lead, but couldn’t escape; when the group turned onto Main Street in Hayward, it was clear that it would come down to a drag race for the line.
It may not have been the quickest of sprints: Gregg said she “felt like a snail trying to get ahead of another snail.” But she had just enough to get past Mannima and win by about half a second, with Patterson another second behind.
Patterson, after her first-ever marathon, said she was already eager for another shot at the Birkie, given the difficulty she had negotiating the race’s final kilometers.
“I think there’s a good chance that in the future, when I know, tactically, how that finish works, that things could be different,” she said. “Certainly, Caitlin Gregg’s experience on this course, and with that finish, paid off, because she knew exactly what to do to get there first.”
There was no bitterness, though—Patterson added that she was excited simply to be skiing with the lead pack, especially given that it included some high-powered foreign athletes.
Mannima, in fact, is the current leader of the world marathon circuit. And she’s flying back to Europe to compete in the World Ski Championships for Estonia this coming week, according to Craftsbury Coach Pepa Miloucheva, who spoke to Mannima after the race.
Confortola, the Italian, has two relay medals from World Championships, and one from the Olympics.
Still, not Confortola, Mannima, nor any of the other women could deprive Gregg on Saturday from winning on what essentially amounts to her home course—a feeling, she said, that was “great.”
“Everyone knows your name, and you just feel the love that much more,” Gregg said. “It means a ton.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.