Hayward, Wis. — The women’s race was destined to be a showdown between the two time Birkie winner and local favorite Caitlin Gregg of Minneapolis and the current leader of the FIS Marathon Cup, Antonella Confortola Wyatt, of Italy.
Gregg led the women’s race for much of the way, with Confortola Wyatt trying to keep up with her. Gregg said of the women’s field this year, “You know I was real impressed…[it was] a strong group of women this year.”
“I didn’t have a strategy,” Gregg said. “Typically with such a long race like this you know, there’s so many variables… so I always kind of want to be prepared for any situation and honestly the thing that caught me by surprise was that the elite men’s wave caught us, and after that, I realized there was an opportunity to get a really strong, strong pull from some fast guys.”
The elite women started twenty minutes ahead of the elite men, and when the men caught them, just before the halfway mark, Gregg really blew the race open.
Confortola Wyatt said that she felt she could see and chase Gregg, but when the men skied by, unlike Gregg she wasn’t able to ski with them.
“I really felt like I was skiing well, and they [the women’s leaders] were all staying with me,” said Gregg, “and I tried to put in a surge, I couldn’t drop them, and all of a sudden I heard some really loud grunts behind me and I stepped aside, thinking, ‘man, this girl is going for it,’ and she was real big and I realized, ‘oh that’s not a girl, that’s a guy’ and I watched the men crest the hill, and then thought to myself, ‘wait a second, that’s an opportunity.’ So I just put the hammer down like I never have before, and jumped on that train.”
“We were three left,” Confortola Wyatt said at the post race press conference. “So when the men came she was really good, she stayed together, and I was like surprised, a bit too slow, and then she was gone. I couldn’t keep that pace.”
The winner of the men’s race, Tom Reichelt of Germany was surprised to see Gregg hanging on with the men’s lead pack. “We kind of slowed down and this woman stayed with us,” Reichelt mused.
Gregg, who has successfully won the last two Birkies in a sprint finish, was wary of letting this years race be determined in the final meters. “This year, my fitness was really high, especially, we’ve been racing a lot of 10 k’s and 5 k’s, and I know I can push it in a skate race for that amount of time, so I kind of took a gamble, I went at it with about 25 k to go, but I thought, ‘I’ve got another gear here,’ I don’t want to wait for those girls that can sprint, I can go now.”
Gregg’s surge with the men was “pretty key” she said, and she was able to put a sizable gap on the women’s field. That left her to ski most of the second half of the race by herself, a test of whether she had the strength to ski the distance alone, or if Confortola Wyatt and Rosie Brennan of Park City, UT would slowly reel her in.
“There was definitely a very quiet kind of moment out on the trails,” Gregg said, “where I suddenly realized, I couldn’t see the men, I couldn’t see the women, and I thought, ‘hmmm, maybe this was a little bold!’ but I have to say, a guardian angel came, Matt Liebsch came up behind me just before the lake, and he knew that he wasn’t having the race that he needed, and he said, “Hey, if you’re feeling good, try to stay with me, and let’s work this in,” and he helped me so much, I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario.”
“Matt is such a great supporter of us, and we’re such supporters of him, and what a true, true, sport champion. I mean, he is the epitome of a good sportsman, and obviously he showed it again today.”
With 2012 Birkie winner Liebsch leading Gregg across the fiercely windy final two kilometers over Lake Hayward, she came down Main Street triumphant, much to the delight of the spectators lining the finish. Gregg’s time was 2:40:57, a comfortable 1:16 over second place Confortola Wyatt, and 2:05 ahead of third place Brennan.
The women’s classic race was won by Natalja Naryshkina, originally from Russia who now lives in Cable, WI and skis with CXC. Her time was 3:26:00. In second was Elaine Nelson of Duluth, MN and in third place was Brooke Adams of Sarona, WI.
Gregg had been widely seen as a strong contender for an Olympic birth, particularly for the 30 k mass start skate race, also held on Saturday in Sochi. When asked whether today’s Birkie victory made up for the missed Olympic spot, she replied, “Yeah, you know, I’m psyched because today was the day I wanted to feel good, both for the 30 k at the Olympics, or for the Birkie, and to feel good today means that my peaking, just everything that I wanted to do this year, has been coming along. Obviously it’s always nice to be able to win some money, too [a $10,000 prize]. I mean, the Olympics, what an opportunity, what a wonderful event, and I’m super psyched that Brian [Gregg’s husband] is there, and I would have loved to have been there, but I think this is a pretty good consolation. This has been an awesome, awesome weekend.”
When asked about her future, Gregg responded, “Brian and I have been talking about this a lot, and you know, we’re having a great time. We’ve had a great year, we’re really, really having fun, which I think has been key to this year, and we still get along, even though we spend many days and hours together in a small studio apartment usually somewhere on the road, and I think we’re going to keep going! I think we’re going to keep racing until we see a time to stop, and then I think we’re actually going to be involved in skiing on many different levels. That’s definitely a passion of ours.”
Gregg finished ahead of Confortola Wyatt, who seized control of leaders bib in the FIS Marathon Cup with her Birkie result. The Marathon Cup continues with the final race on Sunday, March 9th with the Engadin Ski Marathon in Switzerland, after next weekends marathon, the Bieg Piastow in Poland was shortened due to poor snow conditions. The Italian leader is 9 points ahead of Finland’s Riita-Lissa Roponen, and when asked if she will keep the red bib until the end of the series she replied, “It will be hard, but it would be nice.” When Gregg was asked if this win would inspire her to compete for the Marathon Cup title in the future, she cagily answered, “That’s something that’s on our radar.”
The thirty three year old Gregg however isn’t hanging up her future Olympic ambitions just yet. “Something that I was told a while ago, was that I was kind of getting older, maybe too old for the Olympics, and that was quite a few years ago, and honestly, I don’t feel like I’m slowing down. I feel like I’m getting stronger, and I think it’s a real important message to show that you can set goals, and maybe come up short one year, but keep pressing on, and look for the next set of goals that are out there, so for me, that was not making the Olympics, and setting my sights on winning the Birkie, and I think that, four years from now, why not?”
“One thing’s for sure,” Gregg said of her chances of winning the Birkie again, “I never count my chickens before they hatch, but I will say, I have many, many more Birkie’s in me, that’s for sure.”
Gregg will return to the World Cup circuit next weekend in Lahti, Finland.
–Katie Bono contributed reporting
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.