Caitlin Patterson, a member of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, recently returned to the U.S. after her first time racing the World Cup in Europe. In February, she traveled to Rogla, Slovenia, to compete in two Alpen Cup races before making her World Cup debut on March 7 in Lahti, Finland.
Patterson, 25, competed in a sprint and a 10-kilometer classic in Lahti, followed by the Drammen city sprints in Norway and the 30 k freestyle mass start at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway. She placed between 50th and 53rd in each of her four World Cup starts.
Prior to earning those starts, Patterson explained in an email she was consumed by the busy spring race season and overlooked the points calculation, despite usually being attentive to results and rankings. So when U.S. Ski Team coaches sent her an email explaining that she would likely earn World Cup starts as the SuperTour distance leader, it caught her by surprise.
“It was actually good timing for me personally,” Patterson wrote. “I had been extremely sick and then was still recovering during the Craftsbury race weekend and had sub-par races that I was not particularly happy about. So finding out about the World Cup opportunity really helped me recover and get healthy so I could get back to training.”
Though she did not explicitly set World Cup starts as a goal, she did aim for overseas starts in the form of the OPA/Alpen Cup to continue building race experience.
“World Cup starts were ‘on the radar’ as something I really wanted to earn,” she explained. “A way to make progress towards racing faster, but I also aimed to qualify for the US OPA Cup trip, to be able to race in Europe in at least some capacity to test myself against a larger variety of racers and deep competitive fields.”
In December 2012, Patterson qualified and competed in three World Cup races in Canmore, Alberta, where she notched a personal best of 44th in the 15 k skiathlon. Her decision to not make the World Cup a specific goal this year was one of several careful calculations she made in managing her season.
“I usually set up my goals not so much in terms of specific results, but as overall objectives that may be a little more ambiguously interpreted,” the Anchorage, Alaska, native explained. “I have high expectations for myself, but I also feel that setting strict results goals may not be productive, if it opens up the possibility to make me unhappy if I do not achieve the goals.”
She allowed herself one specific objective: to earn at least one podium at U.S. nationals in January. She achieved it, placing second in the 20 k classic mass start in Houghton, Mich.
Apart from that, she kept her racing goals non-specific.
“Warm up really well for every race, work on being able to sustain higher tempo for races, learn something about [myself] or how to ski faster from every race and then apply it, and enjoy racing,” she wrote.
‘Don’t Get Derailed’
In terms of setting goals, Patterson gave a detailed description of her thought process.
“I tried to approach the races as I would any other racing event,” she wrote. “Don’t get derailed by course closures or last-minute changes of plans, test wax and skis decisively, warm up well, arrive at the start ready to go, and push myself to ski as fast as possible during the race.”
At the highest international level, keeping that process on track can be difficult.
“Nothing is quite the same at the World Cup, with different wax techs, stricter rules about course access, and the stars of the World Cup circuit zooming around passing you during warm up like you’re standing still,” Patterson explained. “I didn’t quite manage to keep my preparation under control the way I wanted it to be [at my first World Cup], and a combination of factors caused me not to be able to kick my classic skis in the 10k race in Lahti, which was brutally tough on the steep climbs of Lahti.”
She finished 50th in that classic distance race, a day after placing 51st in the freestyle sprint in Lahti.
For most North American skiers, it’s a massive transition to the big stage and the crowds of European World Cup racing. In the classic-sprint qualifier in Drammen, Patterson had an “only-at-the-World-Cup” experience.
“I was sprinting up towards the finish, looking up the last bit of the hill towards the finish line, zeroing in on where I needed to get to as fast as possible,” she wrote. “There is a giant screen behind the finish, showing racers from around the course, and as I strode towards the finish I caught a glimpse of the screen, and my thoughts went something like ‘Who’s that? Oh, that’s me! I better go faster, it doesn’t really look like I’m sprinting fast enough.’ It’s funny to have the immediate-feedback of a live video screen come across your vision during a race, it caught me by surprise to see myself.”
Asked specifically about Holmenkollen, Oslo’s flagship venue, Patterson explained it was hard to put into words.
“Some of the photos of the races come close to capturing the essence, but even that doesn’t give you an idea of the sound,” she wrote. “There are still clear, wide ribbons of snow to race along, just like every race, but the sound of the crowd overwhelms just about all other senses. And you feel as though you are always in the spotlight, many eyes follow you around the course. The cheering is great — I was skiing by myself for the last 10-15k of the 30k, and all along the course I was engulfed in cheers of ‘U-S-A’ and ‘Cait-lin–Cait-lin…’ ”
“The sound of the crowd overwhelms just about all other senses. And you feel as though you are always in the spotlight, many eyes follow you around the course…” — Caitlin Patterson, on racing the Holmenkollen 30 k for the first time
Looking back, Patterson couldn’t pinpoint a particular World Cup race she was most proud of: “They all had high and low points and most of all many chances for learning how to race better,” she wrote. “I’m proud that I approached each race as a new day and believed in myself, and gave everything I had on that day.”
Even after coming out on top in the SuperTour and making it to her first European World Cups, Patterson had a hard time fighting the feeling that she didn’t meet her potential.
“I’m feeling happy with some of the season, but also more than some years, I feel like I have had relatively few races where I’ve really put together my fitness with good skis, competitive fields, and the right preparation to show how well I can actually race,” she wrote. “It takes many pieces coming together to have a truly excellent race, and I need to get better at putting the pieces together on the right day.”
“The World Cup experience was a highlight — racing in Finland and Norway and the opportunity to race against the best in the world, and to start learning how to become competitive with them,” she added. “But the way I felt in the World Cup distance races particularly was not good. I have had a few races this season that stand out as highlights — the 20 k classic at US Nationals and the 20 k classic at Craftsbury where I won my first Supertour, and actually I felt the very best of this season so far in a 5 k skate race in January in Rumford that was a combined Eastern Cup and college carnival.”
For Patterson, now it is about learning how to use her racing this season to build towards bigger things in the future. She is particularly focused on race preparation and identifying weaknesses, being consistent across all event formats and distances, skiing with greater confidence and power, “and most of all faster.” She’s also aiming for more World Cup starts next season.
“I don’t want to be a 50th-plus place World Cup skier, but I’ll have to live with those results until I can earn the chance to prove to myself and everyone else that I can ski better,” she wrote. “I’m dreaming of being truly competitive in the World Cup in the future!”