After winning World Championships bronze in 2015 and, after years of racing, a U.S. Ski Team nomination come spring, Caitlin Gregg nonetheless found herself out of sorts when the World Cup kicked off in November.
“Basically since the first weekend on the World Cup I just felt off,” Gregg said in an interview on Wednesday. “I couldn’t really figure out what it was. I had some races where there were good moments, but I just wasn’t able to put it together and I didn’t feel like myself. I felt like something needed to be reset.”
There were good moments: the classic leg of a skiathlon in Lillehammer, or parts of races in the Tour de Ski. Competing in the grueling ten-day race series for the first time, Gregg hoped that as the races piled up she would feel better and better in comparison to the field.
But by the time the Tour was finished, and she crossed the line at the top of the Alpe Cermis in 42nd place overall out of 43 women’s finishers, Gregg was ready to do something differently.
“I made a tough decision – well, tough but not tough – to come back to the U.S.,” the Vermonter-turned-Minnesotan explained. “Tough in the sense that it’s always hard to leave opportunities for World Cup starts behind, but not so tough because I’m on the ‘B’ team and any extra day I’m over there, I’m paying for it.”
While the other American finishers from the Tour headed to Seiser Alm, a high-elevation training site in Tyrolian Italy, Gregg went home to North Minneapolis.
“I thought it would give me a good boost mentally and would give me the strength I needed for the next month of training,” Gregg said. “So I spent two weeks at home, and I worked at the Boys and Girls Club and skied with my Loppet Nordic Racing teammates and recharged, and then hit the ground running with my training.”
It seems to have worked.
“Since then, everything has been really good,” a relieved Gregg said. “My heart rates and lactates are back to normal and my energy feels great, so I’m pretty psyched.”
The Greggs traveled to Wisconsin, mecca of the American Birkebeiner, to support the Birkie Tour; Caitlin’s husband Brian won the Seely Hills Classic.
Then while Brian headed East for SuperTour racing, picking up three top-10’s in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Craftsbury, Vt., Caitlin Gregg stuck in the Midwest. She entered and won the Three Rivers Rennet in Bloomington, Minn., where she was fourth overall, and trained with her old friends.
“I think I’m a unique athlete in the sense that so much of my career has been through community involvement,” she said. “Not just financial support – that for sure – but honestly, I’ve trained with more juniors and masters than I have with elite racers. Whether it’s early morning intervals or training in the dark, or doing a local citizens’ race, that’s where I get my energy.”
She also made a detour to race, and win, the Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley, first training at elevation in Frisco, Colorado.
Gregg is hoping that energy will carry her to another Birkie win on Saturday, and then on to the Ski Tour Canada, the final period of World Cup racing for the season.
“This year is big because I’m tied with an [Austrian] guy named Manfred Nagel for the most Birkie wins,” Gregg explained. “I think if I win I will be the all-time winningest, which is pretty cool. So I’m going to keep trying to do that for the rest of my life – they’re going to have to pull me off the Birkie trail some day. I’m actually standing on the trail right now.”
Gregg won her third Birkie title in 2014, and missed the event the next year in preparation for World Champs – ultimately a successful move. But coming back to the race is clearly beyond exciting for one of its biggest cheerleaders.
“The Birkie is huge because of the community,” Gregg said. “We’ve spent years here in Hayward… I know some elite racers on the World Cup don’t quite get it. But I think it is an event that brings home why people get excited for us when we have international success on the World Cup. Skiers here are psyched to be on your same equipment, or to know what your latest modes of training are, or the heart rate variability stuff, or what your drink mix is for the Birkie. It really brings home the sense that there’s an awesome ski community here.”
In the end, Gregg plans for this to be one more season where the Birkie fits in well with her World Cup racing goals.
“It’s funny because the Birkie motto is Ski, Run, Bike, Live, and it really is part of my life,” she said. “Sometimes the Birkie is what elite racers do when they are done with their careers. I like that Brian and I have been able to integrate it into our international careers – and other athletes too, like Holly Brooks, Tad Elliott, and Matt Liebsch. It’s not just something that you do when you’re done racing.”
And after Saturday’s race, whatever the outcome, she will focus intensely on recovering and preparing for Canada.
“For the first time maybe in my career, I feel like my age comes into play as a benefit,” Gregg laughed. “I don’t think a 50 k takes as much out of me as someone who is in their early 20’s. Finally there’s a perk to being old and having a zillion hours underneath me!”
“My training leading up to this race has been good, and it’s going to be a fast year this year with the conditions,” she said of possible post-marathon fatigue.
So I think it’s not going to be a problem. I’ve talked to a lot of coaches and gotten some good insight into what to do afterwards for recovery.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.