MIDWAY, Utah — With four grueling uphills per lap, the new U.S. Cross Country Championships women’s 10-kilometer course at Soldier Hollow (SoHo) totals some 400 meters of solid incline. Divide those 400 meters by eight and what do you get? The hill metric Caitlin Gregg, based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., has used as a race-season springboard for the past nine years.
Maybe flats are easier to find on Gregg’s Twin City turf than the hills that abound in SoHo. But the 36 year old still considers herself a climber.
Gregg proved a point after she won by 2.2 seconds in the women’s 10 k freestyle on Saturday, the first day of nationals: put a hill, any hill, in front of her and she’s going to climb it — whatever form that hill happens to take.
In 2014, Gregg missed making the U.S. Olympic team, after competing in Vancouver in 2010.
Now representing Team Gregg with her husband Brian, she has her sights set on 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland. Gregg’s chances for world champs, however, depend greatly on her performances this week at U.S. nationals.
So far, with her first place finish in 27:00.6 — Gregg’s eighth national title, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS) records — she’s off to a good start.
“My competition has been really strong this year and that is something that I don’t think is a negative at all,” Gregg told FasterSkier on Saturday. “The goal of this entire country is to really step it up and be more competitive on the international field.”
“I want it to be the top athlete, whoever it is [who goes to World Championships],” Gregg said. “Whether it is me or not, I just want [today’s 10 k] to be an opportunity for domestic athletes to get there.”
The other domestic athletes Gregg referred in particular were her Saturday podium counterparts, Chelsea Holmes of Alaska Pacific University (APU), who finished second (+2.2), and Caitlin Patterson of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) in third (+9.1).
Holmes earned World Cup starts last season and competed in the Ski Tour Canada, where she scored her first World Cup points. She explained she is taking the U.S. nationals day by day.
“For me, I just try focusing on every day doing my best,” Holmes said. “I’m not a number person. I just try to do as best as I can and I kind of see where it gets me.”
Patterson, on the other hand, recently returned to the U.S. after racing on the World Cup for Period 1. She also scored World Cup points in November, and entered nationals confident she was a podium contender.
“I had some pretty solid races [in Period 1] – some ups and downs there, too – and I was certainly hoping to come back and be able to have a strong showing here today,” Patterson said on Saturday. “Today was actually a little bit of a tough day for me, I didn’t quite feel as snappy as I was hoping, but I ended up OK.”
Both Patterson and Holmes started in front of Gregg, who indicated she received no specific splits. But she did hear her positions being called out. At various points they ranged from second to fifth and sixth.
“I didn’t really have a rabbit,” Gregg said. “So I tried to catch as many people as I could. I knew it really wasn’t really the longevity that was the issue it was just the right moment to attack. So I made a plan to attack at about 6 k and attack hard.”
Around 6 k, Gregg did as she planned and put down the hammer, especially on the uphills. Despite being “in the hurt train” during her last 4 k of racing, she finished with just over two seconds to spare on second place.
“It was more about racing against myself,” Gregg explained. “Be patient and then go.”
Katharine Ogden of the U.S. Ski Team and Stratton Mountain School was fourth (+20.0) and the first under-23 finisher. Becca Rorabaugh and Rosie Frankowski finished fifth (+58.4) and sixth (+1:05.0), respectfully, to give APU three of the top six.
“I felt like I was able to move pretty well, most of it, but you really had to keep the pressure on the whole time,” Rorabaugh said. “Your body didn’t want to do it today, but you had to kind of just go there anyway.”
Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Rorabaugh said the cold weather on Saturday morning — which delayed the women’s start by an hour — suited her.
“I mean, I’m from Fairbanks. I can’t help it, I like it a little bit,” she said. “I wouldn’t consider myself as much of a skate skier, so this is my best skate result at nationals in a distance race so I’m excited about that. But I think the cold, definitely I have a comfort in the cold.”
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.