Caitlin Gregg has raced the American Birkebeiner enough times — and won it more than anyone else — that she’s got the course down pat. Powerline, Big Bertha, High Point, Heckler’s, OO, Gravel Pit, Mosquito Brook, B*tch Hill, Hatchery, the lake, the bridge, the Main Street finish.
But the conditions and the competition, that’s something that changes from year to year. The elite racers were among the first to start the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner (“Birkie”) skate races on Saturday, giving them the edge in terms of firmer conditions over nearly 13,000 other racers behind them, but it was still not the fastest Birkie on record after six inches of new snow had fallen the day before.
But away they went, jetting out of the Birkie’s new start line and embarking on the 50 k point-to-point course from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin. The elite women’s skate race started at 8:30 a.m. followed by the elite men 20 minutes later.
While the women remained in a large pack for the first 15 k or so, according to Gregg, they were down to six around 20 k.
“I think this is one of the strongest fields that I’ve ever seen at the American Birkebeiner for the women,” Gregg recalled in a post-race press conference. “A lot of really fast ladies, a lot of depth, and so it was a pretty high-paced race the whole time. There were definitely five of us in that top six group taking leads and doing pulls, and we definitely worked together to kind of separate ourselves from the field behind us.”
Three of those racers fell of the pace, which left Gregg, Sweden’s Maria Gräfnings, and Chelsea Holmes contending for the win. Gregg, 37, races for the Central Cross Country (CXC) Team, Loppet Nordic Racing and Team Gregg. Gräfnings, 32, is a former University of Utah skier, and Holmes, 31, races for Alaska Pacific University (APU).
Just over 2 kilometers before the finish, as the three were skiing across Lake Hayward, the elite men’s race leaders caught them. Typically, the top elite women finish before the men.
“I could hear another snowmobile, and I knew what that meant, and I kind of looked around at the women and I said, ‘Oh, the men are coming,’ ” Gregg reflected. “… When they caught us, it was actually kind of a surprise because a couple went by, and then they just kept coming.”
The lead pack of men was still close to 30 strong at that point, just 2 k before the finish.
“It was the weirdest thing I’ve even experienced in a race, where you just have this consistent line of guys coming and it was actually, really great,” Gregg continued. “Because the women, we raced our own race, we jumped in towards the back of that pack, but we stayed in our own pack.
“At one point, I suggested maybe we should move over for the men,” she added. “I like these ladies; they were like, ‘NO. They can go around us. They can figure it out. We’re doing our own thing.’ So I thought that was pretty cool.”
Gräfnings had been leading when the men caught them.
“And then I thought ‘Now I can go with them,’ but, no, they were going really fast,” Gräfnings said at the press conference. “So, then I was leading the pack, the women’s, and I guess I was getting really tired when I was doing that…”
Gregg took the lead just before the Birkie’s International Bridge and went on to hold off Gräfnings and Holmes for the win in 2:23:30.3 hours. Gräfnings finished second, 2.5 seconds back, while Holmes placed third (+3.8).
“I was like, ‘No, I can’t give up this. I have to really try to sprint then,’ ” Gräfnings recalled. “I’m glad I could get the second place.”
Gregg won the last American Birkebeiner contested in 2016 (last year’s race was canceled due to low snow) in 2:22:44. With Saturday’s win, she has most Birkie wins of any racer, male or female, with five victories (2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018).
“I’m trying to set the bar pretty high for the next person to come along and break that [record], so it feels amazing to win my fifth,” said Gregg, who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “The conditions were absolutely perfect today. The course was just in amazing shape and just beautiful out there, and this is definitely one of my favorite races, that’s why I keep coming back. Everything about it, between the organization and the volunteers makes this a special event for so many people, but, for myself, especially. So yeah, I was really happy year to be able to race again and feel good and really fight for the win.”
Gräfnings said was pleased with her own race and glad to return to the U.S.
“I was studying in the University of Utah and now I’m back in America and it’s so fun to meet a lot of friends and it’s really special for me,” she said.
Holmes had previously raced the Birkie in 2014 and placed fifth, 3:45 minutes behind Gregg. She struggled with the cold and suffered in that race, she explained at the press conference.
“I was very worried today about surviving with enough feeds and being warm enough,” Holmes said. “In the beginning, it’s a strange feeling because it always feels a little bit slow, like a very different race pace than even a 30 k that you do at other times, and especially with less climbing, which, I miss the hills a little bit … so that’s a little bit hard for me sometimes to sit in. But I think we shared the lead fairly well.
“It was … good for me always to remember to relax and be patient because even when you have 25 k, you’re only halfway there,” Holmes continued. “So it’s a unique experience, the 50 k, because sometimes it feels like you’re not working that much, and I felt quite good. And then when I got five meters from the finish line, my legs just, I basically walked across the line. So, clearly I was very tired, but that’s how it goes.”
France’s Aurelie Dabudyk was the fourth woman across the line, 28.7 seconds behind Gregg, Anja Gruber of Bozeman, Montana, placed fifth (+2:44.6), and Erika Flowers of the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) T2 Team finished sixth (+3:30.1). Also in the top 10 were Liz Guiney of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) in seventh (+5:33.8), Hallie Grossman (CGRP) in eighth (+8:03), Hannah Bettendorf of Duluth, Minnesota, in ninth (+8:19.2), and masters skier Laura McCabe of Winthrop, Washington, in 10th (+8:20.6).
The Birkie is the fifth of seven races on the 2018 FIS Worldloppet Cup calendar. Dabudyk now leads the overall standings by just 10 points over Gräfnings in second. In her first Worldloppet race of the year, Gregg ranks seventh.
In the men’s overall standings, France occupies the top four with Gerard Agnellet in first, just 1 point ahead of Ivan Perrillat Boiteux in second, and 120 points clear of Loic Guigonnet in third. Adrien Mougel ranks fourth, another 2 points behind, and Norway’s Anders Gløersen breaks up the French sweep in fifth, 3 points behind Mougel.
Norris Makes the Move, Gløersen Takes the Win
Gløersen won the Birkie elite men’s skate race on Saturday in 2:02.29.6, just 1.9 seconds ahead of Perrillat Boiteux in second and 3.4 seconds ahead of American Kyle Bratrud (CXC Team) in third.
After as many as 30 men stayed together up until the last 2 kilometers, the men’s pack began to string out after coming off the lake. According to Bratrud, it was David Norris who made the defining move at that point in the race. Norris had launched a similar attack two years ago, just before the bridge, to win the 2016 Birkie.
“He started to string it out a bit and six or seven of us started to pull away from a line of about 30 of us,” Bratrud recalled at the press conference. “That’s kind of what led us to the break and ultimately to the sprint.”
The top-10 men were within eight seconds of first, with Mougel finishing fourth (+4.4), Norris losing his lead and ending up fifth (+5.1), France’s Bastien Poirrier placing sixth (+5.5), and Agnellet following in seventh (+5.7). France had six in the top 11 with Guigonnet in eighth (+6.6) and Benoit Chauvet in 11th (+13.3). Americans Ben Lustgarten (CGRP) finished ninth (+7.0) and Jack Hegman of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) placed 10th (+7.2).
“It was a great race,” Gløersen, 31, said at the press conference. “Perfect conditions and nice weather. And it was a difficult to know how to do because I don’t know so many of the American skiers here, and I know the French guys … I had to watch out for them. So I just tried to stay in front of the big group to be ready if someone made an attack. It seemed like it was difficult to get away, and I was just glad when it was one kilometer left.”
After Norris’s attack, Gløersen made a point to follow him.
“I got the perfect position on the bridge here, just was number two and then had the perfect position going into the final 300 meters,” he said.
Asked about passing the women late in the race, he said it didn’t affect the men’s race too much.
“If it’s snowing, then it could make a difference because then you have the women making way, and when you pass them it’s going to be slower,” Gløersen said. “But today was quite good conditions so it was just fun to see when they catch them and to see who was in the group, but other than that, it doesn’t affect us much.”
While both Gløersen and Perrillat Boiteux are marathon regulars, this was the first American Birkebeiner for both of them.
“The Birkie was a great race, well organized, and I loved it,” Perrillat Boiteux, 32, said through a translator at the press conference.
Bratrud, 25, was born in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and attended Northern Michigan University, yet this was his first Birkie. According to the FIS database, it was also his first marathon. Asked about skiing in such a large group for most of the 50 k race, he said it was a new experience, but it was likely because the field was so competitive.
“There’s a ton of strong guys there and no one really wanted to pull the other person to a victory,” Bratrud said. “So it was a lot of kind of cat and mouse and looking at each other and people made moves, but with so many strong skiers, it was hard for anyone to get away.”
In the 55 k Birkie Classic, Minnesota native Ben Saxton (SMST2) edged Cole Morgan (SVSEF) by 1.5 seconds at the finish for the win in 2:47:35.9. Mathias Rolid of Marquette, Michigan, followed in third (+6.1).
Wisconsin native Felicia Gesior (CXC Team) won the women’s classic race by more than 10 minutes in 3:08:07.3. Brandy Stewart of Bozeman placed second (+10:54.8) and Josie Nelson of Medicine Lake, Minnesota, reached the podium in third (+11:20.9).
While the Birkie’s 50 k skate race is part of the FIS Worldloppet Cup and reserves most of its prize money for first- through sixth-place finishers in both the elite men’s and women’s skate races (with $7,500 dollars for each winner), the 55 k Birkie Classic awards $1,000 to its men’s and women’s winners.
This year, there were also two $500 sprint bonuses in the Birkie skate race, which were awarded to the first male and female competitors to reach the intermediate sprint checkpoints. According to Gregg, the first “prime” was about 2 1/2 or 3 kilometers into the race, and the second came just before 20 k.
“I was curious how aggressive the women would be to go for those [sprint] primes and they were very aggressive, very fun,” Gregg said. “I think the first prime kind of set the tone and kind of strung things out a little bit.”
— Andrea Potyondy-Smith contributed