Retirement can wait: Gregg caps return to racing with Birkie triumph40TH AMERICAN BIRKEBEINER: Former Olympian Caitlin Gregg nearly retired from racing last summer.
By: Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune
Former Olympian Caitlin Gregg nearly retired from racing last summer.
The 32-year-old Nordic skier from Minneapolis was enrolled at Normandale Community College, had picked up a couple of jobs and was thinking about starting a family with her husband, fellow Nordic racer Brian Gregg.
But her heart told her something else.
“I finally realized I’m an athlete. I race,” Caitlin Gregg said. “This is what I do.”
And she does it well.
Gregg showed she has returned to top form by winning the 40th American Birkebeiner women’s cross country race Saturday, covering the 50 kilometers from Cable to Hayward in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 56.9 seconds to edge Tatjana Mannima of Estonia by a mere .4 of a second.
In the men’s race, Italian Sergio Bonaldi and his teammate, Fabio Santus, both toed across the line in 2:09:18.1, but Bonaldi was ruled the winner after a lengthy photo review.
Gregg collapsed after crossing the finish line ahead of Mannima, the FIS Marathon Cup points leader, for her second Birkie title.
“That was actually pure joy,” Gregg said. “It was awesome, and I just needed to lie down. I wasn’t as fatigued as much as overjoyed.”
This was the first year the Birkie had the elite women start first, 20 minutes ahead, and the timing worked perfect, with the top women crossing the finish line less than a minute ahead of the top men. While the practice of having women start first is not new in marathon running, Caitlin Gregg said she had never heard of it with Nordic skiing, and she liked it, especially after having laser eye surgery last year. She and Brian, who finished 11th in the men’s race, even had a friendly bet on who’d finish first.
“It was an amazing experience to start first,” Caitlin Gregg said. “It was absolutely gorgeous out there. It was just incredible, the trail was so pristine. It was like what you’d picture in a Birkie dream, a dream come true.”
Gregg said a pack of about five skiers came across Lake Hayward, easily the largest pack she has seen that late in the race.
Mannima was one of the leaders throughout in her first Birkie. While Mannima lost the finish-line sprint to Gregg, she was pleased to strengthen her place atop the FIS Marathon Cup standings with one race to go in the nine-race international series.
“I was hoping for a top three finish, so this is very good,” Mannima said through a translator. “I’m on top of the mountain, so now it’s up to everyone else to come after me.”
Gregg was born in Manhattan before moving to Vermont. The former Caitlin Compton went on to an All-American skiing and running career at Northern Michigan and has lived the past nine years in Minneapolis. She won her first Birkie in 2011 and lost by a half second to U.S. Ski Team member Holly Brooks last year.
After her first Birkie win, Gregg joked that she and her husband would buy a house with the $7,500 prize money. Now, they might want to make an addition.
“I told a couple friends where if it had been a double victory, where we both won, then for sure, in like two years, it’d help with our first child,” Caitlin Gregg said, laughing. “So we’re halfway there; maybe next year. We joke about it, but these races have been absolutely wonderful experiences for us and they helped us get to where we’re at. It means a ton to us. It’s hard to describe.”
The return of the Birkie to the FIS Marathon Cup circuit this year meant the return of Italian domination to the men’s field.
Italians took the top four spots — with all four finishing a mere half second apart — as Alan Martinelli took third and Florian Kostner took fourth. Thirteen skiers finished within five seconds of the lead in one of the largest packs to ever descend on the Birkie finish line, with the light blue race suits of the Italians looking like a wave out front.
There was no animosity between the Italian teammates afterward or any dispute over the ruling Bonaldi won, and not Santus, which was originally thought.
With limited English, Kostner served as spokesperson for the group, saying that the best skiers in the world “are here,” and that race crews did an incredible job preparing the track despite decent snow accumulation leading up to the event.
“The fast track surprised us,” Kostner said. “It was very hard and beautiful. It was the best track in the world.”
The Italians also were asked what it was like to have women ahead of them, and Kostner smiled and said, “ladies first.”