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Caitlin Gregg Wins 5th Birkie, Finishes with Husband Brian (Plus Start Videos)

Caitlin Gregg celebrates her fifth American Birkebeiner win on Saturday after winning the women’s 50 k skate race by 2.5 seconds over Sweden’s Maria Gräfnings in second place. (Photo: RJ Ochmann)

By Andrea Potyondy-Smith

HAYWARD, Wisconsin — After a soft slog for Kortelopet skiers on Friday, the snow firmed up overnight for Saturday’s 2018 Birkebeiner. Temperatures dropped into the single digits overnight, helping groomers compact the trail for the morning’s 13,000 racers.

While it seemed as though it would stay cold, the mercury quickly started to rise into the mid-30s Fahrenheit by the middle of the afternoon, and there was no headwind for racers to fight crossing Lake Hayward. The warmth meant some chopped-up snow on the uphills, but firm, fast downhills.

The women’s 50 k freestyle podium at the 2018 American Birkebeiner, with Caitlin Gregg (c) in first, Sweden’s Maria Gräfnings (l) in second place, and Chelsea Holmes (r) in third. (Photo: RJ Ochmann)

Taking the win in the men’s 50-kilometer freestyle race was Norway’s Anders Gløersen, a two-time medalist at 2015 World Championships, in a time of 2:02:29.6 hours. The first American man across the line was overall third-place finisher Kyle Bratrud, of Verona, Wisconsin, in 2:02:33.1. Winning the women’s 50 k freestyle was Caitlin Gregg of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2:23:30.3, just 2.5 seconds ahead of Sweden’s Maria Gräfnings in second and 3.8 seconds ahead of Chelsea Holmes of Girdwood, Alaska, in third. This was Gregg’s fifth overall Birkie win.

“I always find it to be pretty amazing,” Gregg, also a 2015 World Championships bronze medalist, reflected after the race. “It’s a 50-kilometer race; it’s two hours and fifteen to twenty minutes, and it [never] ceases to amaze me about how it can come down to such a small margin.”

“Five years … it’s a lot,” Gregg noted of her fifth Birkie win. “And there’s so much that can happen in a 50 k, so I’m grateful for every one of them that goes that well.”

Her husband, Brian Gregg, was in the front pack of men for most of the race and went on to finish 22nd, 1:01.2 minutes behind Gløersen.

“My goal was also to win, and so it’s disappointing to be off of that,” Brian said. “I lost the main group with about three kilometers to go … [but] that was still really fun to be able see the women’s race unfold [on the lake].”

After the elite women started 20 minutes ahead of the elite men, the top men’s finishers passed all of the elite women before the finish. With Brian lagging just behind that lead group, he caught up to Caitlin and they finished together.

“What a fantastic thing to see her cross the line for the victory number five, and us actually cross the line together,” he said.

Though not everyone can win an overall race, or even their age group, the winning spirit was strong at the starting line; the emcee noted to a number of the waves that 2018 Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins, a Minnesota native, had called in from South Korea to wish racers well, boosting the energy of the crowd.

After last year’s disappointing cancellation, the 2018 American Birkebeiner was about as much as a skier could hope for, leaving racers excited for 2019.

2018 Birkie start videos (by RJ Ochmann): 

Results (top 25): Birkie skate | Birkie classic

 

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