Her unique hand-painted shoes may have been the talk of the Tour de France, but now Kiwi Caitlin Fielder is fast making her mark on the world trail running scene.
It’s highly unlikely that when Caitlin Fielder crossed the finish-line to win the Tarawera Ultramarathon 50km race, anyone took notice of her dusty blue shoes.
“I’m like the plumber with the worst plumbing in his house,” the Rotorua-born athlete laughs.
Why? As quickly as Fielder is becoming known as a world-class trail runner – in just her third year of serious running – she’s also making her mark as an artist, decorating the footwear of international sporting stars.
But she admits she’s a very poor marketer of her craft – she doesn’t customise her own shoes, even though they’ve taken her into the top 10 at international races and up onto the podium at prestigious local events.
Fielder’s business began soon after she drew intricate designs on the cycling shoes of her partner, outstanding New Zealand road cyclist George Bennett, for his ride in the 2017 Tour de France.
Bennett joked that his shoes, with their distinctly Kiwi motifs, drew more attention than his riding skills in the world’s most famous bike race.
But it also led to some interesting commissions for the young artist – who’d quit her job in aquaculture science in Nelson to live with Bennett in Spain and pursue her passion for painting.
Now the 28-year-old says she has the ideal life balance – running in the mountains of Girona or Andorra in the morning, then painting shoes as her ‘recovery’ afterwards. “It’s as perfect as it could be,” Fielder says.
Some of her artwork can take up to 30 hours to complete.
“It can be a little bit fiddly. But I get a massive kick out of people receiving the shoes. How awesome to have some art that you love and use so much,” she says.
She has perfected her craft since her Tour de France debut when, by the first rest day, much of the design on Bennett’s shoes had disappeared. “It was very a sweaty scenario – it came straight off. Now I use leather paints and prepare the leather properly,” she says.
She’s now working with Shimano, the world-leading manufacturer of cycling components, to hand-paint shoes for individual athletes.
She’s just completed a pair for Dutch cyclocross megastar Mathieu van der Poel. And she’s put her custom artwork on the shoes of four-time Ironman winner Laura Siddall, Scottish cyclist Hannah Barnes and Kiwi professional mountain bikers Brooke MacDonald and Wyn Masters. Not to mention a few of Bennett’s Tour de France rivals.
And now Fielder will finally get to paint running shoes – in a relationship with international shoe company Hoke One One, for Ironman.
One day, she might race in her own work of art, but for now she’s simply happy running, no matter what her feet look like.
Fielder wasn’t a runner as a kid. Sure, she ran on some of Rotorua’s famous trails in training for her team sports, but the actual sport of running never really appealed to her.
When she moved to Tauranga to study for a bachelor’s degree in science, majoring in biological sciences, she took up boxing.
“It was super random. But I wanted to do something while I was studying that was a really intense workout,” she says.
After taking up her first job as an aquaculture technician at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, Fielder had her first – and only – amateur boxing fight.
She fought on Anzac Day 2015, inspired by her grandfather, Les Munro – a World War II hero – who was then the last surviving pilot from the 1943 Dambusters Raid.
Fielder lost by a split decision to an opponent who had five fights under her belt. “But it was awesome, and I was 100 percent committed. For that moment, I was Rocky in the corner,” she laughs.
Then a friend suggested they do an ultramarathon together, and Fielder started training for the 85km Old Ghost Road Ultra on the West Coast. From then on, she was hooked on trail running.
She met Bennett when he came home to Nelson between professional cycling seasons. Three years ago, she decided to move to Europe with him – a move that would benefit her in more ways than one.
It meant she could get serious about running, pouring more time into her training in a perfect trail running environment. Their home, in the principality of Andorra, is at altitude.
“Wow, you really notice it running up there. It’s quite a bit harder than I expected, but it’s stunning,” she says. “And the running is either up or down. Not great for the morale, but great for training.”
Fielder had no trouble finding people to run with. “In Europe, you could do a race every weekend,” she says. “But there are some soul-breaking climbs!
“I love the simplicity of running. It’s just so easy. You can take your running shoes wherever you go. To be out on the trails and look somewhere and say ‘How cool it would be to run up there’ and then do it – that’s the best thing.”
She also mixes up her training with cycling, often alongside Bennett. “I use it as a tool to help with endurance racing. I came off a few weeks ago on the gravel”, she says, pointing to an almost-healed graze on her arm, “so this is why I stick to running”.
Fielder had one of the best results of her “fresh” running career last year, when she was invited to run in the OCC (Orsières-Champex–Chamonix) race in Switzerland. It’s one of the races in the week-long festival of Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) – the biggest mountain trail running event in the world.
Up against three trail world champions in the strongest field she’d ever faced, Fielder knew it would show her exactly where she stood on the trail running scene.
“I thought if I was in the top 20 that would be great,” she says. “For the majority of the race I was sitting in 13th, and then I ran quite consistently, to finish sixth – which was amazing.” The 55km race was won by another New Zealander, Ruth Croft.
“In timing, I’m not quite there yet – there’s still a significant time difference between me and Ruth Croft. She’s had a shower and some food by the time I cross the line,” Fielder laughs.
“But I’m comfortable with the fact that I haven’t been running that long, and it will be more training and more years to get there. I’m okay with that.”
Fielder was also second in the water-logged 58km Kepler Challenge back home in New Zealand in December (despite falling into a ditch with water up to her chest), and notched up a clear victory in the Tarawera Ultra 50km in her hometown of Rotorua last weekend.
She’s now set aside time to have surgery on a hip injury, from a cycling crash, which will take her off the trails for three months.
“It will be an interesting psychological test for me. But I can still ride and swim – and paint,” she says. After another three months training, she will target the OCC again, and then the Ultra Pirineu in Barcelona.
Her partner is already on the road to recovery. Late last year, Bennett had surgery on his ribs to try to cure the side stitch which has plagued him for a decade.
He finished eighth in Australia’s Tour Down Under last month, and is riding in the New Zealand road cycling championships in Cambridge this week, to secure a spot in the two-man Kiwi road race team at the Tokyo Olympics.
While Bennett will re-join his professional Jumbo-Visma team in Europe next month, he has decided to forgo this year’s Tour de France to compete at his second Olympics. Fielder would love to go to Tokyo to watch him race, and “they have some great trail running there too”.
Fielder says she has no expectations from her career – be it running or painting.
“Ideally, I’d like to get some major podiums down the track, but I’m realistic that it could be in three or four years. We plan on being in Europe for a while, so as long as I keep enjoying running, I’ll see where it takes me.”