My preparation for the 15k classic in Valdidentro was different from any other race I have done before. My compartment syndrome has limited me to ten hours of training per week and has also kept me off of the world cup circuit for nearly a month. My time off was apparent in two ways. First I was very rested and fresh, second my sense of pace was way off. I felt relaxed and controlled going through the 5k split station. I got word from Chris Grover that I was two seconds up on Matias Fredrickson and in the lead. This was a good start but I never thought that I was leading the whole race. The top thirty skiers hadn’t started yet and I figured that this start would probably be in the teens somewhere once everyone went by. Turns out I had the fastest start of the day. At 7.5k I was in second overall and feeling great. I still had no idea I was in the hunt for a podium. I was just skiing a race and feeling pretty good. Then at 10k the wheels fell off. About half way up a 1k sustained climb the altitude settled into my lungs and my legs got heavy. I went from racing comfortably to survival mode in a matter of thirty seconds. At this point, I got the split that my back splits put me in the hunt for a podium. Under different circumstances this would have been exciting. But considering how much wind I was sucking I knew I would have difficulty keeping the result in the top twenty. Maybe I could have a do-over and pace this a little differently.
With two ks left, Svartedal passed me from thirty seconds back. I was able to draft him on a long double pole section that saved my race. I lost fourteen more seconds to the Norwegian before the finish line. He ended up second overall, 1.5 secs out of the win. I was completely blown at the finish line. I was swaying back and forth and I thought I might vomit which is something I never do after races. Fortunately that feeling passed quickly. Odd Bjorn finished a few minutes later. My time was a few seconds faster than his (he was later disqualified for skiing out of the tracks). I must have had a decent race to have placed in front of him. I ended up 16th overall. Fourteen seconds would have put me in eighth position. If only I could have stayed with Svartedal. Screw that, if only I had held it together and won the whole thing. My pacing was embarrassing but it showed me that I have the speed to ski as fast as anyone out there. My stress levels have been very high with surgery looming and it has been easy to get distracted. I am going into the World Championships with a solid race behind me and the knowledge that despite the last month I have prepared very well this year.
The accommodations in Liberec are barren but spacious. All athletes are staying in three bedroom apartments with kitchenettes. Each athlete gets there own room and shares a bathroom with two teammates. Furniture is sparse and the heaters don’t work well. The shower has a push button starter that cuts out every 45 seconds to conserve water. Its not that fun to grope for the button with soap in your eyes. However we have two Eurosport channels, BBC, CNN, and free internet. All and all this is one of the better setups we get on the road.
The courses are very well prepared this year. A solid man made foundation is complemented by about a foot and a half of natural snow. The entire course is laid out on an open hill strewn field. There are steep climbs, long gradual ascents, and rollers. In short the courses have been very well laid out and the best skier will win.
I will race the 15k classic on Friday and my performance in that race will determine whether I am selected for the classic team sprint later in the week. If I am selected I will not race the pursuit. Given the fragile state of my legs, attempting that race could leave me swollen and compromised for the remainder of the Championships. If I am not selected for the team sprint I will race the pursuit because I will have nothing to lose by doing so. The World Championships start in two days, surgery starts in two weeks. I am in uncharted territory.
Kris Freeman is a longtime member of the US Ski Team and the top-ranked distance skier in the United States.