With about 10 kilometers left in the 30k classic at U.S. Nationals, Kris Freeman was skiing even with James Southam. Then he stopped to check his blood sugar, thinking he would be able to close the 20-second gap that opened. He couldn’t.
Though Freeman almost managed to claw his way back to Southam, the Alaskan’s smooth and steady skiing ultimately proved too much to handle. By the finish, the gap between the two was a full minute.
“I underestimated the field today, and I paid for it,” Freeman said. “[Southam] was too strong for me to catch back up.”
After going out “a shade too kamikaze style” and blowing up in the 15k individual freestyle race, Southam finally got some redemption today. He bided his time, letting Freeman lead at a “steady” pace for the first of four 7.5k laps, then took over for the second. By the time the pair came through the stadium at the halfway point, it was down to two of them.
In the middle of the third lap, Freeman made his stop, and Southam never looked back.
“I didn’t unload a massive fury or anything–I just tried to ski smooth and fast,” Southam said.
At 15k, heading out of the stadium for the last time, Southam heard that Freeman had closed the gap down to just six seconds. Passing his coach, Erik Flora, Southam was told not to let Freeman think that there was any doubt in his mind that he could hold the lead.
“So that’s how I approached it,” Southam said.
Despite the impressive finish today, Southam still has room for improvement this year. His planned peak, he said, is not until February.
“I was hoping I’d be fast enough to qualify just on being pretty fit,” he said. “This is the first period of the season where we let off some training load–there’s another level of speed that I haven’t gotten too yet.”
Fairbanks junior David Norris had a breakout race, skiing his way to fourth place behind CXC’s Bryan Cook. Norris was actually in third for most of the race, and even caught Southam and Freeman briefly, just before the latter made his stop.
After the third lap, it looked like Norris might be able to hold on for the final podium spot. But Cook finally reeled him in with a kilometer to go.
“As soon as I saw him struggling a little bit, I got up alongside him and went as hard as I could to try to get a gap,” Cook said. It held to the finish, but by just 15 seconds.
Between Norris’s finish today, Simi Hamilton’s win in the sprint, and Tad Elliot’s second on Monday, the future for American men’s skiing is looking bright.
“It’s been the same basic group of guys at the top of the country for a long time,” Southam said. “There should be some young guys coming up, and it’s good to see them doing it…The next ten years for American skiing will be pretty fun.”
Despite the snow that fell throughout the day, Fischer Race Director Chris Hall said that wax didn’t end up being much of a factor for the men–especially for the top of the field. While some teams were scrambling to nail down kick and glide for the women’s race, Hall said that most teams were able to figure out a good configuration by the time the men’s event started around noon.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.