The expanded result sheet says it all. At 11.25 kilometers, Kris Freeman was in 23rd place, in the lead pack, 10.9 seconds behind Lukas Bauer (CZE). At the next time check, 1.35 kilometers later, Freeman was 47th, just under three minutes off the pace.
Freeman crashed, but not in the usual way. “I went from feeling fine and relaxed to ‘oh this is hard’, to not standing, in three minutes,” Freeman told FasterSkier. And just like that Freeman’s Olympic dreams took another hard blow.
Suffering from Type 1 diabetes, Freeman suffered a blood sugar crash that took him out of the race – one minute he was one of the best skiers in the world, the next he knew he wouldn’t even be able to make it back to the stadium without a significant dose of sugar.
Lying in the snow, Freeman called to spectators, looking for some type of food or drink to raise his blood sugar. Tor Arne Hetland, the retired Norwegian sprinter, and now a German coach, responded and provided Freeman with a Gu and a 20-ounce Powerade.
Freeman got it all down, and though he described himself as being “pretty delirious,” he was still “fired up to race.” He also said that it crossed his mind that getting back on the race course would be the fastest way back. He got under way, but obviously from a race standpoint, the damage was irrevocably done.
All told Freeman estimates he was down and out for 2-3 minutes. “I crashed at the bottom of the big hill, and by the time I got going again, the lead pack had already been up and around. I saw them coming down.”
Freeman said it took him a good twenty minutes to start feeling ok again, at which point he was able to pick up the pace, picking off several skiers after he switched to skate, and posting some decent splits despite the trauma his body had just undergone, and the fact that he was no longer in position to be racing for results.
“Once I was able to start skiing again, I was pissed,” Freeman said. “I needed to burn that off.”
Freeman described this type of blood sugar crash as “like a bonk, but faster, and when you bonk you can still keep skiing.”
As a diabetic, Freeman’s body does not produce insulin. He needs insulin in order to access sugar in his blood, and if his dose of insulin is too high, he can deplete his reserves. But if it is too low, he can end up with too much sugar in his bloodstream.
For more information on how Freeman manages diabetes while racing, read his blog post on the subject.
Freeman wears an insulin pump – specifically one called the “OmniPod” – that administers insulin. He can program it ahead of time based on his expected needs. Since his pod was already set, it would keep releasing insulin into his blood stream during the rest of the race.
“I either needed to tear it off my body [to stop the insulin], or keep getting sugar.”
After the crash he fed twice as often as planned and ultimately consumed two Red Bulls and a liter of Gatorade over the last two laps.
While his 15km race on Monday did not go well, his blood sugar was fine. Freeman has had his greatest success in that distance. Since switching to the insulin pump form injections, he has done at least 25 15km races at a World Cup effort. This has allowed him to dial in his insulin dose, and the overall race protocol.
On the other hand, today marked only his 4th 30k since the switch. “I obviously don’t have it dialed in…It came on really fast and I don’t know why.
“I’m talking to my doctor and coach and am trying to figure it out.”
One issue is that there is no test environment that accurately simulates a World Cup race. Time trials don’t work. Nor do regional events where Freeman usually wins easily. “You can’t simulate the adrenaline and pace of a World Cup race,” Freeman explained.
So this limits his ability to try out different doses. He used the 30km at US Nationals for that purpose, stopping midway through to test his blood sugar. That move dropped him from a shared lead with James Southam, back several places. He skied back up to 2nd, but never caught Southam. But he was willing to sacrifice a shot at another National Championship to prepare for today’s event.
“I ran the same basal rate as in Anchorage [at US Nationals], and in Anchorage it worked.”
Freeman is clearly confused and obviously devastated.
“I’m crushed. I don’t know what’s happened. I’ve been working towards this for four years and it’s my worst nightmare.”
While today seemed to be a clear case of insulin issues, Freeman didn’t rule out fitness.
“One thought is that maybe I am out of shape. But a bonk doesn’t come on that way [so suddenly like his crash today], and all indicators are that I am in shape. Fitness doesn’t just go poof. I had a solid race just two weeks ago in Canmore.
“I don’t know what to do.”
Freeman will not race the team sprint – the US has named a team of Andy Newell and Torin Koos for that event. Had he been racing better, he would have been a candidate for that event.
“My plan was to come in here, be a top-10 skier, and earn a spot in the team sprint, Obviously that didn’t happen.”
There are two other possible starts – the 4x10km relay and the 50km classic. The 50km is a done deal. “Nothing is going to keep me out of the 50 except pneumonia.”
But the relay remains a question. On the one hand it would give Freeman another opportunity to evaluate his fitness. He would be racing a distance that he has dialed in with regards to insulin, and should see if his body is where he wants it to be. On the flip side, he could skip the relay and enter the 50 very well rested.
He told FasterSkier that his inclination is to race the relay, but that at this point everything is up in the air. He also said that if he has another performance the likes of today, there is a good chance he would skip the spring World Cups while he tries to figure out what is going on.
And to add injury to insult, Freeman suffered a back spasm after the race and will not be able to ski tomorrow. He does not expect the spasm to keep him out for long.
In the meantime he will work on recovering from today’s race. Based on his experience, he feels that a sugar crash of the type he experienced today takes a significant toll on his body and slows recovery. The 4×10 is just four days away, on the 24th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.