Kris Freeman (USST) will be the odds-on favorite to win Saturday’s U.S. national championship in the 50 k classic. But the way his last two seasons wrapped up, just making it to the start line in Sun Valley, ID, is a victory in and of itself.
In late March, 2009, Freeman was recuperating from surgery on his legs to relieve the debilitating symptoms of exertional compartment syndrome; he had been forced to end his season in February.
The same thing happened last year—Freeman’s last race was the Olympic 50 k on February 28, and he didn’t make it to the finish. This time, it was a weakened immune system that felled him, thanks to complications from type one diabetes.
2011 has been an improvement, even if Freeman didn’t make hit his big goals of a World Cup podium and peaking for World Championships. He raced all the way through the end of the season, finally concluding his European campaign last weekend in Sweden.
“This is a lot better,” he said. “I’m still standing, and it’s March, which is nice.”
Having notched several World Cup top-10’s this season, Freeman is the obvious headliner for the 50 k, the last of five U.S. national championship races held this year.
The previous four were in Rumford, ME, in January, but the 50 k is always left until the end of the season. Saturday’s race is the first in a series in Sun Valley; a four-stage mini-tour will follow next week.
Last year’s season-ending races were held in northern Maine, and while the athletes there were welcomed by the surrounding community, they were also greeted by unseasonably cold, single-digit temperatures.
This year couldn’t be a bigger contrast. On Friday, skiers in Sun Valley were training under brilliant sunshine, with temperatures in the high 30’s putting everyone in a good mood.
Along with the fine weather, some 50 men have arrived in Sun Valley to contest Saturday’s 50 k, and a half-dozen could make Freeman’s life very difficult, especially since he’s just five days removed from Europe and “pretty jet-lagged.”
The biggest threat is probably Freeman’s teammate, Noah Hoffman, who turned some heads when he stuck with the lead pack through three-fifths of the 50 k at the World Championships earlier this month. He got sick the week after, and hasn’t raced since, but he told FasterSkier on Friday that he has recovered, and is feeling good.
Another pair of athletes will be racing on the rebound, too—the two Alaskan elder statesmen of James Southam and Lars Flora, who both ski for APU.
Flora had a strong start to his season, but got sick toward the tail end of his campaign in Europe, finally starting to come around in Sweden last weekend. Southam, on the other hand, will be trying to bounce back from a number of disappointing races in the early season, and at the national championships in Maine. Both own a handful of U.S. titles, and will be looking to add to their collection.
Flora returned to North American at the same time as Freeman, but Southam has the advantage of having been in Sun Valley for a week. Especially with the course lying at an altitude of 6,600 feet, that won’t hurt, and his body, Southam said, is “starting to come around.”
“This is the first race this year that I feel like kind of suits my skills,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to it.”
Those men will be the heavy hitters of the 50 k—as Southam put it, “I think there’s four of us.”
There are some others that could make a splash, tough. Stefan Kuhn, a Canadian, is in Sun Valley; he won the U.S. 50 k championships in Fairbanks in 2009, beating both Southam and Hoffman.
Kuhn has history on his side—Canadians have actually been on top in the last three U.S. 50 k championships, with Ivan Babikov winning in 2008 and 2010. (Canadians can win the race, and the prize money, but the U.S. title goes to the first American across the line.)
Other faces in the lead group could include those of Glenn Randall and Leif Zimmermann (BSF), along with Bryan Cook and Brian Gregg (CXC), Mike Sinnott (SVSEF), and Canadians Brent McMurtry and Kevin Sandau.
The race will be held on a 7.2-kilometer loop at Sun Valley’s Lake Creek trails, which are situated on a wide-open hillside between the creek bed and the Smoky Mountains.
The loop meanders alongside the creek for a few kilometers before veering into the hillside for its first big ascent. Then, a downhill and some rolling terrain takes athletes into the second climb, which is steeper and, at 50 vertical meters, at the legal limit set by the International Ski Federation, according to Chris Mallory, the Sun Valley coach who designed it.
Those two stiff climbs will quickly sort out the athletes who aren’t having good days, as well as those with bad skis.
“You can’t fake your way out there,” Southam said.
Situated directly above the stadium, that second hill is the last good place to make a move—afterwards, the course drops back down precipitously for 800 meters, before a final sprint for the line.
Those climbs will likely be where the race is won and lost, but don’t expect to see Freeman attacking them from the gun. In Sun Valley, according to his coach Zach Caldwell, Freeman is like “Petter Northug in a World Cup.”
While Freeman won’t want to wait for a sprint, Caldwell said, “it’s up to everyone else to try to get rid of him.”
The race, like most 50 k’s, will probably end up becoming a battle of attrition, with a small pack of the strongest men breaking away from the rest in the middle of the race. From there, though, it’s anybody’s guess what happens—whether Freeman struggles with jet lag, or whether Southam will finally find what it takes to win. As Freeman put it, “you can’t plan a 50 k too much.”
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.