Kikkan Randall was supposed to be the one to ski away from the field in Wednesday’s mass start classic race.
In the women’s 10 k, she did. But so did her fellow U.S. Ski Team member Kris Freeman in the men’s 15 k—and in even more impressive fashion.
After a mid-race cash sprint at the five kilometer-mark began splintering the field, Freeman flat-out broke it with a counterattack, distancing a five-strong chase group that included, at the time, Canadians Kevin Sandau, Brent McMurtry, and Drew Goldsack, and Americans Noah Hoffman and Tad Elliott.
The gap went out fast, at one point reaching 26 seconds, before escalating blood sugar in the latter part of the race slowed Freeman down, costing him what his coach, Zach Caldwell estimated was half a minute. But he still held off the challengers by a comfortable margin, ultimately topping Goldsack (AWCA/CNST) by 14 seconds, and Sandau by 17.
“It was a good performance. I wish I could have put a little bit more time on today…but I’m not upset,” Freeman said.
There certainly was no reason for Freeman to be alarmed, given the way he skied on Wednesday.
He started in the front row of the field of 130—which made for a lengthy train on the first lap—and didn’t budge from that position as the pace ramped up at the 5-kilometer mark, as the men flew towards a mid-race cash sprint known as a prime.
The primes came at the lap at five and 10 kilometers, and another two times at the top of the big climb, around 7.5 k and 12.5 k. The first person to reach each of those spots received $100.
The primes are designed to animate the race, and animate they did. Goldsack took the first one, thanks to a pair of skis that were running so well he was able to slingshot to the lead from eighth place.
After that, Goldsack said that he knew right away that Freeman was going to make him pay for the effort. But Goldsack still couldn’t do anything about it, and neither could anybody else, and the field stretched out immediately.
“I knew that I wanted to make the pace hurt right after the prime,” Freeman said. “I was going for it, but half-heartedly, kind of hoping the rest of the guys would go for it, and then I could really hurt ’em right afterwards.”
Hoffman (USST) said he managed to stick with Freeman through much of the second lap, after the prime, but he was gapped on a downhill.
Like on Tuesday, the light in Sun Valley was flat as a pancake, making it very difficult to see the surface of the snow, and the borders of the trail. Organizers spray-painted the edges of the downhill corners with neon-green, but it still wasn’t enough for Hoffman to stay in contact.
“I was right behind him over the top of the far hill on the course. I couldn’t see anything and just stumbled out of the track a couple of times, and almost fell over,” Hoffman said. “He put like 15 meters on me, and that was the end of it.”
Indeed, Freeman was off. Coming back towards the lap, he drilled it heading up the course’s biggest, steepest climb and into the second prime, then put it into overdrive as he headed out on his last of three laps. His lead grew from 10 seconds to 26 seconds in the space of just a few kilometers, and he still looked controlled.
“I felt really good for a time,” he said.
At this point, the question was not whether Freeman would win, but by how much. It looked like he was on his way to taking a full minute from the men’s field, and seizing control of the overall mini-tour lead—especially with Simi Hamilton (USST/SVSEF), already 50 seconds off the pace.
But on the last lap, lactate began filling Freeman’s body unexpectedly—a product of rising blood sugar.
As a type 1 diabetic, Freeman’s body can’t regulate its own blood sugar; instead, he relies on periodic injections of synthetic insulin to keep it at acceptable levels.
It’s a balancing act—too much insulin will leave Freeman with plummeting blood sugar, which impairs him cognitively and can leave him weak. Too little, though, and his blood sugar will rise—which, for a reason that’s still unknown to him, causes his lactate levels to spike correspondingly.
Of course, Freeman has worked out protocols for insulin dosing, so that he knows how much he needs for different kinds of races—more for shorter, faster efforts like 15 k’s, and less for longer, slower ones, like last Saturday’s 50 k. But there are always variables—and for some reason, racing high up, like in Sun Valley, causes Freeman’s body to react differently.
“It’s a trend that when I have highs in a race, it tends to be at altitude,” he said.
On Wednesday, that was the case. He finished at a blood sugar level of 270, which is far above the ideal level of 100—and that caused him, as he put it, to “lactate up” on the last lap.
“I felt like what I saw was the Kris Freeman with high sugar,” said Caldwell, his coach. “What we’ve definitely seen is sugars up in that range, and around 300, being a real detriment to his performance, and I think we saw a little bit of that today.”
As Freeman started to suffer, the competition behind him began heating up among the chase group. On the third lap, they started taking back some time—more due to the fact that they were trading attacks than it was that they were particularly organized.
“The pace definitely raised a lot. I wouldn’t say it was working together necessarily, but everyone [was] going hard, so naturally, it was raising the speed, for sure,” Goldsack said.
The composition of the chase group remained largely the same through the last half of the race, after Freeman made his break; Graeme Killick (AWCA/CNST) was the only one to bridge his way up from farther back in the field.
Hoffman led for much of the last lap—he said he wanted to try to break the group up. But his efforts were unsuccessful, and it was Goldsack that launched a late attack on the course’s biggest climb in the final few kilometers, gapping the rest of the men.
“I knew that’s where it was going to be won and lost, so [I] was able to pick up the pace just slightly, and it was enough to get away from the other guys,” he said.
Behind, Hoffman, McMurtry, Elliott, and Sandau were left to fight for the final podium position—and the five bonus seconds for the overall that went with it.
Those first two were in good position just behind Sandau (AWCA/CNST) as they crested the last small climb before the homestretch, but then, they crashed, and it took 10 seconds to get extricated.
“Somehow we got tangled, and it was like we were weaved together. On the snow, I was like trying to crawl with my elbows and knees trying to get away, like, completely stuck,” McMurtry said. “It would have been third, fourth, and fifth between Kevin, Noah, and I.”
It was the second half of a double-whammy for McMurtry (CNST), who had already broken one of his poles as he headed out on the last lap. Instead of gunning for those last bonus seconds, he was left fighting for sixth place, with Sandau, Killick, and Elliott receiving a gift of two free spots.
“I thought it was going to be a bit tighter in the finish,” Sandau said. “I got a bit lucky there.”
Thanks to Wednesday’s win, Freeman took over the lead in the overall standings of the SuperTour Finals mini-tour, with two stages to go.
He has a 30-second edge over Goldsack, and 44 over Elliott (CXC), which seems to leave him as the favorite. But Goldsack is clearly cooking right now after suffering from illness earlier this year, and he should fare well in Friday’s classic sprint.
“He’s been good all year in distance and sprinting,” said Mike Cavaliere, one of Goldsack’s coaches. “Since he’s been sick for so long, I was just worried that he might not have the fitness to go the last three or four k [on Wednesday], but he was great.”
Freeman is no sprinter, though he has fared well domestically, and said he is going to start Friday’s race “with the intention of winning it.” But if he somehow exits in the quarterfinals, and Goldsack cracks the podium again, it could make for an interesting race in Saturday’s hill climb up Dollar Mountain.
“[Goldsack] will be pretty motivated if he has a good sprint race on Friday,” Cavaliere said.
SuperTour Finals Standings (PDF) – Women’s and Men’s standings. Scroll down for men.
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.