RUMFORD, Maine – Swirling around the Black Mountain venue was news that Justin Freeman was done. After 16 consecutive U.S. Cross Country Championships, including his recent appearance at this year’s nationals, the 35-year-old Olympian, national champion and brother of current U.S. Ski Team veteran, Kris, wouldn’t be back.
Of course, that all depended, Freeman said in phone conversation on Saturday.
“It’s my last consecutive nationals,” he clarified. “It’s unlikely that I won’t be back.”
Soon after placing 27th in the 30 k classic mass start on Friday, the father of two drove 2 ½ hours home to New Hampton, N.H., where he had to teach at the New Hampton School on Saturday.
For Freeman, missing Sunday’s classic sprints was part of being a math-department head at a boarding school. He also had his wife and two daughters, 5-year-old Iris and 3-year-old Sage, to get back to after nearly a week away.
That’s why he wouldn’t likely be able to make next year’s U.S. Nationals, especially if the event is held in Soldier Hollow, Utah. Based on the championships’ two-year rotation, Freeman figured it wouldn’t be within driving distance of New Hampshire, and a long flight and time away from his family would make the trip difficult, he said.
“It’ll probably be a while before it’s back in the East again,” Freeman said. “Who knows where I’ll be.”
That said, the national 10 k classic champion from 2005 was far from retired with his sights set on other distance races this season and running in the spring, summer and fall.
Sure, he found less and less time to get on snow each year, what with kids and a full-time job in central New Hampshire. His training had dwindled significantly; in his blog, Freeman wrote he had accumulated a training deficit of 2,000 hours in the last six years, “plus another 2000 hour sleep deficit since becoming a father.
Yet every year, Freeman made a point to race at nationals, and 46 consecutive times, he toed the line with some of the best racers in the U.S. This year, he made the top 30 twice in as many races, placing 28th in the 15 k freestyle on Jan. 5.
In a blog post titled “Better Than Kris,” Freeman joked that he placed one spot higher than his younger brother, who was 29th the same day in the Tour de Ski 35 k freestyle pursuit in Toblach, Italy.
“We joke, but even when we were racing each other, we always wanted each other to do well,” Freeman said.
For the most part, he met his expectations at nationals this year despite going out too hard in both distance races. After the first of four laps in the 15 k, Freeman said he realized he was in the top 10. He knew that wasn’t necessarily good news.
“Tad (Elliott) and Noah (Hoffman) were really pushing the pace hard at the front,” Freeman said of the young USST members, which placed first and fourth, respectively. “Even before they really started working I was spit off the back. … It’s nice to see that we’ve got some skiers in this country that are very clearly at a whole other class of the sport.”
Once at that level as a 2006 Olympian, Freeman isn’t exactly out of it. While he can only fit in a few hours a week of ski-specific training, some of which is with the family and chariot strapped to his waist, he planned to continue racing this season at Eastern Cup distance events, Canadian nationals and Ski to the Clouds, a race up Mount Washington touted as North America’s toughest 10 k. Freeman was its four-time defending champion.
As for the Canadian championships at the end of March, Freeman said the timing should be right.
“I’ve got the week off,” he said of his plan to make the races in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec. He last raced Canadian nationals four years ago.
“I should be in fairly good shape by then,” he said. “Get a chance to ski a little faster.”
Despite winning the 2011 New England Grand Prix, a seven-event road race series involving a half marathon, 10 k, 6 k, 5 k, 8-miler, 5-miler and marathon, Freeman said his running didn’t necessarily translate to skiing. Every year, he said he delayed his Nov. 1 deadline to start dryland training and kept running instead.
Regardless, his skiing goals still lingered, and he would keep racing “until the results sheet starts saying that it’s not worth it for me anymore,” Freeman said.
While his training might not be on par with on his U.S. Ski Team days, as he fits about 1 ½ to two hours a day in when he can, Freeman said it’s working for now.
“I’m getting to that age where it gets very dangerous to expect improvement. That’s not what biology is trying to do for me,” said Freeman, who also teaches science.
But he also wasn’t giving up.
“I’ll be racing in one form or another for at least another 50 years,” he said. “Probably won’t be U.S. Nationals.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.