CRAFTSBURY, Vermont — For someone who was almost ready to hang up his skis and skip spring series altogether, Kris Freeman (SSC Vail/USST) sure knows how to turn things around over the course of a week. After fighting off a sinus infection during SuperTour Finals, and before that coming home from Europe disappointed with his World Cup season, Freeman handily defended his Distance Nationals 50 k title on Saturday, beating Tad Elliott (SSCV/USST) to the line by 3.2 seconds for a time of 1:50:25.9.
“This was the first race [this week] where I felt good — like I had my body back and I had some fun skiing,” said a satisfied Freeman after his finish.
In typical 50 k fashion, the race didn’t really get going until Freeman and Elliott began to put a break on the field with about 11 laps to go in the 33-lap race.
“It was very pedestrian — we were just cruising,” said Freeman.
With 90 skiers signed up for either the 50 k or junior 20 k, the 1.5 k loop saw a fair bit of traffic. On the fast, icy snow that greeted competitors Saturday morning, the congestion made for some hairy racing, which played some part in how and when the leaders chose to make their moves.
“The downhill was very sketchy, and it got sketchier and sketchier as the race went on,” said Freeman. “That’s part of the reason I finally wanted to get out of the group. The saved energy from being in the draft was no longer worth the risk.”
Until around 36 k, the lead had traded hands a number of times. Noah Hoffman (SSCV/USST) attempted to break from the pack at about 9 k, but the field gradually reeled him back in on a transition-heavy course designed for sprint racing, not marathons.
Freeman led the chase pack, and continued to pull for a few laps after he closed back the gap. Simi Hamilton (SVSEF/USST) took over at about the halfway point, and stayed in the lead for almost 8 k. It was his first serious 50 k and he wanted to be able to set his own pace.
“There were so many transitions that [the field] was just kind of coming together. People were getting just a little bit tangled and things were a little tense in the pack,” said Hamilton. “I just decided to ski up front for a while… I was definitely trying to figure the distance out.”
No one skier took decisive control until Freeman and Elliot’s break. When Freeman took the lead with 11 laps to go, Elliott knew that was critical point.
“I moved into second because I knew Kris would be skiing strong at that point, and then I knew I was skiing the flatter V2 sections really well,” said Elliott.
As the two pushed each other, they put enough distance on the field to stretch almost the entire length of the stadium. The very next lap, Elliott took over the lead from Freeman and pulled for the next five laps.
“I pulled through and Kris goes, ‘Dude, we have a huge opening. Let’s go,’” said Elliott. “It was really fun to ski with him.”
Freeman took over for a few kilometers, but Elliott did most of the work from there on out.
“I knew I had a better kick than Tad, so I made him do the work on the last couple laps,” said Freeman. “I had no interest in trying to break him early, and it came down to the last couple hundred meters and I was able to get the win.”
And there’s no rest for the weary. In three days, Freeman will head to the Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah to begin testing out new ways to manage late-race blood sugar in longer events.
By his own admission, Freeman has consistently struggled this winter with being unable to “close it out” at the end of mass start distance races. In testing out several theories on how to improve upon late race blood-sugar management, he hopes to find ways to move past a World Cup season that fell short of his expectations.
“Kris had a bad season this year; just flat-out bad,” said Freeman’s coach Zach Caldwell. “Something’s got to change in a pretty big way for him to continue, and continue at the level he should be at and move past where he’s been.”
But with a win on home soil, Freeman was able to end on a positive note.
“It was a really good way to end a pretty frustrating season,” he said.
Behind the top two finishers, Tim Reynolds (CGRP) and Ellefson sprinted to the line for the bronze medal. Reynolds edged Ellefson by half a second, and over a minute behind the winner.
“We’re buddies, so it’s a fun way to end it,” said Reynolds. “It’s always sweet racing here; there’s a lot of people out there cheering for you. It’s nice to do well at home, for sure.”
Ellefson, though nipped at the line, said the photo finish was the perfect way to end the season.
“I think I had a better dive, but he definitely had some distance on me,” said Ellefson. “I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to end it any other way.”
Hamilton, one of the early leaders, took the fifth position (+1:14.2). He was happy to have successfully paced his first freestyle 50 k, and hopes to improve upon his distance skiing, among other things, as he looks to next season.
“I think my fitness has just made a big jump this year and I think it will continue to do that with more base ours I’m putting in,” said Hamilton. “I’m really looking forward to improving my overall skiing, not just skate sprinting, which is what I probably feel most confident in.”
Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.