Tell Kris Freeman something he doesn’t know about racing with diabetes. Better yet, give him hope that he can ski faster.
That’s exactly how Dr. Jim Stray-Gundersen piqued Freeman’s interest two months ago in Norway. Without having seen him race, Stray-Gundersen got right to the point in Oslo.
Forget about what happened in the past; let’s look to the future. How do you feel about racing with a CamelBak?
For Freeman and his personal coach Zach Caldwell, that was a new idea. After a decade of consulting experts – endocrinologists, physicians and physiotherapists, Freeman had heard enough Monday morning quarterbacks.
Rehashing what went wrong in each race was valuable, but the U.S. Ski Team veteran needed to move on. Near the end of his season, in which Freeman, 31, finished uncharacteristically low on the World Cup rankings – 86th overall and 54th in the distance cup – the type-one diabetic booked a lab session with Stray-Gundersen.
Three days after he ended the season on a high note, winning the SuperTour Finals and U.S. Distance Nationals 50 k skate race in Craftsbury, Vt., Freeman went to work on a treadmill inside U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah.
Stray-Gundersen, a former USST sports science director and physician/physio at the ’88 and ’92 Olympics, had an inkling that Freeman could improve in mass-start distance races. They just needed to figure out how to keep his blood sugar in check.
Since Freeman was diagnosed with diabetes in 2000, he experimented with his body’s limits, especially in races, despite its inability to regulate blood sugar. By 2006, his pancreas stopped producing the regulating hormone known as insulin altogether, and he was left to rely on technology and developing research to continue with the sport.
Either that or give up distance races, which put him at risk for life-threatening complications if his glucose levels rose or dropped too much. But Freeman wasn’t about to do that.
He’d race with a water-bottle backpack and a tube taped to his face if he had to.
Stray-Gundersen suggested that a steady amount of feed throughout a longer race could help Freeman, especially in mass starts where he wouldn’t necessarily set the pace. Time trials weren’t usually a problem; Freeman could better monitor his exertion in those from start to finish. And domestic races? Freeman was usually in control up front.
“Whether I’m anaerobic [without oxygen] or aerobic really affects how I utilize sugar,” Freeman said in a phone interview from Hawaii, where he vacationed after testing in Park City.
“But when you’ve got [Petter] Northug or [Dario] Cologna throwing in surges every now and then, it becomes unpredictable,” he added. “I need to be able to react on the fly.”
When he pushed hard early in those races, usually a 30 or 50 k, Freeman said he couldn’t recover. Rather than beat himself up over his fitness, he entertained thoughts that his blood-sugar management could be improved.
That’s where the study came in.
One Expert’s Opinion
In the past, Stray-Gundersen offered Freeman advice on altitude training. Internationally known as an innovator, he conducted a 12-year study that suggested training at higher elevations was the best way to optimize sea-level performance. Stray-Gundersen was also at the forefront of EPO studies and determined that the drug could be used to unfairly enhance endurance performance.
While Stray-Gundersen explained he couldn’t discuss details of Freeman’s ongoing lab tests, Freeman described them. Immediately after wrapping up in Vermont in late March, he flew out to Utah to prepare for the studies during the first week of April.
There, Freeman said he rollerskied on a treadmill for about an hour and 15 minutes each day, warming up to start each session and then going hard for nearly 50 minutes. Stray-Gundersen observed while he progressed through the interval workout – skating nearly all-out for five minutes then backing off to Level 3 for five minutes. Freeman repeated that five times.
“We basically tried to simulate the stresses that are put on me with an unpredictable pace in a 30 k environment where the pace ebbs and flows,” Freeman said. “It was close to an hour of intense, very hard [testing] and I did it four times in five days. Not very much fun.”
As long as it could potentially make him faster, Freeman was game. Based on preliminary findings, he said a steady supply of sugar was important when racing at various speeds. Stray-Gundersen brought up the idea of a CamelBak-type device: what if Freeman carried a sports drink rather than rely on feeds every five kilometers or so?
“Consuming small sips of sugar throughout the hour and 15 minutes was far more effective at keeping a steady blood sugar than taking 10 ounces every 15 minutes,” Freeman said. “Not really surprising. With the exact same amount of feed consumed, I had much more stable sugar throughout the test and therefore better finishes.”
He could care less what he would look like with a pouch on his back. He raced with a water bottle before, but found it was too cumbersome to take out and put back behind him. If he were to race with some kind of backpack, he’d probably need the tube fastened to his face.
“I’ve spent eight years on the World Cup taking a needle or syringe out and injecting my stomach at meal time so I got a lot of weird looks,” Freeman said. “I’ve got an insulin pump attached to my chest right now so I’m pretty used to getting looks in that way, and it doesn’t bother me.”
Backpack or Not
Before jumping ahead to how a CamelBak could work efficiently, Freeman planned to follow up with Stray-Gundersen on May 10 for a second round of tests. Back in Park City, he could get the full analysis from the first series and spend another week pounding it out on the treadmill.
After that, Freeman wasn’t sure what was next. In terms of summer training, whatever they found wouldn’t change much.
“It will just be a different strategy in feeding in a race, a different strategy of insulin,” Freeman said. “It won’t change my preparation or the way I go into a race, it will just change the dosage I’m on and the way I put sugar into my body in the longer races.”
One of the big questions left was how Freeman would carry all the nutrients he needed. A CamelBak would probably have to weigh four of five pounds to last him throughout a race, Freeman said. Stray-Gundersen suggested designing 20-ounce sports-drink cartridges that could be exchanged and clicked into place at feed zones.
Either way, it would require trial and error and some outside help. In a phone interview, Caldwell elaborated on the current mass-start feeding process.
“What is really alarming if you’re out on the course supporting Kris Freeman is how much he can consume,” Caldwell said. “Kris can come by and take 20 ounces in one feed. It’s insane.”
With that much going down at once, or even more typically 8-12 ounces per feed, Caldwell said that could weigh him down for a bit.
“That’s a big bomb sitting in his stomach … where continuously sipping is a very, very different way to approach it,” Caldwell said. “It’s not probably that cool to race with a CamelBak, but this was one of the questions that Jim really brought up and said, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ So far, we’ve got a very small amount of testing to support it, but … I wouldn’t be surprised to see him utilizing some kind of carry-along feeding strategy during the winter.”
Above all, the possibilities were a fresh and welcome perspective after a long season and six years of trying to mitigate the effects of diabetes. Caldwell said it had been a long time since they felt there were gains to be made in Freeman’s glucose management.
“It was mostly just eliminate bad days,” Caldwell said. “Kris had no bad days this year that were directly attributable to sugar. … It was not the problem. In no way is this an attempt to make up for ground that was lost last year.”
When Stray-Gundersen did his homework and told them they could immediately start making improvements, Caldwell said they were sold.
“I think it’s a good opportunity,” Caldwell said. “I don’t know what’s going to come from it … [but] this is looking forward and trying to get better. Better than the Kris we’ve seen, certainly in mass-start events.”
Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
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.