HOUGHTON, Mich. — With 11 men together at the start of the last 10-kilometer lap in Thursday’s 30 k classic mass start at U.S. Cross Country Championships, Kris Freeman knew he had to make something happen.
If he continued to ski in the pack and wait to see how the places shook out in the 100-meter finishing straight, the second-ranked U.S. distance skier (after U.S. Ski Team member Noah Hoffman) didn’t like his chances in a last-ditch sprint.
“I knew that somewhere in the last five k I had to go, and I had to go hard,” said Freeman, 34, who skis independently as Freebird, after the third of four national races at the Michigan Tech Trails.
The men directly around him with eight kilometers to go — including two Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team members (Matt Gelso and Miles Havlick), three Alaska Pacific University (APU) skiers (Lex Treinen, Scott Patterson and Eric Packer) and three Northern Michigan University (NMU) athletes (Fredrik Schwencke, Kyle Bratrud and Adam Martin), as well as Dartmouth’s Paddy Caldwell (also of the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team and U.S. Ski Team D-team) — generally anticipated Freeman’s move as well.
But all of them realized that leading was significantly harder in the cold-and-slow conditions with temperatures around 3 degrees throughout the day. Freeman tried it out, pushing the pace a couple times early in the first lap “just to experiment and see if I could hurt the field,” he said. “I just couldn’t.”
The four-time Olympian decided to hang back and attack somewhere on the second half of the last lap.
“I think I went with two-and-a-half k to go,” Freeman said. “And I knew I had a really good attack for two k, then my last 500 meters was pathetic.”
But it was enough for the win. On the second-to-last climb, Freeman successfully gapped Gelso, Patterson and the four others in the chase pack (Norris, Treinen, Packer and APU’s fifth man Reese Hanneman, respectively), and he frequently checked over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t reining him in.
“I had to double pole one long downhill that’s usually recovery so that they wouldn’t get back on me,” Freeman said of the final descent before the last climb toward the finish.
Treinen took advantage of an unfortunate misstep and crash from his teammate, Patterson, who had been skiing with Gelso in second with a kilometer to go.
“I was kind of moving tracks and stumbled a little bit,” Patterson said of the final downhill. “I was wobbly out on one ski, trying to correct, but it just wasn’t enough — spun around, totally my fault, didn’t hit anyone else, they all moved around me, and it was a quick little fall, but still not something you want right at the end.”
Four of his teammates — Treinen, Norris, Packer and Hanneman — navigated around him, as did Bratrud. Gelso stayed out of trouble but lost steam up the final ascent.
While Freeman forged ahead up the gradual hill, again looking back to see who was closest to him, his pain emitted through his facial expressions as he strode toward the finish.
Behind him, Treinen, on his 25th birthday, worked his way from fourth to third behind Bratrud and ahead of Gelso and Norris.
“Kyle Bratrud came up from behind and he looked like he was charging pretty hard so I tried to stay behind him for as long as I could, and on the last uphill, just gave it everything,” Treinen said. “I tried to break him — it just barely worked.”
Treinen edged the 21-year-old NMU senior, who won Sunday’s 15 k freestyle to start nationals, by 0.4 seconds to claim second for his first national podium. He finished 3.7 seconds behind Freeman, who won his 17th national title in 1:31:14.8.
“They were yo-yoing [behind me] and I was totally loaded coming up into the finish,” Freeman recalled. “If someone had sprinted by me, there would’ve been no response. There was nothing I could do.”
“Lex and I were gaining on [Freeman] at the end so who knows how it would’ve played out if there was another k to go,” Bratrud recalled.“I found myself leading a decent amount and then when Kris took off and kind of split the field up, I was able to at least pick up most of the pieces.”
On Sunday, Freeman placed second to Bratrud in the individual skate race.
“Even though the skate race didn’t go quite like I wanted, the sensations I had were great,” he reflected. “Today except for the last 500 meters, I felt like I was in total control and I just feel totally different then I did last year. This should absolutely cement my place on the World Championship team and that’s been my goal all year.
“SuperTour points are nice, but I want to go prove I’m one of the best in the world at World Champs,” Freeman added.
The U.S. World Championships team will be tentatively announced on Jan. 26, according to the team-selection criteria. The first criteria is based on World Cup results in the selection period (from Nov. 29, 2014 to Jan. 18, 2015); the second is coaches’ discretion, and the third, should it come down to it, is based on the best-ranked athletes in the 4th edition of the USSA Sprint and Distance Points List, which will be released Jan. 23.
Heading into nationals, Freeman ranked second in the 3rd USSA distance points list (including races before Jan. 2), nearly six points ahead of Gelso in third.
That made him one of Freeman’s biggest perceived threats on Thursday.
“Gelso looked really comfortable on his skis; he was having good kick everywhere and he’s right behind me on the points list and he’s having a great season,” Freeman said. “Kyle also obviously just had a great race so those two I kept looking at.”
Bratrud explained he came into the race more relaxed than he had anticipated after winning his first national title (and with it, his first national top 20) earlier in the week.
“All summer I had been targeting this 30 k and into the fall, I started realizing that maybe the 15 k would be a better shot for me,” he said. “Winning that I felt like I had a pretty successful week even if I was dead last in this race. I was just out there having fin. It’s fun to do well.”
Freeman felt similarly. After digging himself into a self-described hole last season, Freeman was enjoying racing again.
“I backed off my training a little bit; I’m more relaxed. I’m accepting that I’m 34, I can’t train a thousand hours anymore and expect to recover the same why I did,” he said. “And ski racing’s fun.”
While Freeman was gunning for 2015 World Championships next month in Falun, Sweden, Bratrud put himself in prime position to be nominated to the U23 World Championships team his previous win at nationals. Another podium on Thursday prequalified him for NCAA Championships as well, as nationals double as a Central Collegiate Ski Association (CCSA) and NCAA Central Region qualifier for NCAA’s.
“It was a weight off my shoulder to win the skate race and pretty much guarantee U23’s so now I can go home and train for a bit and head over to Kazakhstan,” Bratrud said. “I’m prequalified for NCAA’s so I can come back and get another little block in and then hopefully race some of those fast [University of Colorado] Boulder Norwegian guys.”
NMU Claims College Cup
Four NMU skiers landed in the top 13 with Bratrud in third, Schwencke in 11th (who skied near the front of the pack and led the long climb up after the race’s halfway point, then raced in the top 11 with eight kilometers to go), Martin in 12th and Erik Soderman in 13th.
“The Northern Michigan guys put in some strong attacks on the second lap, and I think they widdled the field down [by the last lap],” Freeman said. “I tried working with Freddy [Schwencke] right before the end of the second lap, but we got caught and I just said, just tuck it in here until it’s time.”
With the highest-collective performance over three days at nationals, NMU won the 2015 College Cup.
“All my success comes from training with those guys every day and Freddy’s a very good classic skier so I was confident skiing next to him,” said Bratrud, who led through the 10 and 20 k lap checkpoints. “When he put the hammer down pretty hard when we came through the second time, just to be able to ski confidently with your teammate and be at the front of the race is a pretty good feeling and that gave me a good feeling going forward.”
APU Takes 5 of Top 8
This past summer, APU’s seven-person men’s team (with U.S. Ski Team member Erik Bjornsen, Reese Hanneman, Tyler Kornfield, Norris, Packer, Patterson, and Treinen) initiated a “#five2falun” slogan.
“It started as a joke; it’s all in good humor,” Hanneman explained at the time. “There was another elite team in the U.S. who, they last couple years, they had a campaign: six to Sochi. We thought, we can do our own little thing. Five because it starts with and ‘F’ because seven doesn’t really sound as good.
“Now we’re kind of using it as motivation for ourselves,” he added. “If [we] did actually send five to Falun from one team that would be absolutely insane. The men have traditionally been so spread out in the U.S. that we’re kind of excited about having a group of us that changes the landscape.”
On Thursday, after months of waiting for a breakout-team performance, the APU men got it.
Treinen led them in second, Packer rose from seventh to fourth (+4.9) over the last kilometer, and Norris finished 11.2 seconds after Freeman in fifth, 1.9 seconds ahead of Hanneman in sixth. Hanneman came back from 13th and 18 seconds behind the leaders at 20 k, to eighth with 1 k to go.
Gelso finished seventh (+14), and Patterson, who’s back after a pulmonary embolism kept him from racing from late October until mid-December, recovered from his fall on Thursday to edge Havlick and Caldwell by less than a second for eighth (+24.3). Havlick placed ninth (+25), and Caldwell was 10th (+25.1).
“I had a pretty good sprint so if I hadn’t had that fall who knows what would’ve happened,” Patterson said. “I would’ve been right there challenging for it, maybe not Freeman but the next guys.”
Treinen called his second-place finish “pretty special, especially because it’s my birthday. It was kind of in the back of my mind, not gonna lie — I was thinking about that.”
His previous national best was fifth in the 50 k classic mass start at U.S. Distance Nationals last spring.
“I feel like we were just waiting for him to have a good day and that was today,” APU Head Coach Erik Flora said. “He looked great, he looked energetic, he looked under good control and you could see so many times just like a smile on his face so it was really cool.”
Flora added that he was proud of the entire team, with five men in the top eight.
“To have all those boys in there fighting and challenging each other is just awesome,” he said. “I think that the training for those guys is working and their commitment to being skiers all that good stuff.”
“I’m just happy to have my teammates do so well as well,” Treinen said. “It’s the best team I’ve ever been on and I think we’re just starting to show what we’re made of.”
Packer rose from seventh to fourth with 200 meters to go, proving to himself that he was back on form after the flu took him out of commission the week before the 15 k.
“I couldn’t be happier with feeling good today,” the first-year APU member and Anchorage native said. “… I grew up skiing with all of the guys. We all started training together actually in middle school. It’s kind of cool to have five of those same guys that you started with at 12 or 13, five in the top eight today.”
Norris led at times during the race, including around 22 k with Gelso, and said he was disappointed to slip from fourth at the bottom of the last climb to fifth (when Packer passed him in the final stretch).
“It’s hard when you get passed in the last hundred meters … but it was my teammate and he’s a good finisher,” Norris said. “And I’m feeling better every race we do throughout the season.”
Moreover, he was excited for his team.
“We had the feeling that we were going to have some great results as a team and we hadn’t really shown that yet this year,” he said. “We all had great skis. Everyone’s skiing stronger so it’s cool to see Lex have a good sprint finish when he’s notoriously a distance guy and Packer have a good 30 k when he’s been good at sprints. Everybody’s improving their weaknesses.”
- Jørgen Grav (University of Vermont), who placed 24th, skied in the top five for much of the first lap, just ahead of Freeman, amid a large pack of about 30 separated by 15 seconds at 10 k.
- Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus) finished 21st after skiing in the top 7 through 10 k, then slipping into the mid-20s on the second lap.
- Tad Elliott (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail Elite Team) finished 36th in his first race at nationals after spending the earlier part of the week recovering from a flu/cold at home in Durango, Colo.
- Ben Lustgarten (SVSEF) sat out the mass start as he’s been suffering from vertigo this week, which led him to miss Tuesday’s classic sprint as well.
— Lander Karath contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.