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Freeman’s facing long, uphill battles

Ski racer defending titles in two events

JUSTIN FREEMAN Different tasks JUSTIN FREEMAN
Different tasks
By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2011

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Two upcoming ski races put the focus on Mount Washington and the one man defending titles in both.

Justin Freeman will try for bragging rights and a four-peat in Sunday’s Ski to the Clouds. Six days later he’ll try for a second straight win in the Bretton Woods Nordic Marathon.

“It’s very different racing uphill,’’ Freeman said. “Not necessarily hard, but certainly not easier than racing on the flats. There is no time to recover, and at the same time you can’t go as hard as you can in other races.’’

Freeman, 34, was an All-American at Bates College, had six career podium finishes at the nationals, and competed in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. The brother of three-time Olympian Kris Freeman, he’s now an educator at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire.

His three consecutive wins on skate skis up the 6,288-foot mountain all have been different. In 2008, he won the freestyle race by 1 minute 37 seconds in a time of 32:51. The next year, it took a sprint to the finish to beat Army World Class Athlete Program skier Jesse Downs by one second. Last year, he opened a lead but still had to work hard near the finish to prevail by 50 seconds over National Guard biathlon skier Duncan Douglas.

The course contains a grueling 2,200 vertical foot climb to the finish near the tree line, some 3,800 feet above sea level.

Freeman trains at Waterville Valley and works on doing intervals up an old alpine slope there.

“But it’s not the same as Mount Washington,’’ he said. “You get the same feeling, but it is more of a tuneup for me. For me, it’s more mental training than physical. Mount Washington is a ski race, just slower.’’

The March 12 marathon is more of a traditional ski race, a classic kick and glide with healthy amounts of double poling. Freeman easily won last year, largely skiing alone.

“Working fulltime, I don’t come into the season in good shape in terms of my upper body,’’ he said. “I have a weak double pole at the start of the season but I’m feeling good about it now. The Bretton Woods course is on the flat side for a marathon and I’ll be doing a lot of double poling.’’

Both races evolved following the demise of the Great Glen to Bretton Woods Nordic Adventure, a 50-kilometer race between the two trail systems that included a steady climb up Jefferson Notch. That race, part of the American Marathon Series, lasted some six years and was canceled in 2007 because of the uncertainty of the snow, windswept sections, and land-use issues.

Ski to the Clouds was first held in 1996 and was limited to about halfway up the Mount Washington Auto Road. It soon went on hiatus and was reborn in 2008 with a course using both the road and about 4 kilometers of the Nordic network.

“I think that has improved the quality of the ski experience,’’ said Great Glen’s ski school director and resident Olympian Sue Wemyss. “Rather than heading right up the auto road, you can warm up on variable terrain before hitting the uphill.’’

With a mass start, there is more time to develop a strategy and maintain a good position before hitting the hill, which includes an 18-degree pitch.

“There is no relief,’’ she said. “There isn’t a section for a sudden downhill or flat. You are exerting energy the whole way.’’

Also unusual for a citizen cross-country race is a purse of $1,400. The field is capped at 150, and it tends to attract about half that amount. Though competitors routinely run or bike up the road in summer races, skiing is a novelty.

“The concept of skiing up the road is really out there,’’ said Great Glen Trails spokesman Ryan Triffitt. “I think even for really good ski racers, it’s a difficult concept to get into their heads.’’

Triffitt calls the race “an upside down Stowe Derby,’’ referring to the popular citizen’s race that begins with a rollicking descent from Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield.

The marathon debuted in 2009 as a fund-raiser for the New England Ski Museum in Franconia Notch, N.H. Freeman didn’t race the first year but did in 2010, defeating inaugural winner Timothy Whiton, a Bates College racer, by more than eight minutes. The competition has attracted other notables such as Olympians Dorcas (Denhartog) Wonsavage, Charles Kellogg, Leslie (Bancroft) Krichko, and former Olympic coach for the US and Canadian National teams Marty Hall.

Wes DeNering, 49, an active citizen marathon racer competing in Europe and across New England, has skied the race twice, both times with top 40 results. A Cambridge Sports Union skier and an organizer of the Weston Ski Track Tuesday Night Sprints, he doesn’t worry about the elite skiers. Instead it’s the usual race within the race.

“There certainly are rivalries with both other clubs in New England and with people I’ve been racing against for years,’’ he said.

The race flows over the golf course and into the woods. He said the scenery is akin to what you see in the Alps.

“There’s isn’t too much vertical,’’ he said. “Some races can be too flat, and others, like the Olympic course at Lake Placid (N.Y.), are hard for many skiers. This one has a nice blend.’’

The marathon contains two distances, 50K and 25K, with both timed and touring (un-timed) options, and attracts pre-teens to skiers in their mid-70s.

The 300 skier limit hasn’t been reached. According to race co-organizer Ellen Chandler, about 160 skiers entered the first year, with some 180 the next.

“The field is fairly divided between the two distances,’’ she said. “That shows a wide range of interest, with some people skiing faster and others who like to ski on a recreational basis.’’