Sam Long has experienced both highs and lows through the first half of the 2021 season. The young pro with the nickname Big Unit recalibrated after a disappointing result at IRONMAN Tulsa and set a course record at IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene. The Boulder based pro opened up with us about how he pressed the reset button after Tulsa and how he prepared for his record setting performance.
Slowtwitch: What did you do in the weeks between Tulsa and Coeur d'Alene?
Sam: After Tulsa I took almost a whole week off with just a few light workouts. It was the easiest I have taken a week of training in two years. I didn’t have much choice. As mentioned after Tulsa, I had severe back problems and the pain stuck around till Friday after the race. After the week off I did two bigger weeks of training and then a two week taper. All in all, it was only two weeks of training between the two races. My training focus shifted, as well, from threshold and speed type training to more metabolic efficiency type training. I was surprised - and still am another 3 weeks after the race - how well my body has held onto the speed from the spring training.
ST: How was your headspace from the high of your St. George race and a low of not having the race you wanted in Tulsa? Is there anything in particular you do that helps you bounce back and stay mentally hungry?
Sam: My headspace was awesome leading into Couer d'Alene. I was hungry to prove to myself what I could do after Tulsa. I had something to prove. I was chasing another high like St. George. I find I have the best headspace after races that don’t go great rather than the ones that do. They get me fired up. I had to shut out the media and noise for Coeur d'Alene. There was a lot of chatter about how it was too much and that I was chasing races. I knew in my head I had made the right choice and that I was capable of a great day. I focused on myself and lived a quiet disciplined life.
ST: The days leading into race day looked to be potentially very stressful. You seemingly rolled with the punches. Can you talk about some of the pre-race snags you've had, how you keep your cool, and in the case of Coeur d'Alene, how you use it as fuel towards a great performance?
Sam: I have had a lot of SNAFUs before races leading in my life. Perhaps the greatest one was before St. George 70.3 in 2015 when I was still an age grouper. While doing my warmup jog in the near dark I tripped over a metal chain blocking the path and did a front flip straight onto my head. Ouch, that one really hurt. I recollected myself and convinced myself it just got my adrenaline going. Another good one was before my first IRONMAN win at Chattanooga in 2019. The race is right on the border and my phone switched overnight to a time change an hour earlier. Therefore, I woke up late. I was the last person in transition before the race!
Coeur d'Alene was also stressful. On Thursday trying to fly out from Denver I spent four hours in the airport before my flight got cancelled. Then I booked a flight for Saturday morning to arrive 19 hours before the start of the race. Coeur d'Alene was perfect though because it got me out of my head of focusing on making all the details perfect and instead on staying positive and carrying forward no matter what. This mindset proved vital in 100-degree weather with a slightly flat tire for half the bike. I focused on myself and doing the best I could in every moment given what I had.
ST: One of the aspects you were disappointed in at Tulsa was being unable to ride away from your peers, and also pulling the group burning too many matches. Can you share your self-talk about how you approached your bike effort and pacing? What message were you intending to send?
Sam: Tulsa was extremely dissatisfying and annoying. It sucks to set other racers up for big success at your own expense. I hope to never do that again. I would rather the whole pack gets beat in the future then set someone up who will not do any work. I completely reshaped my mindset in Coeur d'Alene, I told myself coming out of the swim from behind is a good thing and that it means every time I pass someone, I have an opportunity to sit on their wheel before making the pass. I knew when I came to the group it would be important to sit in before making the attack so that I could be rested compared to everyone else. I caught the group relatively easily, having to ride only five watts higher than my planned race power. I then sat in for 45 minutes at what felt like a base building zone two ride. When I decided to go, I had the legs and only Lionel was able to go with me—which was perfect as it gave me an ally. Granted Coeur d'Alene was a different field than Tulsa but I’m learning how to use the tactics and the dynamics in every race to my advantage. The message is that I’m not going to play the fool anymore.
ST: On a scale of 1-11, how happy were you with your run at Coeur d'Alene? With such hot conditions, do you make any special training accommodations to be heat adapted for race day? If so, what are some of your go-tos?
Sam: I was fairly happy with it. I would give it an 8. Admittedly, I ran slightly too fast at the beginning but that was all part of the plan. I knew Lionel would surge to catch me and that getting him to do that type of an effort early in the heat would cost him big time. It also cost me though, as I was hotter than I would like to admit in the final 10k. It was also hard to say because my mindset shifted at that point from “bank time and go as fast as possible” to “don’t mess this up and play it conservative”. I would have loved for it to have been closer at the end so that I would have had to empty the tank completely.
I sit in the sauna every day for 30 minutes leading into a hot race. I’m playing with the time frame needed but 7-10 days seems to be perfect. I also train in the heat extensively in the summer.
ST: What will your race schedule look like for the fall? Have you made any decisions on what your championship season focus will be?
Sam: This is a great question. What I will say for now is that it will include all the major championship races. Collins Cup, St. George, and Kona. However, I am still deciding which one to really prioritize. I think with St. George being such a demanding race and only three weeks before Kona picking one and committing to one as the A race is critical. I am leaning towards St. George as my A race of the three but am still sorting out the details.
You can follow Sam on Instagram at @samgolong
Photo credit to Kenny Withrow of @nokoastvisuals