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Grit or Gift: Triathlete Sam Long

Grit or Gift: Triathlete Sam Long

Sam Long, a Miraflora-sponsored professional triathlete and native of Boulder, Colo., had a tough year in 2022. After winning two Ironmans, eight middle distance races, and a silver at the 70.3 World Championships in 2021, he got a controversial penalty in the St. George 70.3 World Championships last fall, which cost him the race. He was also the subject of controversy when his feud with fellow triathlete Sam Laidlow went public. 

But this year, things are looking up for Long. He has a new coach and some big news that has put it all in perspective for him. We caught up with him from his new home in Arizona to ask him all about this and more. 

Click here to listen to the full podcast and hear it all from Long himself.

Q: Before I start asking you all kinds of questions, I think you have some pretty exciting news that you’re ready to share

Long: My girlfriend Lara is pregnant. We’re through the first trimester, so I’ve been busting at the seams to tell this forever.

Q: That’s the most exciting news you ever get in your life. Lara is also a triathlete?

Long: Yes, she is. And, well, here’s a funny story: We found out three days before the last race of the season last year. I was on a bike ride doing intervals to prepare for this race with my headphones in, and I get this text that Siri reads to me: “Sam, I think I’m pregnant.” My head was spinning faster than the wheels on the bike. All of a sudden racing felt like something I know how to do, and I’m way more scared to be a dad than to swim, bike, and run. And I don’t think we talked about Indian Wells for more than five minutes that week, but it gave me that mental edge to want to go win. So I won the race. 

Q: That’s great news coming off a tumultuous year.

Long: I was in a slump and it put everything in perspective. As for last year, I never really realized how important luck is. It’s not to say I didn’t make bad decisions as well, on the back of bad luck. But I learned that my response to bad things that happen is within my control. 

Q: Tell me a little about the St. George World Championships. You got a five-minute drafting penalty that cost you the race. Tell me a little bit about what the penalty was and what your interpretation of that was.

Long: If you look at a football game, you can’t say that one penalty decided the fate of the whole game. The infraction fits the crime. Now in triathlon, the rules are more complicated than they seem. It’s called a drafting penalty, but it doesn’t mean you were actually drafting off someone. And at the end of the day, it’s up to the ref to call it. When this happened, I was on camera, and suddenly I get this penalty. Whether a penalty is justified or not justified, but a five-minute penalty completely ruins your day. What I had prepared for the whole year to do was lost. I was only an hour and 10 minutes in, so I had a really hard mental and emotional day. I did get to the finish line, and even that was hard. I invested so much, and then it was lost. I won’t say I’m totally over the day, but like Rocky Balboa, sometimes you just have to take the hits and keep going.

Q: What are some of your coping strategies?

Long: One of my best ones for sleeping is to grab the Miraflora CBD +Sleep Soft Gels. With that, I’d say getting grounded and finding balance and peace and forgiveness. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. I could be made at the ref or the rules or whatever, but every year it’s going to be someone. Instead I’ve just forgiven the situation and looked to the future.

Q: You have such a big personality, which makes you so fun to watch. It’s also gotten you into a little trouble, like with the Sam Laidlow feud at the Collins Cup. Tell me a little bit about that.

Long: Smack talking should be bringing people up, not putting people down. I think is that a few years ago, I didn’t have a platform and people didn’t know who I was, so I had to come off a little bit, like, “Look at me,” trying to overdo things. And when you’re the unknown person commenting on the known icons, it stirs the pot. Even if 98% of what I said were respectful comments, it gets perceived as, “This guy is cocky.” A few years go by, and then I have a platform. If you’re Tom Brady and you’re poking fingers at people who don’t have the same results, it looks really bad. So I stopped doing it, and the backlash made it not be as fun as I thought it would be. Now, I’m just trying to have fun with it.

Q: I loved how you said that you’re like schoolyard dogs who fight and then are friends afterward. That was a great way to take out the venom. Are you guys good now?

Long: Yes. there’s no animosity. Conflicts can be resolved. But in triathlon we’re a little mixed up. Sometimes we don’t know if we’re friends or rivals…and for fans, it’s confusing. During the race, that super alpha-male side comes out, but that’s not who you are all the time. But then after the race, it all goes away.

Q: Where does that alpha male side come from? Did it come from being a triplet? Do your brothers have the same drive? 

Long: I think me and both my brothers were all super competitive. And we’re competitive with each other. I’m a competitive athlete, one is a Wall Street banker, and one is a musician. And we all excel at what we do. We all wanted to be the best at what we were doing, so it was the competitive drive that put us in each of our fields. So I guess if I want my kid to be good at sports, I have to have another one.

Q: Well, get through the first one and see how you feel on that one.

Long: Yeah, that’s a good call.

Q: You changed directions with your coaching. Talk me through that thought process.

Long: My first coach, Ryan Bolton, was really good at laying the foundation. That’s why I selected him five years ago. I think about it in terms of a sword, you can have a broad sword or a samurai. Ryan built as much raw potential as possible, but in my mind, I knew there was going to be a phase where I needed to find another coach who’s really good at fine-tuning. It’s a different skill set. I believe that you don’t change horses in the middle of the stream, so I didn’t change coaches until the end of the season. And it’s really hard to look for a coach while you have one, so I needed the in-between period to coach myself and not feel rushed when it came to hiring a new coach. Now the guy I’m working with is Dan Plews, he’s a PhD in sports science and into all the details.

Q: How do you continue to succeed at things that you’re good at—the bike—and simultaneously work on your weaknesses—the swim? How do you stay balanced?

Long: You just asked the absolute critical question to triathlon. Ideally, we’d train like a pro cyclist, runner, and swimmer. But it’s impossible from every standpoint. It’s figuring out that balance for everyone. I’ve always been good at the bike, but I was good at it because I put a tremendous amount of time into it. I needed to get better at the swim without giving up the bike, so we had to make the bike more efficient so I can have more energy for the swim. Hopefully that’s the secret sauce.

Q: When you come out of the water, knowing that’s your weakest part, is that a mental hurdle that motivates or demotivates you?

Long: There are two viewpoints. In a half ironman, I’ve come out five minutes behind and still won the race. Some people see me coming out two minutes down, but when I come out, I feel great. Compared to what I used to do, it’s monumentally easier to bridge up to there. But the one exception is World Championships, when all the best people are there. If I have a bad swim and am two and a half minutes back in that field, OK, that’s a bad situation. Then I go, “OK, brain, shut up. Let’s just get to work.”

Q: Listening to your body is so important, but at the same time, you have to ignore your body to push through the pain. Is that a fine line?

Long: I think it takes a lot of time to learn. But for me, it no longer feels difficult. I’m not injury-prone, but I basically just turn into molasses if I’m too tired. The amount of energy it takes me to just get off the couch and put my running shoes on is monumental. I love to train, so if I’m like thinking about going outside feels dreadful, then I go, OK, I’m ready for a day of rest. I can tell in my body, and it allows me to not stress about the decisions. Training plus rest equals getting faster. Training plus no rest equals getting slower.

Q: What about balance in your life? What do you do for fun?

Long: We are all about food. Where are we going for dinner, and we’ll make that a big thing. We get dressed up and hang out. We talk and enjoy the night and sometimes it’s just me and Lara, and sometimes we get our whole group of friends together. Food and drinks and celebration. Lara is one of the few people I’ve met who likes food as much as I do. Every night she’s already talking about what we’re having dinner tomorrow. I’m like, “We’re still eating tonight, can’t we wait to talk about that tomorrow?”

Q: Do you guys train together?

Long: Oh yeah, it’s super helpful. It’s changed now that she’s pregnant, but we still go to the pool together. We would always ride together Mondays and swim together six days a week. It’s changing in the short term, and I don’t know what the answer is in the future.

Q: Is she going to keep doing triathlons?

I think she’s going to return to racing, but I’m not sure it will be at the professional level. she’s going to start handling my management and trying to balance all the components so we have time to spend with each other and the kid and for her to pursue her hobbies and happiness.

Q: Your nickname is Big Unit, and that’s just low-hanging fruit for so many jokes. And now your baby is going by Little Unit. How did you get your nickname?

Long: People say, “What an arrogant prick. He calls himself Big Unit.” But that’s the thing with a nickname is that you don’t get to give yourself the nickname. People come up with it and it sticks. When I first started tri, I was playing football. I’m still tall and the heaviest guy in the field, but when I first started I was this big muscle bound professional doing all these weights. People used to think that I looked like Michael Phelps, so they’d think swimming was my best, and actually it was my worst. So then I’d get in the pool and they’d expect I was going to crush it, and then I was the slowest one. So they’d be like, “Oh there’s big unit in the pool, crushing the yards.” It was really funny.

Q: What quality do you have that’s really contributed to your success?

Long: I will not give up until I achieve what I want to achieve. I’ve never been very talented at anything. I’ve always been slow to learn everything, but I’ve always been so stubborn, and I’ve always stuck with it that I’ve ended up pretty good at most things that I’ve put my head to. And it’s one thing to be pretty good at something and another to try to be the best in the world. I’m just applying my will to basically get it done.

Q: Do you ever get tempted to go do something else when the chips are down?

Long: No. Even when it’s hard, I don’t want to hang it up. I just love what I’m doing. I do think about what the future’s going to be in general, and it might look something like what your life is. I’ve always wanted to live in a ski town, retire and be a ski patroller or gym teacher and ride mountain bikes and get off social media and have a quiet life with my family and be grounded out in nature.

Q: Come to Steamboat, Sam! About the social media, that’s got to be its own challenge. Is it hard for you to keep up such robust profiles online?

Long: I’d say so, yeah. I think everyone looks at me and thinks I love social media and the attention. But inherently it’s the part that feels most like a job. It’s a strange concept to tell the world what you do and have people you’ve never met commenting on it. it’s hard for me to receive negativity, but I’ve made my peace with it. I look at it as it’s making a difference, and if it wasn’t, people wouldn’t follow me. It’s about inspiring and educating and making people laugh. 

Q: Is there any aspect of your personality that you’re working on?

Long: I have two really big things: being patient and not caring what other people think. If I have a good reason for doing something, I shouldn’t get worked up about that because they don’t know the full story. The funny thing about those two things is that when I found out Lara was pregnant, I was like, “I think this happened to help me work on these two things.” If I have a baby and a family, I can’t care about what someone in Amsterdam thinks about my race. And I am going to have to be incredibly patient with a baby.

Q: Life is interesting. It does give you the lessons you need to learn. One more final question: If you could interview somebody on your own podcast, who would it be?

Long: I’m torn between three. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or Muhammed Ali. They all went through such hard times, and they kept their heads on their shoulders and fought for what was right. They’re all three incredible humans. 

Q: I wish that could happen. But in the meantime, we’ll be looking forward to watching your next race.

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