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The Big Chill

The Big Chill

It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and Sam Long just woke up. He’s staying in a house with a few other professional triathletes for a training camp in Tucson, Arizona, and he grabbed a power nap between a 10-mile run and a 3,000-yard swim, his second pool session of the day. With his 6-foot-4 frame reposed on his bed, Long’s bright blue eyes, typically wide and animated, are still sleepy. His voice, usually booming, is somewhat muted.

This chill version of Long is a sharp contrast to the loud, boisterous presence he usually portrays as “The Big Unit” on his social media feed or his popular YouTube channel. After all, this is the guy who even has his own catchphrase—the bubbly “yo yo yo” greeting he offers up to just about anyone who crosses his path. But being intentional about relaxation, whether it’s meditation, a warm bath, sipping a hemp-infused drink, or taking a midday nap, has recently become as integral to the 25-year-old’s success—and his happiness as a human—as crushing KOMs (short for King of the Mountain) on Strava.

This new practice of sitting still was never part of Long’s M.O. He was a high-energy kid who “tried every sport out there” and often spent entire days tearing up mountain bike trails near the Boulder, Colorado, home he shared with his parents and three siblings (he’s the oldest of triplet brothers and has a sister as well). “I was into everything,” he recalls of his youth spent biking, running, skiing, mountain climbing, and playing soccer and football. “I don’t think I would have been into triathlon as a kid, because three sports just weren’t enough for me.”

It was actually Long’s high school football coach who nudged him toward endurance sports, after seeing how the lanky teen rarely tired after lengthy sets of wind sprints. “I was never the fastest, but I could outlast everyone,” Long said. “And I’d get bored waiting around between plays. I actually wanted to be punished because it meant we got to run laps.”

Long was successful as a cross-country runner in high school, all while continuing to pursue his other hobbies, including skiing. And when a crash on the slopes sent him to the sidelines with a torn MCL in 2014, he took up another sport, swimming, as part of his rehab. The extra time in the pool ultimately led Long to the starting line of the inaugural Ironman Boulder right in his hometown, mere weeks after surgery. It was a move only a brash, carefree 18-year-old could make, and he shocked himself by winning his age group by 50 minutes (and placing 13th overall, including pros) on very little training. The experience opened a window to a lifestyle Long never even knew existed: being a pro triathlete. Two years later, Long took the leap.

Since going pro in 2016, Long has crept toward success at the 70.3 and Ironman level. In 2019, he finished first at Ironman Chattanooga, Ironman Chattanooga 70.3, and Victoria 70.3. Coming off those wins, he was ready to do even more damage—getting more notice from new sponsors and earning more money in the process. The year 2020, he thought, would be the one to do it all.

And then along came the pandemic.

Cancellation of races, lockdown orders, and the sudden stripping away of so many of Long’s simple joys jolted him. His identity was tied up to being a triathlete, and without being able to perform as such, he struggled, like so many in his position. But then he decided to take action. Sure, Long wasn’t going to be able to race, at least not anytime soon. But he could still train like crazy and push himself to the limit on his own, just like he hoped to do in competition.

So he set out on what he dubbed the #samlongfullsend. After watching a video of fan-favorite Canadian pro triathlete Lionel Sanders achieving the fastest-known time riding 26 miles up Mount Lemmon, he went out and beat it. On March 17, 2020, Long posted a video announcing that he had shaved 17 seconds off Sanders’s time. This sparked a friendly, smack-talk-fueled rivalry between the triathletes, with the KOM time ultimately trading back and forth a couple of times over the next month. And, with a captive—and professional sports-deprived—audience following along on their phones, #samlongfullsend went viral.

The sudden influx of interest from all over was thrilling for someone who always considered himself an under-the-radar athlete. But it also added a layer of pressure on Long, who worried he wouldn’t be able to walk the walk, so to speak, when racing eventually resumed. “I had been doing all of these big things in training, but what if I couldn’t perform to that potential in races?” he recalled questioning himself. “I didn’t want to be lying to myself, and others, that I was this great athlete and then not be able to back it up.”

Long then won back-to-back races when competitions resumed last September, and he went on to become the youngest American to break the eight-hour mark with this third-place finish at Ironman Florida in November. But it didn’t exempt him from the pressure or the inevitable snark and negative comments that come along with being a popular presence on social media. Add the continued anxiety of living through a pandemic in the mix, and Long felt like he was walking a tightrope, pushed harder than ever to maintain his status in the sport.

“All of a sudden, I had a lot more to live up to. And of course I didn’t want to get torn apart on social media,” he said. “There was a lot more external and internal pressure. I just didn’t want to slip and end up in a bad place.”

As a proactive way of taking control of his stress levels, mental health, and recovery time, Long made an intentional decision to lower the volume on the intensity in his life and quietly turn inward, if just for a couple of hours a day. He talked with his mom, Betty, a therapist, who suggested he begin daily deep-breathing sessions and meditation. He also signed with a new sponsor, Boulder-based Miraflora Naturals, which offers a line of CBD hemp flower products, and he tried all of their offerings in earnest. (In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from its list of banned substances and doping officials no longer test for cannabis outside of competition. And while the chemical THC remains on the in-competition banned substance list, Miraflora’s CBD products contain less than 0.3 percent THC, and Long does not use them in races or ingest them prior to competition. Click here for more info on CBD for athletes.)

These days, Long practices a self-care routine that includes meditating with essential oils and taking warm baths elevated with Miraflora CBD Bath Bombs (“It’s like a day at the spa,” he said of the rich lavender jasmine fragrance). He also squirts a few drops of Miraflora’s +Sports HempFlora Extract under his tongue after hard training sessions to stave off inflammation. And as he gets closer to the start of his 2021 race season, which kicks off at Ironman 70.3 Galveston on April 11, he is swapping out his usual post-training-day beers for Miraflora’s sparkling CBD drink as a healthier alternative to alcohol.

“I was looking for something to help me calm down and deal with the stress before it impacted my performance,” he said. “Miraflora just seemed like the right fit, because the products do help me relax and stay grounded when I need to be.”

If his chill Friday afternoon vibe is any indication, Long’s new routine is working for him. Since finishing ninth in a stacked international field at the Professional Triathletes Organization 2020 Champs at Challenge Daytona in December, he has dug into training deeper than ever. Though Long says his recent rise in the rankings of pro triathlon has been fulfilling, he’s still hungry for more. Like a top-10 finish at the Ironman World Championships. And while he’s proven he certainly has the chops—and the confidence—to get there this October, he also has a keen awareness that this is really just the beginning.

“I could see myself doing this until I’m 40, 45. It’s fun because I keep redefining my perception of ‘making it’ in this sport, and that pushes me to achieve things,” Long said. “So yeah, I’m here to stay.”

This story originally appeared in Triathlete Magazine

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