Culture

The Epic KOM Battle Taking Place in Tucson

Two triathletes top the leaderboard of a highly sought-after KOM.

With races off the calendar, two pro athletes are finding a different way to keep their fires burning—KOM-hunting. Ironman champions Sam Long and Lionel Sanders have been involved in an entertaining (and watt-crushing) battle to see who can take the KOM crown for Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona—and yesterday Long took the title. 

The 24-year-old pro, known for his biking prowess, posted 1:15.40 for the 21.2-mile climb, shaving 37 seconds off Sanders’ time and knocking him into second place on the leaderboard. Long averaged 404 watts for the effort.

Perhaps what is all the more impressive is the fact there are now two triathletes atop the Mt. Lemmon leaderboard, ahead of Pro Tour cyclists such as Phil Gaimon, Tom Danielson, and Michael Woods. 

“When I first saw Lionel’s time for Mt. Lemmon I thought it was untouchable,” says Long, who had a breakout season last year winning Ironman Chattanooga, 70.3 Chattanooga, and 70.3 Victoria.

“Even so, I still thought it might be fun to message him and see if he’d like a race. Initially he said yes, but then when things got tighter around COVID-19 we thought it might not be a good idea to meet up. I have the utmost respect for Lionel and consider him to be a way more accomplished athlete than me. However, the challenge itself just seemed like too much fun to miss out on. After I first issued the challenge to him I was so excited, I barely slept.”

Prior to yesterday’s attempt, Long had already tried to beat Sanders’ best back on March 24, falling slightly short with a time of 1:16.48. 

“That attempt was without any rest or preparation, in fact, I did it after a 250-mile ride. I then followed that up with a hard 20-mile run and found soon after I was struggling to get out of bed.”

Long openly admits he did not enjoy the social media “flak” he got after this initial attempt and it lit a fire in him to prove people wrong.

“I got together with my coach Ryan Bolton and we wrote a seven-day specific plan that would put me in optimal condition to break the KOM.”

This week-long plan included a key bike workout of 5 x 6 minutes at 440 watts followed by 30 minutes at 400 watts. That workout took place last Thursday and was followed up by a 16-mile run on Friday. Saturday saw a five-hour relaxed ride averaging around 200 watts followed by a short “primer” ride on Sunday of 5 x 5 minutes at 400 watts. Monday and Tuesday were “rest” days with some 90-minute spins including short activations. 

“We all need things to stay motivated right now and the pursuit of this Mt. Lemmon KOM just seemed like the perfect thing,” Long says. 

“It is an incredibly challenging climb; you start at 2,200 ft and it peaks at 8,000 ft. I learned from my last attempt that it doesn’t work for me to try to evenly split it. As soon as I get over 7,000 ft I find it super hard to hold wattage, so I knew it was important for me to bank time earlier. 

“When it was less steep, I would push hardest—I’m a bigger guy and that’s what bigger guys have to do. As I got higher, I suffered and suffered and suffered.”

He acknowledges that many athletes—pro and amateur alike—are keeping their training at a low to moderate intensity to ensure they protect their immune health during the global pandemic of COVID-19. 

He says: “I am being sensible about this. I do realize what is happening around me. My coach and I deliberately planned a few days of easy training going into this and we have planned a few days of easy training coming out of it to allow my immune system to bounce back.” 

He added: “Of all the KOMs in the United States I think Mt. Lemmon is probably in the top-five most sought after. The fact you have two triathletes at the top of the leaderboard is totally awesome. I think part of the reason for that is because it’s so long and it suits the triathlete mentality. We just like being out there, solo, enjoying the mental toughness that’s involved with a climb like that. I think the fact it’s more mental than anything does give us an edge.” 

When Triathlete reached out to Sanders to get his reaction to Long’s effort yesterday, he said: “It’s a very impressive effort. So impressive that I might even let it stand until next weekend, we’ll see.”