The Inside Story and Workouts Behind Sam Long’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene Win

How the young American used racing tactics, good decision-making, and an unflappable run in staggeringly hot conditions to even the score against Lionel Sanders.

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images for IRONMAN

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If Sam Long continues to deliver performances like the one last weekend at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, the debate over whether he has the “strongest legs in triathlon” (as he once said) will evolve into whether he could become the best Ironman triathlete in the world. And if the workout he shared with us below is any indication, his claim about his legs is no exaggeration.

“This ranks as the most important win for me because I did it for myself,” Long said—now currently ranked number five in the world and the top U.S. triathlete according to the Professional Triathletes Organization.

“My first Ironman win [in Chattanooga in 2019] was to prove I belong. This time the world already knew, but I needed to prove to myself I could do it again. It was cool to make a left turn with 400 meters left, seeing an entire street full, and everyone screaming. That’s when it hit me that I’d won this thing.”

Equally enthusiastic, but following the action online was mom, Betty. “My mom has probably watched 10 Ironmans on Facebook Live and commented on all of them. But it’s never really been noticed until now,” Long explained. “Now it’s fun for her too. She posts a comment, and everyone freaks out!”

By “freak out” he means showering affection on her and her son because the likeable Long is rapidly building a fan base to rival the most popular racers on the circuit. “It’s cool,” he added. “I think there were more people rooting for me than Lionel [Sanders]. They were stoked for the underdog to get it.”

RELATED: Why The Lionel Sanders vs. Sam Long Rivalry is So Good for Triathlon

It’s easy to overlook that Long, just 25 years old, whose name has become as big as his character in the past 12 months, isn’t much of a novice at all. He completed his first Ironman at 18, turned pro in 2016, and is now well into the double figures for the full distance.

Still, he had a few things to prove in Idaho. Long’s last outing at Ironman Tulsa hadn’t gone to plan, and he’d finished an uncharacteristic 13th place. Plus, he was again up against the equally imposing presence of Sanders, and the last duel between the two ended in a dramatic 5K stride-by-stride run-in at Ironman 70.3 St George in May–ending with Long watching Sanders break the tape in front of him.

This time, when the duo broke away at 50 miles on the bike in Coeur d’Alene it looked set for a repeat. But Sanders faded on the run and was eventually reduced to a walk as Long ratcheted up the pressure.

“It was probably critical getting 90 seconds on Lionel on the final 20 miles on the bike leg. That buffer allowed me to have the upper hand on the run, and trying to catch me in 100 degrees is what I think set Lionel’s race ‘off,’” Long explained. “Had he come off the bike with me, there would have been more room for error on his part, which would have potentially helped his race and made it harder for me.”

Creating the gap approaching T2 wasn’t the only smart move of the day from the Boulder resident. “I had good decision-making throughout,” he said. “I didn’t let things that went wrong get to me. There was nothing I could do about a puncture at 50 miles. It sealed, but my tire pressure was a little low. I thought about changing wheels, but the replacements [from the in-race assistance] looked really slow. They had no depth and looked like Gatorskin tires. I thought it was probably faster to stick with what I had.

“Then halfway through the marathon I could have thought: ‘I have this thing in the bag,’ but that wasn’t my approach because you never know what can happen. Allowing myself to have that positive emotion too early and then seeing the gap diminish could potentially lead to a negative landslide of emotions. It was really only in the final 400m that I was like: ‘I 100% have this thing!’”

If neither mind nor 6-foot-4-inch body was frying in the heat, then things also bode well for a first pro trip to the lava fields of Hawaii in October.

“I only felt the heat in the final 10 miles of the run,” he said. “I do quite well in the heat. My first Ironman win in Chattanooga was 95 degrees and humid. Of my 70.3 wins, two of them have been in exceptionally hot conditions as well.”

The Ironman World Championship is priority, but first it’s the Collins Cup next month and then, potentially, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and a return to St. George.

Long fancies a three-way head-to-head between Sanders (Team Internationals) v. Jan Frodeno (Team Europe) v. himself (Team USA) in what would make top billing in Slovakia at the Collins Cup. But the “Sanders v. Long” rematch at St. George might not happen in favor of Kona prep.

“We’re figuring out the details to make all three of them work,” Long explained. “But I’m seriously considering skipping St. George. It sucks because I had a great race there in May, but the last thing I want is to get to Kona and be tired before the gun goes off.”

Of course, Sanders has an even more challenging ask: He’ll chase Kona qualification in Copenhagen after missing out in Coeur d’Alene, but will also squeeze in a Tri Battle Royale with Frodeno first. As he scrambles the race schedule, it looks like he too may choose to miss St. George. “Yeah, I’ve really screwed it up for him!” Long joked.

With his familiar “Yo, Yo, Yo!” greeting, Long does enjoy raising a smile, but isn’t quite the brash, cocky kid that he might first seem. “I think that’s more understood now,” he said about his true competitive nature. “But I still like to joke around and have fun, and entertain as well.”

When they do meet again, expect more fireworks and drama, plenty of smack-talk, some grins, and probably a few grimaces too. It’ll certainly be one for all tri fans to get excited about—Long’s mom included.

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images for IRONMAN

Long delivered an impressive 2:51 marathon in the heat of Coeur d’Alene to win by over 5 minutes. Coached by Ryan Bolton, a Sydney 2000 Olympian, we wanted to find out what his run prep had been for the event. He said Bolton adopts the Kenyan-style approach of “never running faster than you can do in control” and then just “stacking up the miles.” These two back-to-back sessions below—that Sam completed two-and-a-half weeks before Coeur d’Alene—are certainly testament to that.*

Sam Long’s Epic Double Run Day Session

Session 1

15-mile out-and-back morning run

Total Distance: 15 miles

‘Out’ run: 7.5 miles at Ironman pace plus 60 seconds per mile
‘In’ run: 7.5 miles return at ‘goal’ Ironman pace—with increased effort for final mile

Sam says: “There’s a route called Magnolia Road here in Boulder. Drive out of town, and it starts at 8,000ft and climbs to 9,000ft over 7.5 miles. It’s rolling hills, all dirt and in nature. I run out keeping it easy and come back at ‘goal’ Ironman pace or a little faster, about 5:50-6min/mile pace [for me].

“But the final mile of the return is a 5-6% uphill gradient. Your legs are smoked, so you have to get that muscular engagement. It’s a similar sensation to how beat up your legs are 20 miles into the Ironman marathon. It’s a great fitness test for me. I’m up high, so I can’t breathe as well, and it’s so beautiful the miles go quickly.”

Session 2

5-mile track intervals in the evening

Total Distance: 9 miles

Warm-up: 15min

Main set:

10 x 400m at 70.3 pace
10 x 400m at Ironman pace

Cooldown: 15min

Sam says: “This should come with a: ‘Don’t try this at home!’ warning. The morning’s hill run has beaten up your legs and now the focus is on leg turnover. It’s simulating the end of an Ironman where you’re trying to keep the cadence up. My 70.3 pace would be 5:15min/mile and Ironman pace 6:15min/mile.

“I’ll also do this session as a standalone heading into a 70.3, where I might increase it from 10 to 15 rounds and make the ‘slower’ 400s a little quicker. As part of a double-run day it ends up being about 25 miles, including warm-ups and cooldowns, but I want to finish and feel like I could do another 10 reps. If I’m asking myself whether I need to run more, it means I’ve got it**.

*Sam said he enjoyed a 20 x 200m swim at pace between the runs, and completed a 6hr ride the day before.

**WARNING: Sam Long is a professional Ironman triathlete (and possibly not a human) and does not have another job.

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