Sam Long on being one of triathlon's most open athletes, and riding the new Speed Concept
Sam Long doesn’t hide his emotions. His social media and YouTube pages are an unfiltered look at life as a triathlete, good and bad.
Long doesn’t hide his confidence. He wants to be the fastest triathlete in the world. He cites his biggest competition by name. When he wins, he shows his joy. When things go wrong, he addresses them head on.
Long is 6’4 with a big grin, and he begins every dispatch with “yo yo yo,” giving him the air of a ’90s movie jock. But Trek’s newest triathlete is anything but a throwback. He’s one of the most refreshing young athletes in the sport. And though his open-book policy is partly a function of his personality, it also helps him on race days.
“For me if I say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do this,’ and then I put it out in the world, it’s like I damn well better do that,” Long says. “It kind of puts my back up against the wall, but in a good way. I think I thrive off that pressure.”
In a lot of ways, it's a status. You're an icon if you can ride for Trek.
Long’s results suggest that his approach is working. The just recently turned 26-year-old racked up wins at the full-length Ironman Coeur d’Alene and Ironman 70.3 Boulder. After a disappointing (by his standards) swim and finish at Collins Cup in August, he dedicated himself to improving his race starts and finished second at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George last September.
Long wears his heart on his sleeve. And in signing with Trek, he says he is completing a lifelong dream.
“My first high end mountain bike was a Gary Fisher, which was owned by Trek. And so Trek was what I wanted to be on,” Long says. “And just the logo, and the brand, and the fact that it’s American, Trek was always something that I wanted to be a part of. In a lot of ways, it’s a status. You’re an icon if you can ride for Trek.”
Long caught up with the Trek Race Shop for an in-depth discussion about his unique personality, his approach to triathlon and how he’s enjoying the new Speed Concept (spoiler: he really likes it). The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Diving into your YouTube page, the thing that stands out is how honest and upfront you are. That openness is pretty uncommon. Is that an extension of your personality, or is part of it self-motivational?
Sam Long: It’s turned into some of both. What’s interesting is, I would actually describe myself more as quietly confident. I normally don’t really feel like I need to tell people my goals.
But I think with the nature of social media these days, and particularly in a sport like triathlon as a young guy, you kind of have to market yourself. You have to be outspoken in my opinion. I mean, I’ll probably be the first to admit that sometimes I’ve gotten the dynamic a little wrong, and maybe been a little too outspoken about who my rivals are and what I want to do, particularly when I wasn’t that established yet. At the end of 2019 into 2020 it was kind of like, ‘Who’s this guy who’s coming out with a lot of big sayings about what he wants to do.’ But in the short term, I’ve done what I said I would do already, which is nice.
I rarely ever think, 'Oh, I need to try and market myself in this way.' I just be myself and try to let that come out.
It’s weird with the camera because it feels like I’m just having a dialogue with myself, even though 40,000 people are watching it. When it’s just my camera guy and me, and sometimes just the camera, it feels like I’m just speaking with myself. And so I think you see more of that internal dialogue on my social media than you would see at social events, or if there’s a press conference. And so that creates a perception of, ‘Oh, Sam’s a different person sometimes in real life.’ But what you actually see on my YouTube is my internal dialogue and how I think in my own head.
And then I do like it because for me if I say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do this,’ and then I put it out in the world, it’s like I damn well better do that. I like that. It kind of puts my back up against the wall, but in a good way. I think I thrive off that pressure. It gets me motivated.
I like that it’s part of building your brand, but also pushing yourself in races, too.
Long: I rarely ever think, ‘Oh, I need to try and market myself in this way.’ I just be myself and try to let that come out. I would honestly think most triathletes, whether they say it or not, have definitely thought about their goals and what they want to accomplish, but then they maybe just sugar coat it or hide it under a rug. But we train 30 hours a week and a lot of those hours are alone on the bike. We’ve got a lot of time to think about what we want to accomplish [laughs].
If I say, 'Oh, I'm gonna do this,' and then I put it out in the world, it's like I damn well better do that.
Why do you think your level of openness is uncommon among many triathletes?
Long: I don’t know. I guess it’s maybe not even just in triathlon, but in any sport. When you’ve got eyes on you, you feel like being vulnerable is a weakness. But to me, it’s a way of actually getting rid of weakness. So if I say, ‘Oh, I’ve had this small hardship,’ or, ‘Oh, I had a terrible swim at the Collins Cup.’ If I put it out there, then none of the fans can say, ‘Oh, Sam’s swim sucks.’ If I say, ‘Yeah, I sucked at swimming here and it’s gonna get better,’ for me, it makes it so nobody else can say anything. They can say something negative, but I’ve already said it about myself, so you’re not going to get to me if I’m honest.
About those two performances: Collins Cup and Ironman 70.3 World Championships in St. George were interesting contrasts. The Collins Cup swim didn’t go how you hoped. What lessons did you take from that to then improve at St. George three weeks later?
Long: Probably the biggest lesson going into 70.3 worlds was just stay focused on yourself and don’t let the media and all this other stuff distract you. Do what you need to keep your sponsors happy, but then when I went into St. George and I had X, Y and Z asking for my time, and they all wanted to do one-hour long interviews and photoshoots a few days before the race, and I said, ‘No, thank you. We can do it after,’ and then I focused on myself. So just that output of energy for me right before a race was an important thing to minimize.
So I was 2:05 back after the swim at St. George, and I was 4:50 back at Collins Cup. It was only three weeks in between the two races, but I did three or four open water race simulations in between. I got all my training partners and we’d go to this lake and we’d just practice race starts because my issue was being aggressive, and being used to the bodies around me. If you give me a 1500-meter time trial, I can swim pretty well with most people. But I wasn’t starting fast enough and I wasn’t then making the group, and then the group was working together.
The other cool thing about St. George was that the talk going in was, ‘If you don’t swim in that front group, the packs on the bike will get too much of a draft benefit that you’ll never stand a chance.’ And then I rode through pretty much the entire field on my own. I didn’t have any help [laughs]. Which was awesome.
How much did that performance help your mindset?
Long: It was great. The only person I didn’t catch on the bike was Gustav Iden, who obviously went on to win because he attacked and got a big lead. But the main group, which was like 12 guys, I caught them with about five miles to go and then I was on the downhill and I was just like, ‘Believe in your run as well as the strong bike you just had.’
That race really gave me confidence in my own abilities. I didn't waver from my own race plan. I didn't feel like, 'Oh, I need other people in the race.'
And then we got into transition and everyone else dropped me in the first mile. My coach was out there at around the one-mile mark and he was like, ‘Don’t let these guys go, hang with them.’ And I literally said to him, ‘Oh, don’t worry, everyone else is running too hard.’ And then sure enough, within the next mile, they all slowed down and I just ran steady and right through them all, which was pretty cool.
So that race really gave me confidence in my own abilities. I didn’t waver from my own race plan. I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I need other people in the race.’ It wasn’t like I have to draft in order to achieve a result, or I have to have a day that’s beyond what I’m capable of. I just did what I was capable of and got the result that was needed.
Before that, did you feel you were a racer who worried too much about circumstances or the other competitors around you?
Long: Yeah, absolutely. And man, I tell you, I go back and forth between the two. Even in a given season, like at Coeur d’Alene earlier in the year, when I set the course record there in 104-degree heat, it was the same thing. I didn’t care one bit what anyone else was doing. It was just like, ‘I’m doing what I’m doing,’ and I have basically 100 percent confidence that if I do what I’m going to do, I’m going to be at the finish line first by the end of the day, so I’m not going to worry what anyone else does.
I've never gotten so many compliments on a bike in my entire life as I've gotten in the two weeks I've been riding it. All the old ladies of Tucson are rolling their windows down and they're like, 'That's a nice bike.'
But then at other races, Ironman Tulsa is a great example, I got so caught up in, ‘Oh, this is what everyone else is doing,’ and then instead of playing my own race, I’m basically racing someone else’s race. And I think St. George cemented that lesson, that I need to just follow my own plan and my own gut. Certainly, it’s a tough balance because I have to be able to respond to other people in certain situations, and there’s times where you have to be able to do that. But also I trust myself.
How are you liking the new Speed Concept, and how does it benefit you as a competitor?
Long: I love the new Speed Concept, and the first thing I have to mention is the paint job. The paint job I got, it’s beyond amazing. I’ve never gotten so many compliments on a bike in my entire life as I’ve gotten in the two weeks I’ve been riding it. All the old ladies of Tucson are rolling their windows down and they’re like, ‘That’s a nice bike.’ So it’s pretty cool to have a bike that feels like it 100 percent fits my personality. It’s meant to be my bike.
And then as far as the technical details of the bike, I’m really liking the IsoSpeed decoupler on the bumpy roads. It just helps absorb a little bit of that shock. And then just the geometry and the ease of adjusting the bike, I think is for me personally, has been great. It’s something that everyone’s gonna get behind because this bike can fit any body type, and you can change the fit easily. It’s not like you get the bike and if it doesn’t work for you, then you’re doomed to be uncomfortable. On this bike, pretty much anyone can get it to fit them in the right way.
And just the ease of adjusting, like how the fork works like a regular road bike, it’s just great for travel. Sometimes you get these super complex bikes, and unless you go and see your bike fitter or mechanic, you have no idea how to adjust anything.
For me the length of the top tube has been quite nice. And the hydration system is like integrated hydration without the hassle of integrated hydration. Just the amount of work that went into making the bottle morph right into the handlebars and the bar extensions, it’s just so aero and so smooth. That’s the best front end I’ve ever used because it’s just so aero and so easy to use. That’s probably been my favorite feature of the bike.
Trek is a team and brand you’ve had your eye on for a long time. Why is that, and what are you looking forward to with this new partnership?
Long: I remember my first bike being a Trek. And my first high end mountain bike was a Gary Fisher, which was owned by Trek. And so Trek was what I wanted to be on. And being an American, Trek has a pretty good pedigree of signing the top American triathletes. I always looked up to those athletes, like Tim O’Donnell, when I was coming up around 16. And just the logo, and the brand, and the fact that it’s American, Trek was always something that I wanted to be a part of. In a lot of ways, it’s a status. You’re an icon if you can ride for Trek.
Being an American with Trek, it's the most perfect thing to me.
But it was also that all the Trek bikes I’ve ever ridden were such great bikes. And then I started off on the Timex team in my early professional days, and they had a partnership with Trek, so I was actually riding a Speed Concept when I won my first ever races back in 2019.
It’s all those things combined. And then being an American with Trek, it’s the most perfect thing to me. It’s what I’ve always dreamed. Trying to bring the Kona World Championship back to home soil. That’s what I want to do, and I want Trek to be a part of that journey.