Sam Appleton: the young gun of 70.3 fires up

img_4889

Australian triathlete, Sam Appleton, came fifth in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Mooloolaba, Australia. In this interview with Jeremy Thewlis, Appleton talks about how he approached the race differently this year, why he’s no longer the fresh face of triathlon and what the future holds.

Over the last two years, Sam Appleton has put together some impressive results, including five Ironman 70.3 wins and another four top-five 70.3 finishes. Last weekend, at 26 years of age, he placed 5th at the 70.3 World Championships in Mooloolaba. In this interview we explore what makes Appo tick and what the future holds for one of triathlon’s finest up-and-comers.

Trizone: Congratulations on Sunday’s race. Were you happy with your result?

SA: Absolutely! Especially after the last two years where I feel like I’ve mis-fired at the 70.3 Worlds. I mean in 2015 I had a breakthrough year with my racing. I got to the 70.3 WC and I felt like I had a target on my back. Then I had a complete disaster and finished 27th, way back on the leaders and I was so disappointed with that. That was when I went to Matt (coach Matt Dixon) and said something needs to change. I need to be firing in September.

Trizone: In 2015, was it a mental thing or purely a physical thing, being overcooked at that stage of the season?

SA: I think it was probably a bit of both. Last year I was racing really well in Feb. I had a really good Australian domestic season – I won a couple of 70.3s. Then I went over to the USA and had some success there as well. But by the end of July my body wasn’t responding. After 7 months of tough sessions day in and day out and racing every month, it’s hard to get up. And when your body stops giving you what you want in training, mentally it gets tougher because you’re not riding the high of those good sessions. It’s really hard to go so deep for so long throughout the year.

Trizone: So what did your build-up look like this year?

SA: I sat down with Matt and we based the whole season around the 70.3 World Championships and putting together the best result for me. That included having an off-season, so I stayed over in Boulder for the winter. It’s difficult to be fit and firing in January and February when it’s snowing! The past few years I’ve been here in Australia where it’s really easy to train and get fit. That means you’re racing really well in the first quarter of the year and I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to peak in September for this race. I think we hit the nail on the head this year with my racing and my build-up. For me, Sunday was the best result I’ve had. Yes, I’ve won races before, but I think fifth place at the 70.3 WC is definitely my greatest achievement so far. There’s a positive moving forward too – we can structure the next few years quite similarly.

The future of triathlon

Trizone: You’ve been described as the ‘new kid on the block’ and the ‘next generation of triathlon’. How long can you be the ‘fresh face’ of the sport?

SA: I feel like I’ve been copping those tags for a couple of years now. I’m 26 and yes I’m still relatively young, but I don’t think I’m the new kid on the block any more. I feel like I’ve been around long enough for people to think of me as a main player now. I want to be going to races and being considered as a threat and as a contender to win races. Fifth place in the World Championships was a good step towards establishing that credibility.

Trizone: It was a solid field.

SA: I’ve seen a few things online with people asking, “How can they call this a true World Championship?” But I thought about it – there were only a handful of guys who would have been featuring in that top group who weren’t there. It’s disappointing to see the Championship status being questioned, but at the end of the day you can only race whoever turns up.

Trizone: It’s pretty hard to expect everyone to be at both World Championships given how close together they are.

SA: I almost feel the 70.3 World Championships should be moved to June or July. That would give those athletes who want to do both the 70.3 championships and Kona the chance to focus on both. At the moment a number of the guys are still in the middle of their Kona block. They can’t really afford to take the time off to travel or have a taper week and a recovery week – that’s two weeks out of their block. They’re doing the last key training weeks. So it’s a bit disappointing. Maybe in the future something might click with Ironman and they’ll change that. We’ll see.

Trizone: Speaking of youngsters, the sports media seems to be full of talented young athletes who are in various stages of ‘out-of-control’. You’ve had a spectacular couple of years – how are you managing to stay grounded? Or are you secretly living the rock star triathlete lifestyle?

SA: I hide all my party shenanigans! The reality is that triathlon requires dedication and commitment and a lot of sacrifices. I do enjoy myself at times. Tim Reed and I went out and celebrated after the Worlds. Look, at the end of the day we’re all just normal guys who are able to swim, bike and run at a reasonably fast pace. We don’t let it go to our heads.

Plus, the money in triathlon’s not like some other sports, so we’re definitely not living lavish lifestyles! I was speaking to Crowie the other day and we were laughing about how some pro triathletes get to fly Business Class to their races. But Craig Alexander, five times World Champion is back in Economy with us peasants!

ITU to Ironman

Trizone: You started off doing ITU quite early. What advice would you give to someone making the move from ITU to long course?

SA: ITU is very swim/run focused. I see ITU athletes moving to long course and they’re trying to keep their swim/run mileage really high. But they try and bring their bike mileage up as well, without backing anything else off. I did that for about two years and I was wondering why I hit a plateau. In the end, I backed my run mileage off a lot – probably by 30% each week – and brought my bike riding up. For me, that’s where my improvements came – from getting rid of those ‘junk miles’ and being really specific, smart and tenacious about the training. That was my biggest takeaway over the past few years and something that Tim Reed taught me when he was coaching me. You need to have confidence in your swim/run ability, reduce the volume quite significantly and focus on doing quality work on the bike. That’s what worked for me anyway.

Trizone: You’ve mentioned Tim Reed a couple of times. Tell us about your role models. What have they contributed to your thinking and your attitude over the past few years?

SA: Obviously Craig Alexander has been a huge role model of mine, I’ve looked up to him for so many years. And now to be racing and being competitive against these guys… you almost have to pinch yourself. And through the racing we’ve formed a friendship. Craig’s someone I can bounce ideas off. He’s a great source of knowledge and advice and a great resource to have.

Tim Reed and I started out as friends through racing. I was coaching myself at the time and I noticed that Tim was very specific and very smart and that was something that I wanted to tap into. Tim did his coaching job almost too well over those two years and got me to this point now where I’m really competitive. We parted ways in that coach/athlete relationship but we’re still very close friends. Tim is a brand new World Champion and Crowie’s a 5-time World Champion. When these guys tell you something you know it’s not just noise coming out, it’s been tried and tested. So, you listen when pros like that tell you things and teach you. I owe a lot to guys like Tim and Crowie.

Boulder and being better

Trizone: Like many Aussie triathletes you’ve been spending regular time in Colorado, but I get the impression that you keep yourself a little separate from the Boulder ‘scene’?

SA: At the end of the day I love Boulder, I love the people there, I love having the guys to train with, but I’m there for a job. I’m there to train everyday, to wake up and be the best triathlete that I can be. Sometimes that requires me to be quite selfish and to do what I need to do to improve my own swim, bike and run and develop myself as an athlete. I do like going out with the guys, but I’m there to work. And for me, it’s easy to work in Boulder, that’s why I love it so much.

I do a lot of training by myself because my training is so specific – Matt tailors every session to my needs. I’m just not willing to compromise my own sessions to fit in around other people. Yes, I like to train with other people, if it fits in with my program, but if it doesn’t I’m not upset at all to go out and slug it out for a few hours by myself.

Trizone: Speaking of improvement, If there was one thing you could snap your fingers and instantly improve, what would it be?

SA: I’d love to be able to get off the bike and run a 1:10 every time! I’ve got my swim and bike to a level where I can compete with most guys in the world. The run is something where I’m still one step behind.

Trizone: Looking at the top 12 guys on the weekend, there was only one guy, Lionel Sanders, who ran a 1:10. I’d argue that a high 1:12 is still an exceptional time and generally that would win you a race comfortably.

SA: I ran a 1:12:51 on the weekend, which is not a slow run by any means. And that would win most 70.3s out there. But at a World Championship you’ve got the best of the best. 1:12 is still a minute and a half slower than what Tim Reed ran and Lionel ran even quicker than that. While I think my run is improving and it’s at a high and competitive level, if there’s one thing I could change it would be going quicker.

Maybe my legs are still a little too immature! I look at a guy like Crowie. He’s been doing the sport for so long and he’s got so many years of that residual conditioning that you can only get through age. I think over time I’ll see some steady improvements, but if I could just snap my fingers…

Kona and the future of Sam Appleton

Trizone: What place does Kona have in your thinking at the moment?

SA: Kona is definitely something I think about all the time and it’s something I’m going to pursue in the future. I’m not really sure how long it’s going to be. I don’t want to put an age or a number or a year on it. When the time comes I’ll know. I’ve still got so much to learn and so much more improvement to make in 70.3. I don’t want to rush through the ranks and jump to Ironman, because IM demands such a heavy commitment – it requires a huge sacrifice on your training and racing for that year.

I think at the moment I can race 8-10 70.3s pretty competitively each year and I think with IM you can probably do two, maybe three at a decent competitive level,if you’re lucky. It is something I want to think about in the future, but right now I’m fully focused on 70.3s. I guess if I did have to put a number on it, it probably wouldn’t be for another three or four years. I think about Berks (Tim Berkel). He’s such a fantastic IM athlete and the way he played it was extremely smart. He was patient, took his time, perfected his craft and then went to Kona and had that amazing result – 7th in 2014.

Trizone: And further into the future, what will Sam Appleton look like at 30?

SA: I hope I’m still loving the sport and having success. I’d hope that by 30 I’d have a 70.3 World title or two in the bag and then have stepped up to Ironman and be having similar success there. To still be racing well, enjoying it and having fun and still making a living from doing what I love, that would make me a very happy man.

Jeremy Thewlis

Jeremy (Jez) Thewlis is a writer, adventurer, motivator and keen communicator. With a strong background in sociology and teaching, he's always been fascinated with the art and science of human performance and the pursuit of excellence. Curious, blunt and irreverent, he's continually looking for the story behind the story, the hidden gems that can both entertain and inspire.