The Long Road to Going Long—Sam Appleton’s Flirtation with Ironman
Ed. Note: In a sport hyper-focused on Kona, Sam Appleton has bucked the trend and spent the last decade as arguably the most dominant and consistent 70.3 athlete in the world. After making his full-distance debut at Ironman Western Australia last December (where he finished fourth), he’s no longer worried about the distance, but he’s in no rush to go long.
Sam Appleton is a bit of an anomaly in the world of professional triathlon. Most athletes at the top rung of the sport follow a somewhat similar trajectory: They come up as a Junior in the ITU ranks; chase the Olympics while they still have enough speed in their legs; transition to 70.3 for a year or two, and finally spend the golden years of their pro careers hoping for a great race or two on the Big Island.
Appleton started off down the predictable path and had quite a bit of success as a Junior. He finished 11th in the in the Junior race at the first ITU Grand Final in 2009 and appeared to be on a direct path to the 2012 Olympics. But just one year later, at age 18, he raced his final ITU race.
“I just wasn’t enjoying it,” he says. “I went back home, tried some longer stuff, and found the love again.” That was ten years ago, and since then Appleton has been the most consistent 70.3 specialist on Earth. He races a lot; he wins a lot, and that’s made him one of the rare athletes who’s able to make a pretty good living racing only the half-iron distance. He’s tallied 16 Ironman 70.3 victories over the past eight seasons, as well as wins at a handful of Challenge and independent events. That’s 20-plus first-place paychecks, and steady support from a few loyal sponsors that like being partnered with the guy breaking the most finish line tape.
“He’s the best all-around athlete in the 70.3 game,” says Andrew Starykowicz, no slouch himself at that middle-distance. “He always swims at the front, rides with the top riders, and runs with the best runners. He has no weakness.” At Ironman 70.3 Waco this past November, Appleton beat Starykowicz by doing something nobody else does: He rode with him. When “Appo” decided to make his full-distance debut at Ironman Western Australia a month later, once again he did something nobody else could or would do in his first Ironman: He swam and rode with Alistair Brownlee.
“When I heard Ali was racing, I actually got excited,” Appleton says. “It meant I’d have someone to swim with, and obviously he’s a great rider as well. I didn’t like the thought of swimming out front and then being on my own in my first Ironman.” Trading the lead with Brownlee throughout the 112-mile ride had Appo back in transition just four hours and 10 minutes after he left. That’s a split that few of best riders in Ironman can match.
“I knew I’d be fine on the swim and bike—it was more about just going into the unknown on the run,” he says. “I don’t think riding that hard really cost me anything. I just didn’t have the run volume in my legs to build up that muscular endurance. I knew I’d break down at some point during the marathon—I was just hoping it took place a little later than it did.”
As if on cue, at the halfway point of the marathon, Appleton’s legs had had enough, and he went from running comfortably in second place to mix of walking and shuffling. The 15-minute gap he once enjoyed over the men running behind him disappeared in a hurry. First came Matt Burton, and then friend and frequent training partner Tim van Berkel, who had a few words of encouragement that got Appleton’s legs moving again.
He ended the day fourth in 8:09:55—not bad for a first timer who walked a significant chunk of the home stretch. It wasn’t good enough for a Kona slot, which Appleton likely wouldn’t have accepted anyway. Busselton was just about dipping his toes in the full distance. At only 29, he’s not ready to dive in and abandon what has been his bread and butter—especially now that there’s more bread than ever at the half distance.
With the addition of the Collins Cup and possibly another big-dollar event being put on by the Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO), 2020 could be a lucrative year for Appleton. That’s not to say he won’t do another full—just don’t expect him to spend the summer chasing a Kona slot around the globe. He’s won four times at Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa, so Ironman Santa Rosa in July is a tentative target for both him and long-time coach Matt Dixon. With the 70.3 World Championship coming in late November this year (in Taupo, New Zealand), he’ll be able to race Santa Rosa, recover, and then build back up for Taupo.
But first up will be a quick trip back to Australia for Ironman 70.3 Geelong, an event he was forced to sit out last year after winning in 2017 and 2018. Then it’s back stateside for the Aussie who lives in Boulder, Colo., for a little vengeance at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside. Last year he crashed and broke his collarbone while riding at the front in Oceanside, which put a six-week rift in his training and racing. This year, a win at the season’s biggest early-season 70.3 would put the entire tri world on notice that Appleton will be one of the top contenders in Taupo. And a win at Ironman Santa Rosa this summer will let them know that he’ll be a force to be reckoned with on the Big Island for years to come—not that there’s any rush.
“I’m not one of those athletes who can train 35-plus hours a week. I have to be smart where I spend my effort,” he says. “There are only a few people in the game who can race both 70.3 and Ironman at the highest level—it’s basically Jan (Frodeno) and Sebastian (Kienle). I don’t want to struggle with the balance of both. When I move up, I want to be all-in.”