Sam Atkin – Athlete Interview

GB distance athlete, Sam Atkin spoke to Trackstaa about his recent standout performances at The Sound Running events, his journey to the top of the sport and his goals for 2021.

Bio

Born – 14th March 1993

Running Club – unassigned.

Location – Lewiston, Idaho.

Coach – Michael Collins

PBs – 800m – 1:53:13, 1500m – 3:45.07, mile – 3:58.60, 3000m – 7:52.12, 5000m – 13:18.57, 10,000m – 27:26.58, 5km – 13:20, 10km – 28:32.

Favourite session

Kilometre or 800m repeats – “they’re hard but if you’re doing it right it will tell you where you’re at for your 5k.”

Sound Running 10,000m

Sam Atkin, despite previously representing Great Britain, has probably been most famous for being the twin brother of Miss Great Britain. Not any longer. Sam’s stunning 27:26.58 at the Sound Running Track Meet on 5th December has catapulted this erstwhile relatively unknown Grimsby-lad into the most talked about British distance running athlete. Trackstaa is his third big interview of the week.

“I was kind of that runner that nobody has heard of and it has all of sudden put me right into the spotlight”, Sam explains.

Given the time he ran, this sudden attention is hardly surprising. He’s now the fastest Brit to run 10,000m since 2017 and the 4th fastest of all time behind Sir Mo Farah, Jon Brown and Eamon Martin. Talking to Sam, it’s clear that it hasn’t really sunk in yet.

“People keep telling me, but to be honest, it doesn’t seem real. I’ve never really been a 10,000m guy so for me when you say 10,000m, to me it doesn’t sound right and I haven’t trained for it or done enough miles for it. I don’t really know what to tell people, it stuns me every time I hear it”, he tells me. The beaming smile on his face as he talks about this betrays an obvious and frankly understandable pride at achieving such a remarkable time.

Perhaps most incredibly, however, is the fact that Sam was only ever intended to pace-make the race and indeed had been paid for that very role. The obvious question was, of course, what on Earth possessed him to carry on.

Rocking back in his chair and laughing, Sam recalls, “my main focus was just to get my pacing job done first. I wanted to get it done right for the rest of the guys who wanted to hit the standard. But, I think it was always sitting in the back of my mind, because I had always intended to go to the meet and get an Olympic standard and it didn’t happen in the 5K and as the 10k progressed, I felt in good shape as I was going round so I just decided to carry on.”

Even more impressive is the fact that he had run a really respectable 13:18.57 a little under 24 hours before. “One of the big positives was that I was able to run that 10k time after I had done the race the night before and so I am really just pleased that my body was able to respond and I feel that it shows that there is a lot more left for me to give”, he says.

It certainly bodes well for Sam doubling-up in the 5000m and 10,000m at next year’s Olympics. “Yeah, absolutely. I need to hit that standard [13:13.5 in the 5000m] so I can secure a place and have the option. You don’t know who else will be running for GB in the 5. You’ve obviously got Marc Scott and Andy Butchart that already have the time. Who knows, I’ve got to try and take things day by day and see what happens.”

Sam has previously expressed his disappointment in not quite hitting the Olympic standard in the 5,000m and I was keen to understand why he wasn’t quite able to run around 13:10, the shape he feels he’s in.

“I really like the 5000. I was a little upset with the race [on the 4th December] and I really feel like I’m in closer to 13:10 shape than 13:18. But, the pacing wasn’t right for the race. I wanted the rest of the group to help out and push the pace and I didn’t really care about what my position was, I just wanted to hit that Olympic standard. It was a difficult task though because we were so far back”, he recalls.

Watching the race back, it was clear that the other runners were perhaps involved for slightly different reasons and they were more than content to allow Sam push it on alone. “Well, they let me take it out from about 3k to maybe 4500m. I had been talking to the race director actually about the pacing, because we were supposed to go through 3k in 7:55 and we ended up going through in 8:05”, Sam says. As he’s talking, you can detect a real sense of frustration in his voice at an opportunity missed. The 5000m, despite the incredible 10,000m performance, is his event. With the paucity of races, owing to the global covid-19 pandemic, this frustration is entirely understandable.

Thankfully, he’s not lost his sense of humour. “I actually joked with the Race Director and asked whether he was going to pay me for pacing the 5k too. I mean I essentially got the guys round in a faster time.”

Sam Atkin’s Current Training

I could talk to Sam about those two races all night, but I’m eager to learn more about the training regime that has propelled him into one of the most exciting talents in British Athletics. In the past, Sam has been a self-confessed “low-mileage” runner. Recently, that’s changed.

“I used to get the odd injury and so that’s just always been my routine, but I’ve always known that if you want to run with the best guys you’ve got to put the miles in. So, even then it’s not been a rapid rise but I have definitely been increasing since last year where I was not quite in the 70s.  In the 2 weeks leading up to the races on 4th and 5th, I hit 80 miles a week for the very first time. But I’m just trying to take it day-by-day and focus on the positives. It means that there is just so much room to grow and improve, whether it’s altitude training, training with team-mates or getting more miles in the legs”, Sam explains.

So, what does a typical training week look like?

“I usually do 2 workouts a week and then I just basically try and find the right time to put in the mileage so it is spaced out in the week. I also try and make sure I take a rest day once every 10 days at least just to reset. I know some people don’t like taking rest days, but I think it works for me,” he says.

For Sam, and many other athletes however, just describing the typical training week does not appropriately highlight the real challenges that many elite athletes face to be able to train to the necessary standard. Particularly those who are unsponsored and unsupported by outside funding such as the National Lottery.

“Yes, it is difficult. A few of my friends have often said to me that I am having to do all of this without the resources and support that other runners get and that I should get these opportunities now that I’ve shown what I can do”, he says. And, with a generous serving of personal pride, determination and competitiveness, he adds. “I feel like I’m in the space now, where I feel like I deserve it, I want it and if I can get that support, I know I can do a lot more. I’m looking forward to the future of what could be possibly happen.”

One of the obvious downsides of being an athlete that is both unsigned and unsupported is that Sam almost exclusively trains alone, unlike the vast majority of the competitors he faced at the Sound Running Meet which included runners from two of the biggest running teams in the USA right now, Tinman Elite and the Bowerman Track Club.

“There are definitely times when I ask myself why the hell am I doing this?”, he says, laughing. “Doing track workouts by yourself are the times when you’ve really got to get down and grind. I had four weeks in Denver at altitude before these races and had a couple of guys pushing me there and it definitely helps. I have to say, I do wonder sometimes how it would be if I had teammates to push me and I was surrounded by other guys striving for the same goals.”

Having interviewed Jamaine Coleman and Marc Scott previously, of Tinman and Bowerman respectively, who often talk about the importance of that ‘team environment’ to their success, I was keen to learn if Sam felt it gave them a discernible advantage.

“Definitely, everyone has their bad days and if you have teammates to pick you up and help you improve then it is clearly going to help. If you’re training with an Olympic gold medallist [in reference to Matthew Centrowitz] that’s obviously going to push you. Taking Marc Scott as an example, he’s had an amazing year. He’s always had that talent and now he’s in a group that can really push him too.”

Sam Atkin Shoes of Choice

I had been able to resist my inner geek for about 20 minutes but, as night follows day, its revelation was inevitable. I wanted to take about shoes.

With a sympathetic laugh, he explained, “I usually run with Nike shoes. My general training shoes have been the Zoom Fly most recently but I have run in other brands too. Like I ran a lot in Brooks just for my general mileage because I think they have decent amount of additional support and they’re structured a lot better in my opinion. I know a lot of people talk about the carbon plated shoes and to be honest, I am not sure completely where I stand on it”.

Life in Idaho

Without the support of a sponsor, or Lottery funding, Sam works as Assistant Coach at Lewis-Clark College and lives with his coach, Michael Collins, and his family.

“His family are like my family and we have a great relationship. I just got back to Idaho and I’m excited to spend Christmas with them. We’re taking a bit of downtime now but we’re going to decide soon what the plans are moving forward with training and stuff.”

It’s clear that, without the support of Collins and his family, particularly as a twin, life would be very much more difficult for Sam. “I think if I was away somewhere else, I would feel the void of not having the family around me. Obviously, I facetime and Zoom the family back home and it feels a bit like face to face but it’s not the same. And my sister is a true supporter of mine too”, Sam states.

This felt like an opportune moment to mention the fact that despite being 4th fastest GB runner ever over 10k, Sam is not quite as famous as his sister..

Through a laugh which reveals that he has obviously had this conversation on many occasions, he replies. “Yeah she is more famous than me. We often have that discussion, who is the black sheep of the family. We’ll say like I’ve stepped it up and now it’s your turn to step it up.” And, on the subject of Instagram followers, he adds, “well with the Olympics coming up and me hopefully qualifying, I might finally get a chance to go ahead of her.” A competitive spirit runs deep in the Atkins family.

Sam Atkin and Freiburg Disease

One lesser-known fact about Sam and another hurdle he’s had to overcome, is that he suffers from a rare condition called Freiburg Disease which causes development abnormalities in the bones of the forefoot.

“Basically, I have a loss of range of motion in one of my metatarsals because the bone is raised up. So, I don’t have the ability to push off like I normally would and it can obviously cause pain and stiffness. I was told by two Doctors that I should stop running and there aren’t a lot of positives with surgery. But I’ve just dealt with it since I was 16 or 17 and I’m able to keep on top of it better now. I have custom in-soles and they help release it a little bit to ease the pressure that would otherwise be there. But it does cause problems and that’s one of the reasons I have lower mileage in the past”, he says.

Notwithstanding the relatively symptom-free period Sam is enjoying it at the moment, listening to him explain it, it is clear that this is a disease which requires regular management. “I just try to take care of the little things with it and when it does flare up, I’ve sort of got used to dealing with it now.”

College life

Changing the subject, I felt it was necessary to address Sam’s accent. I hope he won’t mind me describing it as an interesting cocktail. A cursory search online, reveals that most Idahoans consider themselves to be accent-less and, I must admit, listening to Sam all I can hear is a double shot of the archetypal Northern USA twang. However, like any good cocktail, you can still get a real sense of the other ingredients, most notably, in this case, the unmistakeable Lincolnshire drawl.

“Yeah I do get hassled a lot when I got back home about it”, Sam tells me, grinning, “although, when I talk to my Dad”, he adds, “I often get told by people out here that I say some English words that they have never heard me say before so. But I guess it’s to be expected, I’ve been out in the US for a while now.”

Unlike many British athletes, who often go in there early 20s, Sam went out to the USA at 18 to study at Lewis-Clark College and has said previously he considers this to be a mistake.

“You can always, in retrospect, think you can do things differently. But, I believe that everything happens for a reason. Who knows where I would have been if I had gone somewhere else or stayed in the UK. It was definitely overwhelming, I had a couple of other offers too but I felt like I had to go and I didn’t want to miss out and maybe that’s where I perhaps rushed it. Although, I’ve made so many good relationships I wouldn’t change it now.”

Despite having a natural talent for running and in a way I think most of us would understand, it was other things that peaked Sam’s interest at college. “I guess it was all when I was young and silly. It wasn’t about studying or running, I felt at the time running was just to get by. Me and my Dad used to joke and see which colleges would have more girls in compared to guys”, he recalls. A sentiment that many of us could agree with, I’m sure.

Hearing this it would be fair for you to assume that Sam had an unsuccessful career in college. The opposite is true. Despite his attention being elsewhere, and really who can blame him, the Lewis-Clark College website calls his 2013/14 season, “the finest full season in Lewis-Clark track/cross-country history”. This season saw him finish runner-up in the NAIA National XC Championship and win national championships both indoor and outdoor.

From College to Las Vegas

Sam’s road to the top of the sport has been full of twists and turns and one turn in particular took him to Sin City itself, Las Vegas. Before he talks about it, he laughs self-consciously, almost as though he was hoping this wasn’t going to come up.

“So…”, he pauses and then continues, smirking, “my girlfriend at the time was from there and I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college. I was running just on the side and there’s life to think about too. I definitely wasn’t a ‘runner’ for 8-10 months after college and I just went over there as an Athletics Director at the Boys and Girls Club but pretty quickly, I felt a void and like I was missing something. I would still run but I was just jogging basically. In the end, I was looking for different situations where I could come back and start running again. My girlfriend and I decided to go our separate ways and I wanted to leave Las Vegas and so I spoke to my old coach about it and fortunately he supported me.”

Instinctively, I felt that the conversation Sam had with his coach would have been an interesting one. Equally, I may have watched The Hangover one too many times. “He was actually very supportive to be fair. We had a laugh about it don’t get me wrong and people still make jokes now that I was like a blackjack dealer or something. But it worked out alright in the end, so.”

Goals for 2021

With the 40 minutes of free Zoom time rapidly approaching, I wanted to talk about Sam’s goals for 2021, particularly now that every race he enters will be full of expectation.

“The one that sticks out is competing in the Olympics, the Parliament Hill 10k, which I’ve not fully decided about doing yet. Until the race a few weeks ago, I had never even thought about doing it. For right now, I want to get some speed work going and get that 5k qualifying time. The British trials will be fun; there are a lot of good guys that will be racing too. But, it’s really exciting, just looking at the runners, it could be the best side GB has ever had over the 5 and 10. Obviously Mo is the top, outstanding guy who is ahead of everyone else [‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ clearly has been airing in Idaho], but I’d like to see where I could put myself. So, I’m excited for the Olympics and, I’m excited for what could happen after the Olympics.”

Given what we’ve seen so far, I think I speak for us all when I say, we’re excited too.

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