New Orleans Doctor Completes a “Quarantironman”
The Race Must Go On
When Sam Langberg’s Ironman was cancelled due to the pandemic, he didn’t stop to think twice about whether he wanted to keep training—he just kept at it. As an emergency physician in New Orleans, he’d get done with a shift then go for a ride, run or swim. Eventually, he realized he might as well just go for it and attempt the challenge he’d been working toward for so long. On April 25—the same day his original Ironman was scheduled—he did just that.
We talked to Sam post-”Quarantironman,” as he’s dubbed it, to get his race report and learn how training helped him balance the suffering and grief he witnessed as a healthcare worker on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Photo Credit: Claire Bangser (clairebangser.com)
Which Ironman had you originally signed up for? Would it have been your first?
I signed up for Ironman Texas, which was the closest full-length Ironman to New Orleans. I started getting into triathlons last summer. Previously, I was into climbing, but I had a close call in Yosemite that made me rethink ways to get outside that were also more available locally.
When did you decide to do the Ironman on your own?
Ironman Texas got cancelled six weeks before the race date. This was around the time that the number of COVID-19 patients was increasing every day and we were very busy in the emergency department. I remember I got the email and was pretty bummed, but didn’t have time to reassess whether I needed to adjust my training schedule, so I just kept up with my training as planned.
It started as a joke between my wife and I—putting our neighbor in a kayak that I’d swim out to, my friend as the bike aid station guy. After enough joking about it, I started to realize that I could actually do it.
“The Quarantironman was a big challenge, but it was nothing compared to working in an emergency department during a pandemic.”
How did you adapt training to quarantine and the new race plan?
I was still biking and running outside. But most of my swimming during training was in pools, which were all closed. It was warm enough in New Orleans for me to swim in Lake Pontchartrain, but the water quality was questionable. I had to check the bacteria counts every week.
Two weeks before the race, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which is an overflow valve for the Mississippi River. This released lots of the dirty water from the end of the Mississippi into the lake I’d been training in. I started sneaking into a friend’s loft complex and using his pool, but it wasn’t ideal because it was very small. Then two days before my race, the latest water quality report came out good so I pivoted back to the lake for race day.
Tell us about race day. What was your route like?
It was a series of loops in the places where I normally trained. I swam in Lake Pontchartrain, which is brackish water north of New Orleans—I did laps around these pylons. Then I went back and forth along a 10-mile bike trail along the lake. I’d get to the end, eat a gel or drink some water, then turn around. After 112 miles, I gave my bike to my wife and went running around a big park called City Park near my house. The loop around the perimeter is about eight miles.
Did your friends and family provide support along the route?
I was self-supported on the bike and then had aid stations every two miles on the run. I was worried about social distancing, so I packed several coolers with pretzels, fruit, gel, and water and had family members and friends watch them, but wouldn’t let anyone touch them.
“It was funny to celebrate this self-imposed challenge when you can’t really touch anyone or give high fives.”
What was your total time, and was it shorter or longer than you were shooting for?
I started at 6:30am at sunrise. It took me about 15 hours to finish at 9:30pm, which was a longer time than I expected. But the day itself seemed to fly by way quicker than I had anticipated.
What was it like to cross the finish line? And how did you celebrate afterward?
The finish line was at my house. I didn’t plan it perfectly, so I finished my 26.2 miles according to my watch about a quarter mile down the street from my house and realized I still had to run, but it was a really fun quarter of a mile! At this point, it was very dark outside. There was a paper chain link finish line and I ran through it and a lot of my neighbors were outside on their porches. It was funny to celebrate this self-imposed challenge when you can’t really touch anyone or give high fives. I just sat in a chair for a while and drank a bunch of water.
“… pursuing passions and planning future events at a time when there’s so much suffering and grief and loss is a good thing.”
Do you think rising to this challenge helped you cope with your job as a doctor during a pandemic?
My hospital saw a ton of patients with COVID-19. At the most stressful time of the pandemic thus far, I was at the peak of my training intensity. On my rides or long runs, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the hospital, which I think was healthy. Now that I’ve completed the Quarantironman, I realize that it was important to have something else on the horizon to think about island plan for, instead of just wallowing in the anxiety of COVID.
The Quarantironman was a big challenge, but it was nothing compared to working in an emergency department during a pandemic. With the Quarantironman, I knew exactly when it would start, what I was going to do that day, and it had a fixed end. With the pandemic, there’s so much worrying about the future, how long it’s going to go—so many variables. Comparably, the Quarantironman was much easier.
What’s next for you race-wise?
Two days after I finished, I got an email from Ironman saying I can reschedule my race to one of seven other choices. I’m deciding whether to do Ironman Chattanooga or in St. George, Utah in September 2020.
Do you think training, the outdoors, and personal challenges can help others cope with quarantine?
It’s totally self-indulgent to think this was a good idea—but I do think pursuing passions and planning future events at a time when there’s so much suffering and grief and loss is a good thing. After a long shift, I hopped on my bike and went on a long ride—if I was home, I’d be stressed about what I saw that day.
For me, pursuing a passion and completing a big goal was very helpful. For other people, it could be something like writing poetry or spending time with family. As long as you’re pursuing your passions, it can be really healthy to balance all the stress and loss we see every day.