If Sam Atkin winds up representing Great Britain in the 10,000m at the Tokyo Olympic Games, there’s a good chance he’ll be the most improbable athlete in the race.
Atkin, 27, has chased his running dream in a manner that, to an outsider, seems like he’s trying to fulfill a track and field underdog trope. A former NAIA athlete at tiny Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho, who is currently unsponsored, Atkin trains alone and lives with his college coach.
An assistant coaching gig at the school isn’t enough to cover all of his expenses, so Atkin relies on financial support from his family back in the UK and free housing to maintain his running career. Recently, Atkin has taken pacing jobs at meets in order to pay for his trip to a race.
That’s how Atkin’s spot on the start line at the Track Meet 10,000m on Dec. 5 came to be, a $600 rabbit gig that turned into the biggest moment of his athletic life.
The wiry, 6’2 athlete, donning his college uniform, made the rare call to keep on once his pacing was done despite running a hard 5,000m the previous evening. That decision may just prove life-changing. Atkin, who says he’s “not a 10,000m runner,” wound up fourth in 27:26.58, under the Olympic standard. It was just his third ever 10,000m and his first in over four years.
“I never would’ve imagined doing a 10k alone, let alone doing a 5k the day before and the 10k the day after,” he said.
Atkin’s journey to the cusp of Olympic qualification has been gradual and obscure, an Englishman toiling thousands of miles away from home, by himself, in a sleepy northern Idaho town. It’s been difficult at times, he says, living so far away from family in pursuit of such an unforgiving occupation.
The irony of Atkin’s career, however, is that he’s developed into a world class runner not in spite of the school and town that nobody’s heard of, but because of it.
In 2011, an 18-year-old Atkin resorted to an NAIA college due to lackluster academics, but he ended up finding a home away from home in Idaho. He formed a tight bond with Lewis-Clark head coach Mike Collins and their partnership netted four national titles and a handful of school records. On a more personal level, Atkin became close with his coach’s family, his wife and two daughters, and has developed a sort of older brother role throughout the years.
“The relationship has definitely grown into this is kind of my second Dad, my second Mom, my sisters,” said Atkin.
Even still, after graduating from college in 2016, the unheralded runner from the English coastal town of Grimsby in Lincolnshire decided to leave the comforts of Lewiston for a job in Las Vegas. He lived with his girlfriend and worked as an athletic director at the Boys and Girls Club, fitting in runs in the brutal desert climate only when he felt like it.
Far away from his previous life as a competitive runner, Atkin felt a void. It wasn’t simply that he was no longer training full-time, it was that he knew he hadn’t ever fully committed to the sport in the first place.
The signs were there that Atkin could be something more-- including a famous defeat of Edward Cheserek in a 2016 3,000m-- and a return to Idaho would be necessary to go all in. With his relationship ended, Atkin left Las Vegas and moved in with his coach’s family in the spring of 2017.
“I felt the ups and down of looking back in college and thinking, ‘I didn’t put a lot of effort in. What can I actually do?’” he recalled.
Atkin credits his come-from-behind victory over Cheserek, a turning point in his understanding of his own abilities, and Collins, who helped him change his perspective on mental toughness, for providing the spark he needed to attack his craft with a greater sense of urgency.
“I might not be running today if that didn’t happen,” said Atkin of his upset over 17-time NCAA champion Cheserek.
“I guess that was kind of the void that I felt after graduating for the year, til 2017. Because I never realized that I could potentially do it.”
Since rejoining Collins three years ago, Atkin has progressed significantly. From a 13:57 5,000m best in college, he has taken large chunks off his PB each season: 13:39 in 2018, 13:33 in 2019 and then 13:18 in the Track Meet 5,000m on Dec. 4.
His steady ascent, combined with a strong four-week altitude stint recently in Colorado Springs, made the mission for the Track Meet clear: hit the 5,000m Olympic standard. Atkin was running more miles than ever before, and training with Olympian Hillary Bor in Colorado was pushing him even closer to the 13:13.50 standard, he thought.
And yet, the 5,000m ended up as a dud of sorts as nobody hit the time. When the prescribed pace was way off nearing 3,000m, Atkin decided to take it on himself to drag the field through the next five laps. 13:18.57 was a fine PB, but the willowy Brit left the track peeved that a golden opportunity had been wasted.
“It was not paced even close to the standard, so I had to take it out,” Atkin recalled. “Everyone kind of used me. It would’ve been nice for everyone to try and work together.”
But frustration quickly turned into action as the 10,000m would present another opportunity to nab a standard. Sure, he would have to lead the first half of the race, but by then the seed was planted in Atkin’s mind that if he felt good once the pacing was up he would try to compete in what he deemed the “premier event” of the meet.
After guiding the race to halfway in 13:49, Atkin felt strong enough to stick in. He peeled back from the front to a more comfortable position in the pack and went for the ride. Through the next 12.5 laps, he clung to familiar opponents in Cheserek and Bor as the pace began to ramp below the 27:28 standard.
Ahead of the meet, Atkin and Collins had considered just entering the 10,000m because of the higher quality field, but they ultimately decided that training had gone well enough for him to do both. Whether that meant finishing the 10,000m was to be determined, but when Atkin approached the bell lap he knew his confidence was about to be rewarded.
“In the back of my mind was I’ve always dreamed about the Olympics. Just stay on, just stay on,” he told himself in the last lap. With a 62-second close, Atkin snuck under the Tokyo qualifying time with over a second to spare. He didn’t know it at the time, but his 27:26.58 made him the fourth-fastest Brit in history.
“I’d never even looked at these rankings because I’m not a 10,000m runner,” he said.
Sam Atkin runs a 5k PB of 13:18 Friday night. He’s scheduled to pace (for pay) the 10k Saturday night. RD Jesse allows him to stay in the race after doing 5k pacing duty, which he does. Sam runs 27:26 for 10k. #4 Brit all time. Tokyo Olympic standard. pic.twitter.com/VmxSoxog45— Scott Simmons (@adpcoach) December 6, 2020
Considering that 27:26 is the fastest time by a British runner since 2017, and the dearth of high quality 10,000m races annually, Atkin is very well-positioned to become an Olympian this summer. Reigning Olympic champion Mo Farah has one spot on the team locked down, but otherwise Atkin has set a high bar for his fellow countrymen to chase.
There is no 10,000m at the British Trials, so he now can focus on hitting the 5,000m standard while waiting to see if his 27:26 holds up.
The reality of his breakthrough performance was still hitting Atkin when we spoke by phone last week. He knows with his success the opportunity may soon come for him to join a group outside of the comforts of Idaho, a chance he would welcome if given. A sponsorship would certainly be nice to lift some of the burden others have carried for him as he’s pursued this dream.
But as Atkin ruminated last week on his career-altering race and looked forward to a season that could culminate in Tokyo, he was preparing to leave his temporary altitude-training residence in Denver behind. It was time to get back into his routine.
“I’ll be heading back to Idaho soon,” he said.