Every day people dream of leaving their desk jobs to pursue a passion, but few ever make the move for real. In 2012, Sarah Piampiano did just that, leaving New York City and her job in finance to pursue her dream of being a pro triathlete. With a slew of amateur Ironman titles under her belt, including the title of top American Amateur at the 2011 Ironman World Championships, she moved to Los Angeles. Just months into her pro career, she won the 2012 Ironman New Orleans 70.3 title and the right to compete at both Ironman World Championships. Now a regular fixture on Ironman podiums, it’s incredible to look back on how she got her start.
Prompted by a friendly bet in 2009, she raced in her first triathlon without any training. Drawing on her natural athleticism she beat her friend, winning the bet and simultaneously falling in love with the sport. She gave up her old career and her old city to chase her dream.
We caught up with the triathlon champ to discuss her success, her recent injury and the two most challenging races of her career.
The Active Times: Ultimately, what made you take the final leap and move to LA?
Sarah Piampiano: I moved to LA when I turned pro, I left my job in NYC to train and race full-time. I have a background in running and a background in ski racing which has kind of transferred over into cycling but I didn't have a background in competitive swimming. There’s a swim coach out in Los Angles named Gerry Rodrigues and he runs a swim program called Tower 26—it’s completely focused on open water swim development. It’s different than the traditional masters swim program that most people go to and so I literally moved out there to go work with him, to work on improving my swim.
Since I moved out there, it’s been an amazing place to train; I couldn’t really imagine a more ideal place. It’s just outside of Santa Monica, so you’ve got the Santa Monica Mountains; all of those climbs are 10-or-11-mile climbs that go up to 3,500 feet of elevation. It gets really hot there in the summer so you can do heat training, but then you have the coast which is cooler. I can swim outside all year round, weather-wise it’s just a really great place to train, it’s been a good environment for me.
It sounds like you have your plate full with swimming, running and biking—do you find time to cross train at all?
I do a little bit. I do strength training three times a week and then I also try to do either yoga or Pilates at least once a week—just to do something that’s a little bit different. It helps with flexibility and strength, too.
What would you say have been the biggest factors in your success so far?
Well, you moved out to LA and then won New Orleans right away.
Yeah, I did. That was my second race as a pro.
So, I think a couple things have really helped. I pared myself with a team of coaches that are best in class. When I decided that I wanted to do triathlon seriously, I researched who coached the best triathletes in the world. My idea was if I want to be the best, I need to be trained by the best.
The other big part is just a mental thing. It’s been a long progression over the last couple years, but I think in my mind even when I decided that I was going to leave my job and start racing professionally I always believed that I was going to be great. I understood that it was going to take time to do that, but I just knew. I enter every race with this belief that I’m at least as good as everybody else out there. I truly believe that whatever you set for yourself mentally is what you end up being.
So, your brothers were a big motivator getting you into sports and challenging you when you were younger, what role do they play in your triathlon career now?
My brothers are super supportive, they are so into triathlons. They read everything, they do all this research—they know more about triathlons and triathlon training than I do. When I decided to do this, they just completely embraced it and decided that they wanted to take this journey with me and support me in every way possible. They’re not out there competing in triathlons, but they have just been huge, huge supporters of mine.
Separately, I think that my involvement in triathlons has also encouraged my whole family to try to be more active. Both of my brothers were really athletic growing up and then life kind of got in the way, but as I have gotten more into triathlons it’s also encouraged them to start being more active again. It’s been fun, one of my brothers is really into cycling and the other is really into mountain biking, and we all talk about it and they get really motivated, I think it’s kind of a reciprocal thing in a lot of ways because we’ve all just supported one another to be more active.
You guys should do a race together.
Well, I keep saying that I want to do a race together, but they don’t like getting beaten by their little sister.
Which race has been the most challenging of your career?
I would say there have been two races that have been the most challenging for me; the first one was Kona in 2012. It was my first year racing professionally and I was really burnt out by the end of the season, emotionally. I made a huge investment—leaving my job in finance, moving from NYC, committing myself full time to training. My training hours obviously increased a lot, so by the time I got to Kona that year, I was just done—I was fried. I remember before the race just saying to myself, ‘you just have to get through this race and then you can take a break.’ It’s never good to go into a race thinking that. You want to be feeling fresh and prepared, and for me, I just wasn’t there. So, that race was honestly one of the biggest challenges for me in my triathlon career. It took so much out of me mentally and emotionally to just get across that line because physically, I was at my limit before I even started the race. I had never cried after a race before and I got across the finish line and I just completely broke down sobbing. I was fine physically; I was just so mentally and emotionally finished, for me it was a big accomplishment just to get across the line.
Then the second one, was the most recent race I did, Ironman Texas, which was two weeks ago. That was because, unbeknownst to me, I was running on a broken leg. I was running in third place and two miles from the finish line, my leg just completely gave out, and there was no way I was going to be able to run. At that point, I had to make a decision as to whether or not I was going to pull out of the race or I was going to finish. I decided that if I could walk, no matter how slowly, I was going to cross the line. It took me a really long time to get across the finish line—the last mile and a half took me over 40 minutes.
It was a really humbling experience to have that happen and go from contending for a podium spot to finishing tenth. And from a pain perspective, it was tough. That was a really hard race for me, just trying to block out the pain for long enough to get across the finish line.
Could you tell us a little bit about the specifics of your injury?
I have a hairline fracture in my femoral neck, which is in my femur.
I am non-weight bearing for three weeks, I’m on crutches for four to five weeks, I can’t bike for six weeks and I can’t run for three months—so that’s my timeline. I think from a rehab standpoint, there’s not a whole lot I can do right now. I’ve done some really light body weight workouts, and some massage, but it has to be total flushing. My body is in trauma so I just have to respect that process. One thing I have been doing, though, is focusing on proper breathing and body alignment, which is all going to transfer over. Once I’m back up and running again, a lot of it’s going to be balancing out the deficiencies between my right and my left side.
It’s a little frustrating but while I can’t bike or run, I’m trying to maximize the time to do other things. Hopefully next week, I’m going to be getting in the pool and focus on swimming. I’m trying to take the opportunity to spend as much time as I can improving in that area.
Why did you choose triathlon? Why not marathons or cycling?
Well, I went and did this one triathlon randomly and totally fell in love with it. Part of the reason why I love triathlons so much is that it challenges me in a way I have not been challenged before. I could go out and run a marathon, but I know that I’m a good runner. So, yeah, there would be the challenge to try to go and get faster but I think—and I think a lot of people feel this way—you’re going to have some type of strength. Like somebody might be a good runner, but they might be like me, terrified of swimming. You’re forced to pair something you feel really comfortable and good at with something that you feel uncomfortable and not-so-good at. In addition to challenging ourselves physically, there’s a real emotional and mental element to facing that fear. So for me, every time I do a triathlon, or even just going to swim practice, I feel like I am pushing myself to face something that kind of scares me a little bit. I think for a lot of people that’s why a triathlon ends up being such a rewarding thing. I think the reward ends up being a lot greater.
It’s also a lot more fun to train for three different things. It’s better for your body and it creates a better balance in terms of what you’re trying to do. If you think about runners, when they get injured, they bike or they swim—that’s part of their recovery. When you’re a runner, all you’re doing is running and pounding, as a triathlete there’s definitely a better balance.
What tips or advice would you give to someone just starting out?
My advice would be to train with people, to try to find a strong support club. I think that taking on your first triathlon can be a bit daunting, so finding a community will make it more fun and can help with the stress and anxiety. There’s such a strong sense of community in triathlon, your success is their success, so finding a good group will really help.
What is your go-to gear?
For running, my go-to shoes are the Saucony Cortana’s, which is what I train with; I think they’re a really fantastic running shoe. From an apparel perspective, I’m a huge fan of their Saucony Amp Pro compression line that they have. They have tights and tops and that’s something that I incorporate into both my training and recovery.
On the swim side, I really like ROKA wetsuits. They’ve worked with a bunch of triathletes to develop a wetsuit that’s really comfortable, that works for everyone from top swimmers to beginner swimmers.
Then, for bike, I would say the most important thing for me is having a really comfortable saddle. You have to have something that makes your butt happy. I ride with an ISM, and to be quite honest, I love my ISM but I realize that won’t work for everybody. My advice would be to make sure you have a saddle that’s really comfortable. Also, get a good bike fit; because without a good fitting, you’re much more prone to injury.
What’s next for you?
Right now the huge focus is going to be on rehab and then swim training once I’m able to get back in the pool. Other than that, I’m working on my blog, taking on some new projects, and doing some things from the marketing and branding side that I don’t necessarily always have as much time to do.