Why I Tri

Challenging yourself physically brings many benefits beyond toned arms and abs

As a kid, I was obsessed with sports. I was riding a bike and downhill skiing by age 2 and water-skiing by age 5. I played soccer, softball and at age 8 competed in the Junior Olympic National Championships in cross-country running. I loved sports and my dream was to become an Olympic athlete. I idolized people like Joan Benoit Samuelson, Picaboo Street, Tommy Moe and Bo Jackson.

Anything active—I wanted to do. I simply loved sports. Period.

When I got older, my Olympic dreams faded. Where I was once this agile, athletically-gifted kid, I was suddenly a 2-pack-a-day smoker living in New York City. The word “fitness” or “in-shape” had long gone from my vocabulary. I remember taking a ski trip with my brother to Jackson Hole and really not wanting to hike into a particular chute because I was too tired, it was too hard and the effort required was more than I was able to really give. We still did the hike of course (if you know anything about my relationship with my brother, you will also know—even begrudgingly—I will never back down from a challenge with him) and at the top I stopped, exhausted, and smoked 2 cigarettes. I hated almost every minute of that hike. I hated that I was doing something really healthy for myself, and muddying it with cancer sticks. I hated that I wasn't able to fully enjoy what was an incredible experience we were creating.  

At that point in my life there was such a big part of me that felt incomplete. I wanted to be active, but then I was so miserably out of shape, doing anything athletic wasn't even fun. It was awful and I had no lasting motivation to get back into it. I’d try in earnest to get to the gym for a few weeks, and inevitably that would fail. Without a goal, I didn't enjoy working out and so the cycle of the failed attempts at regaining fitness began. 

I’d try to think about what would inspire me to become active again, to actually stop smoking and begin leading a healthier lifestyle, to become at least some version of the adrenaline junkie that I once had been.

Triathlon is what did that for me. It kind of came out of nowhere—it all started with a bet from a friend, but it was the exact thing I needed to bring light, happiness, and health back into my life.

Triathlon is a pretty freaking scary thing to take on. It is what captured by attention then and it is the reason why I love it now. Marathons are challenging, of course, but there was no doubt in my mind that I could complete one. That challenge didn't intimidate me, but triathlons are a different story. They challenge me physically, mentally and emotionally in a way nothing else ever has.

When I showed up to participate in my first triathlon I was beyond scared.  The thought of swimming .9 miles was daunting and I was completely freaked about getting in the water with a few hundred people and getting kicked, punched or swum over. Frankly, I was scared I was going to drown and while as a kid my brother, Jeff, had always been into cycling, I despised it. The idea of getting on my bike and suffering through 26 miles of hills sounded like my own personal form of Hell (not to mention I was afraid of crashing). The only part of the entire race that sounded even remotely “comforting” to me was the run—but then I honestly had no idea how I was going to have the energy to actually run after swimming and biking so far.

What scares us? Well, what scares me most is failure. And when I showed up to my first race, I was very intimidated that perhaps—even if I didn't drown or go flying off my bike into a ravine—it might actually be too hard to finish. I was afraid I might not be able to do it. 

I finished the race and on that particular day I faced so many fears.  I accomplished so much for myself physically, but even more than that, the emotional success that came with that experience is one I will never forget.

While I compete at a different level now—my goals have gone from being a participant and finishing to pushing my body harder than you would think possible—every time I line up at the start line, the same fears that I had in that first race are the fears I experience now.  Swimming still intimidates me, I still sometimes feel anxiety about crashing my bike and I still wonder, fear and am amazed all at the same time how I can push myself so hard on the run. I still occasionally get that feeling of “oh my god, this is too hard!  What did I get myself into?!?!”  But when the race is over, the sense of accomplishment is huge, the emotional stress seeps from my body, the adrenaline high is even higher.

Point blank—Triathlon challenges me to reach new physical and emotional levels. The end result is an amazing sense of accomplishment and conquered fears; of doing something you weren't sure was possible. That is the ultimate feeling of empowerment. 

Triathlon inspires, it empowers, it creates a community of people putting themselves in incredibly vulnerable positions and using the support of the strangers around them to fight their own demons. Triathlon bonds us, it brings us together, it breaks us down to our most naked and raw form and teaches us about our limits, about ourselves and about what we are made of. It challenges us to be better.

Triathlon for me is about so much more than just the swim, bike and run. It is about the way it changes lives and it brings people together from all walks of life in a truly unique and humbling way. The Ironman race doesn't care if you are a billionaire, a celebrity or make $30k per year. When you are out on the race course all that matters is digging deep within yourself to find something great and supporting your neighbor to do the same. 

I love this sport and this is why I tri.

Until next time. Don’t dream it. Be it.

See the full Q&A with professional triathlete Sarah Piampiano here

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