A chat with Sarah Piampiano

Maine born and raised Sarah Piampiano was introduced to triathlon in 2009 through a friend and was hooked. In 2010 she actually trained despite crazy work hours and when she did reasonably well she was intrigued by the idea to turn Pro. She turned Pro indeed and in 2011 reduced her hours at a lucrative finance job with HSBC, but left that job in 2012 to pursue triathlon full time and she is now fully vested there. Earlier this year she was second at Pucon 70.3 and more recently finished 9th at Ironman Melbourne.

Slowtwitch: Thanks for the chat.

Sarah Piampiano: Thanks so much for the opportunity! I always love reading the interviews you do with other pros and the random AGers, so I am excited to be included in the club!

ST: How was your trip back from Melbourne?

Sarah: My trip was a lot easier than I had anticipated. I was prepared for the worst! I tend to swell a lot after races, and flying certainly doesn’t help. But I’ve been playing with the amount of sodium I take before races (decreasing it), and it has turned out to work well for me both in terms of hydration during the race and then with post-race swelling. I still swelled but it wasn’t as bad or as uncomfortable as usual.

Plus…I had an exit row so was able to stretch my legs, the flight attendants took pity on me and fed me extra food, and they continuously re-filled my water bottle, so I was well taken care of!

ST: Do you wear compression socks on flights?

Sarah: I wear Saucony compression everything when I fly – tops, bottoms, etc. and when I land I use my GameReady compression boots. It helps tremendously, but particularly after a race, I still do get some swell. I’ve also found that drinking a lot of water on flights helps flush everything out and keeps the swelling controlled.

ST: No funny seat neighbor stories?

Sarah: Haha! No, thankfully! 16 hours with some punk in the seat next to me would have been a real treat!

On the way out I did have a middle seat and was getting up at least once an hour to pee. I think the man in the aisle was about ready to kill me by the time we landed. I would wait until I was ready to burst and then poke him until he woke up, apologize profusely for my small bladder, wriggle past him with this incredibly guilty, apologetic look on my face and the bolt for the bathroom. He wasn’t that amused!

ST: Hopefully all your gear made it there and back - in one piece.

Sarah: Yes, it did. I’ve heard the horror stories of cracked bike frames, punctured disc wheels and broken spokes. Something like that would completely stress me out, so I try to be very careful when I travel to races. I don’t want broken or lost gear to be a reason for my race not going according to plan. Even though it is more expensive, I put my race wheels in a separate case from my bike; I have my bike shop (Helen’s Cycles in Santa Monica) pack my bike for me and they wrap it in all kinds of foam, and protective packaging, and then I carry all of my race gear with me on the plane - kit, helmet, shoes, nutrition, bike seat, etc. I know then that even if my bike doesn’t arrive or something happens to it, I’ll still be in a position to race and race well. I know - it’s a little over the top, but like I said, I’d prefer to minimize stress when it comes to travel and prep for races!

ST: How did the race go for you?

Sarah: All in all I was very happy with my result and of the race in general. I posted a 15+ minute PR on the bike, an 8-minute PR on the run, and I was in a position to be competitive in an incredibly strong and deep field. It showed consistent and strong progress and was positive feedback to the changes and adjustments we have made to my training this year.

It was also such a fun race to be part of! There were constant position changes and it was tight right until the finish, except for Corrine who killed us all! Big congrats to her…she was fabulous! It was exciting to see many of the top women finishing so close to one another – it is rare in an Ironman to have that happen in the women’s race. I absolutely loved it!

In addition, over the last 4 months I’ve made some massive breakthroughs on the nausea issue that has been plaguing me for years. It allowed me to go out and truly compete in this race versus my past races where I’ve been in constant disaster management/ damage control mode. An un-controllable health issue didn’t hold me back, and I felt like my race was a much better reflection of where I am in my training. I made some tactical and nutritional errors – but to have the opportunity to even be able to think tactically, hold down nutrition and to make mistakes was a new experience for me. I took a lot out of the race.

ST: Nausea on the bike?

Sarah: For some quick background, since I first started doing triathlon I have always thrown up on the bike, whenever there was a swim-bike combo in training, or in a race. It has taken me years to figure out what it was that caused the nausea, but in October/ November of last year we finally determined that a slight bulge in my C6 (cervical spine) was causing an impingement in my neck that was aggravated when I would breathe while swimming. The impingement was causing the nausea. Since October I have been seeing a chiropractor 2-3x per week and done a lot of stretching, neck exercises and laser / ultrasound therapy.

The improvements have been dramatic in training, but my first test was at Pucon 70.3 in January. It was a success, but I wasn’t fully convinced we had the issue under control until I raced Melbourne. But it was great – I had not issues at all. I nearly jumped for joy when I got on my bike and knew I was going to be ok. It’s been such a relief to get it figured out.

ST: What did you think about the swim?

Sarah: Oh man, the swim was epic! It was definitely the roughest swim I have ever completed in a race, but I loved it.

A year ago when I moved out to Los Angeles to work with Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26 I was flat out scared to swim in the ocean. If you had put me in a race with similar conditions a year ago, I am sure I would have made it through, but it would have been hard for me – both physically and emotionally. But after a year with Tower 26 and swimming open water 3x per week from May through October, I looked at the conditions on race day and thought – 'This is awesome. I know how to swim in conditions like this and swim well.' I wasn’t scared. In fact, I was excited to get out there and was hoping there would be waves big enough to body surf. It made the swim so much more interesting! There were swells all the way out to the turn buoy that were 1-1.5 meters high, roughly 3-5 feet. They were big, and they were breaking, so you had to constantly be looking to see which ones were going to break, and always be prepared to duck dive under them, otherwise you would get pulled backwards.

ST: Were you surprised when you found out that the swim was shortened for the Pros too?

Sarah: Hmmm. Surprised? No. Disappointed? Of course. Whether and age grouper or a Pro – when you line up to race an Ironman, you want it to be the full distance. That being said – I was thrilled we got to swim at all.

I’m still very new to the sport and to racing professionally, but it seems to me that whenever race officials change the swim for the AGers, they tend to do the same for the Pros. We have to respect that and roll with the punches. That being said, given how deep the women’s field was this year, a full swim would have certainly changed the end results a bit. It would have been interesting to see how the race would have played out with the full 3.8k swim.

ST: You stayed sub 5 hours on the bike. Was that what you imagined?

Sarah: I knew if I were to be competitive at all in this field, I would have to ride sub 5 and likely sub 4:50. Last year, the bike course favored the faster swimmers. As a weaker swimmer, I was very aware that a strong ride and run would be the only way I could bring myself into contention. When race day arrived, the conditions were so demanding that any pre-conceptions of time went out the door. I knew the bike had the potential to be very slow, so my focus was only about riding smart - minimizing energy expenditure and not over-biking - so I could get off the bike and run well.

I was pleased with how I rode though. I made some mistakes, but I learned so much, and look forward to carrying that into my next races.

ST: On the run you started to reel in Carrie Lester, but in the end it wasn't enough. Were you aware where your competitors were?

Sarah: Not really. There was a short out and back at the start of the run, which was the only opportunity to do a time check. Carrie, Caroline Steffen, Meredith Kessler, Yvonne Van Vlerken and Amanda Stevens were all just ahead of me. Right behind me was another group of girls who I knew had the potential to run fast – Gina Crawford, Britta Martin and Anna Cleaver. It was awesome to see so many of us that close heading out of T2. But that was the only look. On the bike course I was constantly getting splits, but nobody was giving splits on the run. You had to force yourself to remain strong. I kept telling myself not to let up because there could be girls ahead that were hurting, and there could be girls behind who would be feeling great and gaining on me. It motivated me and forced me to race within myself. Not knowing where anyone was – you just had to race your race. Just you, your legs and your mind. It was the first point-to-point race I have done. I liked it quite a bit, actually!

ST: Looking back at 2012 we assume that the win in New Orleans over some very strong competitors made your scrapbook.

Sarah: Haha! Of course! And literally – it did! I’ve always kept a memory box since I was a little kid and have put things in it that have been significant in my life. When I won New Orleans, my award, my number, my swim cap and the Ironman bag that they give out all went in there.

The win was incredible. It was so raw, unexpected and surprising for everyone, including me. It was a moment I will never forget.

ST: Did that boost your confidence?

Sarah: Winning New Orleans proved to be an interesting result for me. It showed me what is possible and made me believe I have what it takes to be at the top. But, emotionally it took a lot out of me and I struggled to recover from that race.

I would say it motivated me more than gave me confidence. The fact that the swim was cancelled and the race was turned into a duathlon is not lost on me – particularly as someone who has a weaker swim, and, at that point was still struggling with that nausea issue. But it motivated me to get my swim to where it needs to be and to get my health issues figured out, because I knew once I did that, I would be in a position to consistently compete for a podium spot.

ST: Earlier this year you were second in Pucon and that was an indicator of your early season form.

Sarah: Pucon was a great race, but I had no goals other than to get a race under my belt before Melbourne. We wanted to give me the opportunity to go through the race motions. It was an interesting experiment because it is right after the Holiday season and I wasn’t feeling particularly race-ready. But, it took the pressure off and I just went out there and had fun. I was very, very pleased with how I raced there – I was right where I wanted and needed to be at that point in the year and it proved to be an unexpected booster to my training.

Plus – the race venue was spectacular. The whole experience was so positive that despite being so early in the season, I hope to go back and race there again.

ST: So what is next?

Sarah: One thing we learned last year is that I need a bit more rest and recovery between races (particularly after an Ironman), so right now – post Melbourne - we are all about me resting. I’ll go back into a big swim-focused block pretty soon, and then head up to San Francisco at the end of April for another pro camp with my Coach, Matt Dixon. Then I’ll race St George and Florida 70.3 in May, Eagleman in June and then Ironman Austria at the end of June.

ST: All well with sponsors?

Sarah: Everything is great. I love my sponsors! Serious crushes on them all!! The products, the people, the company values – amazing and so well aligned with my personality. I feel very lucky to work with an amazing group of companies and brands. For 2013 I was very pleased to announce that I re-signed with all of my sponsors from 2012 – Saucony, Cervelo, Shimano, CycleOps, Clif Bar, Kask, ISM, GameReady and WidSix. I also partnered with a few new sponsors this year: Helen’s Cycles in Santa Monica for bike maintenance and support), Aqua Sphere for wetsuits and Timex for watches. So things have gone very well. Sponsor are such an important part of what makes us able to do this job full-time, and I know how competitive and difficult it can be to create relationships that are the right fit and long-term in nature. I’ve worked hard to create and build these, but I don’t take them for granted.

ST: Is there anything else we should know?

Sarah: Hmmm? Actually yes! My friend and teammate, Meredith Kessler, has been working on a book called Life of a Triathlete, which is going to be coming out in the next few months. Making it in the triathlon world, both as a pro and an amateur is tough. It is expensive, it requires a lot of travel and we have so many different pieces of equipment. Meredith and her husband have come up with a guide to help athletes out and answer the questions so many of us are either too afraid to ask or don’t even know to ask. Its pretty amazing, so the more the word about the book can get out the better. Check it out: www.lifeofatriathlete.com. I mention this only because I think the fact that so few people are willing to be so open and share their experience and recipe for success in the same way Meredith does, and I admire that. The more we can support each other the better as hopefully that will create change and help our sport evolve.

You can follow Sarah Piampiano on Twitter at @sarahpiampiano or her site sarahpiampiano.com