So close and yet so far away

American Sarah True had a 7 minute lead as she headed into the last km of the 2019 Ironman European Championships in Frankfurt, but what seemed to be a sure win, a Kona slot and money in the bank ended up with True being carried off the course 700 meters from the finish. I had a few words with Sarah True about that day.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time.

Sarah True: I am happy to chat with you.

ST: I wanted to follow up with you after your race in Frankfurt, and let me just say this up front - I do not have any medical or training advice for you.

Sarah: Oh good, thank you. I am a little overwhelmed. But there are kind of two sides to it. It was heartwarming to me how much concern there was for my well-being. But I also realize, without contexts of someone’s medical history, without understanding what the nutrition plan was, what the data suggests, there is this tendency to want to come to conclusions without full information. And I think I would like to encourage people to step back and realize, it is easy to make a judgment about a performance without fully understanding the facts.

ST: The internet brings out an amazing collection of advice, and while often well intentioned, it still may not be helpful. But let us go back further and talk about the race in Frankfurt and your adventure of getting yourself and your bike there. I think the bike was missing in action after your flight.

Sarah: You know, I think what is nice about this point in my career is – you have to be flexible. So I was confident that I was going to have my bike in time, and I wasn’t stressed about it. But I also had backup plans. I am really lucky being with Specialized and they already had dealers ready to get a bike for me. At the end of the day it is just equipment, I know my size and we were going to have something set up. Obviously it is something you prefer to avoid, but I had enough travel related luggage situations that this was not unfamiliar terrain for me.

ST: How many days before the race did you actually arrive?

Sarah: I got there Tuesday and the race was on Sunday.

ST: I think your parents got to the airport in Boston and helped with your bike, and it apparently all fell into place.

Sarah: Yeah, it was really gratuitous timing, because I had been on the phone with the carriers and they were telling me that it is nowhere to be found, we can’t tell you where it is nor when it will arrive. But I knew it was at Boston Logan Airport, because there was no other place where it would be. My brother actually made the connection that my parents were flying to France for the Soccer World Cup, and they went to the airport earlier that day and argued for hours with SAS and Lufthansa. They were told time and time again that it is not here, they would find it and eventually send it on its way, but it is not here at Logan. They tried to brush them off, but I told them to be persistent. Finally it was found in a very strange location and the agent indicated that it likely would have never made it to Frankfurt. I am really grateful that the timing worked out, that my parents were at the airport that day, that they were able to be persistent with the agents. Because there is nobody else on this planet who would have continued to hear no and kept on pressing them, and so they found it.

ST: So did I hear this right, your parents went to France to support the soccer team and not to Frankfurt to watch a triathlon?

Sarah: No, not the Ironman. My family is pretty soccer crazy. My uncle worked for US Soccer for many years and they always go to the World Cup. These plans were in the making for a while.

ST: Talk about the race morning and your mindset.

Sarah: We knew that this was going to be a race of just really managing the heat. Because when you have a Saharan heat wave bringing record-breaking temperatures to Frankfurt, you know the day ahead of you is mostly about managing efforts and being smart and sticking to the fueling and hydration plan. And really that is the way we approached it. Let us be incredibly smart, manage ourselves well and get to the marathon and put together what you can at that moment.

I felt ok and led most of the swim, just trying to find a good rhythm. Got onto the bike and had a minor mechanical right at transition, which meant that I was riding alone for a good first portion of the bike. But in the end of the day it was finding a conservative, sustainable effort – knowing that I was going to be facing these extreme conditions in the latter part of the race. I managed to find a decent rhythm, got caught by a few women. Some of them dropped of the pace and I got off the bike in second position. I was really trying to be tactical, realizing that I was one of the better runners in the race. If I put myself in a good position and managed myself really well, stayed on top of hydration and effort, then I’d be setting myself up for a great result.

ST: This race is well known for massive fan support. Did the heat impact those numbers?

Sarah: This is a great spectator event and there were a lot of people out there. The first few hours it was nice temperatures, both as a racer and a spectator, and it really wasn’t until the last hour of the bike that the heat really started to be noticeable. I did not notice a drop in terms of spectators compared to last year. The volunteers did a great job and it is a very well run race in terms of spectator support.

ST: For those folks who have never ventured abroad to race, can you share what it is like to race for example in Germany versus racing in the USA.

Sarah: What I love about European racing, there is more spectator energy. You get a culture that really enjoys spectating endurance sports and I love racing in Germany, it has been historically been one of my favorite places to race. Mostly for that reason, you get that buzz. It is also that the courses are so different. There is this section in Frankfurt where you are riding on cobblestones, going through this old town. There aren’t too many places in the US where you might find cobblestones [on a race course.] Also what is really special about Europe that you go from city to quiet countryside so quickly. There isn’t this sprawl we find typically in North American cities.

ST: Were you able to contain yourself on those spectator-lined climbs?

Sarah: There are a few climbs on that course where there are a lot of spectators kind of lining it and yeah - it gives you a little energy. It is a question of managing your effort on it for sure. Trying not to show off in front of the fans.

ST: Let us talk about the run. Early on how did you feel?

Sarah: My approach was to find a very conservative pace, something that was comfortable. We had discussed ahead of time, based on my current level of fitness, something that felt appropriate and we had that pace dialed in. It felt very comfortable and I knew my job was to continue to hydrate, continue to cool down, and make the most of each aid station. Basically go aid station to aid station, ticking the boxes, and maintaining a pace that we felt was completely reasonable given the conditions.

ST: Late in the race you had a clear lead and the end was within reach. Was there a point where you thought you might be in trouble or did you think you had it in hand?

Sarah: For most of the race I felt that my effort was completely manageable to the finish line, and there was a point probably 4 miles to go that I realized I might be in trouble. What happened basically it felt as if my brain was on a dimmer switch. It was like the lights were dimming and I was cognizant of that, but I knew physically that the distance was manageable. It was a question of whether or not my brain would let me reach the finish line. So I would go between points where it was like the lights were dimmed in my brain, and then I would have these flashes of total lucidity, and then it would go back to the lights being dimmer again. But it wasn’t until about 3k to go that I realized that it was translating to some motor control issues. I was aware that I was losing some motor control but then the lights would go back on, and it was kind of normal again.

ST: Have you ever before been pushed to such a limit, and I am not sure if limit is the right term here.

Sarah: I think what people would have seen on the screen would be interpreted that I was physically pushing to my limit. And there is no physiological indication of that. So it was almost like there was a disconnect between my brain and my body. In terms of pacing, in terms of heart rate, in terms of testing we did after the race, there is no indication that my body was experiencing distress, to reflect the kind of motor control issues I was having. My brain was interpreting signals from my body that did not exist, and that is a whole other issue we have to delve into. So it was not like I was making a deliberate choice to push to my limit.

ST: Maybe I did not say that correctly. What I meant is if you were ever before in serious trouble at another race, basically where you fell apart. What ever the reasons for that may be.

Sarah: Yeah, Kona 100%. But that was mostly a pacing and nutrition issue. But the last probably 10k things rapidly went downhill. And I think I honestly did some brain damage in that race. For about 2 weeks after it was like having a hangover. I had some cognitive problems, I had a headache, and my brain was just slowed down. The difference being that there were clear physiological signals I was ignoring. And I know exactly where we went wrong in Kona. But I didn’t lose motor control in Kona. I was slowing down, and it was a pretty typical response to the heat and the efforts. Frankfurt was a totally different experience than I ever had. There was this disconnect between the brain’s response and my body’s response.

ST: That sounds scary actually.

Sarah: It is, and it is not. The part I really want to emphasize is that while it looked very scary, I wasn’t threatening my health. That is the part that is so hard to comprehend, because it looked so bad. The blood work and the testing we did afterwards did not indicate that I did any damage to myself. And that is the part where I realize it looks scary, but I am not scared. As a professional athlete you are willing to do things with your body to make a living, to be totally frank, that others wouldn’t be comfortable with. My husband Ben jokes that he will not be able to walk at 50 because he puts in so many miles running. And I realize by doing this that I might be compromising my health. It is the exchange that we make as professional athletes. We are willing to do that because that is how we make a living. I found that the people who genuinely understand high performance sport could see things from my perspective. And people who see it as a fan or an amateur participant may not totally understand the realities of a professional athlete. Their response was a lot more emotional based. That is one of the parts of being a pro. It is really unconscionable to admit that we are willing to potentially risk our long-term health to make some money, to pay for our mortgage. [laughs]

ST: So what happened at 700 meters from the finish.

Sarah: There was a very concerned, well meaning amateur athlete who stopped me and all my forward momentum at that point disappeared and I ended up kind of falling to the ground. The Red Cross volunteers saw that and decided to pick me up and take me off the course.

ST: In your mind, if you had not been touched in any way, be it well intentioned or not, do you think you would have made it to the finish line?

Sarah: I don’t think you can say anything with a 100% certainty because I do realize that it looked pretty scary at that point, but I genuinely believe that I could have made it 700 more meters.

ST: I think a lot of folks were worried about you and felt bad what happened. So what is the next step?

Sarah: My goal for the year was to qualify for and race really well in Kona. So at this point because I was 700 meters shy of a Kona slot I have to decide whether or not to do another Ironman to get my slot. The obvious downside of that is if I do another Ironman between now and October, it will seriously compromise my ability to prepare for the World Championships. It is a trade off. I want to be at Worlds, but I only want to be there if I feel I can race well. So the honest answer is that I don’t know.

All images © Ingo Kutsche