Sarah Piampiano – A Name to Know
If you had asked Sarah Piampiano a few years ago if she would be a professional triathlete, she probably would have laughed. In the past year she quit her corporate job in finance in New York City picked up and moved to California to pursue her passion for triathlon at the professional level. She made her debut as a professional racer at the Ironman New Orleans 70.3, not only did she show up, but she won her first professional race!
This thirty-one (almost thirty-two) year old has taken the triathlon world by storm and shows no signs of stopping. She has picked up some serious support with companies like Saucony, Cervelo, Shimano, Clif Bar, CycleOps/Saris, and ISM. How do I know Sarah, she use to go by “Pimp” when we lived in the dorm at Stratton Mountain School. But that was ages ago, we reconnected over the past year and have been following her journey into the world of professional racing. She was kind enough to catch up with her old classmate and answer a few questions about life and sport these days.
How did you get involved in your sport?
To make a long story short – It was 2009 and I was living in NYC working as an Investment Banker. This meant working long long hours (often 18+ hour days, 7 days a week), and facilitated a generally unhealthy lifestyle. I was smoking a pack+ of cigarettes a day and drinking with my friends when we got out of the office late at night. Bad equation right?!: 1-2 hours of sleep a night, smoking, drinking and not eating very healthfully. I never did anything remotely active, unless you count lifting my leg into and out of cabs as some form of exercise!
On a whim, a college friend of mine and I made a bet one night as to whether I could beat him in an Olympic distance triathlon on no training. I went and did the race, and fell completely, head over heels in love with the sport. I quit smoking promptly, started working out (about an hour a day), and slowly began making changes in my everyday lifestyle. I started eating better; I cut back on drinking (and now drink only a beer or glass of wine with dinner on occasion). When I did my second race I was so much faster than that first one. It was then that I got a bee in my bonnet about trying to qualify to race as a professional triathlete.
Were you always an athlete?
Definitely. My whole life I have been really involved in athletics and always wanted to be competitive in everything I took on. I was always a great runner and skier, and so as I got a bit older, those ended up being the two sports I focused on with more seriousness. In high-school I attended Stratton Mountain School, in college I ran varsity cross-country and raced for our Division 1 ski team at Colby College.
What are some of your athletic achievements?
As a kid I placed 8th at the Junior Olympic National Championships in cross-country, and was also Maine State Champion in cross-country my sophomore year of high school. More recently though, I was the top American amateur finisher at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, HI this last October, and just a few weeks ago I won my first race as a professional athlete – Ironman New Orleans 70.3!
What are your goals for the upcoming season?
This is my rookie year competing as a professional triathlete, so in a broader sense, I’m approaching every race with the goal of gaining experience. The professional race involves so much more strategy and tactics than racing as an amateur, and that is something I need to learn. But, ultimately I’d like to podium (Top 3) as much as possible and qualify for the World Championships. Other goals include swimming a sub 1 hour Ironman swim (2.4 miles), riding a sub 5-hour Ironman bike (112 miles) and running under 3:15 for the marathon off the bike.
A lot of people have asked me if my goals have changed since my win in New Orleans, and the answer is a resounding NO. I had a wonderful race there, but win or no win, I am still a newbie and I still have so much to learn. It is important to keep perspective and know when it makes sense to change our short-term goals/ outlook, and now is not the time.
Who are your inspirations?
I know this is controversial, but Lance Armstrong is definitely an inspiration to me. His accomplishments in the sport of cycling are amazing, and he is clearly a wonderful athlete, but I admire he ability to brand and market himself – to create a business around his name, image and personality. To me – success as a professional athlete is defined not just by your results, but also how well you are able to market yourself and create a business out of being you. Lance has excelled. And, like him or not, he has raised and obscene amount of money for cancer research. I admire that.
Other than that, my family is huge source of inspiration for me – the journeys they have individually gone on and what they have achieved in their lives. Whether it be my grandparents, my parents, my brothers, their wives, their children, my aunts, uncles or cousins – I learn so much from every one of them and I think we all inspire each other to reach for the impossible and try to conquer that.
What is your most proud moment in sport?
I think it would be easy to say that my win in New Orleans a few weeks ago was my proudest moment in sport. It is a huge source of pride for me. But actually, the sporting moment I am most proud of is my result at the 2011 Ironman World Championships. I didn’t have the race I had hoped for – so many things went wrong. I had some serious stomach issues on the bike, to the point that I was throwing up so hard I had to actually get off my bike and spend a bunch of time on the side of the road. Then on the run I was over-heating and puking, and had to walk most of the first 13 miles. But, I stayed mentally strong and kept telling myself “it’s not over till it’s over”. Suddenly things started coming together and on the last half of the marathon, my race completely turned around. I started running very well and I fought my way back up to the front. I ended up finishing as the 5th overall amateur and the top American amateur. I fought hard for that result, and I feel very very proud of that finish.
How do you overcome a bad race or training day?
Bad training days are easier to overcome for me – I tend to take a fairly pragmatic approach and know not every session or every day is going to feel great. I try to look at WHY a day went poorly – did I just have a race? What were my workouts the last few days? How did I sleep the days before? Did I hydrate enough? So many things can come into play. But then I move on. I know some days will be great, and others not great. The thing I rarely do is give up. If I’m not hitting my pace, or my power output because I’m having an off day, I don’t throw in the towel, like a lot of people do. Instead, I adjust my pace, watts, whatever to match what the perceived effort level should be for the session and move ahead. I do what I can to still make the session productive. I then walk away knowing I gave everything I had on that day.
Races – races are harder to overcome, in the sense that you just want and hope everything will come together for race day. I had an absolutely horrendous race at the 70.3 World Championships last year, and I was bummed. I definitely moped for a few days. But, I also made darn sure I evaluated the race, learned what went wrong, and took lessons from that race that I could carry with me into the next. It is often the bad races that you learn the most from, and taking a negative and trying to turn it into as much of a positive as you can is the best thing that can be done. Believe me – I’m not always the most positive person, but when you are striving to improve, if you let your head get in the way, improvement will be hard to come by. Half the battle is the mental game!
What is your training routine like?
The thing I have been most surprised about since I committed full time to Triathlon is how much of a full time job it actually is. I also have to be really diligent about getting proper recovery, which means getting 8+ hours of sleep per night.
4:45 AM – wake up and eat breakfast #1
5:45 AM – 7:30 AM – Session #1: Swim Practice (Usually 5.5k-7k)
7:30 AM – 8:15 AM – Dry land training (core, vasa trainer, bands, lunges, glute and hamstring exercises)
8:30 AM – 10:00 AM – Breakfast #2 and e-mails/ sponsor correspondence (sometimes a nap depending on how I feel post swim)
10:00 AM – 1:00 PM – Session #2: Run or ride (bike will vary from 2-4 hours; runs vary from 45 minutes – 1.5 hours)
1:00 PM – 2:30 PM – Lunch/nap/e-mails/admin or massage (1-2x per week)
3:00 PM – 5:00 PM – Session #3: Run, ride or second swim (5-6k)
5:00 PM – 6:00 PM – Strength training (3x per week) or yoga (1-2x per week)
6:00 PM – 7:30/8:00 PM – Dinner, e-mails/ work/ admin, shower
8:00 PM/ 8:30 PM – Lights out
What is your favorite pre-race and post-race food?
Pre-Race: mmm….well….one of my favorite meals is a HUGE (literally HUGE) salad with red peppers, mushrooms, beans (either black or kidney beans), carrots, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, a can of tuna and then salt, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But…I don’t eat that right before a race (unless I am completely insane and want to spend ½ the race on a porta potty!). Pre-race I go simple – chicken with some veggies and rice. The morning of I eat oatmeal with berries.
Post-Race: It used to be cheese pizza, but that is so 2011! This year the big craving-du-jour seems to be bacon cheeseburgers with sweet potato fries and ice cream.
When not training and competing what do you do with your down time?
Down time? What is down time? To be honest, I don’t have a lot of it. Even when I am not actually physically training, I am trying to recover for my next session, so I spend a lot of time in my bed napping, or in the kitchen eating. And I go to bed by 7:30 or 8, so as soon as I am done training for the day, I am usually preparing dinner and trying to get food in my mouth a good 1.5 to 2 hours before I hit the sack. And…when I do have free time, I am always trying to get caught up on admin, or be in touch with my sponsors, or catch up with my friends and family.
However…all those fun little caveats aside, I love movies: I love going to the movies and renting movies at home. I just love it and find them such an easy way to mentally shut down and relax. I particularly love RomComs (that is romantic comedies for all you RomCom haters). I also love to eat out. On my ridiculously tight budget, my ridiculously early bed time and my ridiculously strict nutritional plan, I eat out very seldom, but when I do, I enjoy every moment. I love spending time with my friends, and being in a social environment!
What is your favorite quote to motivate you?
I have two:
1. Don’t Dream It. Be It.
2. Go on with a spirit that fears nothing
I write both of those quotes on my races shoes and think about them before every race. I find them to be hugely motivating and a good reminder of all the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into my training and put me on the starting line at every race.
What is the best advice a coach ever gave you?
Think about the process, not the result. If you focus on the process the result will come. If you focus on the result, you will fail. In endurance sports, so much can happen during a race, and so it is incredibly important to race within yourself and not be racing someone else’s race plan. It was a hard thing for me to get my head around initially, but now I totally embrace it.
If you could share some advice to the next generation of athletes, what would it be?
For the younger athletes out there (and for their parents) – I would just encourage you all to be as active as possible and be involved in many different sports. I did focus on running and skiing and I loved every moment of that, but I also became very burned out of both for a long time. Only now have I been able to return to running (and to skiing for that matter) and remember why I loved it so much in the first place. Even if you excel in one particular sport, trying to keep a balance in your life early on will keep you loving the sport for a long time, and probably lead to greater success.
Sarah is definitely “being it” these days and we all wish her the best on the rest of her season. Thank you to her for taking the time out of her training to catch up. I know here at Dirt In Your Skirt we will be continuing to follow her! She is an example of hard work and dedication prevailing.