Imagine your life today. You may well have a good job and be settled into the normal routine of your life. Work, training, some racing, leisure life. Then imagine, quitting your job, moving across the country, and totally changing your way of living in order to pursue your dream. Normally, when we hear of folks that do similar things, those stories are often about people who give up the trappings of civilization and go off to live in the wilds of Alaska or some tropical island. Less frequently do we hear about folks who do that to pursue an athletic dream.
But that’s just what rookie pro triathlete Sarah Piampiano did. She pulled a total life and career reset by packing up and moving from New York City to Los Angeles so she could focus on improving her craft on the pro racing circuit.
Sarah’s had a pretty amazing year already – taking a victory in her second race as a pro at IM 70.3 New Orleans as well as top ten finishes in all her other races. She’s primed for a strong first year and is absolutely a pro we should keep our eyes on.
So now….sit back and enjoy this version of “Ten Questions With…”
TriMadness: it’s your first season as a pro, and you go out and drop a victory in one of your first races of the year. No more sneaking up on the competition, huh?
Sarah Piampiano: Yehhhh….that win in New Orleans was fairly epic in my world of personal victories. It was so unexpected and a very gutsy race for me – every time I re-live it in my mind I get chills. As for “sneaking up on the competition” – I don’t know. I have yet to show a huge amount of consistency in my racing in the pro ranks. I think people are probably more aware of who I am now, but my bet is that until I start putting up strong performances week in and week out, nobody will really consider me to be a major threat.
TM: Could you describe your feelings the moment you realized that you were going to win in New Orleans? What was going through your head?
SP: The entire run I was running scared. It just wasn’t a position I expected to be in, so I didn’t have a race strategy for being in the lead off the bike. I knew there were some seriously fast runners out there in Mirinda Carfrae, Caitlin Snow, Amy Marsh and Heather Wurtele and I kept saying “just don’t make a fool of yourself, Sarah”. I was having visions of being the idiot first year pro that killed the bike and then blew up on the run and faded to an un-inspiring finish. Thankfully that didn’t happen, and I held it together, but based on my history of sub-par run performances anything could have happened.
Seriously though, I didn’t really consider winning to be a possibility until mile 9 of the run and even then, it wasn’t until I had 400 meters to go that I truly believed the win was mine. When that moment hit, there was a constant stream of swears running through my head; then I started panicking about the breaktape; and then I kept thinking “Matt is not going to believe this! This is insane!” and “My family is going to FREAK the HECK out”!
All winter Matt (Dixon) and I had talked about my race plan and strategy for the year. Making the jump to a full time pro was a scary thing for me – I felt compelled and almost even obligated to perform at the top in order to not only be able to support myself financially, but also to validate myself to my sponsors. I’ve been so fortunate this year to be supported by such an amazing group of brands and companies and it is important for me to do them proud. But Matt – he kept telling me that this year was all about gaining experience and I shouldn’t be chasing podiums. Just as that really started to sink in and I began racing within myself – BAM! I got that win. Funny how that works sometimes!
TM: How have some of the more “seasoned” pros responded to your early success?
SP: It has been mixed. Some people have been incredibly supportive and super nice and congratulatory and others less so. As females I always hope that we will look out for one another and encourage and empower each other. I understand that we are competitors and I am very new to the scene, but at the end of the day I really believe we should be celebrating each other’s successes. I think some people see it that way and others not so much. You just have to respect that. When you are in a competitive environment like this and are constantly being pitted against each other, it is natural for people to respond differently.
I’m fiercely competitive, but I grew up with a feminist mother, so I always am fighting and cheering for the success of other women. I love seeing this sport being transformed on the women’s side and am so proud of everyone that is contributing to and leading that charge. It inspires me to want to be part of that.
TM: Folks may not know that you gave up a pretty lucrative lifestyle in New York City this year to focus on your new career as a professional triathlete. Not only did you quit your job, you moved from the east coast to the west coast. What has been the biggest adjustment for you?
SP: Yep!!! At the end of 2011 I left my job at HSBC, where I had worked for the past 7 years doing Mergers & Acquisitions. My job was fantastic and I loved it.
The biggest adjustment for me?? Life in general. My whole world has done a complete 180. I used to go to bed at 4 AM. Now I wake up at 4 AM…or there abouts. I used to smoke, drink beer and eat pizza. Now I lead a very clean and healthy life. I used to spend money frivolously. Now I have my life budgeted down to the cent. I used to always eat out and never cook. Now I only cook. I lived alone for the last 7 years. Now I have 2 roommates. I could go on and on. Don’t get me wrong – none of these changes seem like burdens in any way – in fact I embrace them and LOVE LOVE LOVE this experience. As I have said in some other interviews – money does not buy happiness. I am poorer than I have ever been in my life, but also happier than I can ever remember. And so despite all of these lifestyle changes and things forgone, none of it really seems like a sacrifice – it is all just fun and part of the journey. But, aside from my amazing friends and family, everything that had been my life doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s kind of insane. I’m still adapting – I believe it takes a little while to get fully comfortable with new surroundings and situations, but it’s a path I love and am incredibly enthusiastic about taking.
TM: How is living and training in LA different from NYC?
SP: Yay! I love this question because I need to clarify something about NYC. Everyone probably THINKS New York is a terrible place to train, but it honestly isn’t so bad! There is not the plethora of mountains to climb or trails to run on that you might find in a place like Boulder, or even LA for that matter, but it can be a great training environment. When I lived there I did a lot of my longer rides up in the Hudson River Valley, which is just north of the city. You have to ride the first and last 20 minutes through city streets. It sounds miserable, but I also think it was a good way for me to learn some bike handling skills. Then, once you get up past the George Washington Bridge, everything changes – tons of trees, beautiful roads with wide shoulders. It is a great place to train.
The City also has plenty of pools – no different than any other place you might go, and Central Park has a 6.2 mile closed course loop with some great hills for repeats.
Plus there was no shortage of training partners. The Wassners live and train there and I worked out with them a lot plus a great group of people that would join us for swims, rides and runs.
NYC may not be ideal, but it is definitely not a bad place to be by any stretch.
That being said, in order to address my weaknesses, I needed to be in a location where I could work closely with an open water swim coach (Tower 26) and have more mountains and hills for the bike and run. LA was the perfect fit. LA seems like it would be just like NYC, but just north of Santa Monica you have the Santa Monica Mountains, which are an AMAZING place to ride and run. The number of potential routes is endless and it is challenging. Some climbs are 20 minutes long and over 20%+ in grade, others are an hour long with more gradual climbing. On some runs the first 4 miles are all uphill before it levels off. Others are more up and down. If you train along the coast it is cool, but if you go up into the mountains it is hot and dry in the summer. LA provides everything I could want – open water swimming, multiple environments (hot and cold) and tons of different terrain. I love it!
TM: So far this year you’ve raced the Texas 70.3, New Orleans 70.3, IM Texas, and Eagleman in Cambridge, MD. How did you come up with this schedule? Are these races you did as an amateur or do you sit down with your coaches or sponsors to plot out a schedule?
SP: Matt Dixon (my coach) and I collectively came up with the schedule. Effectively I came up with an extensive list of races that I wanted to do, and then based on our goals for the season, Matt developed the schedule. We definitely took sponsors into consideration as well – what races they felt were key, etc – all of that went into the final schedule we planned out. For me there are a few key goals for 2012:
- Gain as much experience as possible and learn how to race as a pro
- Gain experience in Ironman racing
- Target some heat races to gain experience in hot climates
Based on that we came up with the schedule. It looks fairly unlikely that I will qualify for Kona, and I may just qualify for Vegas, so the back half of my season might change a bit to start accumulating points and planning for next season all while continuing to keep the strategy and plan in place for this year.
This year the focus was experience. Next year we’ll target some of the bigger races with higher points, more prize money and larger fields.
TM: How different is racing as a professional from racing as an amateur? What are some of your key learnings so far this season?
SP: Racing as a pro is vastly VASTLY different than racing as an amateur. On the swim, I used to benefit from this great draft of all the swim waves that were ahead of me. Now, since I am one of the slowest swimmers in the women’s field, I pretty much swim in no-man’s land. On the bike, you can use the other amateurs for motivation (in terms of passing people) and also – even racing completely legally – you still benefit from having other riders around you. As a pro, for the most part, you ride alot on your own. It becomes a real mental battle to stay strong. As an amateur on the run you honestly have no idea where you are in terms of placing – it’s a bit annoying actually. And as a pro, you do know where you are placing wise, and usually you are able to get some splits out on the course.
On the whole, the racing strategy is very different as well. As an amateur I could rely on the strength of my bike and run to carry me through the race and now I’m racing against women whose bikes and runs are as fast as, if not faster than mine.
My goal is to get my swim to a place where I can exit the water with a pack of girls who are comparable riders to me and we can work together (legally) to bridge up to the leaders. Riding with/ around people is such a benefit to being out there on the course alone.
It is a totally different ball game for SURE!
TM: You mentioned in other interviews that to you, success as a professional athlete is defined not just by your results but also how well you are able to make a business out of yourself. How would you assess your performance in regards to creating “Sarah Piampiano – the brand”?
SM: As you mentioned, my approach to being a professional triathlete is with the mindset that I am an entrepreneur and I am building a business. As with any new business, I believe you need to develop a 2-3 year business plan and set milestones that need to be achieved in order to indicate whether you are on a trajectory to success or failure. I have a long ways to go to achieve what I want and build the “the brand” that I hope for, but in the first 6 months, things have gone very well. I’ve been very lucky with sponsors, I’ve gained good traction with my blog and website, and the hard work I’ve put into my training has paid been paying off with the results. I have so many ideas of things I want to do that I am excited about, but everything needs to fall into place naturally.
So I wouldn’t say that “Sarah Piampiano – the brand” is a global phenomenon just yet (ha!!), but I’ve met a lot of the key performance indicators I had hoped to by this stage and am starting to look ahead to the next phase of growth. Next year I’m setting a really high and big bar for myself from a performance standpoint. Sponsorship-wise this year was about getting sponsors and beginning to build relationships. Next year I’d like to begin collaborating with them a bit more, as well as looking outside the sport for some additional opportunities. It is a process. But so far so good! Every bit of success and development feeds the next steps. If you push things too quickly it can blow up and if you don’t push hard enough you fail. The key is balancing the growth at a rate that makes the most sense.
TM: The race reports you put on your blog following your win in New Orleans and your race at IMTX are quite spectacular in terms of the level of detail that you shared. It’s rare to see pro athletes open up about things that went really well (or not) in their races. Do you think that more pros should open up and show what’s behind the curtain (so to speak)?
SM: I understand why people don’t, but in my “circle of trust” – being my coaches, Matt Dixon and Gerry Rodrigues – the sharing information is encouraged. They believe helping everyone to become more educated will benefit the sport as a whole. I learn so much from them, but I also learn a lot at each race by trial and error. If someone else can learn from my mistakes (or successes for that matter), that is pretty cool.
At the end of the day though, everybody is going to have a different approach. Personally, I don’t love the endless stream of race reports that are a play by play of every pedal stroke taken for the full 112 miles of the bike…”and then I thought “Go Sarah, you can do This!…so I increased my RPMs to 90 and then I took a sip of my drink, but it was so sweet it tasted gross….”….blogs like that bore me. I try to engage readers more with a description of the emotional side of how races unfolded for me. I like blogs I can really relate to, and people tend to relate to the emotional and physical pain experienced during some of these races. Connecting with the reader is critical.
TM: Last month you gave the commencement speech at your former high school. What was that experience like for you? What was the message that you shared with the graduates?
SM: Oh MAN! It was so amazing on a number of different levels. It was an incredible honor for me to be asked to give the speech. I feel like it is something that is reserved for really important people, and so it humbled me to be considered.
But beyond that, I was incredibly inspired by the graduates. I attended Stratton Mountain School, which is an elite ski academy in Vermont. Almost every kid there is focused on trying to make his or her national team in their respective sport. As a high-schooler, I don’t think I fully understood or processed how significantly accomplished we were at that age. When I went back and I listened to what all these kids had achieved over the last year and what they would be doing next year – it blew me away. Some of them were already racing World Cups. Of the 20 graduates, 4 of them had acceptances to Dartmouth. Some had been invited to train at the OTC. Here they were with athletic resumes that would floor you, yet at the same time they were so obviously high schoolers – their naiveté and pure enthusiasm was exhilarating.
My message to them was to reach for the stars and not to be afraid to fail. That to try and fail was better than not trying at all. And if you try and succeed – if your dreams become reality – well there is nothing more inspiring than that. I find so often people are scared to take the plunge and do something that they truly love because they are too scared to fall on their faces. The people that win Olympic gold medals, or become CEOs, or win Kona – it’s because they take the chances that others don’t.