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True To Form: Racing Lessons From Top American Sarah True

Rio bound Sarah True reflects on her season and shares her secret for success and longevity in triathlon at any level.

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Rio bound Sarah True reflects on her season and shares her secret for success and longevity in triathlon at any level.

Sarah True will admit she hasn’t always been the consistent, top ITU athlete she is today—the 33-year-old has seen all sorts of highs and lows throughout her career that led to her status as third in the world after Saturday’s ITU World Triathlon Series Grand Final in Chicago. True finished seventh and retained her No. 3 ranking overall in the series. She heads into the off-season slightly relaxed knowing she has her spot on the Olympic team, which she earned at the Rio test event in August. We caught up with her the day after her top-10 finish in Chicago.

Triathlete.com: You wanted more than the seventh place you got on Saturday—how do you come to terms with an off day?

True: That’s racing. Some days you’ll have an off day on the days you don’t want. I’ve done enough races that I realize that. I think it’s hard because I care. I feel passionately about what I do and if I didn’t care, then I could finish in the middle of the field, in the back, and it wouldn’t matter. But there’s nothing like crossing the finish line and saying, “I laid it out there today. And all this hard work that I’ve done has paid off and everything has come to a head and I got to show the athlete that I am.” That happens for me rarely. I rarely cross the finish line and think, “That was exactly a reflection of where I am as an athlete.” That’s the frustrating thing—when you know on that day you’re capable of a lot more, and you’re being honest with yourself. It’s good, it keeps me moving to the next race and next training block; it keeps me hungry.

Triathlete.com: Can you name a few times where you crossed the finish line and felt like your performance was an accurate reflection?

True: That’s part of the problem. I can’t think of a single race where I’ve felt 100 percent that this is everything that I am as a triathlete. Every race it doesn’t matter how good it is, I can see flaws in it. And that’s part of what makes me good, but it also can be a bit frustrating. Perfection doesn’t exist, but I also recognize that. It’s not a devastating thing if I fall short because I recognize that what I’m trying to achieve is impossible—but it doesn’t keep me from trying.

Triathlete.com: When did you realize that Saturday wasn’t going to be a podium day?

True: My swim was good, I was first out of T1, I positioned myself well on the bike and kept the effort strong but without hurting myself too much. I got off and realized, pretty much, unless things turned around in a massive way, I just didn’t have the run. I kept hoping and hoping but it just got worse and worse. I was able to hold it together for a decent finish, but I just fell flat. And that happens. It’s a long season and it’s hard to get it right.

Triathlete.com: What do you think about during the run when you’re not feeling your best?

True: You just focus on what you can. You can’t control how you feel or how other people are doing, but you can control your reaction to it. Thinking about physical cues of moving forward and running technically well and breaking down the course into manageable sections. Obviously you go through a little bit of the highs and lows and fight the little demons that are saying, “Oh you’re running terribly!” I still use some of the things I got from [former coach] Darren [Smith], like focusing on turnover or carrying my body, but one of the beauties of experience is that you figure out cues for yourself that are helpful.

Triathlete.com: You seemed surprised at the finish line that you still got third overall in the series.

True: Based on the race, I thought “no way!” but that’s irrational race brain. Because I didn’t feel like I had a great race, I was a bit surprised that I still ended up on the podium. But of course a couple hours later, I’m kicking myself, thinking, “If I would’ve been one position higher, I could’ve been second, or in Auckland if I hadn’t blown up on the run, I could’ve finished second…” But that’s what keeps me up at night after a race, and also keeps me fueled going into the next year.

RELATED: Gwen Jorgensen, Sarah True Qualify For 2016 U.S. Olympic Team

Triathlete.com: How does it feel going into the winter knowing you’re already qualified for the Olympic team?

True: It’s a relief. Part of it is I know I have the luxury of time to focus on one race. I don’t have to hit two peaks—it’s hard for me to hit multiple peaks in a year as an “older” athlete [laughs], but I’m pretty good at hitting one peak. That makes it a lot easier, and then there’s the factor that [husband and runner] Ben has his qualification next year, and it would be a cloud hanging over me in the fall and winter to qualify, which would affect him too. Now we can look at the year in terms of what can I do for my best performance in Rio, and what can I do to be a supportive spouse to make sure my husband is there with me. I would’ve been more focused on myself in the beginning part of the year, and end up being less of a partnership at that point. Now I can give a little bit more to him and not have it hanging over us.

Triathlete.com: Only two team spots were available at the Rio test event, and given Gwen’s record, it was likely going to be her and either you or Katie Zaferes. You two have the same coach and train together—how did you talk about it?

True: Katie and I made a commitment to each other that we want to see the other person in Rio. And it’s really important to me that she’s there. I know how hard she’s worked and I know she deserves to be on that team. When we sat down in July, we said OK, two people are probably going to make it to Rio. We would love it to both be us, but realistically we have to prepare that one of us isn’t going to make it, and what do we do then? I said what do you do…you turn it around and say I want to see you there with me, and it’s just a question who gets the spot first, not whether that person gets a spot. Because of my commitment, I’m not saying I’m going to go [to the TBD qualifying event in 2016] to domestique for her, but I want to see her qualify and if I can be a part of that then that means a lot to me. She’s a training partner but she’s also someone I care about.

Triathlete.com: She didn’t have her best day on Saturday, but that’s after a stellar season.

True: I feel for her, but what an incredible year. So consistent. The one race she had an off day, but she has so many years ahead of her. I think it’s hard for some of our up and coming athletes, and I’ve talked to some younger athletes who think “I can’t believe I’m not on the podium” and I think, “Let me tell you honey…”

For every Gwen and Katie, there are the rest of us. You have to realize for most people, it takes you putting in hard, consistent work to see pay-off. And that’s the beauty of endurance sport. You can’t look at the outliers. Those two are outliers. You look at our men’s program and that’s the trajectory they take—we see these guys improving year after year and they’re stringing together consistent years of training and it’s only a matter of time before it pays off. The same with these developing women—I know it’s hard to look at us and we’re finishing on the podium and we’re at the front of the race. But take a page from my book—I’m in my 30s and it’s taken me a long time to be a consistent performer. I had some really bad years. Really bad years! Most of them are already surpassing my growth curve. And that’s whether you’re an amateur or aspiring Olympian—endurance sport is great in that way. You just have to do that work, stay healthy and put the time in and you will improve. I’m a moderately talented athlete, but I’ve just been able to put in the time and stay healthy.

RELATED: Sarah True Repeats At WTS Stockholm