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When first-year pro Sarah Piampiano cruised through the breaktape as the women’s champion at Ironman New Orleans 70.3 this past Sunday (which was turned into a run-bike-run due to inclement weather), beating out the likes of Mirinda Carfrae, Caitlin Snow and Heather Wurtele, no one was more surprised by the win than Piampiano herself. It was her third race as a pro, and she only recently moved from New York City, where her job in finance had her regularly working 14-hour-plus days, to Los Angeles to train full-time under Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness and swim consultant Gerry Rodrigues. Last year, Piampiano was the first amateur woman at 70.3s in Texas, New Orleans and Calgary, and won the same distinction at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. And she was the first female American amateur in Kona last year. Piampiano kicked off the 2012 season at Ironman Texas 70.3, where she posted the second-fastest bike split and finished sixth. Next up: Ironman Texas on May 19 and Rev3 Quassy on June 3.
Get to know the rookie pro standout a little better.
Triathlete.com: It sounds like even you were surprised by the outcome in New Orleans!
Sarah Piampiano: Yeah, I was totally shocked! Winning wasn’t even a blip on my radar—it wasn’t something I had even considered or thought about, particularly given that it turned into the run-bike-run combo. I just thought that with Mirinda Carfrae and Caitlin Snow in the race, it was a foregone conclusion that they would take the top spots. So, I was just blown away. I thought if I could finish in the top 5 it would be an amazing day for me, so I’m very happy and kind of in disbelief.
Triathlete.com: So did you line up thinking you would go as hard as you could for as long as you could, or what was your race strategy?
SP: I expected that the girls were going to go out really hard on the initial two-mile run and when I spoke with Matt Dixon, he said to me, ‘You need to go out at a pace you would run an open half-marathon at, because if you thrash your legs in that first two miles, you’re going to set yourself up to crash and burn for the rest of the race.’ I went in pretty intent on running my own race and going out on a pace that was reasonable for me—between 5:45 and 6-minute miles—and when we went out I was so shocked that the girls went out at the same pace. It was really comfortable. So going onto the bike I was pretty excited because it was the third time I’d ridden on that course and it’s always been a really good course for me and I’ve been riding really well so I thought I was set up in a pretty good position to at least be towards the front of the pack. My bike computer actually fell off my bike in transition, and I had no metrics to go on—I just rode by feel—and I went hard but went at a pace that I thought was pretty comfortable. I could see that I was making some pretty good gains on the bike. On the run, I’ve never had a good run off the bike. I’ve had some really good [standalone] run times but have never really been able to put it together, so that was a really big focus for me in that race. When I got off the bike, I thought, ‘okay, you’ve got Mirinda Carfrae, Caitlin Snow and Heather Wurtele behind you—three amazing girls—you just have to run as hard as you can and if you blow up you blow up. Just go for it and see what you can do.’ I was kind of running scared.
I’ve been doing a lot of hard runs the last few weeks—a lot of tempo stuff—and a lot of stuff off the bike at a pretty good pace. I kept that in the back of my mind the entire time I was running. I knew if I could get through the first 15 minutes and settle into the pace that hopefully it would work out really well for me because that’s how it’s been translating in my training. I kept on looking at my watch and was running 6:00, 6:10 and I was excited. I felt really good. There were a lot of turnaround points on the course so I was doing time checks, and I saw Rinny was obviously making up ground on me but was also holding my ground pretty well. When I got to mile 9, I just thought, ‘Sarah, if you can just hold on and not bonk there’s a chance that maybe you could win this.’ Before, the idea of winning hadn’t really ever crossed my mind.
Triathlete.com: The moment you crossed the breaktape as the winner must have been pretty remarkable then.
SP: There were a lot of expletives going through my head! I was running down the finish chute and I couldn’t believe it. You see pictures of people crossing the finish line and they’re so elated; it’s just something you dream about doing as a triathlete, whether you’re an amateur or a professional. It’s so inspiring and so cool to be running down the finish chute knowing you’re the person that gets to do that. It took my breath away.
Triathlete.com: What does that do for your confidence moving forward? You’ve got Ironman Texas coming up. How has your win changed the way you think about the season, if at all?
SP: In terms of my goals, outlook and training, it honestly doesn’t really change anything. This result was amazing and I am over the moon about it, but every single one of those girls are incredible athletes and I’m still so new to the sport and for me just getting out and gaining experience and putting in top-5 results is what I’m always shooting for. From a confidence perspective, it’s not the win that changes my confidence level, it’s the run that I put up that changes my confidence. Before Sunday, the fastest I’d ever run off the bike was at Texas 70.3 a few weeks ago where I did a 1:29. And I finally, finally had the breakthrough and ran the race I thought I was capable of running, especially on the back of a really strong bike. That was really exciting for me. That’s where I’m gaining the most confidence—knowing that I can run really well off the bike.
Triathlete.com: How’s the swim training been going?
SP: My swim is a work in progress [laughing]. Swimming is definitely my weakest event, and the whole reason I moved out to Los Angeles was to work with Gerry Rodrigues at Tower 26 to improve my swimming. I’ve seen some pretty massive gains just in the 3 or 4 months I’ve been working with Gerry. When I was in Texas I had a 4-minute PR in the swim—I swam 30 minutes, which wasn’t an amazingly fast swim, but I was really excited to be able to see progress. The swim is going to continue to be a big focus for me this year and definitely next year. It’s hard to always be coming from behind, particularly when you’re racing as a pro. The strategy changes, and when you’re coming out far back in the swim and just trying to catch up to the rest of the pack, it’s hard. My swim is coming along, but there’s still a long way to go.
Triathlete.com: Who are you training with in LA?
SP: I swim every morning with the Tower 26 program and on the days I do doubles, I swim with Jennifer Tetrick, another Purplepatch athlete. There’s an ITU athlete, Sean Jefferson I also swim with a lot. For my rides, I mix it up—I have some true cyclists that I ride with, and a couple people that I’ve just met on the roads from group rides. Sometimes I ride with Jen. A lot of times I run by myself. My background is running—I grew up running cross-country—and I find it to be somewhat meditative to go out and do my own thing. Sometimes I run with people but I really like running on my own.
Triathlete.com: You left a pretty demanding job in finance to go pro. What has that transition been like?
SP: It was pretty scary. I had a wonderful job that I loved. I had all these amazing opportunities to travel all over the world and was getting paid pretty well so it was tough for me because I knew it was going to be a big lifestyle change. Obviously not knowing where your next paycheck is going to come from was a little scary as well. But having made the jump, I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life. Making money and living a certain lifestyle is really nice, but to truly be happy is such an incredible thing. Every single day I’m excited to wake up and train. It’s been amazing. But since January, this is also pretty full time. I’m up at 4:30 every morning and training all day long, until 5 o’clock and then there are administrative things like sponsor obligations and other things that go into training—the eating, the resting, the downtime. It’s been a lot busier than I anticipated, but I love it and I’m so happy. It’s nice to have the results pay off, but even if that wasn’t happening I’m so glad that I made the decision to do this. It’s pretty rare that you have this opportunity.
Triathlete.com: Before you left your job, you were racing at a high level and balancing training and racing with long workdays and everything else. Do you have any advice for age-groupers who are also trying to fit triathlon into a very busy life?
SP: Working with Matt Dixon, I don’t keep track of the number of hours I spend training. I do the plan he’s laid out for me but I never keep track of the hours. I feel like a lot of age-groupers are so fixated on how many hours a week they’re training. When you’re trying to manage a job and training, family commitments, whatever—you’re burning the candle at both ends. Sometimes taking a step back and not trying to fit in 15 hours per week of training—maybe you just do 8 hours—and allowing yourself to rest…the quality of your workouts is going to improve. I think you’re also going to have more balance in your life and be happier overall. When I first started out, I would get home from the office at 2 or 3 in the morning and get on my trainer and bike for an hour and a half and get an hour of sleep and go back to the office. I look back now and think that was just insane. I can’t believe that I used to do that; sleep and recovery is just so important. It’s something that people really overlook in their training. You don’t need to have a ton of training hours as long as you keep the quality of that training really high.
Triathlete.com: What has the reaction and outpouring post-New Orleans been like for you?
SP: I think the other [pro] women had absolutely no idea who I was! Rinny probably was sitting on the bike and saw me out front and was like, “Who is this girl? She’s going to blow up!” And that was entirely a possibility, but not being known by anybody probably played to my advantage a little bit. From a strategic standpoint, I was able to push it a little.
People were really nice. Mirinda Carfrae is my triathlon hero; I just think she’s so gutsy and such a phenomenal athlete. And her attitude and approach to the sport—the way she is with the media and other competitors is just so phenomenal. To be able to stand up there with her, I just felt so honored and excited. I was just trying to soak it all in.
For more information, visit Sarahpiampiano.com.