Meet Sarah Piampiano: Overworked Banker to Ironman Winner

Sarah Piampiano is not your typical athlete. Although she might now be one of the world’s top female triathletes (she placed 1st at Ironman 70.3 New Orleans earlier this year), she certainly didn’t start out that way. In fact, until 2009, Piampiano worked 100-hour weeks in the financial world, partied a bit too much and exercised close to nothing.

Then a bet with a friend changed everything.

We talked to Piampiano about becoming a triathlete and how her new-found passion for healthy living is opening new horizons.

The Clymb: You come from a world that has nothing to do with sports. What did you do before you decided to train for your first triathlon and how/why did you make the jump and when?

Sarah Piampiano: Prior to my first triathlon I worked as an investment banker on Wall Street. I worked very long hours, traveled a lot and truly did not lead a particularly healthy lifestyle. I was thin as a rail, but it was largely from lack of sleep, high stress and too many cigarettes!

I did my first triathlon on a whim in 2009. I was out one night with a friend of mine from college. He and I made a bet as to who could beat the other at an Olympic distance race. Despite my overwhelming lack of fitness, I had a high level of confidence in myself because of how athletic I was as a kid. Lucky for me I won our bet! And it completely changed my life. I quit smoking on the spot and started working out on a regular basis. I definitely caught the triathlon bug quickly!

The Clymb: What kind of sports did you enjoy growing up and as an adult?

SP: When I was a kid, I Iived and breathed sports. Whatever there was to do I did it—soccer, baseball, softball, skiing, waterskiing, tennis, basketball, skateboarding, rock climbing, sledding, skating, hockey—literally, I did it all. I was happiest when I was doing something active.

After college I took up golf and squash, both of which I played regularly for several years. In the winters I re-found my love of skiing.

Today I am still the same way—I love to do anything outside. I’m just a little less coordinated and less agile than I once was!

The Clymb: Can you tell us a bit about your experience at the Ironman 70.3 New Orleans earlier this year?

SP: New Orleans has always been a race that is close to my heart—it was my very first 70.3 distance event that I ever competed in and was where I won my first 70.3 after I began racing professionally. This year going into the race I felt that I was in the best shape and position I had ever been in leading into that race and was excited to compete. As a slower swimmer, I am always playing catch up on the bike. Twice, I pulled myself right up to the lead, and twice I got a flat tire. Luckily I was able to fix both, but came into the transition area frustrated as I felt my chance to win had faded—I was over 4 minutes out of the lead at the start of the run. But I had a great run and was able to run my way to the win! It was definitely a case of “never give up”. I was shocked, but very very happy to win that race.

The Clymb: Of the triathlon modalities, which one you find hardest? What are you doing to train/get better at it?

SP: Swimming is far and away the hardest event for me. Even after years of practice I still sink every time I get in the water! During my first few years working with my coach, Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness, we placed a big emphasis on swimming. In fact, about 60 percent of my training hours were spent in the pool.

I certainly developed a lot—I got faster, more confident, stronger, and more resilient. But I am still one of the slower swimmers on the professional circuit. As my career has evolved, my swim volume has gone down, but each swim session is still highly focused, with emphasis on swim mechanics (which is where so much of my energy and time is lost).

The Clymb: Which one do you enjoy the most? Is it because it comes natural to you or because you get something out of it?

SP: Running is one of the great loves of my life. I simply LOVE to run. I get out there and I can just zone the world out and run and run and run. I love it. But interestingly, cycling has moved right up there next to running. I didn’t grow up as a cyclist so it has been something that has grown on me over time—in fact, when I was younger, I hated biking. But as I have developed as a cyclist, it has become so much more enjoyable for me and the places I can see on my bike—I’m always awed by some of the experiences I have on two wheels.

The Clymb: Do you have any special quirks/superstitions/preparation routines you go through when getting ready for your next triathlon?

SP: I have a few, but I would argue they are not that weird! Haha, I always wear a new pair of socks at every race; I never shave my legs the week before a race, and then the night before I shave them. And usually race week I go into “Ghost Mode” (which is what my friends and family call my headspace). I get so focused on the race, I pretty much drop all forms of communication with people—they have no idea where I am!

The Clymb: What’s your ultimate goal regarding triathlons or sports?

SP: My ultimate goal is to win Kona—The Ironman World Championships. I have a lot of work to do to get there and I’m not in a position as an athlete right now to be able to contend, but over the coming few years I’m hoping my progression on the bike and in the run will put me in contention.

The Clymb: You started The Habit Project recently to help people “change their bad habits to good ones.” Can you tell us a bit about it, how it works and what motivated you to get it going?

SP: The Habit Project was inspired by my own experience—an overworked banker with little life balance, fitness or good health who was inspired to make some significant life changes based on a single experience.

The idea is that everyone has bad habits—we have routines we have fallen into or things we wish we could change, but we are lacking the trigger or source of inspiration to help us make lasting changes. Sometimes one small thing can be all you need to begin a string of changes that will ultimately lead to a better and happier you.

With the Habit Project, we provide people with challenges—all small and achievable, that might be just the thing needed to kick-start creating new, positive habits.

For me—I had wanted to stop smoking and start working out for a long time, but nothing was truly motivating me to stop. As soon as I did that first triathlon, I quit smoking on the spot, and was instantly motivated to find time on a daily basis to begin training for my next race. I began eating healthier, sleeping more, spending more time outside the office, and my work productivity improved because I wanted to be able to get out and train—all positive things!

That is what the Habit Project is all about—hopefully offering THE tip that could start your spiral of positive change.