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.