When you’re as athletically gifted as Sarah True, every race you enter holds the promise of a podium finish. But no matter how talented or well prepared you are, sometimes your body doesn’t stick to the plan. That has been the story of Sarah’s 2019 season. Sarah burst onto the triathlon seen a decade ago and has since won bronze, silver, and bronze at the ITU World Championships (in 2011, 2014, and 2015 respectively). She was also the most successful triathlete for Team USA in the 2012 London Olympics, finishing fourth. Showing her versatility, she seized second place at the 2017 Sarasota CAMTRI Sprint Triathlon, and then came fourth at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona a year later.
Heading into 2019, everything seemed to be set up for Sarah’s most successful season ever. She had dialed in her nutrition, accumulated a full winter of quality training, and was more confident than ever. Then Frankfurt happened. Leading one of Europe’s premier IRONMAN events with just one mile to go in the run, Sarah collapsed in the 100-degree heat and had to be carried from the course. Showing the heart of a champion, she came back strong in Mont-Treblant just six weeks later, finishing second. This qualified Sarah for Kona, where she looked to improve on her 2018 breakthrough and make the podium. However, she had to pull out partway through the bike course as her body overrode her mind’s desire to push on. In this candid conversation, Sarah shares what the ups and downs of this season has taught her about herself, the value of real rest, and more.
MO: Tell us about your Kona experience.
ST: “My coach and I did everything right from a performance standpoint. I was fit, my approach was healthy and balanced, and I was posting good numbers in training. But the human body is more complex than that, and we’re still trying to work out what’s going on. My team of specialists thinks it’s an autonomic nervous system issue and we’re looking into doing some testing to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. In athletic performance, you try to control everything, but the unexpected can still happen.
During training I wasn’t having any serious symptoms. One of the unique challenges of this sport is that you can’t recreate the demands of an IRONMAN outside of the actual race. So you never really know how you’re going to respond. All the training data showed that I was fine but there’s no dress rehearsal. I showed up in Kona knowing that I wasn’t sick or injured and that I was well prepared. But what I couldn’t know was how my body would react to the rigors of racing. And in the end, my response was extreme. Deciding to go to Kona was an emotional choice, but in hindsight, a better one would have been to sit it out and enter another race later in the year. There’s always the balancing act between emotion and rationality.
I’ve had to find the humility to recognize that I’m not invulnerable and that I need to let my body fully recover. My coach and I had talked about me doing a marathon in December, but we decided that looking at the big picture, it will be better for me to take a longer break. I can’t keep stressing my nervous system and pushing myself without full recovery.”
MO: How has the triathlon community responded?
ST: “After Frankfurt, I thought it was a heat-related incident and started reaching out to other athletes who have had traumatic heat events to get their feedback. They were all really gracious and open with me. But as I heard more about their experiences, I saw that what happened to me didn’t really line up with that hypothesis, so I needed to do more research.
Other people have contacted me to offer their support. It’s been a great reminder that I’m part of this fantastic, caring community of men and women who are there to lift each other up when things get tough. We all go through hard stuff in life and when you have people to come alongside you and offer encouragement, it really helps.”
MO: Despite your recent setbacks, your social media posts have remained positive. How have you been able to stay upbeat throughout all your ups and downs this year?
ST: “Professionally, this has been an unbelievably difficult year. I make most of my income from racing and I haven’t been able to do that like in years past. Also, there’s the frustration of training hard and not being able to show what I’m capable of in competition. But at the same time, I’ve been able to mentally reframe the experience and acknowledge that I’m really fortunate. Yes, I’ve had some problems recently, but other than that, I’m in great health. I have wonderful people around me. Outside of racing, my life is still awesome and I have a lot to be grateful for. Once my body is better, I’m going to carry this gratitude into next season.
For a while, we were worried that it was a cardiovascular issue that could’ve ended my career or even my life. Thankfully, the tests showed this wasn’t the case – my heart is fine. Being relieved of the fear burden is huge. Yes, I’m disappointed, but I’m still alive. I believe that in time, my body will reset and heal.”
What’s been cool about this stage of my career is that it’s been about my love of the sport, embracing new challenges, and getting out there as part of a community. Being able to remove performance expectations has been a humbling reminder of my true motivation.”
MO: What has the mental side of your recovery looked like?
ST: “I’ve been working with a sports psychologist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy with me for the past few years. A lot of our sessions focus on separating the assumptions I create in my mind from what’s actually real. A big part of the process has been learning to value myself beyond what I achieve as an athlete and trying to become a more complete human being. That has really helped with the ups and downs of this season. I don’t look in the mirror and see a failure. I see someone who is working hard, doing their best every day, and has this weird thing going on that’s holding her back. When I was younger, it was hard to look beyond Sarah the competitor. Now I’m better at valuing myself as a woman, a wife, a friend, and the whole me.
I’ve also chosen to view this time as a valuable learning opportunity rather than a setback. My sports doctor joked that while it has been a frustrating one physically, at least it has been a stimulating one intellectually. It would’ve been easier for me emotionally if my fueling strategy was off, I’d been overtraining, or I simply wasn’t fit enough. Then I could’ve come to an easy conclusion. But this isn’t the case. It’s been a good reminder of the scientific method. We’ve had several hypotheses, have tested each one, and haven’t found the answer, so we need to keep investigating. I’ve certainly learned more about the human body this season than ever before, and have realized that I used to take it for granted.”
Check back soon for part 2.