Sarah True, after post-Rio suicidal thoughts, tackles Ironman Kona

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Post-Olympic depression hit Sarah True hard after she tottered, right leg cramping, off the Rio triathlon course, pushing her bike to a street-side barrier while being lapped.

“This continued into 2017, and for a good part of that year I couldn’t experience any joy whatsoever,” True, who struggled with clinical depression since her early teens, wrote for Outside magazine. “I obsessively thought about taking my own life. I’d be out on long training rides and couldn’t stop thinking about swerving into oncoming traffic, every truck becoming an object that could end it all. Month after month passed, and I kept thinking it can’t get any worse, and yet it just kept on getting worse.”

True sought help. From a therapist. From connecting socially. From doing art and cooking. From knowing that the feelings would eventually pass.

“No matter how bleak and despairing it feels, it’s not real,” she said. “The people around you still love you. You’re not this burden to them. One of the most important things was I finally acknowledged the fact that I needed help. At that point I realized that I think it’s time to revisit this thing that I filed away in my brain. This Ironman thing.”

Last October, True had a “light-bulb, epiphany” moment, waking up with a new goal of doing an Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile marathon run. It’s more than four times longer than the Olympic distance.

“I was in a pretty dark, scary place last year, and when I came out I was just so grateful for life that honestly the best celebration of being alive I could think of was doing an Ironman,” she said Wednesday.

True, 36, has been in Hawaii for the last month, preparing to race the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona on Saturday.

The biggest event in triathlon streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app with a 90-minute NBCSN broadcast at 12:30 p.m. ET. Live reports on NBCSN and NBC will air throughout the day, beginning at 2 p.m. NBCSN will air recap coverage Sunday at 12 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“I would be disappointed with anything outside the top 10, but I also recognize that extremely fit people with far more experience in Ironman have had disastrous races here because of the conditions,” True said.

Her first triathlon memories were watching Kona legend Paula Newby-Fraser racing in a fluorescent two-piece suit on NBC. Newby-Fraser won a record eight Kona crowns between 1986 and 1996.

True grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., playing pranks on MLB Hall of Fame visitors seeking directions. She swam and ran at Cooperstown High, then swam at Vermont’s Division III Middlebury College and made what she called a natural progression to triathlon.

By 2011, True had become the best U.S. female triathlete. She finished fourth at the London Olympics, missing bronze by 10 seconds, and briefly considered moving toward the Ironman distance.

After Rio, True tried to resume an Olympic-distance career. But after DNFing and finishing 34th in the first two World Series races in 2017, she gave it up. She remembered a coach four years earlier asking what motivated her to wake up every morning. It was Olympic-distance triathlon. Not anymore.

“I was still carrying the heartbreak from Rio,” True said on the IronWomen podcast. “My heart wasn’t in it.”

True made her half Ironman distance debut the following month and finished second in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It was kind of a test for whether or not I would call it a very happy, successful career or version 2.0, long-course, non-draft athlete phase,” she told Ironman historian Bob Babbitt. “I loved it.”

True is now in Kona as an experienced racer, having placed fourth and 10th at the last two half Ironman 70.3 World Championships and second to three-time reigning Kona champ Daniela Ryf at the European Championships in July, her first full Ironman. (Granted, Ryf, who was 40th at the 2012 Olympics, won by 26 minutes.)

True has been remarkably strong amid many rookie moments. In her first 70.3, she took in just 350 calories over more than four hours of racing (and none on the 13.1-mile run), causing her dietitian to laugh, gobsmacked she didn’t blow up during the half marathon. She had massive blisters on her feet from not wearing socks. True did her first three 70.3 races in an exhausting span of six weeks.

The longest run of her life before the European Championships was 18 miles. True grabbed the wrong bag in the transition off the bike in Frankfurt, Germany. She had to go back after being dumbfounded by the unfamiliar shoes and running equipment she had pulled out.

She is asked what scares her about Saturday’s race, one of the toughest events in all of sport, that starts at 6:40 a.m. local time.

“Things can go very badly in the heat,” she said. “It’s not fear. It’s a healthy respect for what could potentially go wrong. It’s Ironman. When things go wrong in a nine-hour race, they go really wrong.”

The feeling is not comparable to the days leading up to an Olympics. Kona is every year. True is right now on a two-year plan, to spend next year training specifically for Kona.

This one is for gaining experience, handling the head- and cross-winds biking on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway. Surviving the Energy Lab on the run after more than 130 miles of racing. The forecast says it’ll reach 86 degrees by 9 a.m. with a coin-flip chance of rain.

“There’s no amateur component to the Olympics,” True said. “I’m here with 2,500 amateur athletes, and it’s a traveling circus. The vendors are here. All the media is here. This town has just been overrun by triathlon. The Olympics is a celebration of Olympic sport. Kona is a celebration of triathlon.”

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