West Lebanon’s Sarah True wins Ironman triathlon in Germany
|Published: 07-13-2023 8:25 AM
Sarah True was in position to win the Ironman European Championship in 2019, holding the lead less than a half-mile from the finish line.
The West Lebanon resident and former two-time Olympian had already been on the course in Frankfurt, Germany, for more than nine hours during an extreme heat wave, completing a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride before closing in on the victory in the homestretch of the 26.2-mile run. But with 700 meters to go, medical staff working the race noticed that True was showing signs of heatstroke, deciding to take her off the course.
Four years later, True, 41, finished the job on July 2 of this year on the same course, winning the title in 8 hours, 54 minutes and 53 seconds.
“A lot of people had watched what happened in 2019 in Frankfurt, and they were cheering for me because they wanted to see me cross the finish line,” True said. “They kept on saying, ‘Redemption, redemption! This is your race, Sarah!’
“It was so lovely to feel as though the crowds were behind me. Because it’s an individual sport, you can get into this mindset that nobody really cares, but it felt kind of personal to people.”
True was born in Hanover but raised in Cooperstown, N.Y., then competed on the swim team at Middlebury College, where she was named an All-American. She had also been an elite runner at Cooperstown High School, and later Deerfield (Mass.) Academy. Faced with a decision between running and swimming as her focus as she prepared to turn professional, True opted to further pursue triathlon.
Known as Sarah Groff at the time, True began racing internationally in 2005 and won three medals — a silver and two bronzes — at the International Triathlon Union World Championships between 2011 and 2015. She was 10 seconds off the podium in her first Olympic race in London in 2012, finishing fourth, then made the U.S. Olympic team again for the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. But a leg cramp during the swim portion of the race led to a poor showing and ultimately her withdrawal during the bike segment.
Following Rio, True decided to transition to the much longer Ironman races, citing a desire to give them a try and a feeling that she was more suited to races that emphasized endurance rather than speed.
“It was kind of threefold,” True said. “The shorter-distance races required a lot of international travel, and I realized it wasn’t going to be sustainable to be able to have a life beyond that. I had interest in doing the long-course racing before I retired, and I wanted to have a crack at it. And then just as you get older in endurance sports, you tend to get a bit slower, so I realized that going into longer-course racing was probably going to suit me as an older athlete.”
In 2017, her first full year focusing on longer races, True won two Ironman 70.3 races — otherwise known as a Half Ironman — in Augusta, Ga. and Austin, Texas. The following year, she finished second in two full Ironman races in Europe, including Frankfurt, and came in fourth at the 2018 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
Despite being married to another elite endurance athlete — marathoner and former Dartmouth College runner and skier Ben True — she said the couple does not talk much about their training and racing because they have a shared understanding of how hard the process is and how devastating a bad race can be.
“We don’t train together at all, but it’s nice that we both have fundamental understanding of each other’s job,” Ben True said. “I just try to be as supportive as possible. When she is Ironman training as well as balancing all the other stuff, she doesn’t have much free time, so that’s when I can help out the most. I basically stay out of her way when she needs to get things done.”
Sarah and Ben welcomed their son Haakon into the world in July 2021, and in addition to motherhood, Sarah is also pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Antioch University New England. Since returning to racing, Sarah True said she trains roughly five fewer hours per week. But she showed few signs of rust upon making her comeback in 2022, winning a Half Ironman in Maryland and a full Ironman in Lake Placid, N.Y.
With Ben remaining in West Lebanon to be with Haakon and watching the Frankfurt race at home on a stream, Sarah was the co-leader after the swim, then dropped back a bit on the bike but remained in contention. She made her comeback during the marathon, finishing the run in under three hours and taking the lead in the final 10 kilometers.
“With a race that long, it’s really common to go through some highs and lows over the course of the day,” she said. “It really is a roller coaster. There are some days where the highs are pretty high and the lows are pretty low, and this was one of those races. I had moments where it was great but also moments where it was absolutely terrible. You just have to be mentally tough and optimistic.”
Ben said Haakon easily recognized his mother while watching the race and would get upset when the camera cut away from her, saying, “More mama!” He and Sarah are trying not to push their son too hard into following in their footsteps, but Sarah said Haakon enjoys racing his parents in their house.
Sarah finished her summer semester on Monday and said she hopes to race a couple more times this year. Winning in Frankfurt was meaningful to her, she said, to prove to herself that she can still compete at a world-class level, even after giving birth.
“This phase of my career is completely about my love of the sport and the satisfaction I get from the process,” she said. “There are lots of people who do cool things in the Upper Valley, and I’m just another person who does something a bit weird for a job. But I feel genuinely supported by the community.
“There’s something so lovely about a community like this, where they followed the race and they see me training at the pool and they know everything that goes into it. I’m very grateful to be living here and having people like that.”
Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3302.