Q&A with Sarah Reinertsen

Paratriathlete Sarah Reinertsen was born with a congenital femoral deficiency—essentially, her thigh bone stopped growing. At just seven years old, she opted for an above-knee amputation. “Growing up with a disability, I was the kid that was left behind in gym class and on the playground,” she says. “Being this feisty New Yorker, I wasn’t going to let all the two-legged kids at school have all the fun.” Her doctors promised her a “better, cooler” leg in two surgeries.

Since then, Reinertsen has done nothing but push limits. In 2005, she became the first above-knee amputee to complete the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. She has also held world records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter, 5K, and marathon distances.

In 2018, she pursued even bigger feats, completing the World Marathon Challenge by running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. In the fall, she finished the Ironman World Championships in 14:41:05, 24 minutes faster than she did in 2005.

Her accomplishments are even more impressive considering she didn’t learn how to run until age 11. “I often say that’s why I love it so much, because I’m making up for those 11 years that I didn’t get to do it,” says Reinertsen, now 43. Furthermore sat down with her to talk race-day strategies, musical mantras, and what her circumstances have taught her about life.

When did you fall in love with running?

For the first few years after getting my prosthetic, I would drag my leg behind me and go as quickly as I could. It wasn’t until I was 11 that I met a physical therapist who volunteered his time to teach me to run.

I was so undeniably different as a teenager, but sports gave me the opportunity to feel confident in my body, so I started working out. Eventually, I grew to accept my left leg. I have a prosthetic at home that has a cover over it, but I’ve embraced the part-woman, part-machine look.

How did you manage to race faster in Kona, Hawaii, last year than you did 14 years ago?

Having a coach to encourage me and create my plan with intention and with my goals in mind—I needed that more than anything. For me, another thing was investing in equipment. I made a lot of changes with my gear, like adding electronic shifters to my bike and using Össur cycling and running legs with updated designs for racing and speed. The prosthetic tech definitely helps, but I don’t want to give it too much credit. I’m still the engine. I power the hinge through every revolution on the bike and every stride on the run.

What’s the most challenging phase of the Ironman: the swim, bike, or run?

Mother Nature is always the X factor. Is it going to rain? Is it going to be windy? I find it such a bigger variable in the swim because of the swells and the chop, plus other people are swimming around you so it becomes a bit of a boxing match. When you swim 1.2 miles into the middle of the ocean, you feel like a cork bobbing in the middle of nowhere. You want to feel small in the world, and that’s exactly how to do it. There’s nothing to look at and you can’t wear headphones, so you really have to be mentally tough and persistent.

Do you face any unique challenges on the course?

In the swim, I can’t wear my prosthetic, so if I kick too hard it pulls my body to the left. I need to kick a little for propulsion, but not so much that I end up swimming extra.

The ride in Kona is hilly, with 5,800 feet of elevation gain. I can stand up on a stationary indoor bike because it’s grounded, but I can’t do that on a road bike because I would tip over. I just have to sit and patiently grind it out to get to the top. Ninety percent of my power in the Ironman comes out of my right leg.

As an amputee, I use 40 percent more oxygen and twice as much energy as two-legged people do, so I’m at a cardiovascular deficit right there. The marathon is hard, but I’m not as nervous about it because running was my first sport.

What helps you push through the most painful, grueling parts?

I always make a point to thank the volunteers. Without them, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to race. If you have that little piece of gratitude or you find that one thing to smile about, even for a moment of your suffering, you feel okay. Language is so important, too. Instead of thinking “I have to work out,” I always say “I get to work out.” That makes it feel like a privilege instead of a chore.

Another way I keep my positivity is by singing on the bike. I listened to a lot of Imagine Dragons getting ready for Kona because it’s pop and it’s got a good beat. I would sing “On Top of the World” or “Whatever It Takes.” Songs can serve as mantras.

How do you fuel?

In the Ironman, nutrition is the fourth event. I alternate between caffeinated and non-caffeinated gels, going easy on the caffeine early in the race and having more in the later stages. I also take sodium tablets to ease cramping. I put the pills in one of those mini M&M containers so I can flip the lid and get them out quickly. I’ll eat energy waffles and sport beans. You get flavor fatigue, so you just have to keep switching it up. For liquid, you can never carry enough so I just drink what’s on the course.

What’s your favorite post-race meal?

Sushi. I love the protein after a long race. After all those gels, who wants sweet? Give me something salty. Tuna, salmon, anything like that is good.

Do you have any advantages over able-bodied athletes?

The advantage I have is mental. Losing my leg at the age of seven has made me very good at adapting, at not letting the glitches get me down. That’s a big part of racing, just rolling with the glitches.

How do you stay motivated?

I always say, just keeping signing up. Once you sign up for something, it takes your training program and amplifies the focus.

What do you hope other people learn from seeing you excel as an athlete?

People are always asking me, "Don’t you want to inspire people with disabilities?" I want to inspire anyone to push themselves to do more. I hope that when people see or read my story, it makes them examine and re-evaluate some of their excuses. If I could figure out how to do an Ironman on one leg, you can figure out how to get to the gym today.

How has your amputation affected your outlook?

When you’re missing something in life, it makes you so much more grateful for what you do have. If I had two legs, I might have just floated by on being ordinary. Instead, I’ve taken the circumstances and I’ve always wanted to pursue the extraordinary. I think that comes from a place of not having. My friends at Nike made me a shirt that says, “You don’t need two legs to kick ass.” That’s just it. Use what you have in life to kick ass, whatever that means to you.

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