Shawn Piros competes at national triathlon
PINEDALE – Shawn Piros rose bright and early on the morning of her race at the 2023 USA Triathlon National Championships in Milwaukee on Aug. 6.
As the sun attempted to break through the cloudy Wisconsin sky, Piros took in a nutritious breakfast before heading to the site of the triathlon.
Piros focused on the grueling task ahead, getting herself into the triathlon “mindset.” She visualized each portion – swimming, bicycling and running. Gear was carefully laid out to make the timed transitions between the three legs go smoothly.
Athletes gathered at the starting line on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“I go into a quiet calm right before the race,” said Piros. “I’ll have a serious face on. I’m not going to be a conversationalist. By the time I get to the water, I turn my nervousness into excitement. Then I just kind of go neutral inside and I trust that I know the drill.”
Piros adjusted her Farmer John wetsuit, worn to protect her body from the chilly 60-degree water and improve buoyancy.
An official signaled the beginning of the race. Piros and her competitors burst from the starting line in the direction of Lake Michigan for the 750-meter swim.
One hour, 28 minutes and 37 seconds later, Piros surged across the finish line after completing the swim, a 20-kilometer bike race and 5-kilometer run, snagging 29th place in her division. Piros finished close to the top third in her division and beat out more than half of the 986 women of all ages participating in the National Championships.
Making it to the Nationals is its own accomplishment, all the more impressive because 2023 is only Piros’ second full season competing in triathlons. To qualify for Nationals, athletes must participate in a minimum of three regional triathlons and rank in the top 15 percent in their region.
Piros competes in what is called a “sprint” triathlon. While most folks would consider a 750-meter swim, 20K bike race and 5K run anything but a sprint, the sprint triathlon is shorter than Olympic and Ironman categories.
Piros prefers the intensity of the “sprint.”
“I just thrive on going all out,” she said. “That’s my gig. You are in zone four, five and six the entire time – constantly out of breath and gasping for air.”
The swim portion of Nationals took place in Lake Michigan. A rocky berm protected swimmers from the lake’s turbulence, though there were still plenty of waves.
Piros found the swimming portion especially challenging.
“It’s such a long distance to swim. It’s nonstop and you’re dealing with trying not to swallow water, getting enough air and the people around you splashing.”
Piros focused on finding an “efficient” pace by starting out slower to conserve energy and then “gradually pushing” her speed. She chose the correct stroke to propel her through the water and help with bilateral breathing.
“In the water, I’m in the moment. I’m looking from buoy to buoy. I’m literally telling myself, ‘You can do this!’”
At times, the swim felt overwhelming.
“I just have to bring it back in and remind myself that no one is forcing me to do this,” Piros added. “This is something I want to do and I want to be competitive.”
Piros basically relearned to swim as an adult, involving hour after demanding hour of relentless training.
“If you asked me three years ago if I swam, the answer was, ‘No!’ Now I’m actually competitive in swimming, which blows my mind.”
Piros ran her first triathlon in 2021 with her son, Josiah, and close friend, Brianna Summerall. The swimming portion nearly knocked Piros out.
“I thought I was going to die in the water,” she said. “I was not doing freestyle. I was doing the backstroke, the breaststroke – anything just to get done.”
Many of Piros’ competitors have the advantage of living in locations with shorter winters, allowing them to train in oceans or lakes for a considerable potion of the year.
Piros participated in a triathlon in St. Petersburg, Florida, where a majority of the contestants trained year-round in the ocean.
“It wasn’t until July that I got into the New Fork to swim,” she said.
Piros finished the swimming portion in 16 minutes – a new personal record.
Piros feels most comfortable in the saddle of a carbon-fiber bike modified by her brother to be used in triathlons.
“I love cycling because I love to go the distance,” Piros said. “I know what my limits are on my bike.”
Piros began teaching spin classes at the Pinedale Aquatic Center 10 years ago.
She recalls first learning to ride a bike and getting “spitting mad at my dad for letting go of my bike.”
Piros purchased her first road bike when she was a teenager. After high school, she and a friend completed a long-distance ride around Lake Tahoe.
The bike race at Nationals wound through city streets and along a portion of interstate closed to traffic.
Triathlon organizers do a “great job” mapping the bicycle route, said Piros. This is crucial because many athletes travel long distances to compete and cannot take the time to rehearse the entire course.
“You’re in the zone and everything needs to be laid out so you don’t have to think. A wrong turn can be disappointing.”
Piros’ competitive nature comes out in the bike portion. Developing a competitive edge took time, though. She competed in team sports in high school, but found them to be anxiety-inducing.
“I learned that when it’s just me, I like it,” Piros stated. “I’m in control of what I do, how much I push myself and no one is depending on me. That’s why I thrive in triathlon, because it’s me, myself and I.”
Piros learned to embrace a degree of competitiveness for the triathlon. Other athletes push Piros to keep pace with them, or even overtake them, to beat her own personal records.
At one triathlon, a woman in Piros’ age division beat Piros by 3 seconds because the woman conserved the energy to give a big kick before the finish line – another hard-learned lesson.
Piros ditched her clip-on cycling shoes for running shoes, removed her bike helmet and downed a quick intake of “nutrition” before embarking on the 5-K run.
Like swimming, running did not come easy for Piros.
“I started running and it was like torture for me,” she added. “It was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t crack a smile. Everything hurt – my head, arms, stomach, knees, ankles and toes.”
Piros learned to set small goals as she developed into a runner – using better posture or remembering to smile instead of gritting her teeth. Piros watched YouTube videos posted by professional runners for tips. In April, Piros hired a triathlon coach, Jason McFaul, to help her improve.
“After two years of solid training, I enjoy running,” Piros remarked. “I can actually run and my mind wanders. I’m not just surviving. I’m thinking of my to-do list or a post for my business.”
During the 5-kilometer run, Piros, like all runners, battles “pseudo-pain thoughts” attempting to persuade her to quit. She regains focus by doing a body check.
“I ask myself: ‘Do you have a headache?’ No. ‘Does your stomach hurt?’ No. ‘How about your ankles? Toes?’ Maybe. But do I need to stop just because of that? No.”
Over the past two years, Piros made substantial gains in her 5-K times, dropping from a pace of 11 minutes per mile to 9:14 split times at Nationals.
A sport for everyone
Piros believes almost anyone can participate in a triathlon.
“You can tread water,” she said. “You can hop on a bike. You don’t have to have fancy stuff. You can walk-run-walk.”
Piros recently began a business as a fitness and nutrition coach called Shawn Piros Wellness, and appreciates the “interplay” between her work and the triathlon.
“This is how I live – encouraging people to get out there and get fit, to take a class or do a triathlon. Don’t let fear hold you back from trying something new. You never know – you just might catch the bug and learn to enjoy running or how to swim as an adult.”
Piros started small, building from a single triathlon in 2021 to four in 2022 and six this year, including the Last Call Triathlon in Colorado on Sept. 30. Piros snagged first place in her division at the event.
Piros thanked her sons Josiah, Jacob and Matt, for their support and inspiration. Josiah continues to run triathlons with his mom.
She expressed gratitude to her mother, Colleen, who ran her first triathlon in her 60s, her brother, a “highly competitive” triathlon runner and her father, Lee, for instilling in Piros a love for the outdoors.
Piros gave a shoutout to Summerall for encouraging Piros to run her first triathlon, her friend Marcy for inspiring “a love for cycling” and Cheryl Grossman for helping Piros improve as a swimmer.
Piros’ “biggest cheerleader” is her husband, Jeff, who travels to every triathlon and serves as the “team manager,” tracking Piros’ split times.
“When Jeff hollers my name, or rings the cowbells we take to events, it gives me that extra boost,” said Piros. “He’s sacrificing to support me and he loves watching me believe in myself. Those little seeds that he plans of encouragement – It grows my belief.”
At the end of the day, triathlons come down to one of Piros’ favorite words – “perseverance.”
“You have to persevere. Otherwise, you’re staying where you’re at. I want to be better, challenge myself, push myself to the limit. And I don’t think I have reached the limit yet.”