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Sarah Hartmann & The IRONMAN Foundation: “Vulnerability”

For me, being a hero means being relentless in solving problems. It means that you cannot be deterred from your goal. It also means creating a positive impact and changing lives. While it may be overwhelming, being able to edit and decide which problem you will work to solve immediately to make a positive impact […]

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For me, being a hero means being relentless in solving problems. It means that you cannot be deterred from your goal. It also means creating a positive impact and changing lives. While it may be overwhelming, being able to edit and decide which problem you will work to solve immediately to make a positive impact is the ultimate skill and gift.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Hartmann.

Sarah is the Executive Director of the IRONMAN Foundation, a marathoner and triathlete, committed to creating positive, substantial change in race communities through grant funding and volunteerism. Sarah is also the co-founder and former President of Race2Rebuild, a nonprofit endurance racing program founded by athletes to rebuild communities and bring families home after natural disasters.

Sarah is honored to work with the extraordinary partner organizations and causes of the IRONMAN Foundation and Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series to help create positive, tangible impact in the IRONMAN Group’s event communities through all their programming, including TEAM IMF, IMF in Service, IRONAID and Rock This Town.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I was born in Oneonta, New York. I was so fortunate to be born into a family of two teachers who, because of their incredible commitment to education and being of service to others, set me up for the path that I’ve been so privileged to lead today.

After graduating from high school, I left Oneonta. I made my way three and a half hours south to New York City to receive my undergraduate degree at Hofstra University in Long Island before pursuing my graduate degree at the University of Delaware. I’ve lived and worked in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles and now make my home in Tampa, Florida, the location of The IRONMAN Group’s world headquarters.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

To Kill A Mockingbird: I remember being powerfully moved by the book when I read it in school, then being equally moved by the movie, and then again seeing the Broadway adaptation more recently. For me, it painted the picture of the dichotomy between good and evil, the amount of prejudice that existed then and still exists today, and the prevalence of social inequity. I also have always been moved by the figure of Atticus Finch and that resounding message that a life in service is a life well-led.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Going back to my upbringing and the incredible example that my parents set for my brother and me, there’s something extremely powerful about creating opportunities for yourself and having the courage to step into these opportunities to create hope and solve the problems of others. Some of the greatest moments in my life are tied to those really deep moments — sometimes they’re simple, and sometimes they’re more profound.

The lightbulb moment for me was back in 2012 when the New York City Marathon was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy. At the time that I was living in New York, so my friends, fellow runners, and triathletes banded together to lead relief efforts in the New York metro area. Our efforts continued for multiple weeks, and we had the privilege to work with the mayor’s office, the Department of Homeland Security, and nonprofits big and small throughout New York City and New Jersey.

Those weeks led to the formation of a nonprofit that I helped launch called Race2Rebuild, which eventually became a grant recipient of the IRONMAN Foundation. In turn, this journey opened the door for me to lead the organization where I sit today — the IRONMAN Foundation.

Multiple times along my journey, I’ve met people who have lost their homes in natural disasters or had life-changing experiences, and I’ve had the opportunity to try and help. I’ve never felt more myself than when I’m shaking the hands of those people or getting to know them, and I feel grateful every day for that experience in 2012 because it’s allowed me to do so much more. I am very grateful to have a team that loves service and positive impact as much as I do.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

The IRONMAN Foundation is the charitable arm of the IRONMAN Group. Our role is to create a positive, tangible impact in our event communities through grant funding and volunteer efforts. In a normal year, that means about 1,500 grants to different charitable organizations supporting a multitude of nonprofits, programs, and causes.

In light of the pandemic, we have shifted our focus to support pandemic-related needs specifically. Health-related organizations around the world have received grant funding from us to support the new and emerging needs that are now present. This includes supporting research, providing PPE, making sure the most vulnerable populations are being taken care of, filling food banks, and more.

This season, we have focused our IRONAID program to specifically meet health-related needs in communities most challenged by today’s circumstances. In addition to funding grants, this program includes Operation IRONAID Nutrition; an initiative developed to help fill food banks in our race communities, as food insecurity has become one of the most emergent obstacles caused by the pandemic.

We’ve also developed Operation IRONAID Face Masks with partners who are repurposing resources to help meet new needs in light of the pandemic. These partners are Good360, a charitable organization which helps companies donate excess merchandise, and Framebridge, a custom framing company in Kentucky whose head of operations and supply chain, Michael Kane, is an IRONMAN athlete himself.

As a result, we have upcycled new, unused race shirts in our warehouse into non-sterile face coverings to deliver to organizations, first responders, and frontline workers across the country to support their needs. We believe that by the end of the year, we will have created half a million of these upcycled face coverings, and it is through our partnership with Good360 and Framebridge that we were able to accomplish this success. Most recently, we donated about 8,000 of these masks to the National Rescue Mission for the homeless population in Nashville.

People want to do good things right now, which is what we need. What’s been tremendously exciting to me is that our donors and athletes have continued to step up. They are participating in virtual events and fundraising to support these programs, and I’m proud of our athletes and our staff for their determination, empathy, and perseverance which helped us raise almost 500,000 dollars for the IRONAID COVID-19 Support Fund. Together, we’ve been able to support heroes like our frontline workers, our nonprofit partners and all the people they serve.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

For me, being a hero means being relentless in solving problems. It means that you cannot be deterred from your goal. It also means creating a positive impact and changing lives. While it may be overwhelming, being able to edit and decide which problem you will work to solve immediately to make a positive impact is the ultimate skill and gift.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Tenacity: You must be relentless and extremely determined. You must be willing to collaborate, yet unwilling to budge to achieve your goal while creating positive impact and helping people.
  2. Creativity: Going back to our partnership with Framebridge and Good360, there are now 8,000 people in Nashville who have face masks that didn’t before. Time and time again during this pandemic, I have engaged in inspiring conversations with colleagues, friends, partners, and other for-profit and nonprofit organizations where people are willing to think outside the box to get more done, for more people.
  3. Fortitude: People are truly suffering through this pandemic in many ways, physically and emotionally. Fortitude is one of the most essential qualities that we need to be heroic and solve problems to create impact. Sometimes that looks like riding 140.6 miles dedicated to the IRONAID COVID-19 Support Fund, like the 4,000 athletes that did so through the virtual challenges hosted on the IRONMAN Virtual Club. At other times, it’s having the courage to support charities around the world in the face of adversity and having the strength to serve them in impossibly difficult circumstances.
  4. Strength: Being a hero means you must take care of yourself and the people around you so that you have enough strength to get up and do it again the next day!
  5. Vulnerability: I think one of the hallmarks of great leadership is vulnerability. A hero can stand in a place of vulnerability and the unknown with a willingness to listen, learn, and accept the help of others.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

When you have a profound experience or an opportunity to change another person’s life and help them in a time of need — that becomes a life-changing moment. In 2012, I had a chance to be in service directly, and for me, when stringing those moments together, it becomes a calling.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

At The IRONMAN Group, we’re all swimming in the same direction to create incredible, life-changing experiences for athletes of all abilities. The IRONMAN Foundation is fortunate to be a small, nimble organization creating good inside a much larger event production company that works quickly and creatively, with tenacity and fortitude.

When needs arise, we step up to the challenge, whether its tornadoes happening in Nashville, bushfires happening in Australia, volcanoes erupting in Kona, or the pandemic hitting the world. We have a unique ability to work efficiently to be of service.

In endurance sports, there is a common trait to be able to put your head down and get the work done — this is a trait we put forward in the work we do as well at the IRONMAN Foundation. For us, the pivot of the IRONAID program to become the IRONAID COVID-19 Support Fund is a reflection of that with our ongoing support to meet the most vital and emergent needs of our communities that have given us so much.

For example, Kona, Hawaii is the host for our annual pinnacle event, the IRONMAN World Championship. Over the years, the incredible community there, our ‘Ohana, has supported us and our events relentlessly. Even though we could not race there this year, we’re still acknowledging the community that has given so much to us.

“Kahiau” is the Hawaiian word which means to give lavishly and selflessly without expectation of return, and it’s a great example of how our operation is passionately leading this service opportunity. Through the Kahiau hunger relief initiative in Kona, we have pledged 1,000,000 dollars to help support our ‘Ohana during this critical time. We’ve set-up stations for families to drive through and safely pick up bundles of carefully curated foods, as well as initiated a grant program to help food banks and support local nonprofits.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

When I think back to my definition of a hero, and those who are relentless in solving problems that create impact and change lives, I have to say Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I honor her and all leaders who are willing to work so passionately, tenaciously, and successfully to help others.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

I would say the fluidity. Everything is changing all the time, and there’s significant uncertainty associated with that. It’s tough to plan things, and when you’re in an event production company and run a nonprofit — you’re always planning. We have to rise to the challenge, be creative, and pivot. It is an incredible time of adaptation and creativity, and that’s the only way that we can address all the fear surrounding this uncertainty.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

Opportunities for partnerships, even unlikely ones, give me hope. Being willing to have those conversations, repurpose resources, and create change brings me a great deal of excitement.

It gives me tremendous hope to have athletes and donors participating and supporting our IRONMAN Foundation efforts despite all that’s happening in their lives. I recently attended an event where some athletes were from Northern California, dealing with the intense wildfires, yet committed to helping others through these programs. They are heroes to me, and they give me hope.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

While those who are incredibly self-focused are most disappointing, the people who are outwardly and selflessly serving others are the most inspirational. These are the people rising to the occasion to serve others, whether that be an athlete or donor fundraising and supporting programs, our team stepping up to innovate or partners who are willing to raise their hands to help.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

In some ways it has, as it has exposed areas of deep need and developed a greater consciousness around them. We’re more exposed than we have been, and for me, I certainly feel more conscious of the amount of work that we still have to accomplish. At the IRONMAN Foundation, through some of the experiences that we’ve had, programs that we’ve had the privilege to fund, and people we’ve helped, I feel that we can be a part of the solution.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

I would like us to address the inequities that continue to pervade our communities. This is unlike any other time in history, and while I wish we could solve all the problems, we’re going to focus on those where we feel that we can have the most impact and do the most good, with the hope that other change will happen because of that work.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Do not be afraid of change. Some of the greatest moments in life come when we dare to change course and do something differently, think about something differently, or go about solving problems differently.

This is what we try to do within the IRONMAN Foundation right now and always. We want to continue making a positive impact in our communities and serving their needs that have emerged from the pandemic. To have the courage to change will open doors and make an impact in ways you’ve never imagined.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Be vulnerable, work hard and embrace change.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d like to meet with Oprah Winfrey to talk about equity, personal and professional heroism, and sports — she and I both ran the New York City Marathon, and in some ways, she motivated me to do it!

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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