Updated: May 13, 2019
One thing that I love about being a coach is watching each athletes’ story unfold. This is a story of a remarkable woman who I coach, Laura Specker Sullivan. Laura and I were introduced by a mutual friend a couple years ago, as she was interested in getting deeper into triathlon. She was a dynamite runner, a solid swimmer, and had very little biking experience. Over the past two years, she’s done amazing work and has become balanced in the swim, bike, and run, while excelling at her full-time job as a Professor of Philosophy and Clinical Ethics Consultant in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2018, Laura was chosen among a small group of amateur triathletes to race on Team Wattie Ink, and qualified for her elite racing license. This year, she will continue to represent Wattie Ink and will be racing her first year in the elite women’s field in triathlon. Here’s her story, in her words.
Congrats on qualifying for your elite racing license! Can you explain what it means to be “racing as a pro” during this triathlon season?
[Laura] I think of myself as racing as an elite next year, not as a pro. In qualifying last year, this means that I can register as a professional with Ironman and with other organizations that put on triathlon, like Challenge and the Escape series. While I can get free or discounted race registration, and am eligible for prize money, I am not guaranteed any kind of funding or sponsorship, which is why I make the distinction between racing as an elite vs. being a professional triathlete. I have a profession that I love, and that’s how I define my career. So, for me, racing as an elite means that I get to compete at the very top level of iron and half-iron distance triathlons.
That’s a great distinction. Thanks for the insight. Has it always been a goal of yours to race at this level?
[Laura] Not at all! For most of my life, I haven’t considered myself to be an athlete. I swam in middle school and high school, but was too intimidated to swim on my college team. After college, I was living in Japan and joined a local swim team there. I also ran and rode a beach cruiser bike for fitness and fun. I did a 10k in Japan once and finished in the top-10. I won a bag of local rice and some other prizes, and I remember thinking for the first time that I might be an athlete.
When I went into my 2018 racing season, getting my elite license wasn’t on the radar. My goal was to qualify for the 2019 70.3 (Half Ironman) World Championships in Nice, France. In my first 70.3 race last year in Syracuse, I found myself racing right up front with the leading age group women, which was unexpected, but extremely exciting to have people in front of me that I wanted to catch. I came in 5th overall and won my age group. In my second race, Musselman, I finally broke 5 hours, and I won the race overall! While it was a huge accomplishment, I felt a little deflated after the win – I kept wondering if, had someone been in front of me for me to chase, I would have gone harder on the run.
After Musselman, I moved from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina, to start a new job as a professor of philosophy, and had a change of heart about my goal of qualifying for the world champs as the timing and the expense were not realistic for me. Without that goal to focus on, I reflected on my bigger triathlon goals and I realized that I wasn’t motivated to always have a goal to win my age group, and I had already been to the 70.3 World Championships in 2018, so this wasn’t really a new goal. I thought about how much I loved competing, and that my path to becoming a better triathlete was to race against people better than me. I started researching how to qualify to race in the elite field, and realized that I would need a pretty substantial PR in my next race - I needed to finish in the top 3 amateur women overall - but it was within reach.
When I got to Augusta 70.3, my next race, everything just clicked – I had a massive, nearly 20 minute PR, and I got 3rd overall and qualified for my elite license.
I remember when you told me about your new goal to qualify for your elite license. I was excited for you, but we hadn’t really prepared for this during the season, so I wasn’t sure what this would take or what it would mean. You were extremely diligent in your research and were really invested in understanding exactly what you had to do. I am so impressed with how you saw this big opportunity and you just chased it down and grabbed it.
Once you qualified for your elite license, I know you hesitated to get it for a little while. Can you talk about what tipped the scales for you?
[Laura] In addition to my love of competition, another factor that influenced my decision has to do with improving the sport of triathlon for other women. A lot of amateur women don’t choose to take their elite license in triathlon. The result of this is that there isn’t a deep women’s pro field, which means fewer slots for women at Kona (the Ironman World Championships) and less support overall. I felt a responsibility to contribute to the situation of women in the sport, and taking my elite license – thereby deepening the women’s pro field and not sandbagging the age group field – seemed like a very real way that I could affect change.
How do you think racing as a professional will be different than racing as an age grouper?
[Laura] I’ve heard we get our own porta potties, so I’m pretty excited about that :-)
Racing as a pro will also definitely involve more race tactics, and it will be less of the “run your own race” strategy that I’ve gotten used to. There are a lot of things I’m nervous about with this – will I get left behind in the swim? will it be discouraging to be passed by the fastest age group men? will I be able to respond to race tactics on the bike and run, such as surges? But I also know that those will all be part of the learning experience.
One thing that I love about working with you is witnessing your determination. You are determined to educate yourself, to improve your strength, to get faster, even to recover with more focus. Where does this determination come from?
[Laura] I’ve always loved learning, which is part of why I’m a professor, and I’ve also always been dedicated to self-improvement. I want to be the best version of myself, and it was so clear to me when I started doing triathlon that it makes me better – happier, more enthusiastic, more organized, more social than I would be if I wasn’t doing it.
Another factor that I can’t ignore is that I am really competitive – I always have been, and I chalk it up to having a younger sister who is close to me in age. I want to be my best, but I also want to be able to compete against other people of similar ability because I know that’s when I can push myself the hardest.
A final thing is that – and this is getting really, really personal, but I think it’s important – I lost a close friend to suicide when I was in college, and it was a huge wake-up call for me. Prior to that experience, I had been a little dark, a little emo. I was worried about being too enthusiastic about things and I tended to be pretty cynical. After my friend died, I realized that if I can control anything in life it’s my attitude about it, and that if I care about something I should not be afraid of really caring about it and throwing myself into it wholeheartedly.
Right now, with triathlon, I feel so lucky to have found something that I love to do, that I’m good at, and that makes me a better person. So my determination isn’t so much about being the best at triathlon, it’s about the self-growth that comes from making myself better through triathlon.
Thank you for sharing that. That’s a beautiful perspective on your sport and on life, and something that I think a lot of people strive to find - the intersection of their skills and their passions. Do you have any tips that you can give another athlete who struggles to hold their of determination and focus, especially when they are stressed out in life, or when they deeply enter the pain cave during a race?
[Laura] Remind yourself that you get to do this, that it’s a choice and not a requirement. For athletes, we are choosing to put ourselves in these stressful and painful situations because we think we come out better on the other side. Endurance athletes are privileged to get to choose when and where we struggle. And the truth is, if you can get through that chosen struggle, you’ll be stronger when you face those situations that you can’t control – when life gets stressful or painful, you’ll have built resources in training and racing that you can call on. Remind yourself that if you can get through the tough times in training and racing, you can get through them in life, and vice versa.
I think it’s also important to find a goal that works for you. There is a lot of excitement in Ironman about getting to the world championships, but a turning point for me was realizing that that particular goal didn’t work well for me. Some people find big races overwhelming, and some people are better at shorter distances. So if training is really a grind, that might be a sign that you’ve adopted someone else’s goal as your own, and it’s time to find one that works better for you.
Yes. You said it. Just do You, right? It has been fun hearing your story and insights. Where can we cheer you on this year? And where can we follow you?
[Laura] I’ll be racing the Boston marathon in April, and after that my tentative schedule is Chattanooga 70.3, Eagleman, Santa Rosa 70.3, and Augusta 70.3. I tentatively have my first full ironman on the schedule this year at Ironman Arizona, and am also considering Challenge Daytona as an end to the season.
I’m on instagram as @lspeckersullivan! I’ve also been working on keeping up a blog, but I haven’t been great about. Right now I have some (very detailed) race reports up on: lauratriathlon.wordpress.com.
I am so excited to watch you race this year. You excel when you’re faced with a challenge, and this won’t be any different. I think you’re going to take it all in with your trademark determination, and make great things happen.