Interview with Kona Wonder Woman Laura Sophiea
Interview with Laura Sophiea
Following is an interview with my 2012 Ironman/triathlon coach, Laura Sophiea. Just to be clear who Laura Sophiea is, Laura is probably one of the most successful Ironman athletes you could meet. How is that? She has competed in Kona 22 times, has won her age group 8 times and has 2 age group records. She’s a little, blonde who looks younger than her age, but can hammer most people on a bike. And, although she swam as a kid, she doesn’t talk about herself as if she was an athlete. She was a cheerleader in high school, which she jokingly says that they are just interested in chasing boys. She is humble, but honest. She doesn’t brag, but ask her pointedly and she’ll tell you with pride how many times she has rocked the big island. When I first met her in person, it was 2 days after the 2011 Kona championships and as she bounced down the hill to catch her ride, you never would have known she had just put herself through one of the toughest races around.
Speaking with Laura about Kona and Ironman races around the country is a history lesson as she has raced in a majority of all the races ever held in Kona and understands most of the courses in North America. So, on our way to Panama City, Florida for the 2012 Ironman Florida this year in a 2 vehicle caravan, I got a chance to ask Laura about her triathlon career.
How old are you?
57 yrs. I started at 30 and did a sprint [triathlon].
From stories she has told me before, I knew that the first sprint was born from a challenge from the lifeguard at her pool where she hung out with her kids. Her and some other moms completed the triathlon, with that being the only goal of the day.
After the sprint, what did you think?
After the sprint, I just liked the sport and I said I’m going to do another one and did another that summer and won my age group…there were only 3 women in my age group but it didn’t matter…I was hooked. That was in ’85, so in ’86, I did 2-3 sprints and an Olympic. Then, in ’87 I did my first half-ironman. I did Muncie [Indiana]. I finished 8th overall female and so it was the top 10 that got spots to Ironman [Kona], and I didn’t know what it was, didn’t know Ironman. I qualified in mid-August and had 6 weeks to get ready. I had never ran over 13 miles or biked over 56 miles. My husband was like, ‘yeah we can go’. I did one 100 mile bike by myself and I did one 20 mile run. We flew in [to Kona] on Wednesday, registered Thursday, raced Saturday, and flew out Sunday. I did 11:45, I was quite happy, I had no expectations. I think I had a hugely long bike ride of like 7 hours.
Who advised you then about nutrition and training?
I just did whatever Dave Scott was doing. I read the magazines, there was no internet back then. I ate Fig Newtons, peanut butter and jelly, and water. No salt tabs, no gels.
And you were ok on that?
Yeah, cause I wasn’t racing…totally different mindset.
Did you think it was hard, did you think, ‘I’ll never do that again’?
I thought it was hard but it was exciting. They used to give you a ton of stuff back then. It was fun.
You must have done pretty well in your age group.
I was probably top 10 in my age group.
What did your husband think opening you all up to this new world of triathlon?
It wasn’t a big deal. It was like $95 to do the race, it wasn’t a big deal. I don’t even know if there were 1000 people in the race back then. I would have to go find my book. Yeah, I was excited because I did an Ironman, but in the real world, no one knew what that was. They would say, “Oh, you did it in 3 days? You swam one day, and biked on Saturday, and ran on Sunday?” Nope, did it all in one day, no one knew back then. Very small world. They had no idea.
What are some of the changes you have seen in the sport?
You used to get a lot more stuff when you crossed the finish line. If you finished before 6 o’clock at night, you used to get a hat that said you were part of the Sunshine club. So the next year, I went back and qualified again in Muncie in ’88 and went back and got 4th in my age group and first time I got up on the podium and that’s when I was really hooked. You used to get a pair of day-glow shorts, lime-green and orange, a finisher’s shirt, medal, a hat. It was more of a family event, it was run by Valerie Silk and she was there to shake your hand. It was very homey. The big difference is it’s owned by a hedge fund now…it’s all about the money, all about the money.
In general, a lot of things have changed since then as far as technical, computrainers and nutrition.
Right, back then, we did what pros did and read what they did and just did what they did. You would get the reports like 2 months after the race. But I just ate peanut butter and jelly at the turn around. I had Fig Newtons on my ride. Nutrition is 100% different, training is 100% different. We didn’t do intervals, we just rode 100 miles. I needed to get three 100 mile rides in in ’88, so I did that. Did I know that I needed to be in zone 1, 2, or 3? No, I didn’t even have a heart rate monitor, it wasn’t pertinent to me, not then. It’s changed dramatically, but it’s interesting because if you look at the times it’s not like there faster. Craig Alexander just broke the record, but they haven’t gone under 8 hours. Maybe other than women getting closer to men, but only difference. And that’s in an endurance event that that happens. It’s more technical now. I used to race in a jog bra and butt hugging shorts and burn my skin to a crisp. You don’t do that anymore, no one races like that. I mean, men used to race in a Speedo. In the 80’s, men raced in Speedos.
Do you like it how it is? Or, appreciate it in a different way?
Appreciate it in a different way. I’ll always love to race Ironman and especially the world championships because then I am racing the best in the sport, and that’s what I love. When I go to a different Ironman, it is so different…the atmosphere, the people. So, I love Kona because you have to be on top of your game. You have to realize it’s all about getting their healthy; you can’t come to the starting line injured. It’ all the pieces that go into making it a good puzzle. I really want to do it when I’m 80 and I want to break all the records on the way up...that’s my goal.
Did they have volunteers like they do now…as many helping at the transitions?
Oh, yeah, Kona has always come out for that. They were wonderful, but back there, it was really more like a family. And year after year, you saw those same volunteers year after year in the same positions. And that may be true now, but I don’t notice it as much because there are so many. It’s not so homespun.
When did people back home start realizing that that’s what you do, that thing out there in Hawaii is what it is?
Umm, it was on TV but still they didn’t watch it. I don’t know. I’m not one to talk about it. I would go do it and people would ask how it was and I’d say “good”. In the world that I inhabited, it was ‘just an athletic event’ . And if you talk to people now, 3 out of 5 don’t know what an Ironman is.
Did you ever get a coach?
My brother-n-law helped me, he’s actually a triathlon coach as well. But, really back then until there was internet…I didn’t know anyone who had a coach, I didn’t even know a coach, let alone be able to ask someone to do it. Graham and I did it together until early 90’s and sort of pieced it together. You just knew from reading that if you did three 100-mile bike rides and three 20-mile runs, you’d be able to finish. I always rode with men and that’s how I got good. And for me, obviously, I have good genes to be able to bike like that, I’ve always cycled with men. I just rode with road bike people, not even racers. I loved to ride my bike and in the summer if my kids were in lessons, I could go out and ride for 2 hours. I just loved to ride my bike. That to me is a key to an Ironman…a good bike.
If you Google your name, an article comes up, The Top 10: Kona’s Greatest Age Groupers and it mentions your name amongst a few others in the opening paragraphs of those beyond the author’s top 10, stating how could you not talk about these other great Kona athletes, as well. When did you realize that you were having an impact on Kona?
Probably in 2001 when I won my first age group title and I had dethroned Missy Lestrange who is 3 years older than I am and an icon in the sport. She had done Kona since ’85 or ’86 and had won 14 titles straight, no one had ever beaten her. And I think that year I was 25 minutes down off of the bike, and my husband said, ‘just run for second, just stay in second, hold your run and stay in there’. And I saw her, there were still 2 turn arounds and I saw her and I knew in energy lab that I was gaining on her and I knew coming out of the Energy Lab, I could see her. I passed her at 24.5 miles at the top of Palani Road and it’s just a downhill sprint to home like a mile and a half and I beat her by a minute. It was big news back then because no one had ever beaten her. I was 46 yrs old and she was, must have been 49. So, that was the first time. And after that, 2002 and 2003 I podiumed but I didn’t win. I didn’t do 2004. And since 2005, I have been pretty consistently in the top 5, so since Missy. And it wasn’t even a fast time. The conditions were horrific that year, I think I had a 6.5-hour bike, just had horrible winds. So I think that’s why when you ask that question, because I beat her.
*correction according to the article: Missy placed 2nd in her age group in her first Kona in 1983, then won again in 1988 & 1989, took a year off in 1990, then won for 10 straight years from 1991 to 2000. Missy and Laura’s battle in 2001 is called “epic” by author Jeff Cuddeback. In 2004, Missy won her 13th age group title, putting her 5 ahead of Paula Newby-Fraser, the “professional Queen of Kona”.
So for a number of years, you have just wanted to be able to keep going back to Kona as long as possible.
Yes, that’s always been my goal. So since ’87, I had a baby 1 year [and didn’t go to Kona] and I didn’t qualify another year and I took years off when I was the oldest in my age group because back then, based on your age, it didn’t matter when your birthday was. So for me to qualify when I was 44, I knew I needed to win my age group at Ironman Florida because my birthday was in late August and there were no Ironman qualifiers in August, so I realized in short order that I had to figure that all out.
When did you start coaching?
Was it a conscious decision that, “I want to start coaching” or was it that people kept asking if you would coach them.
In Michigan, I was doing speaking engagements at running clubs and triathlon was…it wasn’t until 2000 that more and more people were taking up the sport, and by that time I had done 15 Ironman so people would ask me to speak. And then, “you should think about coaching, you should think about coaching.” And one of the first girls I talked to was a girl named Julie and I still coach her. So Julie was instrumental in me thinking about it and had to sit down and actual figure out how I could do a that and teach. So I started very small.
When did you retire from teaching?
Officially in 2009
So how many do you coach?
Right now, not very many because it’s the end of the season and I like to have a break. So currently, I have about 10 and I’m about to lose 3 after this weekend’s Ironman. I know my max is between 15-20. One year I had 30 and I couldn’t do it. All I did was that and it’s too time consuming…and it was too much. Upwards of 20 is my high-end.
But you also coach people in just running?
I do in the sprint for halfs [marathons] and marathons. And they come back in the summer for triathlons. It’s a very cyclical business. Most come back in the spring. Some will come back in January, February, those that have been with me longer. And people will come back in April and May ask if I’m still coaching and yes I’m still coaching but I’m not taking anybody else…when I’m done, I’m done.
This is the first part of our interview, the second part of our interview to come…