In our next installment of Backyard Badass, I sit down with Birmingham, Alabama’s Terri Sullivan. At age 53, Terri’s racked up more hours in the saddle and on the trail than most 20-something-year-olds I know, and her recent accomplishment of breaking the women’s solo record for cycling across Alabama makes her a force to be reckoned with.
But a humble one, at that. Virginia born-and-raised, Terri’s as sweet as she is tough, regularly competing in century rides and marathons. Hear how Terri ran her way through middle-age and seemingly back in time to become stronger, faster, and more competitive than she’d ever been in this month’s Backyard Badass spotlight.
TS: I have been a jogger off and on throughout high school and college. I did my first marathon when I turned 30 just because I turned 30. It was like, “I gotta do something big.” But it wasn’t until my 40s when I got serious about doing races and being more competitive.
BRO: Your 40s? That seems like a long time to wait to start getting competitive in a sport. What took so long?
TS: I didn’t know I could be competitive. I hadn’t been on a track team, hadn’t been a college athlete. I never really thought I was an athlete. When I was in my 40s and had kids, it was hard to make that time commitment. It wasn’t until they got older that I was able to get out and train more.
BRO: And what was the biggest surprise for you during the early days of training?
TS: The older I get the faster I run.
BRO: How did breaking the women’s solo record for cycling across Alabama come about?
TS: I did not start out to set the record to ride across the state of Alabama. My goal was to ride an Ironman. In the first weeks of July before the event I got a stress fracture in my foot and couldn’t run anymore. I was very disappointed because I’d been mentally preparing for this event, which would be much longer than anything I’d ever done before. Since swimming is my least favorite thing to do, I asked my coach what I could do [instead of the Ironman] and he said, “Set the record for the fastest bike time across the state of Alabama for women.”
BRO: Which was how fast at the time?
TS: About 15 hours.
BRO: And how fast did you do it?
TS: I rode 218 miles in 12 hours and 16 minutes.
BRO: It must have been painful to ride for 12 hours straight. What was that experience like?
TS: It was 10 times harder than anything I’d ever done in my life. For the first 80 miles I had a headwind. I had Goo and drank Gatorade but that was it. I never had to stop to use the restroom. When I finally got off that bike, I told my crew members to never let me do that again. That was crazy.
BRO: Any takeaways from that challenge?
TS: Now that I’ve forgotten about how much it hurt, it’s fun. It builds an incredible sense of confidence and mental strength to be able to get through something like that and makes me feel like I can do practically anything.
BRO: Do you think that your age has possibly even helped you overcome these tough physical feats?
TS: When you’re younger, you just want to do things that are pleasant and fun. It takes a huge amount of mental discipline and perseverance to stay on that bike because it hurts. To run a marathon, it hurts, but as you get older, you overcome more obstacles, more challenges in your life, and you build up that discipline to say “I can do this” and train yourself to be able to do things that aren’t pleasant and fun.
BRO: But you were still a mother while you were preparing for this ride, weren’t you? How did you make time to train?
TS: I got up at 4 a.m. every morning and trained for two hours. You have to find time, so for me, at 4 a.m., there was no one up in my house saying, “Mom, I need you.”
BRO: What has been the hardest obstacle for you?
TS: There’s definitely a fear factor. For me, I never swam in my life, so before the Ironman, I was worrying, are people gonna hit me in the head, am I gonna drown, and then, am I gonna be able to bike 218 miles? Well I have no idea, but I’m going to find out. That’s the biggest challenge is overcoming fears that are just part of human nature.
BRO: How often would you say you train?
TS: Two hours a day during the week. On Saturday and Sunday it could be more, three, four, maybe five hours. I work out somewhere in the 18-20 hours a week range.
BRO: Any rest days?
TS: No. I get in trouble for that, too. That’s not always the best course, but that’s my course. So much of my exercise has to do with mental r&r. To get up and feel good and feel strong and feel confident, it does affect my outlook for the day and improve my mental sanity so I don’t hurt anybody.
BRO: And how does your family feel about all of this time and energy you put into working out?
TS: My kids think I’m a nut, but they are proud of me.
BRO: Have you had any injuries aside from the foot fracture?
TS: No, I don’t have any health issues and I’m sure that’s because I work out.
BRO: Any advice for people inspired by your story who don’t know where to begin?
TS: Your body will surprise you. Most people will be surprised and shocked at what your body can physically do if you use your brain to tell yourself to do it. The more of these events I do, I realize my body can accomplish a lot if my brain will get out of the way. So put it on your calendar, schedule it, tell other people you’re going to do it, then just do it.
BRO: Favorite places to go outside and play?
TS: Cheahah Mountain State Park, mainly due to the proximity to where I live. From growing up in Virginia, I still absolutely love the Blue Ridge Parkway. I like to take my bike and ride on the parkway or just hike, doesn’t matter.
BRO: After a big race, how do you refuel?
TS: I eat pretty clean most of the time, but I am crazy about banana Laffy Taffy. I brought it with me on the 218-mile ride. It’s a serious sugar rush. When I finish a big road race or marathon or century ride, I always have chocolate and beer in my car for immediate post-race. Stella’s my beer of choice and dark chocolate. Love dark chocolate.
BRO: Why do you think it’s important for people to go outside and play?
TS: Most peoples’ health is pretty pitiful, and definitely down here in Alabama. But being outside in fresh air and moving, it’s a great stress relief. They would feel so much better and have a better outlook on life if they spent more time outside.
Know a #BackyardBadass in your hometown worthy of a Q&A feature? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us who you think should be next month’s Backyard Badass.