By Jared Eborn
Ali Black isn’t your average PTA President.
Sure, she organizes fundraisers, honors teachers and coordinates volunteers for students at Indian Hills Elementary School in Salt Lake City.
But Ali Black, a 37-year-old mother of four, is trying something new – she’s a professional triathlete and her first race as a pro was at Ironman Oceanside on March 30.
“I don’t know many athletes that start a pro career at 37. It’s pretty unconventional,” Black said. “Throughout the 2011 season, I had people really start to ask me if I’d considered it. To be honest, I hadn’t! When someone would mention turning pro, I seriously thought to myself, “they’re just being nice,” or “they must not know that I have a husband and four kids, and what I really do.” But the idea grew on me… What if? Am I good enough? Could I pull it off with my already crazy and full life? The more I thought about it, the more I thrived.
“I continued training and racing, staying focused on my goals, with the idea in the back of my mind. As the season went on, I was continuing to improve at each race,” Black said. “My confidence and belief in myself was growing as I won every race I entered. In my prep for Ironman 70.3 World Championships and Ironman World Championships in Kona, I decided if I could podium at both, I’d consider it. I was fortunate enough to podium at both races. It was time to make a decision.
“With the support and encouragement of my husband, kids, coach and many others, I came to the conclusion that it was now or never.”
And so Utah’s newest professional triathlete may also be Utah’s oldest professional triathlete. But Ali Black couldn’t be happier with her decision.
Backed by sponsors such at Canyon Bicycles, Wasatch Running, GU, Saucony, BodyWise Fitness, Dr. Greg Freebairn and her husband, Romney Black, DDS, Black is diving into her new career with enthusiasm.
“I’ve never been one to let a great opportunity pass me by. And if someone tells me I can’t do something, I’ll prove them wrong. I don’t ever want to wonder what if, or what could’ve been. I want to show my kids, and all young people that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I want to show them that hard work pays off. I want to show them the power of the mind. I want to teach them discipline. I want to provide a healthy lifestyle for my family. I started to look for good reasons not to give it a go, and I couldn’t find them.
Many would tell me I’ve passed my prime. I disagree,” Black said. “My prime is still ahead of me. I want to show women and mothers out there how strong and capable we are. How many people have this opportunity? I had to grab it.”
Black isn’t exactly a veteran triathlete, in case you’re wondering. A competitive gymnast and diver as a youngster, Black was not a cyclist at all and says her swimming was pretty much restricted to splashing in the pool with her kids. Running was her sport and done “for weight management, and nothing more.”
As she found herself competing in races as a way to stay motivated, she got faster, met other competitive athletes and transitioned her way from a recreational runner to a competitive triathlete where she wasted no time in establishing herself as a dominant age-grouper who frequently posted the best times on the course.
“In the fall of 2008, while on a long training run, I met Cherell Jordin, and we instantly hit it off. We had so much in common, and were both intrigued by each other’s successes and the methods we had chosen to get there. It was really more me that was intrigued than her,” Black said. “She had a method to her madness, and I was just cruising along, still running the same way, the same pace, all the time. She was a wealth of knowledge for me to tap in to, and the rest is pretty much history. We trained together quite a bit after that, and in 2009 she convinced me to sign up for several races, which included Boise 70.3. I LOVED the challenge of three sports, even though I’d never swam a day in my life, and could count the miles I’d ridden on a bike when I met her. It was just more fun, and my body felt better diversifying. The rest is history.”
As one might guess, it’s not easy finding time to train as an elite triathlete even as a single person. Throw in a husband, four children and a volunteer job as a PTA president and Black is often left wondering how she’s going to get it all done. That’s where she gets creative with her training and places a heavy emphasis on quality over quantity when it comes to hours in the gym, in the pool or on the road.
“It can be exhausting, but “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” Obviously I couldn’t do it without the support of my hubby, and it requires a lot of planning and compromise. I don’t always get the “ideal” or most fun training session, but I will always get high quality and I won’t miss,” Black said. “I have to settle for a lot of early morning trainer sessions, even if I know it’s going to be 70 degrees and sunny outside. I’ve done a lot of soccer carpools where I stay and do my run from the field while the kids are practicing. It’s the best use of time. I don’t always get out to train with friends; it doesn’t always fit my schedule. I will when I can, but my kids come first.
A few years ago, when I realized how much more time triathlon took than just running, I made a commitment to myself that if what I did took from my kids’ opportunities, then I can’t do it,” Black said. “I still live by that promise to myself. I will run myself ragged at times just to be at all of their games and activities, and still get my training in. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
As is the case with many professional triathletes, qualifying for the Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii is the objective when each season begins. After racing at Oceanside, Black said she’s tailored her calendar around the Ironman calendar where she will try to earn enough points and place highly enough as a pro – against the best in the world and not just the best in her age group – to earn a coveted spot on the Kona start list.
“This first year my main goal is to build confidence as a pro,” Black said. “I want to have some solid races and learn what I can from them. It’s no secret that the swim is my weak spot. I’d like to get to where I can come out of the water in a competitive position. I’ve spent a good amount of time the past few months working on swim technique.
“My other goal is to race in Kona as a Pro! The qualification is a point system, so yes, this does change my approach to which races I choose,” Black said. “There are races with higher point values and prize purses, so it definitely requires strategy and helps determine what races I’ll do.”
Black’s children – Sami (12), Abi (11), Spencer (8), and Ashley (6) – are her biggest fans.
“My husband is amazing. I couldn’t do it without him, in every way. I try so hard to get a large portion of my training in “when no one misses me,” as I like to say. That means when they’re sleeping or at school. But it’s impossible to get it all in during those times. This is when it becomes a family effort, and he’s always there for me,” Black said. “My kids love the idea that I’ve turned pro. They support me in every way possible, almost. They drew the line this past weekend when I tried to set my trainer up on the sidelines of my daughter’s soccer game during her tournament in Vegas. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, but they didn’t agree.”
So the soccer-mom-tri-chick routine has to be altered a little bit at times. Still, she races, wins and impresses. Her fellow triathletes sometimes have to be convinced that she’s not only 37 years old, but has four children.
“First, they look me up and down and say, “You have four kids?!” Then I chuckle and shake my head, “Yep.” Most of them are blown away and can’t comprehend it,” Black said. “Often when people realize what my life really is, they say something like, ‘I was amazed by what you’ve done before, but now I’m blown away.’ ”
Black’s commitment to fitness has shown up in her other role as PTA president where she works hard to help the students at Indian Hills Elementary stay active.
“During my time as PTA President, I brought the Girls on the Run Program to our school. A little over a year ago, I was asked by a good friend and fellow athlete to be his daughter’s running buddy at the GOTR 5k in Sugarhouse Park. I was thrilled to do it, and thus was introduced to the Girls on the Run Program,” Black said. “It is a brilliant non-profit program for 3rd-8th grade girls, and the curriculum is designed to combine training for a 5k run with lessons that inspire them to recognize and honor their individual strengths and talents, and to celebrate their inner selves. I loved everything it stood for and knew I wanted to be involved in the program.”
Going pro means Black won’t be lining up with competitors her age any more. More often than not, she’ll be the oldest professional woman in the water when her races start. Being a pro also means she’s got to be more careful about the races she competes in. With Kona in mind, her race schedule is almost as carefully planned as her training.
“I will be racing the Salt Lake Half Marathon on April 20, Ironman 70.3 St. George on May 4, Ironman 70.3 Raleigh on June 2, and Ironman Coeur d’Alene on June 23. I will race to that point, and then we will take a look at how things are going and what the body is telling me before we determine the rest of my season,” Black said. “Being pro changes my schedule in that I will race a lot more. I added Raleigh to my calendar just to get another race in before Coeur d’Alene. So, yes, my calendar will be much more full because I turned pro. I have not yet dropped a race, but I did have to change my status at Oceanside from Age Grouper to Pro once I became licensed.
“That was a great email to send.”