The Decision to Turn Pro
By Lindsay Ludlow
Posted April 2015
Since racing my first triathlon in 2006, I have had a drive to compete and improve that has only grown stronger. While this drive has resulted in many wins and
podium spots, the ultimate force keeping me committed to the sport has been an internal desire to compete against myself. In 2009, I met the qualification criteria
for my professional license at Ironman Coeur d’Alene, but decided not to take it. I was still in graduate school and unsure if I was ready to make the leap.
At that point, triathlon training was serving the purpose of a stress release from the rigors of academics, and was a way to get some fresh air after being cooped up
inside a windowless laboratory doing experiments for most of the day.
Shortly after my dissertation defense and making the move from Maryland to Texas I raced Ironman Louisville. It wasn’t my personal best time, but it was enough to qualify both for Kona and my pro card. I raced in Kona and was only two minutes from my Ironman PR in some of the toughest conditions I had ever raced in. While on paper it didn’t seem like I had improved much that year, I was more proud of my performances than I ever had been. With the stress of finishing my degree, moving halfway across the country, and starting a new job I was ecstatic to finish the year off the way I did. I then had a decision to make – continue racing as an age grouper, or make the leap to racing in the professional field.
There were many factors that went in to my decision making process, and ultimately I came to the conclusion that racing as a pro was the right decision for me. While the competitive drive was still very much internal, I wanted to see what I could do against the best women in the sport. At this point, I had won my AG at multiple IM’s, and qualified for/raced in Kona five times. I had met my goals as an age grouper, so transitioning into the professional field seemed like the best way for me to continue moving forward in the sport, rather than maintaining status quo. Completing the distance and doing well at it was not as much of a driving force; so raising the stakes to present a new challenge was the biggest factor influencing my decision.
In addition to the level of competition, I weighed some of the other pros and cons of taking my professional license. After many IM’s where I took a beating during the mass swim start, I liked the idea of the professional wave having a separate start. Also, with the pro wave start, everyone you are racing against is right there, so it is easier to assess where you stand during the race. Another plus for me was the ability to purchase the pro membership at the beginning of the year and be able to enter into Ironman races when I wanted, rather than having to decide a year in advance and hope to get a slot before they sold out.
One of the cons that I took into account was the more difficult process to get to Kona. With the point system, the only way to get to Kona is to race frequently and perform well at every race. It is even possible to be an Ironman champion and not make the cut for world championships if you haven’t raced enough to amass points. Going to Kona in October had become my favorite part of the previous five year, but I decided that I was okay with some time away from Kona while I developed as a professional. The other downside to attempting to qualify for Kona as a pro is travel expenses. With the number of races it takes most people to get points, the expenses add up quickly relative to the race day paychecks, if you place. With the reduction in the number of Ironman and 70.3 races in North America with a pro field, costs become even higher as you have to travel further to race. For me the travel is both a pro and con – I love racing in new places, but the costs are a significant budget consideration. However, if you aren’t married to chasing Kona points, the Challenge series has been growing in the US and provides another great opportunity to race as a professional.
The final major consideration in deciding to race as a professional triathlete is job stability. Very few professional triathletes are able to make it financially with triathlon as their sole source of income. In most cases, travel and equipment costs are much greater than race earnings. Sponsors may help with equipment expenses, and sometimes with travel expenses, but with the exception of a small number of pros at the very top of the sport, few make a living off of triathlon alone. Also, there are no health insurance benefits, so without an additional job, or spouse who can get you coverage, insurance becomes very expensive. I still work in a research laboratory, so I have job stability and benefits outside of triathlon. However, it becomes much more difficult to maintain the balance of training stress and recovery when working a full-time job and racing as a pro. While some pro triathletes are able to make a living off of triathlon alone, the vast majority must juggle another job, plus training, racing, recovery, and family time. For me, I decided that if I could succeed as a triathlete in grad school while working many hours over your standard 9-5, I could make the step up to racing as a pro while holding down another job.
Becoming a professional triathlete provided me with a new challenge and means to grow. While there are many hurdles to succeeding as a professional, for me the pros outweighed the cons. I love triathlon, the challenge, and how the sport has helped shape me as a person over the last ten years.