Racing with Team USA across her chest earlier this fall was a type of fun Encinitas woman Laura Stuart has never had before. And for the Cardiff School teacher who has played college soccer, competed in the Ironman Triathlon, run in the Olympic Trials and has four kids, that is saying something.
Stuart, 51, not only ran for the United States in the World Masters Track and Field Championships in Perth, Australia in October, she ran pretty darn fast. Competing against the fastest women in the world in her age range (50-54), Stuart finished fourth in the 8K cross country race to help the American team earn a bronze medal. Her time of 33 minutes and 49 seconds was first on the U.S. team.
Two days later, Stuart came back to place ninth overall (again the first American) in the 5K track race, crossing the finish line in 20:23.76. She helped the U.S. take second in the overall medal count.
“What I came away with most was that instead of being just Laura, or representing the San Diego Track Club, it was ‘Lane 4 U.S.A.’ so you got this feeling that you are representing … the country,” Stuart told the Encinitas Advocate. “That was what made it fun for me.”
Stuart spent 10 days in Perth, and considered staying longer to run the 10,000 meters but decided to come home to her family. Early in her trip, she participated in the event’s Opening Ceremonies in downtown Perth, gathering with the rest of the Americans to walk together wearing their Team U.S.A. gear.
Coming to the main track in the ensuing days, to pick up her numbers and paperwork, to train, watch other races and eventually compete, Stuart met people from all over the world:
“When I was warming up for the 5,000, I met a girl from China because we just happened to be in the same spot. I realized that she didn’t speak English so it was a lot of sign language, gesturing, but it was really fun.”
But as much fun as the destination was, Stuart’s journey to the World Masters Championships is even more interesting.
Growing up in Livingston, New Jersey, she played baseball and softball as her main sport, but also soccer, basketball and swimming. During her senior year, she made the switch to the track team.
“Somewhere along the line, it was a rainy day … we were in the gym practicing (softball) and I just realized I wasn’t having fun anymore,” Stuart said. “Then I saw the track and field team running around the halls and they looked like they were having fun. So I joined the track team.”
She still had no interest in running initially, so she started with the javelin. Eventually, though, Stuart started running the distance events to help the team get a few more points.
When she went to Rutgers for college (from 1983-84), she joined the club soccer team. That year, Stuart and her teammates helped the team transition from a club program into a true varsity team, but then she transferred to University of Virginia. The same thing happened at Virginia, Stuart joined a club soccer team and eventually helped it turn into a varsity program. However, once it was a varsity team, the talent level surpassed hers so she left the team.
While she was playing soccer, Stuart realized she actually liked the running part more than the soccer part. So after she stopped playing soccer she kept running. Then, during a sorority event a short time later, Stuart easily outran all of her sisters and the rest of the competition at her normal jogging pace and realized that she was actually pretty fast.
After graduating from college in 1987, she took a road trip to California and knew immediately that it was where she wanted to live.
“This where I was meant to be,” Stuart said. “Everyone here was outdoors, exercising, working out, I was like wow.”
So she and her husband, Scott, moved to San Diego in 1988, where a friend of hers signed her up for a triathlon and she said OK. That prompted Stuart to join a Masters swimming club as well as the San Diego Track Club to help with her training, and she eventually completed the triathlon.
A couple months later, she ran the Lion Padres 10K and when she finished and saw the clock, she thought the clock was broken. She had broken the 40-minute barrier by more than two minutes. Realizing the speed she had, Stuart set a lofty goal for herself: run the marathon in the U.S. Olympic Trials.
But first, she took a slight detour back into triathlons. After doing an Ironman qualifying event in Chicago just for fun, Stuart qualified for the main event and decided it was an opportunity she could not pass up. So, while also getting her MBA (Master of Business Administration), she trained and then competed in the 1990 Ironman in Kona, Hawaii.
As soon as she finished her MBA, Stuart immediately decided that she wanted to be a teacher instead, got her credential and began teaching in 1993. At the same time, she decided to put her athletic focus back on running, and returned to her Olympic Trials goal.
Following years of working on her times, first just at the 10K distance and then eventually the marathon, Stuart qualified for the 1996 Olympic Trials. However, an injury during training affected her performance, so Stuart decided to give it another go in 2000, competing at the Trials in Sacramento that year. After placing in the 80s in 1996, Stuart finished 28th in 2000.
Already teaching at Cardiff School and living in Encinitas at that point, Stuart took a break from competitive running to have her four kids — Torrey, 15; Morgan, 13; Ryan, 11; and 9 year-old Riley. Torrey, is a sophomore at San Dieguito Academy who runs cross country and track and joined her mother in running the recent Encinitas Turkey Trot.
While raising her kids. Stuart still ran for fun, but didn’t have enough time for the training needed to stay competitive with the best in the world. But that changed in 2005.
“After I turned 40, it was a totally different category, Masters running,” Stuart said. “It levels the playing field and it’s nice because it gives you new goals to have. This is a sport you can do forever. Even if you’re not the fastest right now, the thing is consistency, because you can compete at any age.”
She recently rejoined the San Diego Track Club, running with the Masters team to help her train for the World Masters event.
Stuart likes to keep busy so in addition to her running, her career and her family, she also started the Junior Mavericks running club with a friend of hers — where she helps coach older elementary school kids and middle schoolers interested in track and cross country — and teaches spin class at the YMCA and Fitness Evolution in Encinitas.
“Who knows, I might quit (running) and join pickle boarding next,” Stuart said with a laugh. “Or maybe standup paddle boarding.”