By Karen Billing
When Carmel Valley triathlete Andi Neugarten isn’t pouring everything she has into training to endure grueling Ironman and half-Ironman distance races, she is putting “blood, sweat and tears” into her company Alii Lifestyle, a line of feminine and fashionable athletic wear.
Her gear is sold online and in 40 stores across the country, including locally at Her Revolution in Solana Beach and Nitro in Encinitas. A percentage of the sales goes to support the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a cause close to Neugarten’s heart.
One of her main sources of motivation to even try a triathlon was watching a man without legs compete in CAF’s San Diego Triathlon Challenge. Neugarten was in tears watching him power up a hill.
“It was inspiring to see. It made me think, ‘If he can do it, there’s nothing I can’t do,’” she said.
In March, Neugarten completed her second full Ironman triathlon (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride capped by a 26.2-mile marathon) at the Asia Pacific Championship in Melbourne.
On July 13, Neugarten finished fourth in the female 45-49 age group at the Vineman Ironman 70.3. The race is a half-Ironman, breaking down to a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run in Sonoma County.
Her finish qualified her for the 70.3 Ironman World Championships in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Canada in September. But Neugarten has decided she will not be racing, as the event falls at the same time as this year’s Interbike convention in Las Vegas, the largest exhibition in the country for the cycling industry.
“My focus this year is on building my business,” Neugarten said. “I’m very excited for this coming season, I think this is going to be a big season for us.”
A busy single mom of two college-age children, Neugarten is a native of South Africa.
After playing competitive tennis for most of her youth, she picked up running around age 16. A family friend invited her on a 6-mile run that she was sure she could not finish — but she did.
Then she ran a half marathon, which rolled into her first marathon at age 23. Soon enough, the girl who wasn’t sure she could do 6 miles was completing the Comrades Ultra Marathon, run for 56.1 miles between the capital of the Kwazulu-Natal Province of South Africa and the coastal city of Durban.
“Once you run it once, you get hooked,” Neugarten said of the race, which switches directions every year, changing from an uphill to downhill course and back.
Neugarten has run the challenging Comrades race four times, as well as nearly 100 marathons.
In 2002, she moved to San Diego and those 26.2 miles started to lose their appeal.
“I got bored with running marathons. It wasn’t inspiring or motivating me, so I decided I needed a new challenge,” Neugarten said.
She found it in the triathlon, undeterred by the fact that she had no experience swimming competitively or racing a bike.
She joined a masters swim program and hopped off the spin class bike and onto a real bike — honing her cycling skills by completing the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge, a 620-mile ride from San Francisco to San Diego.
Neugarten has now competed in numerous triathlons, including about 20 70.3 half-Ironman distance triathlons and those two impressive full Ironmans.
For her second Ironman in March, Neugarten competed at the Ironman Melbourne in Australia, which she followed up with the St. Croix International Triathlon in May, a half-Ironman distance.
“It was the most beautiful and hardest race I’ve ever done,” Neugarten said of St. Croix.
The “beast” of a course features a swim in choppy harbor waters, an average grade of 14 percent for the bike portion, followed by a run in hot, windy, sauna-like conditions.
“It was nasty, but incredible.”
When Neugarten moved to San Diego, she was working as a corporate banker. Tired of looking at other people’s businesses, she wanted to do something that fueled her passions.
She ended up getting her dream job, working for Active Network (active.com) as the director of new business for the international division. Her job entailed traveling to Europe to open new markets. For four months, she lived the dream until the company tried to do an initial public offering and a new CFO came aboard, shutting down all spending and cutting all new hires.
“I thought I had died and life was over, because how would I ever replace my dream job?” said Neugarten.
After licking her wounds, she pulled herself together and started to seriously consider starting her own business, driven by her personal experiences and passions. As an athlete, she often had trouble finding the right clothing.
“I really couldn’t find clothing that I loved to wear as an athlete and still feel beautiful,” Neugarten said. “Just because I’m athletic and muscular doesn’t mean I’m one of the boys.”
She attended her first Interbike conference in Vegas just to see if what she was looking for existed anywhere in the market. When she found that it didn’t, she jumped into starting her own business, much as she had the triathlon — she didn’t know anything about design or manufacturing. After a lot of “digging and scratching,” she joined forces with the right team of people in May 2012 and was determined to launch at the next Interbike show in the fall.
“We had a small line of cycling and triathlon apparel, and we made a splash with our details like rhinestone zippers and ruching,” Neugarten said. “We had a business.”
After taking orders, she then had to figure out how to finance it. She admits that the past couple of years have been a challenge with juggling credit cards and a lot of hard work, but she’s gone the distance.
“If it was easy, everyone would do it,” said Neugarten, invoking a mantra often applied to things like ultramarathons and Ironmans. “I love what I’m doing every single day. I’m not at work; I’m creating. The best part is how much I have learned over the last two years.”
Alii Lifestyle (aliilifestyle.com) is named for Alii Drive, the street in Kona that is home to the Ironman finish line.
“It’s a feminine name, but it fits with the passion, perseverance, motivation and hard work that has gone into every athlete’s journey to the finish line,” Neugarten said.
With her clothing, she goes for the most beautiful colors and the most “yummy delicious” Italian high-performance fabrics.
But functionality comes first.
“I love compression. When you’re running, you don’t want to feel like your stomach is protruding or your shirt’s riding up. Everything is held in place,” Neugarten said.
“I feel like triathlon shorts are always the tiniest things, and it’s such a confidence thing if they don’t fit right. It makes me race better and train better if I’m not worried about how I look in my shorts.”
In 2013, Alii launched a team of 12 Elite athletes and 20 brand ambassadors.
Some of her well-known brand ambassadors are “Iron Icons” Paula Newby-Fraser, who won the Ironman Championship eight times; Julie Moss, who memorably collapsed in exhaustion near the finish line of Kona in 1982 and willed herself to crawl the final 200 meters of the race; and Kathleen McCartney-Hearst, who shocked herself by passing Moss to win her first Ironman.
Many of the athletes who represent Alii have inspirational stories, such as Aurora Colello, a triathlete and mother of four who took a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2009 as a challenge to become more active, and Luana Dias Concepcion, mother of a special-needs child. Concepcion is training for her first Ironman in Arizona year.
“I am an athlete, and training and racing are a huge part of my life — but I am a woman! When I am not training, I am wearing high heels, and I love my skirts and dresses,” said Colello. “I love to look feminine and I love that I can still race hard-core Half Ironman and look feminine and sexy in Andi’s line.”
Since her diagnosis, Colello has completed more than 20 triathlons. She is training for 70.3 Ironman Miami, her second half Ironman. In her first Half Ironman two years ago, she finished fifth in her age group.
Concepcion has been competing in triathlons for four years and works as a fitness instructor. She said she lives in workout clothes and has tried “every brand known to woman” but loves Alii’s flattering leggings and comfy tanks she can wear all the time. The bike shorts are her favorite.
Concepcion founded a nonprofit called Light Endurance that repurposes race medals for special-needs children, reuses race T-shirts to make blankets for the homeless and raises money for families of cancer patients.
“Andi really thought of all the details — she’s the modern super-trifecta-businesswoman-athletic-fitness-oriented-I-can-do-it-all kind of woman,” said Concepcion, who just placed fourth in her age group at the San Diego International Triathlon. “I think Andi is an amazing businesswoman, an amazing athlete and also a genuine person. She gives back when she can and works harder than anyone I know.”
For Neugarten to run her own business and train for endurance events is no easy task. More than finding the time to complete her workouts, she makes the time, because it’s important to her.
“It’s what I love. There’s nothing better for me than feeling the endorphins from my training and feeling like I’m in shape,” Neugarten said. “I think it makes me better in everything I do — the discipline it teaches you — the fact that you get out what you put in.”
While Neugarten will skip the 70.3 world championships this year, she has been there twice before. In both her business and athletic endeavors, her aim is high.
“My goal is to get to the Ironman World Championships in Kona,” said Neugarten, adding with unblinking conviction, “and I will.”
For more on Alii Lifestyle, visit aliilife