Whether biking, swimming or running, Suzanne Tulsey of Oak Island is always on the Move.

With her petite stature, contagious energy and polite mannerisms, Suzanne Tulsey does not come across as the intimidating type. What most don’t know, unless they keep up with the world of Ironman competitions and competitive running, is that she is mightier than the mouse himself. Or, in her case, the monkey she thought she once was.

Adopted at birth by a nurse and a teacher, Tulsey grew up in Apalachin, a small town in the southern tier of New York, along with her older brother, Mike.

“My dad coached track [at another school] and taught, and he said that I used to chase all of the runners at practice,” she says with a laugh. “He told them if I caught them, they had to run more.”

Tulsey’s running hasn’t stopped since. She made it part of her normal routine around the age of 11 and went on to run both cross-country and track in high school as well as for Ohio Northern University, where she earned her bachelor of science in pharmacy.

Suzanne Tulsey

Photography by Brenda Torrey

After graduating in 1997, Tulsey did rotations and internships in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois before accepting a job that summer in Chapel Hill, where she lived for six years. Shortly after, Tulsey was ready to call the coast her home, specifically, Oak Island.

“I moved here in 2003,” she says. “I was looking for a coastal location that was not too far from my parents and relatives, and I literally stumbled upon Oak Island. The area and the people are just so amazing. I think we are so blessed to live in such a beautiful place, and I feel like we just have the kindest, most special people in the world here.”

Tulsey had competed in a few sprint triathlons during the summer in college but had been busy with work since.

“The first race that I did following college was the Maritime Classic 5K on Bald Head Island in November of 2003,” she says. “I’d just moved here in August of the same year. When I saw a flyer for it, I couldn’t pass it up. I did that for 10 years, the Oak Island 10Ks for close to 10 years, then I switched to doing 5Ks.”

In 2016 Tulsey tried something new: an Ironman competition. Her first year doing it was the last year the race was Beach 2 Battleship before it was purchased by Ironman. The Ironman Triathlon is one of a series of long-distance triathlon races that include a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22- mile run, completed in that order, for a total of 140.6 miles.

Known to be the most demanding and challenging races in the world, Ironmans often take upwards of 12 hours to complete. In her first appearance, Tulsey finished in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

Suzanne Tulsey Biker Iron Man

Most people would think she spent extensive time training to be in peak condition, but Tulsey is more of a free spirit, and a modest one at that.

“I was truly not prepared for any of these races,” she says. “Most of these opportunities arose, and I just crammed on the weekends and winged it. Some I didn’t train for due to injuries and just prayed to make it to the start and finish in one piece!”

The first step in any triathlon is swimming, which is her least favorite part and the backstory to her playful Monkey moniker.

“‘Little Monkey’ or ‘The Monkster’ started when I went to Total Immersion swim camp with a friend,” she explains. “I was intimidated by the description of the camp and told my friends they would have a little monkey clinging to them for dear life.” But she persevered. And then some.

To date Tulsey has made it to the podium twice out of the 11 races she’s been in, including her most recent Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, her new all-time favorite race. Tulsey’s most recent bragworthy moment is a first for her: Ironman All World Athlete (AWA) Status for 2023.

The AWA program rewards age-group athletes for their dedication and performance across Ironman and Ironman 70.3 racing within a calendar year. Tulsey was also recently named the 2023 North Carolina State Champion for age group 45-49F international distance.

Suzanne Tulsey Swim Iron Man

Prior to entering Ironman races, Tulsey’s biggest accomplishments were Badwater races (51- and 81-mile races). The 81-mile Badwater Salton Sea race in Salton City, California, stands out in her mind.

“The environment and conditions made it the most challenging of anything I had competed in previously,” she says. “It was 100 degrees in the desert with sand blowing on you, 90 degrees in the sea desert basin, and the finish was in freezing temperatures on top of Palomer Mountain at night. I also was injured and really didn’t train. I thought to myself when I saw the course and conditions that this was not the one to show up at without sufficient training; but, by the grace of God, I completed it in one piece. By far it was the most epic thing I had done before the Ironman.”

When asked which she likes better, Ironman or running, she says both.

“Logistically, there is a lot to [Ironman] racing,” she says. “Having a running background, running has always been my favorite. Injuries have made it a lot more challenging than it once was, but it is still probably my favorite. As far as running races go, I love all of the local races, especially Badwater.”

There is one race Tulsey says she’ll never monkey around with again: a marathon. If (bad) memories serve her, it was the 2006 Myrtle Beach Marathon and a traumatic experience from the start: from forgetting to pick up her timing chip before the race to bad directions that left her running to the starting line. Her shoes fell apart (this started during the race) and, at the end of the night, she couldn’t find her car. “That was the most miserable experience of my life,” she recalls. “After that I had no desire to run a full marathon again.”

Suzanne Tulsey Runner

Photography by Brenda Torrey

But she didn’t let it sour her. For Tulsey life is a beautiful balance between making progress and strides toward her future self, while learning to be still and present in each day.

“I’m focusing on moving forward while appreciating and enjoying the moment I’m in,” she says. “I’m very grateful.”

Her plans include more races and more Ironman competitions, including Kona in 2025 and Badwater 135 sometime soon.

“I was initially thinking 2024-2025 but then the opportunity to race Kona came up and I could not pass it up!” she says. “I often don’t plan races far in advance. I just seize opportunities as they arise.”

This may be the first year Tulsey is following a plan, but she still looks forward to the surprises life brings.

“Life is all about the unexpected,” she says. “God never puts you where you’re not meant to be.”