Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Kona Race Report!

Here is Julia Slyer's race report from the Ironman World Championships. She was the youngest competitor in the entire field and had an incredible day!

October 10th, I had the privilege to compete in an event that many triathletes (including myself) aspire to: the Ironman World Championships. I’ve been dreaming of racing at Kona since I was a kid, but I never imagined that I would qualify at only 19 years old. I had a breakout performance at Ironman Lake Placid in July, and unexpectedly won the F18-24 age group as well as taking off over an hour from my PR to finish in 11:53. I had about 24 hours of pure euphoria after I finished, and then realized while driving home that competing at Kona meant 10 more weeks at a high training load.

I took a week completely off after IMLP to recover and then another week with low training volume. After that, I jumped right into the same training plan I had used for Lake Placid, with an added emphasis of speed and training for the heat. At the end of August, I headed out to University at Buffalo for my sophomore year, and did all of my training solo from that point out. I had about five weeks before I was headed to Kona, and in that time I got some great long runs in, found a club swim team to train with, and managed to get helplessly lost in the middle
 of western New York while out on a 100 mile ride with a dead phone. Overall, I felt confident in my training and ready to take on the most iconic course in triathlon.
My dad is my coach, and he came to Kona with me to support. As an 11-time Ironman himself, we both wished that he could be racing too, but he acted as an amazing Iron-dad and volunteered to catch bikes on race day. Hopefully we’ll be able to compete at Kona together some day!

Tuesday – 10/6

After driving the five hours home from Buffalo the night before and packing my bike at 2 a.m., I did an interview with a local TV station, which included some footage of me riding my sisters’ tiny tri bike with pedals that do not match my clipless shoes. Not my most elegant ride, but I made it out of some terrifying downhills alive. That afternoon, my dad an
d I flew from Albany to Oakland, CA. After collecting my bike from baggage claim (phew) we stayed the night at a hotel before catching a very early flight the next morning.
Wednesday – 10/7 
I woke up (around 4 a.m.) to see that Ironman had published a profile on me as the youngest Kona competitor! The excitement from reading the article definitely perked me up more than my coffee did. We were also on our way to Hawai’i! On the 5-hour flight to Maui I started to notice some soreness in my legs, but as Coach Dad explained, it was nothing to be worried about. I chalked it up to taper week and sitting in airplane seats for so long. Soon we were on our island hop to the Big Island, and I was just about giddy with excitement. I couldn’t stop starring out the window at the ocean and the islands below. This was really happening!

As soon as we landed, we headed to our condo. My bike had arrived safe and sound, and we got it put together in about 15 minutes flat! I took it out on a short spin, and then headed down to the King K Hotel for athlete check in. I received an awesome backpack filled with all sorts of goodies, as well as my bib, bags, chip, etc. I hit up the merch tent, and binged a bit on the $5 sale t-shirts.

Then it was off to Dig Me Beach! I’d never swum in the ocean before, so going into race week, that was my biggest concern. I had also gotten a speedsuit that I needed to try out before the race. After taking in a huge gulp of salt water on my first attempt to breath, I settled in pretty quickly. The water was so clear and there were fish and coral everywhere. After a short swim, we showered and headed to dinner with a triathlete we know from home (he’s 71 and finished the race!), and then hit the sack early.
Thursday – 10/8

I woke up bright and early and spent a while tuning my bike, and then went out on a 10 mile ride down the Queen K. Afterwards my dad and I went down to Dig Me Beach and did a longer swim before heading to the Athlete Village. There were tons of booths set up and I collected a somewhat absurd amount of free goodies. I probably spent a bit too long on my feet, but I was having fun exploring. We went out on a very slow (10 min mile pace) three mile run along Ali’i Drive. At this point I was a little concerned that I hadn’t had enough time to adapt to the heat and humidity, but I decided to brush my slow pace off as taper week fatigue.

The Welcome Banquet was the big event of the day! My dad had managed to get us VIP seats, and after seeing some of the biggest legends in Ironman speak on stage, it was my turn! The youngest and oldest males and females were invited up on stage and we got to do a quick Q&A with Mike Reilly. I was super nervous before I went up, but the lights were so blinding that I couldn’t even see the 3,000 people I was speaking in front of. It was so amazing to be recognized for accomplishing exactly what I had been dreaming of my entire life: to be the youngest participant in an Ironman race, and to compete at Kona!

Friday – 10/9

My new tri kit had finally arrived the night before, so I was anxious to try it out on the bike and under my speedsuit before the race. I took my bike out for a short early morning spin, and everything was working perfectly. My dad and I headed down to the pier to do one last short swim. I only went out to the first buoy, but my dad swam out to the coffee boat (I was a little jealous). Then we hopped in the car and drove to Hilo! The landscapes in Hawai’i are absolutely stunning and change in the blink of an eye. Once we got to Hilo, we went on a helicopter tour of the lava fields. Pro tip: if you’re prone to motion sickness, don’t get in a helicopter the day before the biggest race of your life. Even with the motion sickness, it was really cool to see lava to up in the air. We got back to Kona with plenty of time to spare for bike check-in. Once that stressor was taken care of, all that was left was to carbo-load (again) and get to bed early.

Race Day! – 10/10

I woke up around 4:30 feeling a little nervous, but very excited. I had a bagel with butter and some coffee for breakfast, and then grabbed my special needs and morning clothes bags and headed to the start. I had my temporary tattoo body markings applied and weighed in, and then headed into transition after saying goodbye to my dad. I wasn’t sure what to do with the hour I had, and spent most of my time walking back and forth and trying not to get too nervous. I found my dad one last time, and then headed into the water. This was really happening!


As I was swimming out to the start, I noticed that my body markings were apparently very temporary, as they washed off my arms completely in about five strokes. Oh well. I treaded water with the 600 other age group women for about 15 minutes, and then the cannon went off and mass chaos ensured. I started in the middle of the pack, but somehow immediately was pushed to the inside of the buoys. I had to fight to stay to the left of the buoys the entire way out, and about 1k in managed to get my right goggle filled with water. I decided not to bother stopping to fix them, and completed the rest of the swim with one eye open. This probably didn’t make it any easier to sight over the swells, but at the time it seemed like a good idea. I got out of the water at 1:12 – slower than I had wanted to swim, but only off my goal by about five minutes.

Swim Split: 1:12:59


I was feeling a little stressed being behind my planned pace, and I had come out of the water with a huge group of women. The changing tent was mobbed, and I couldn’t find an open chair to sit down in. Luckily all I needed from my gear bag was bike shoes, sunglasses and an inhaler, so sitting wasn’t really necessary. In all the craziness, I couldn’t find any sunscreen, but I had skipped it in my previous two IMs so I decided to head out without applying. Big mistake. I’d say this was one of my only rookie moves of the day.

T1 Split: 3:21

Total Race Time: 1:16:20


The bike started out super crowded, but I concentrated on not being in the drafting zone until the field spread out. I pace myself based on cadence and planned to stay around 90 for the whole bike. My nutrition plan was to rely on aid stations for water, Gatorade, bananas and gels, and everything went to plan for the first 40 miles of the bike. I squirted a bottle of water all over myself after every aid station to cool down, which became even more important later in the day. At that point, I was well out on the Queen K and the heat and sun were starting to have an impact. I was still maintaining a good pace, but I started to feel my back burning and a head wind picked up. The ascent into Hawi was pretty tough, with headwinds and crosswinds the whole way. At about the halfway mark, it started to rain, which felt amazing. It was a welcome break from the sun even though it made it difficult to see.

I decided to forgo the PB&J bagel I had stashed in my special needs bag. I was feeling good and didn’t want to stop if I could avoid it. Descending from Hawi was great – there was a tailwind, and gravity was my side, so it provided a much-needed pick me up. I was feeling great until about mile 80. The winds shifted and suddenly became unpredictable, coming from all directions. At the same time, I had found two other women in my age group and started playing leapfrog with them. Around this point, the aid stations seemed to start running out of fuel, and I managed to grab only one banana in the last 40 miles. I missed the 90- and 100-mile markers, and was starting to feel the toll of the ride mentally, even though my legs were feeling better than they had at halfway. I couldn’t wait to get out of the saddle. I finally rolled up to transition where my dad caught my bike and attempted to give me a hug while I was running towards the pier. I finished the bike with a PR of 6:12 and was 10 minutes ahead of my pace from Lake Placid!

Bike Split: 6:12:58

Total Race Time: 7:29:18


Getting in to the changing tent, my number one priority was sunscreen. I had felt the rays all the way back on the bike, and was starting to hurt. Once I got some SPF, I was off and running.

T2 Split: 4:26

Total Race Time: 7:33:44


I headed out on the run feeling strong. I usually run well off the bike, and I had a lot of confidence in my training. My goal was to maintain an 8:30-8:45 pace for the marathon, but I’d kept this to myself, and I knew that my family would probably think I was going out too fast when they saw my splits online (turns out I was right). The first few aid stations, I grabbed as much food as I thought my stomach could handle to make up for my lack of nutrition late in the bike. Once I’d gotten some calories in, I settled into an aid station routine. Sponges first, then a water over my head, followed by some Gatorade or water to drink, a gel every few miles, and finally some ice down the back of my tri top. I knew that staying hydrated and cool was going to be key with the heat (over 90, with the pavement at 120), especially with my sunburn.

The first 10-mile out and back on Ali’i Drive was great – ocean views and spectators everywhere. I passed a few women in my age group and was feeling great. The climb up Palani caught me a bit by surprise, but the spectators were super encouraging. Once I got back out on the Queen K, I saw why many athletes find this marathon mentally difficult. It was so hot, even at 4 pm, the road stretches out straight ahead of you, and there’s an eerie silence between the aid stations. I saw athletes breaking down all around me. I concentrated on making it to the next aid station and checking my splits to stay focused, and I was still feeling strong when I made it to the Energy Lab. I was perfectly timed to watch the sun begin to set as I ran down towards the ocean into the last turn around – it was so beautiful, and completely made me forget that this was supposedly the worst three miles in triathlon.

As I headed back towards town, I realized that I could keep my pace up all the way to the finish and was on track for a huge PR! My legs seemed to be on autopilot. At this point in the marathon, my legs were usually aching and starting to break down, but I still felt fresh and energized. 

When I hit the 24-mile mark, I broke out into a huge smile, and just soaked in the last two miles. The crowds were cheering, and turning onto Ali’i Drive for the last time was so surreal. I headed down the finish shoot and enjoyed every second of it. When I crossed the finish line, my dad was there to give me my lei and a huge hug. I actually managed to hear Mike Reilly say, “Julia Slyer, you are an Ironman!” and got a shout-out as the youngest competitor. Talk about a moment I’ll never forget!

Run Split: 3:44:00

Finish Time: 11:17:44

Post Race

I called my mom, who told me that I’d come in 4th place in the F18-24 age group, which was a huge surprise. I had expected to place around 15th, and I had only focused on racing to my best ability, not on beating anyone else. I grabbed some food, got a massage, and then got myself a giant Hawaiian shave ice to celebrate. My dad and I eat a huge dinner, and then headed back to the finish line to watch some midnight finishes. This is one of my favorite parts of any race – it’s so inspirational. A few people recognized me from the Welcome Banquet and asked to take my photo, which was fun, but also a little strange to me. A few other people asked to take pictures of my sunburn (it was that bad), although I really don’t think a photo did it justice. I missed the awards ceremony on Sunday because we flew home early the morning after the race, but hopefully I’ll get to return and receive an award in person someday. Overall, Kona was an absolutely amazing experience. I never would have made it to this point without the unbelievable support of my family and friends. Thank you all! I had a great time, and made my lifelong dreams come true!

Related Posts:

Triple Threat Profile: Julia Slyer - New York

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