The iron woman: UB student finishes fourth in age group at Ironman World Championships
Student Julia Slyer competes in Ironman competitions
Since she was 3 years old, Julia Slyer knew she wanted to be an Ironman.
In October, she realized her dream for the third time, coming in fourth in her age group at the Ironman World Championships in Conah, Hawaii.
“I’ve always been drawn to endurance events and crazy experiences that most people just read about and never get into,” Slyer said. “My family has always encouraged me to follow my dreams and taught me that if I work hard, I can achieve anything. I love to push myself in all areas of my life to see just how much I can achieve and how well I can do, and I think that translates really well to Ironman.”
The Ironman Triathlon challenges an athlete’s endurance during a consecutive 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a full marathon, which consists of a 26.2-mile run. This grueling affair allots participants a total of 17 hours to finish – from around 7 a.m. until midnight the day of the event – before they are cut off.
Slyer does it all while balancing her workload as a sophomore biology major and psychology major. As soon as the race ended in Conah, Slyer had to get back on a plane back to Buffalo.
“I had to head home Sunday morning right after the race to make it back to class on Monday,” Slyer said.
From Conah, Hawaii to the library on North Campus, Slyer got back to UB with the goal of finishing off her first semester as strongly as possible. And at the age of 19, Slyer is young to be participating in Ironman competitions. The average age of an Ironman triathlete is around 45.
Slyer ran her first marathon during her first Ironman competition. She had run cross country since elementary school and centered her training mostly on running – including running several half marathons – but had never run a marathon by itself.
Once she started, she was hooked.
Slyer the triathlete
Slyer will never forget her first Ironman.
“I was really excited because it was a childhood dream of mine,” Slyer said. “I always said I would run one when I was 18, which is the minimum age for it. So for my first one I was 18 and it was actually hard for me to believe that it was actually happening.”
When she crossed the finish line for that race she said she had a giant smile on her face.
“It was definitely a little nerve racking,” Slyer said. “I had done the full bike distance and the swim and I had ran 20 miles, so by the time I got to mile 20 on the run for my first one I had realized that this was the furthest I had ever ran in my life.”
Slyer placed eighth out of 24 at the end of her first Ironman. She was happy – her goal had just been to finish.
At her second Ironman in July, she unexpectedly won her age group. She wasn’t racing against any other athletes, but against herself in hopes that she would beat her previous time. Less than a mile from the finish line, she heard a family friend yelling to her that she was in second place. That was just the motivation Slyer needed to sprint the last mile of her 26.2 in six minutes and 30 seconds.
Slyer’s finish qualified her for World Championships this October in Conah, Hawaii. But the event took place during the academic year, so Slyer had to miss school.
It was worth it, considering that Slyer placed fourth out of 31 in her age group.
“I passed a lot more people than people that passed me,” Slyer said.
Slyer had to battle 90-degree weather, scorching sun, the unpredictable ocean and muscle cramps. Having never swum in the ocean before as a triathlete made it more difficult for Slyer.
She said it was different to swim in the ocean because of the salt water salty and waves. There was also a big swell coming in the day of the event, which made it difficult to see the buoys.
Slyer did short training swims leading up to the event to get used to the ocean before her actual race.
She was also worried about getting seasick. She had gotten seasick before when she swam in a lake during an event near her hometown, but it didn’t affect her at Conah.
But the 90-degree weather was one of the greater feats Slyer overcame.
“I got out of the swim a couple minutes behind the pace I wanted to be at so I got into the transition tent and I was a little stressed,” Slyer said. “I felt that I just need to go right away and I forgot to put on sunscreen.”
About 40 miles into the biking portion of the race, Slyer started feeling the burn – literally. The sun roasted the upper part of her back from shoulder to shoulder, but at that point, Slyer said, there was nothing she could do about it.
She also pushed through a string of cramps in her hamstring during the middle third of her bike event. She said that Conah was the run of her life and that her legs didn’t hurt at all even though they should have.
Slyer stayed hydrated during the bike event with a lot of Gatorade and some water. But the exceptional heat required her to have to douse herself in water at every aid station to cool down. She also snacked on bananas and goo energy gels, which come in little packets that make them easy to carry, to supply her body with the glucose and electrolytes she needed to make it to the finish.
“Most of the time I would grab some kind of food because the whole race you’re burning a lot more calories then your putting into yourself,” she said. “But you also need to be careful not to over eat because you could really screw up your whole stomach. It’s a balancing game.”
During the running portion of the race, when someone who looked to be in Slyer’s age group passed her, Slyer would point the sheet of paper with her participant number on it – called a bib – away from the person so he or she wouldn’t speed up to stay ahead of her. Slyer said this “is kind of a mean thing to do,” but when the competition is so high, people are willing to do anything they can to win.
The family dynamic
Slyer’s mother Kathy remembers when her daughter first fell in love with Ironman.
“At the age of 3 she said, ‘I wanna run an Ironman at 18,’ and the dedication she has to the sport is evident to this day,” Kathy said.
Kathy does half marathons and once did a half Ironman.
Slyer also gets inspiration from her father, John, who is also her coach.
“My dad has done 11 Ironmans. That’s why I got into it in the first place,” Slyer said. The father and daughter also train together. They do most of their runs together and swim at the same Tri-club two times a week.
Slyer and her dad have been training together since she was 9 years old.
“At times it can get a little annoying. Like when I say, ‘Dad, I’m tired. I don’t wanna get up and run.’ But he quickly responds, ‘Nope, were going,’ which is actually a good thing,” Slyer said.
She said that it’s really nice having a built-in training partner, especially since she doesn’t really have anyone her age to train with.
“I never taught her to focus on winning – I just wanted her to enjoy whatever she was doing,” John said. “Success would come naturally if she was passionate.”
Because he didn’t want running to be overly structured for Slyer, John focused on teaching good sportsmanship and enrolled her in short events like the Splash and Dash, which consisted of two short runs separated by a swim. As Slyer got older, he would teach her little tricks to make improvements on her run.
After watching “Daddy Daycare,” in which a father played by Eddie Murphy starts a daycare, Slyer and her younger sister Caroline inspired their dad to open a camp where they could swim, bike and run all day long.
SKYHIGH Adventures: Multi Sport Life was born.
Twenty to 25 kids showed up on the first day of camp and filed into the garage – essentially a storage room turned training area and locker room.
In 2009, Slyer and other kids in her age group biked from Buffalo to Albany with a fully functional support system.
“They traveled the country doing activities with the camp. They road the continental divide,” John said.
John said that training was really a game of time management, motivation and energy. Pushing through 20 hours of training a week is tough, especially when doing it alone.
“Having another person who keeps you moving is great,” John said. “Some have coaches, but not a lot have coaches who do the workouts with you.”
As Syler got older, John began to notice that coaching wasn’t a one sided affair. In fact, they began to coach each other.
“This kid dialed in. She knows what she’s doing. She’s strong, fast, confident and kind,” John said.
He said that Slyer is almost always smiling during her races and says “good job” as she passes people. John is proud to know that he taught his daughter the power of the mind and positivity – it’s her mantra, he said.
John said that his daughter’s tolerance and acceptance of others makes her a great role model and coach, not to mention assistant director the camp that the family runs.
“I don’t know many kids that balance work, studying and spending time with friends and family,” John said. “She’s a good person on top of being an athlete and I wish I had the same motivation as her when I was her age.”
Slyer’s responsibility as assistant director of her family’s summer camp isn’t a part time gig.
She works almost 80 hours a week during the summer week so she does a lot of her training early in the morning. She biked to her job as a lifeguard just to fit in biking and swimming.
Slyer danced, played soccer, ran track and cross-country while she was growing up at home and has had a lot of practice putting together a schedule that balanced her schoolwork, her homework and her free time. Kathy feels pride in seeing how her daughter is not consumed by the idea of winning but instead is motivated to excel because of the sheer love she has for running.
“I’m in awe of her,” Kathy said of Slyer.
Kathy believed that it was important for her children to stay active every season, so she had a rule that required her daughters to do something that would keep them fit and happy. But now she has to coach Slyer to do less.
Whenever Slyer feels the aches and pains of nagging injuries, Kathy is always the first to recommend that she take a few days off so that she doesn’t overwork herself. These off-days don’t always go over well with Slyer because she constantly tries to improve and push past the pain.
For Slyer, running is an addiction.
Balancing student and athlete
Slyer’s training doesn’t exactly match up with the average triathlete.
When Slyer was honored for being one of the youngest participants at a welcome banquet before the World Championships in Conah, she was asked how her training was different as a college student.
She’s had to fit her workouts into her daily activities.
“I think its just kind of different from what most triathletes do because most of them have a 9-5 job and then they also have a family, so they’ll wake up really early in the morning and train, whereas I have classes so I usually fit in my training randomly in the middle of the day between classes, then shower and go back to class,” Slyer said.
The kind of athletic experience that Slyer has is far from typical for a college student, so when she talks about her experience she gets a wide range of reactions from her friends.
She said her roommates think that she’s completely insane.
“But they also think its really cool,” Slyer said. “They always wanna know all about it and how I do my training, and why on earth I would do an Ironman in the first place.”
Registering for an Ironman competition costs between $600-700, according to Slyer. Registration for the World Championships cost roughly $950 – not including personal travel expenses and the cost of moving equipment.
Triathletes typically pay their own ways to competitions but Slyer set up a GoFundMe to raise money to attend Worlds. Her campaign was shared on Facebook by family and friends and also got posted onto a couple of triathlon club pages. Her entire trip was paid for through the campaign.
“And someone actually let my dad and I stay in their condo, which was only a mile from the start, for free,” Slyer said.
Slyer is a young woman with many goals. She wants to eventually go to medical school, but since she’s been having so much success in triathlons, she’s going to pursue it a bit longer.
Slyer isn’t naïve about the overall rigor of becoming a career triathlete.The likelihood of getting paid to be a triathlete is low. Generally only the top-10 tend to get any sort of prize purse. The fact that triathlon isn’t as big of a spot in the United States as it is in places like Australia and Europe also adds to the challenge of going pro.
“I need to keep improving because I am still very young to be in Ironman, so I have quite a bit of time until its normal for someone to try to go pro or elite. I think I have a lot of potential to go elite I just need to keep building on top of my experience and not stop,” Slyer said.
At Slyer’s second Lake Placid Ironman she dropped her overall time by an hour and at championships she whittled off another half an hour.
Caroline said Slyer’s determination and time management skills keep her from getting overwhelmed. The two also support each other in all of their endeavors, something that is invaluable to Caroline.
After returning from Hawaii, Kathy told her daughter, “Now I want you to be a college kid.”
Kathy said she would hate to be the kind of parent that tells her children not to follow their dreams. She knew it would be important for her daughter to understand that it’s important for her to do what she loves.
“If you love it, continue on and show people what you can really do,” Kathy said.
Slyer said that people can learn so much about themselves and their limits when they wake up every morning to run.
“Even during an actual race you realize how much you can push yourself through,” Slyer said.
When she finished the World Championships at Conah, Mike Riley, the voice of Ironman, boomed, “Julia Slyer, you are an Ironman.”
It was the perfect ending to Slyer’s experience at the Ironman championships in Hawaii and from the looks of it, will not be her last.
Tomas Olivier is the assistant arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com.