On this edition of The Kona Edge we chat to the youngest competitor at Kona in 2015, Julia Slyer. Julia has been exposed to the Ironman and triathlon lifestyle her entire life. Having competed in her first ‘race’ at the tender age of 3, it was just a matter of time before she did her first Ironman. This is her incredible journey to Kona and beyond.
BRAD BROWN: We head to upstate New York now to catch up with someone who I am pretty chuffed that I’m getting to share her story cause it’s quite a phenomenal one and we’ll get into that in just a moment, but it’s a huge welcome to Julia Slyer. Julia welcome, thanks for joining us today.
JULIA SLYER: Thanks for having me.
JULIA SLYER: Yes, I was, that was really exciting.
BRAD BROWN: Do you know offhand, to the day almost, obviously age for the years you knew, but to the day, do you know what it was?
The youngest competitor in Kona
JULIA SLYER: I was 19 and I think 4 months, almost exactly.
BRAD BROWN: Wow! Julia, people are probably listening to this and going oh, you’re 19 years old, or you were then, what do you know about Ironman, but you’ve been around the sport for a long time. Your first triathlon, not Ironman, your first Ironman was a bit of a splash and dash when I think you were about 4?
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, I’ve been doing this for a long time. My dad has been doing Ironman since I was about 3. So I’ve always been exposed to it and I wanted to be just like him. So he got me signed up for some Splash and Dash and Kids Tri and then when I got a little older I started doing sprints and Olympics.
BRAD BROWN: That’s amazing. I grew up in a family where my dad was an ultra marathoner and I remember going and watching him run some crazy ultra marathons thinking one day when I’m old enough I want to do it. And true as nuts, it’s what we’ve done. And it’s probably a sign for people who are doing the sport and they’ve got kids. You bring your kids up around the sport, you’re condemning them to a life of Ironman aren’t you? You’re sucked in good and proper now aren’t you?
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, I definitely am. Apparently when I was 3 when I watched my dad in his first Ironman I told my mom ‘When I’m 18 I want to be an Ironman’ and it actually happened.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. I don’t know what it must be like growing up around the sport, it must feel pretty normal for you? It is what it is? As special as it is doing one, but for you, it must be, this is what you do.
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, pretty much. My parents actually have a youth triathlon camp that my sister and I bothered them so much to create. So, we’ve been doing that for the past like 10 years and I’m actually now the Director of Skyhigh Country Summer Camps, which is pretty awesome. During my first Ironman I couldn’t even believe that it was happening. I was just so excited for the whole experience and I just smiled the entire time.
BRAD BROWN: What was the first one you did?
JULIA SLYER: I did Ironman Lake Placid in 2014, that was about a month after I turned 18.
BRAD BROWN: That’s phenomenal. What do you say to people who say to you ‘That’s too young to be doing the ultra, the long stuff?’ I’m sure you hear it, but what do you say to people who say that?
JULIA SLYER: I do get that a lot. I understand from a physiological standpoint how some people think that it’s not a great thing, but I have two awesome coaches and they kind of make sure that I’m not pushing myself too far. And I also know my own body really well, so if I’m getting over-trained or I’m super tired, I know when I need to take a break.
BRAD BROWN: I find it fascinating too, you talk about the Summer Camp and you’re the Director of that camp, but you’re also in school and you’re pretty busy. It’s not like you’re just messing about at school, tell us a little bit about what you’re studying?
Getting the balance right between studying, training and racing
JULIA SLYER: I am currently studying Biology and Psychology as a double major and I’m on a pre-medicine track. I always make sure I get my schoolwork done first. School comes first and then training and then social life if there’s any time left over.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to ask, tell me about the social life Julia cause I know what it’s like as a student and I wasn’t into triathlon when I was at university, so I know how much time a social life and a very active social life can take up. How do you juggle it all?
JULIA SLYER: Well, most of my really good friends here at school are actually in the swim club which I’m a part of. So I kind of tackle training and hanging out with my friends at the same time, which is really nice. Other than that, I just meet friends for meals and don’t do a whole lot of stuff at night because I need my sleep.
BRAD BROWN: Got to be up early for a training session don’t you?
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, exactly.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about how you get that balance right. Studying is one of those things, it’s not like a conventional job where you clock in at 8:00 and you clock out at 5:00, a lot of the stuff is done on your own. Yes, there are classes you need to go to, but there’s also times you need to spend in the library or studying and that sort of thing. How do you keep that up? It must be pretty difficult, knowing that you could go spend two hours in the library or you could go on a two hour run, it must be tough to keep that balance.
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, it definitely is. I usually just kind of play it by ear, based on the day and what my workload is for school and what my training is going to be for that day or that week. And then I just kind of organize my time around my classes and try to fit everything in.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about your first Ironman and the buildup to that, as you said, it was just after your 18th birthday. You must have known way in advance that you wanted to do it. Did you have to hold yourself back in training and possibly trying to do longer sessions in your early teens, knowing that you wanted to do that when you were 18?
JULIA SLYER: Well, I did my first half Ironman when I was 17 and I basically did not train for it. I knew that I would need to train a lot more for my first Ironman to avoid that terrible experience. I actually was doing lacrosse for my entire senior year of high school, for that spring season. So I didn’t get as much training in for my first Ironman as I would have liked to. And then my dad helped me slowly build up my mileage so that I could get a couple of 20 mile runs in before my first Ironman, so I’d have that distance.
BRAD BROWN: Did he do that one with you as well?
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, we both competed. We didn’t run it together, but he was there at the finish line and gave me my medal, which was awesome.
BRAD BROWN: Did you get to see him out on the course? Is it one of those courses that’s a bit of an out and back that you can crossover and see each other or not really?
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, I did get to see him. I think I saw him once or twice on the bike and then I saw him three or four times on the run due to the out and backs which was really awesome. He really encouraged me and it was just great to see him doing really well that year too.
BRAD BROWN: That’s awesome. Talk to me a little bit about the first experience. I think your first Ironman is one you always remember, was it what you thought it was going to be? Growing up around the sport, you’ve obviously been to lots of them and seen the finish and just experienced that whole atmosphere. What was your first experience like?
JULIA SLYER: It was somehow even more incredible than I was expecting it to be. And I had built this up in my mind a lot over the 15 years I had been expecting it, so it was a really amazing experience. I had a smile on my face the entire time, I was just so excited to actually be competing and not just spectating.
BRAD BROWN: When did Kona pop up on the radar?
Qualifying for Kona came as a big surprise
JULIA SLYER: Kona did not pop up on the radar until after I had qualified. I was not expecting to qualify at my second Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: Oh really?
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, I had no idea I was even up there.
BRAD BROWN: That’s amazing. We chatted briefly before we started recording and you were saying that your dad is a pretty decent athlete too and he’s never qualified but he’s up there in his age group. Has he over the years tried to chase Kona slots? Did you know about Kona growing up or was it purely only once you started racing did you actually think, hang on, there’s something I can aspire to.
JULIA SLYER: My dad has never really been chasing a Kona spot, per se. He’s always kind of had it up there, but he really just races for the fun of it, he’s not crazy competitive about it. I knew about Kona just from various people I know in the triathlon community that had gone and just seeing it on TV and online, that was basically my exposure to it. I always thought it would be really awesome to go someday but I didn’t think it would actually become a reality.
BRAD BROWN: You get the slot and you decide you’re going, that must be almost a surreal feeling.
JULIA SLYER: Yeah it really was cause I qualified at my second Ironman. So I was only 19 and the year before I got an 8th in my age group. So I was like well, I’m going to improve my time, it’s going to be great. And then about a mile from the finish line I found out that I was in first. So I just sprinted the rest of the way because I didn’t want to be caught by 2nd and then I had to wait for the results to come in because it had been a rolling start. That was probably the most anxious 5 minutes of my life, to make sure that I’d actually beaten the girl in 2nd and then I just could not believe it. I was so excited and giddy and so pumped to go.
BRAD BROWN: Growing up and being around the sport, what did you think of Kona before you got to experience it? Did you give it much thought beforehand?
JULIA SLYER: I hadn’t given much thought to actually going to Kona but I always thought it would be cool to go and spectator something. I always thought it would be so epic to just be around all the top people in the triathlon community and it was pretty much what I had dreamed it to be.
BRAD BROWN: Your experience on Kona, you win your age group, you qualify, you finish 4th in Kona. That’s really a result not to scoff at, a podium on the Big Island is fantastic. Did you change anything in the buildup to Kona 2015 that you had done slightly differently to your other races?
JULIA SLYER: No, I used the same training plan. I actually biked less than I had wanted to because I was away at a new school. Yeah, I didn’t change much. I was pretty impressed by the fact that I PR’d by over half an hour, not changing my training.
BRAD BROWN: That must fill you with a lot of confidence. You talk about getting PR’s, in a race like Kona where conditions are generally pretty tough. It’s hot, it’s brutal. That must fill you with a lot of confidence going, you know what, if I improved like that at Kona, I can go a lot faster on maybe a course and I say ‘easier,’ not that there’s anything such as an easy Ironman, but I think you know what I’m trying to say. It must fill you with lots of confidence?
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, it definitely does. I’ve only done Kona and then I’ve done Ironman Lake Placid three times. I actually thought that Lake Placid was a harder course because it’s so mountainous, it’s [inaudible 0.11.31] and Kona has about the same elevation. But it’s just much more gradual as opposed to Placid where you have very steep hills for a while. It was pretty exciting to see how I could do on different sorts of terrain, different climate. I did manage to get the worse sunburn of my life at Kona, but other than that I actually didn’t find the conditions all that challenging.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant. let’s touch on the post-Kona, we’ll get back to the race and your experience, but was the plan to go back in 2016? I know you haven’t qualified for this year, but was that the plan and things just haven’t gone according to plan?
The wrong nutrition can wreck your Kona race
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, so my hope was to qualify and head back to Kona this year. Unfortunately that did not happen. I raced at Lake Placid this year and I came off the bike in great shape and then I had a terrible run and bonked very badly and I was passed by the girl who eventually got first and is now going to Kona.
BRAD BROWN: What do you put that down to?
JULIA SLYER: I think it was my nutrition. I probably didn’t eat enough on the bike and I think I had a little too much Gatorade and then when I bonked on the run I had some Red Bull. Just as a last ditch effort to get rid of my bonk and it worked, but screwed up my stomach for the rest of the race. It’s kind of a combination of all of those nutritional decisions.
BRAD BROWN: How frustrating is that?
JULIA SLYER: Oh, it was very frustrating. But I allowed myself to be mad for about a week and I’ve just kind of moved on. I’m signed up for another race and hopefully I’ll be heading back in 2017.
BRAD BROWN: Awesome. Let’s talk about Kona and the experience on the Big Island. You mentioned the PR on the bike, what’s it like to race there? We’ve spoken about it quite a bit here on the podcast and arriving on the Big Island and it’s just athletes as far as you can see and really good and fast ones. How did you feel arriving, were you intimidated, excited? Talk me through what was going on in your mind?
JULIA SLYER: I was just so excited. I wasn’t really intimidated by them because I knew that I had earned my spot there. But it was really cool to see all these top age groupers, top pros in the world, all hanging out in one spot. Getting to talk to all the best producers of like triathlon equipment and just seeing the whole environment that we’ve all heard so much about. It was really incredible.
BRAD BROWN: And the race itself, your experience of the race? You mentioned your first one being even better than you imagined it was going to be. Was it the same in Kona?
JULIA SLYER: Kona, I actually went into it with the mindset of, I’m probably not going to podium here, so I’m just going to go out and enjoy it and have a great time. And then once I got on my bike, that kind of went out the window because I was like wow, I feel really good. I’m just going to push it and it turned out for the best because I ended up in 4th, which was completely unexpected, but it was honestly a surreal experience. Just riding through the lava flats, running in the Energy Lab. It’s all these things that you hear about and you see all the pictures of, but when you actually do it, it’s just even better.
BRAD BROWN: Going into a race like Kona with no expectations, like you said, obviously things changed a bit when you got onto the bike, but not really expecting anything and whatever happens on the day happens. When you come away from it with a 4th, does that put a bit of pressure on you going forward where you think, hang on a sec, I was 4th in my age group in the world. The best athletes were there, I need to be performing better at the local races that you tend to race. Does that factor into it?
JULIA SLYER: It does factor into it a little bit. But I think more than anything it just kind of gives me that little bit more confidence. I mean I did place 4th out of all the girls in my age group in the world, the best in the world were there. So I know what I’m capable of now, so I think that allows me to kind of push myself a little bit more because I’ve done it before. I want to live up to it now.
BRAD BROWN: The interesting thing with age group racing and Ironman as well. In the younger age groups like the 18-24 and then as you start getting slightly older, it gets a lot more competitive before it starts dropping off again, if you know what I’m saying. Does that freak you out a little bit, that it’s not going to get easier maybe for the next 15-20 years for you, it’s going to get harder?
The Ironman dream is to win the age group at World Championship
JULIA SLYER: I’m actually okay with that because I started so young and I’ve progressed so far from when I started, which was only about 2 years ago, that I’m just kind of looking up. Like what can I do and how many more people can I compete against because my age group is so small. I’m actually kind of looking forward to getting into the bigger age groups eventually and seeing what I can do in those age groups.
BRAD BROWN: What’s the goal when it comes to Ironman? I know it’s a tough question to answer. But if one day, in a long, long time, when you’re old and grey and you’re no longer racing. If I could wave my magic wand and all your Ironman and triathlon dreams could come true, what would you want to happen?
JULIA SLYER: Kind of the dream would be to somehow win my age group at Worlds. Who knows if that’s actually possible, but that would be kind of the ultimate goal. Other than that, I’d really just like to see how fast I can get. I want to keep beating my times in each discipline. I want to keep improving.
BRAD BROWN: What are you really struggling with right now when it comes to triathlon?
JULIA SLYER: I’m kind of stagnant on my swim right now. I haven’t really improved my times on that so much, just because the input of training to gain such a small amount of time is so huge. And I’m still trying to figure out my nutrition a little bit, just because I’ve only been in super endurance sports for about two years. There’s still the ins and outs of it that I’m trying to figure out.
BRAD BROWN: If I say the word ‘Kona,’ what do you think? What does it mean to you?
JULIA SLYER: Kona means reaching the top to me. You’ve reached the top of your field in the regional races, the local races and then you get to go and compete against all the top people in your age group, in the world.
BRAD BROWN: Awesome. As far as the amount of training you do on a weekly basis, could you fill us in on what a general week looks like for you?
JULIA SLYER: When I’m at school I typically swim three days a week with my swim club. So that’s about 4.5 hours of swimming a week. For the bike it kind of depends on the week. I usually try to get in one really long ride 4-6 hours and a couple of shorter ones, like 2-3 hours. And then for the run, I run every day that I’m not doing something else and then I add in at least one break a week. I usually end up with about 40 miles of running every week.
BRAD BROWN: That’s amazing. We’ve got quite an interesting mix of listeners to the podcast. There’s guys and girls obviously like yourself who have qualified, and we’ve got the guys and girls on the fringe who are trying to. We’ve got out and out newbies who are either training for their first one or who have never done an Ironman. What advice would you give to those novices who are possibly contemplating doing their first Ironman? What would you tell them?
JULIA SLYER: I would say absolutely do it. Ironman is an amazing experience and I genuinely enjoy it. Just make sure that you’re enjoying your training along the way because that’s going to be where you spend all your time. The actual race itself is 17 hours, maximum. You’re spending probably that much time every week training, so I would say enjoy your training, enjoy your race, just get the most you can out of the experience.
BRAD BROWN: Who is your dream training partner?
JULIA SLYER: My dream training part? My dad is my training partner, I love training with him. If I had to choose a pro triathlete, I would probably say Marinda Carfrae.
BRAD BROWN: She’s absolutely awesome. Let’s touch on races that you still want to do. There’s so many and the sport is just really exploding globally. Have you given it much thought about races and looking ahead to what races you’d possibly like to do?
JULIA SLYER: I’m definitely going to keep doing Ironman Lake Placid. It’s basically in my backyard and I just absolutely love it up there in [inaudible 0.20.36], the course is awesome, but I’d definitely like to do some other ones. Mont Tremblant, Ironman Canada, over in Whistler and also some of the ones in Australia and Europe just sound so awesome. It’s just so much travel.
BRAD BROWN: So many races, so little time. That’s what I keep telling myself. It’s phenomenal how many there are and they just keep popping up as well, that’s the beauty of this thing I guess.
As far as your strengths, what would you say out of the three disciplines is your strongest?
JULIA SLYER: I think I’m about equal on the bike and the run. I’ve worked a ton on my bike this year, so I’ve greatly improved there. If you’d asked me last year or the year before I would have said just my run, hands-down. But I think now my bike and run are about equal.
BRAD BROWN: Is that a good thing?
JULIA SLYER: I think so, as long as I don’t head out too hard on the bike, and I still have my running legs left over, so I don’t have to run down with many people. I just have to maintain where I am off the bike.
BRAD BROWN: What’s the biggest life lesson Ironman has taught you so far?
Persistency, consistency and hard work bring you the Ironman glory
JULIA SLYER: Oh gee. I think the biggest life lesson Ironman has taught me is just be persistent. You can do whatever you put your mind to. You just have to put in the work and believe in yourself and you can make it happen.
BRAD BROWN: Julia, who do you really look up to? You talk about good athletes and possibly one day being the fastest in your age group. Who do you admire, who inspires you to keep doing what you’re doing?
JULIA SLYER: I think basically the kids that I coach all summer at camp are the ones that inspire me to keep doing what I’m doing cause I want to show them what everyone is capable of. If you push yourself, you can keep doing this. You can get better and every time I do a race they’re always so excited to see how I did. And I just want to keep pushing myself and show them, this is what you can do when you put the work in.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. You mentioned training with your dad and that first race you did, he was out on the course as well, how cool is it to be able to do these sort of things with your dad? He must be super chuffed and super proud of what you’ve achieved?
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, he definitely is. He’s been super supportive of me. Through triathlon and life in general, but it’s definitely brought us closer cause we’re out there training 15-20 hours a week together. We push each other and we also get the time to just talk to each other while we’re out there. Just the two of us.
BRAD BROWN: Who is the better triathlete out of the two of you?
JULIA SLYER: Oh gee, well, he has beaten me in every race we’ve done together, but I’m closing in. So hopefully I’ll beat him at our next race!
BRAD BROWN: There you go, that’s fighting talk, I love it! Julia, I’m going to end that there. We’re going to get you back on a few other episodes to talk about the individual disciplines and what you’re doing and what you’ve done to get better. But we’ll save that for another time, thanks for your time here on The Kona Edge.
JULIA SLYER: Yeah, thank you for having me.