The Long (Toll) Road to Ironman Texas
I first became aware of Ironman when I was in high school. I used to watch the NBC Sports coverage every year. I was TOTALLY enraptured by this physical feat, but knew it was something I could never do. I mean, I could bike and run, but I was a terrible swimmer. Not to mention, who would even want to do something so ridiculous like swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles? Crazy people, that’s who! NO THANK YOU!
Fast forward to 2005 and I meet Mike in Chicago. We bond over a shared interest in triathlon and quickly become inseparable. His goal was to do Ironman Wisconsin the following year. Since he was busy with Ironman training, I decided I’d keep myself busy by training for the Chicago Marathon. Training for just a marathon was exhausting, so I couldn’t imagine training for an Ironman! While spectating Ironman races was always inspiring, it also scared the dickens out of me! Mike is truly one of the strongest people I know and when I saw him suffer through seven Ironmans, I just didn’t think it was something I wanted to do.
Fast forward again to 2016. After training for two Ironmans in 2015, Mike decided to go on full-distance sabbatical, which allowed me to train for longer distance races. I did my first 70.3 that April. As you can imagine, doing a half Ironman makes you want to earn the other half of that m-dot, so in November I signed up for Ironman Texas. Official training began on January 2, 2017 and it was fantastic. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it and made some great new friends along the way. I was very fortunate to make it through training healthy and without any major injuries.
That brings us to race week. I worked Monday and Tuesday that week to keep myself occupied. The saying goes “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” but I think it also applies to an idle mind! I did packet pick-up on Wednesday and immediately went to work on my gear bags when I got home. Thursday had me checking into our hotel, attending the Welcome Banquet and the TriDot team barbecue. Friday morning was the practice swim. After nearly two weeks of hemming and hawing, I decided I would wear my wetsuit if the race was deemed wetsuit optional. However, I was a little nervous about overheating. The water temperature on Friday morning was 78 degrees, but I felt very comfortable in my wetsuit. The practice swim went well and I felt race ready! After a quick trip to transition to drop off my bike and gear bags, it was time for dinner and then bed.
I was surprised I actually got a decent night of sleep and woke up feeling pretty well-rested. My biggest concern of the morning was getting myself to eat. I warmed up a plain bagel and slathered it with a healthy layer of peanut butter, the same meal I had before every long ride during training. I decided to just take small bites while doing other things, so I wouldn’t be concentrating on just eating. That seemed to keep me pretty distracted and I was able to choke down my meal. After getting dressed and my bottles ready, I headed down to the hotel lobby to meet Steve and Jennifer so we could go to transition together.
Transition was fantastic because it was full of so many friends. I got hugs from Bryan, Rachel, John, Robert, Scott and Sarah. That helped chase the nerves away that had recently settled in. After getting my bike ready and making some last additions to my gear bags, I set off for the swim start. I got very lucky and ran into Kurt Madden on the walk. I met him at the TriDot barbecue and barraged him with questions. He’s a multiple-time Kona veteran and general veteran of the sport, so getting to walk and talk with him again kept me occupied from bad nerves. After getting to the swim start, time seemed to fly by between dropping off my special needs bags, getting interviewed by the TriDot team and then fighting to get into my wetsuit. After a much needed prayer with the TriDot/Tri4Him gang, we all headed off to get into the water!
I usually struggle with the swim. I typically have a panic attack to some degree, but not this time. I took off and my stroke felt great. I was actually doing a pretty decent job sighting and didn’t have to fight too much with other athletes. I made my way comfortably and confidently down to the first two red turn buoys and then all hell broke loose. From there on, it was a battle! I got punched in the face, my goggles kicked askew, my legs dragged down and kicked in the head. The waterway/canal was a neat experience. It was really cool turning to breathe and seeing people standing there cheering you on. I finally made my way out of the water (hello jelly legs!) and got my wetsuit stripped off. Mike and Maddie were standing right there and I got a quick hug and a kiss and ran to the change tent.
Getting dressed when wet was harder and more frustrating than I was prepared for! In the past, I have made fun of Mike and how long his transitions took, and I got to learn why! I THOUGHT I was moving fast, but including the run from the swim exit, changing, grabbing my bike and running to the mount line, 11 minutes transpired!
Thanks to off and on rain all week leading up to the race, the ground in Town Green Park was soft. As I tried to clip into my pedal, I heard no click. That’s when I realized my cleats were packed with dirt. Instead of wasting time trying to dig it out, I decided to just clip in without the reassuring sound of the loud click and hope that the cleat and pedal were engaged enough to ride. Luckily, it turned out to be fine, although, it gave me a fright when I stopped at Special Needs (around mile 62) to take a bathroom break and my cleat didn’t want to come out of the pedal! I thought I was gonna go down, but my foot finally broke free. PHEW!!
The ride started out great with the sun shining and beautiful trees lining the course. Spectators were sprinkled along the roadside and we got lots of cheers along the way. Just before getting on the Hardy Toll Road, I rolled through and used my first aid station. After Mike witnessed a ton of crashes at the aid station at Mile 20 of Ironman Florida, I was really nervous. I know I can control my bike, but you can’t control if someone else crashes into you because they have poor bike handling skills! Aside from having to do some weaving to stay upright because the guy in front of me decided to refill his front hydration bottle AS he was rolling through the station (GRR!), it was a success!
Onto the Hardy Toll Road. The course was a 21-mile stretch of road that we looped twice. During the first 21 mile stretch southbound, I was surprised by some of overpasses. Most of them were as I had anticipated, but a few were actual bridge structures that were steeper, with taller and longer vertical curves (sorry to get all civil engineer on you!), than I expected. I also was surprised when I felt some headwind. I was thinking “Accuweather was WAY wrong! The wind is coming from the South, NOT the Northwest!” I was excited to make the turnaround and catch the tailwind. Well…it turns out Accuweather was right. While there were some patches of wind that came from the south, the majority of the wind was coming from the North, and it was FURIOUS! My thoughts went dark as we got blasted in the face with the wind, especially when I was climbing the overpasses. I counted down the miles until the turnaround. That turnaround to start the second loop was glorious. The tailwind was heavenly! But, my legs were tired and I wanted to save them as much as possible for the second return trip north, so I swallowed my pride and dropped into the small chain ring up front. I also was feeling slight flutters of discomfort in my stomach. So, instead of hammering it to make up for the lost speed, I kept things conservative to allow my stomach to settle down. Luckily, that strategy worked. Since I knew what was in my future, my thoughts stayed much more positive for that second turn on the northbound section. That’s not to say I was enjoying it! Around mile 83, I got caught in a group of people all riding the same speed. The guy in front of me would accelerate and then coast, and then accelerate and then coast. Other people were riding in the left lane and a person was riding my wheel, so I was boxed in. I was planning on passing the group at the next overpass, as I seemed to climb better than most of that group, which was about a mile away. Until then, I decided to stagger myself so no one was directly in front of me. Well, the race official rode up next to this group of 10+ people and singled me out for a drafting penalty! The next penalty tent was at mile 93 (on the southbound side of the course). The race official was there along with an Ironman staffer. They were great folks and we joked around until my time was up. In all honesty, it turned out to be a nice break for both my bum and my legs. I hopped back on the bike and worked my way back up the course, overtaking many of the people that were in that group.
The turnaround to finish up loop 2 came and I said “Woohoo! No more headwind!” to the woman riding next to me. It turns out I was wrong. The remainder of the ride from the Hardy Toll Road back to transition seemed to be all head and cross wind, no matter what direction we turned. When I got to the dismount line, I was never so happy to get off my bike!
I made my way down the long path to the run gear bag/change tent and saw Mike and Maddie. I got a kiss and some encouragement from both of them. I was able to pull the strap of my bibs off as I was walking, so I wouldn’t have to take my aero tri top off just to change bottoms. I pulled on my tri shorts and trucker hat, grabbed my Honey Stinger chews and Simple Hydration Bottle filled with Base Performance Aminos and took off.
I was happy to be on the run. You no longer have to worry about mechanical issues or flat tires, it’s just you and your body. I was surprised how good I felt on the run. I didn’t want to go out too hard and burn all my matches, so I tried to keep things at a pace I thought was maintainable. The run is a 3-loop course and it was fantastic. It was lined with so many of my friends! I think I was doing as much hugging as I was running. Mike and Maddie were waiting at the start of the second loop, just after the change tents. I loved getting to see them and got hugs from Maddie and my friend Julie’s kids. Maddie ran with me for about 10 feet or so and then I took off. This loop was more challenging because my body was getting tired. I noticed the hugs and high fives I was giving friends were less enthusiastic. I got through that loop and excitedly looked for Mike and Maddie as I started the third loop. I got hugs again from Maddie and Mike asked me how I was doing. I told him, “I’m tired.” That’s when he said something that became my mantra for the remainder of the race: “THIS is what you trained for!” The last two miles, I really tried to pick the speed up. As Mike Reilly’s voice got louder and louder, my feet turned over faster and faster. As I made right turn into the finisher chute, I saw Mike and he cheered loudly for me. I ran down Waterway Street, made the U-turn at the bottom and then sprinted my way back up to the finish line. That’s when I heard the magical words I had been waiting all day for, “Susan Oyler, from Pearland, Texas, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
Overall, I am very happy with my race. I feel like I executed it just as I had planned. I hit my goals for both the swim and the run. The bike, well, I survived! :-P I was expecting some headwind, but not the fury that would come to bear! Given that, I'm still pretty happy with my bike. My goal was to keep things on the conservative side to have legs left for the run, and I did exactly that. All in all, I truly feel like Ironman Texas was a perfect race; the weather was fairly mild and we had a ton of cloud cover on the run. I refused to consider any other races for the remainder of season in case Ironman Texas was a miserable experience and I wanted to quit triathlon! Luckily, that wasn't the case and I'm now trying to pick some races that will keep the fire burning, but still allow me to focus on my most important post-race goal: my family.
My race day would not have been possible without my coach, John Mayfield, who prepared me so well. I felt more confident entering the water that morning than I have ever felt before a race. The support and encouragement of my Tri Mafia, Tri Sirena, TriTats and Coeur Sports team mates helped me throughout training. The unbelievable support from the team at CycleOps and the entire Saris company helped me raise $1,640 (so far!) for Team RWB via the Ironman Foundation. Lastly, I am at a complete loss for words to express my feelings about Mike and Maddie. Whenever a parent chooses to do an Ironman, it’s a commitment for the whole family. In our case, even more so, since Mike is stationed away from home and pursuing advancement to Warrant Officer (one of his career goals). He was burning the candle at both ends at work and then would come home on the weekends and be Mr. Mom as I was off training. My successful race was as much due to Mike and Maddie’s sacrifice as it was my body.
Written by Susan Oyler
Follow Susan on Instagram! @suchosoft
Have you done this race before? Any thoughts or questions? Let us know in the comments below!