Rice lecturer proves her mettle

Liette Ocker was a living lesson as she trained for successful Ironman 

Nerves nearly got the better of Liette Ocker as she stared at the water. But 18 months of Ironman training would not be denied. Nor would the expectations of her family, friends and students.

Especially her students, because for them, Ocker was a work in progress.

The run

Rice University lecturer Liette Ocker runs ...

The Rice University lecturer in kinesiology completed the Ironman North American Championship Texas, which started and finished in The Woodlands May 16. Participants took on back-to-back-to-back races: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon run with the goal of finishing in less than 17 hours. Ocker said Ironman is considered the world’s most famous single-day sporting event.

But that morning, it was just plain terrifying. “Once I was ready to get into the water, I was very nervous,” she said later. “I didn’t want to do it. When it came right down to it, I was not comfortable with this long swim with almost 3,000 people and getting beat up the whole time.”

Ocker finished in 14:21:27 (see the full breakdown here), exceeding her own expectations and living up to those of her students. For her classes in exercise physiology and sport nutrition, the lecturer served as a living, breathing experiment in how to maximize physical conditioning.

The fitness buff, already a triathlete, began training for Ironman when she decided to see how far she could push her body. Ocker hired a triathlon coach and a registered dietitian and set about training for at least two hours most days and eight to nine hours a day on weekends.

“I tell people I sign up for races that scare me so I’ll actually work out for them,” she said.

The work, it turned out, extended far beyond training as she brought all she learned to her classrooms. “In the course of this, I thought, ‘Wow, now I can talk about what it’s like to have heat illness – because I’ll have it multiple times – and what it’s like to recover,'” Ocker said. “I started paralleling my classes to my training.”

“In sport nutrition, you learn how to fuel your body as an athlete,” said Belle MacFarlane, a rising senior, sports medicine major and high jumper on Rice’s track and field squad who took both of Ocker’s courses last year. “In exercise physiology you learn how that fuel affects you while practicing and competing.

The bike

… bikes ...

“I’m really interested in how to apply the things I’m learning to myself and other athletes as well. She brought all of that into the classroom by telling us how what she was teaching affected her training, especially in sport nutrition,” she said.

One new element in Ocker’s exercise physiology class let students find their lactate acid threshold, the level of exertion where lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood stream and limits performance. It involved taking baseline measurements for each on the exercise bikes at the Barbara and David Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center.

That helped students make sense of Ocker’s results as she moved the needle of her own endurance from 12.5 to 17 miles per hour on the bike. “The idea is to keep your heart rate low,” she explained. “It’s not about going as fast as you can, but finding the threshold and staying within it. I couldn’t have done an Ironman after my original test.”

Her progress on various benchmarks became fodder for lectures. “Every time I did something unique with my coach, we would talk in the classroom about what was happening to me,” Ocker said. “We paralleled my physiological changes with their studies.”

Knowing how tough Texas weather is on athletes, students helped Ocker design a heat-acclimation regimen that had her train during the cool months in layers of clothing amid space heaters.

They also monitored her when she gave up caffeine.

“That was tough,” she said. “But if I needed to use caffeine during the race, my body would react stronger. So we went through how caffeine affects performance, physiologically and psychologically, and how could it help me if I needed it.

“I opened the semester thinking this might be self-serving, because I was learning just like the students, but by the end of the semester, we were all invested,” Ocker said.

Students in her sport nutrition class analyzed her diet plan. “They got to see exactly what it takes to do an Ironman: What to eat, when to eat it. They got to see my sweat-test results, which let my registered dietician make sure I was taking in enough sodium, magnesium, potassium, carbohydrates and things like that.

The swim

… and swims during the Ironman North American Championship Texas. She handily beat her goal of finishing in 17 hours. Photos courtesy of Liette Ocker

“Finally, at the end of the semester, I brought a representative of everything I had to eat that day,” Ocker said. “They got to see what it was going to take to get me through the race and taste the goos and the gels and things like that. And most of them taste gross.

“It wasn’t like I started the semester going, ‘I know, take an Ironman and base all my lectures on it!’ It never had occurred to me,” she said. “But as I was lecturing it became very applied.”

MacFarlane said she has adopted some of Ocker’s program for her own training regimen. “She introduced me to some goos and some blocks that are full of carbohydrates and are really great for athletes,” MacFarlane said.

Ocker recalled that stepping up for the final leg, the marathon, “felt awful” and said it took several miles to acclimate. “Your body goes, ‘OK, whatever. I get it.’ From about mile 3 to about 12, it’s actually pretty comfortable,” she said. “By the end, I was thinking, ‘I’m just going to make it to that tree. …’ The last six or seven miles are just survival.”

She said she will run another Ironman after her husband competes in his second later this year in Florida. She said it’s too hard to train together with two elementary school-age children to care for.

But the experience will stay fresh as part of her classes. “In hindsight, it’s going to be even more interesting,” she said. “One of the things we want to do in kinesiology is make sure our classes stay very applied. We know students at Rice are going to read and understand the book, so we need to complement that.”

Competing in the Ironman “was the leap I was missing in my career. I can talk all day long about what the book says, but now I can tell you from experience how it works.”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.