August 10, 2013

Steelhead 70.3 Half Ironman Recap

Transition area the day before
The Steelhead 70.3 Half Ironman is a long distance triathlon in Benton Harbor. It starts with a 1.2 mile swim in Lake Michigan, then a 56 mile bike ride, and ends with a 13.1 mile (half marathon) run. 

Two years ago I injured my back while training for this event. Getting ready for it again and doing it was a pretty big physical and psychological milestone for me. Last year a team of Speedy Chubs did this event as a relay team and this year I did it solo. 

Start line (Courtesy FinisherPix)

Three years ago I started training for triathlons and I've done several open water swims since my first. Growing up, my family would stay on Lake Michigan almost every summer. The Lake is no stranger to me and I'm quite familiar with how powerful it can be. The thing is, I had never done any open water swimming in Lake Michigan. I knew, cognitively that this would be a different experience. The morning of the race the water was rough but certainly not as rough as Lake Michigan can be. I was in one of the last starting waves and got the pleasure of watching several people climb ashore or get fished out by the coast guard. It was like being in a speech writing class waiting for your turn to give a speech while the professor tears apart each of the previous presenters. I wasn't nervous before then, but during that 45 minutes I started to wonder. 

Not the manliest color cap
for my swim wave...
Finally our wave got lined up and off we went. We walked into the water as Lake Michigan sent three to five foot waves at us trying to spit us out. We had about 150 yards to travel away from the shore before we swam our 1.2 miles in a straight line parallel to the shore, toward the transition area. There were 16 nicely marked and spaced buoys along the way (they even changed color at the half-way point). Before I got to the first buoy I was feeling unnerved by the (what seemed to me) large rolling waves. I felt like a bobber being tossed about and making no forward momentum. I was too busy dodging people and catching my breath between waves to actually swim anything other than a doggie paddle. I wondered how I was ever going to complete a whole 1.2 miles. I also started worrying that I wouldn't finish before the time cutoff (something like 1hr 15 min. after the last wave). 

After I got the full 150 yards away from the shore and turned to start the swim the waves turned from crashing walls of water into huge rolling hills. I began to try actual swimming. My coaches had warned me that the rolling surf can be unnerving if you try to sight while in the valley instead of on the peak. During my first breath to the side all I saw was water - there was no shore, no other swimmers, no boats or kayaks, or buoys. The coaches were right. In the chaos of the waves and people I came to appreciate several of the lessons my swim coach had taught me. One was to swim with high elbows. This kept my arms from smacking into waves or other racer's body parts. 

By the second buoy I started to get the feel for the waves and just kept swimming. I had practiced sighting gracefully, mid-stroke, while swimming and even executed it well during previous open water swims in small lakes this year. But this was different. There was nothing pretty about this swimming - I had to actually stop and tread water periodically in order to get my bearings, find the line of buoys and correct my course. I got into a nice rhythm finally, and simply chugged along. About this time is when the little song Dori sang, from Finding Nemo, got stuck in my head: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...". I was pleasantly surprised that my arms weren't getting tired and that I wasn't running out of breath. A common race problem I had in the past was getting excited and expending far more energy than I should during the swim, resulting in little more than a bunch of extra splashing and very little extra speed. 

Peanut butter sandwich time
(Courtesy FinisherPix)
Going into this event I knew that one of the tougher strategic parts would be all about how I pace myself on the bike leg of the race. I know that I can crank out 56 miles pretty quickly, but because this is just one part of a seven hour day it doesn't make sense to blaze through the bike ride only to burn out and have to walk the run. However, you also don't want to hold back so much that you end the run and think, 'hey, I have some left in tank'. It's a challenging balancing act that I've just started to learn. Last year I screamed through the bike course tearing up the pavement averaging something like 21 mph during the first half. I remember the last half of the bike race as being challenging. Especially a couple hills in the last 10 miles. This year I moderated my effort, keeping my wattage pretty even, resulting in an average speed around 16.5 mph. It's not quite as spectacular as cornering a turn at 20 mph, but I finished the bike leg only five minutes slower than last year and unlike last year I finished with enough energy to complete a half marathon immediately afterwards. I also had a slightly different perspective on those hills at the end thanks to Michigan Mountain Mayhem

One of the fun logistical challenges about an endurance event like this is that you have to really plan out what, how, and when you eat. A good portion of training is actually spent in learning what your gut can handle under race-like conditions. On the bike I started out eating peanut butter sandwiches and peanut M&Ms (no joke), then moved to gels and Gatorade toward the end. I brought the sandwiches and M&Ms with me and one expendable hydration bottle. But for the rest I picked up along the way at aid stations.

For me, getting off the bike and starting to run is always an awkward experience for the first few moments. This time, because the transition zone is so long, it wasn't all that awkward. I slapped on a bit more sunscreen, changed shoes, and put on my running hat and took off. The first three miles were tough mentally more than physically. It was hard not to be overwhelmed with the idea of having been out for over 4 hours already and just starting a half marathon run. I tried to focus on reading my body and trying to settle into a good pace and rhythm. I wasn't carrying any hydration or nutrition with me and was relying on the aid stations completely, since I knew they stocked everything I was familiar with and needed. I settled into a pattern where I would walk each aid station while I pick up a water, then either a gel or a Gatorade, then another water for one good sip then splash the rest on my head and take off. The aid stations were spaced out at around 2 miles apart, so the timing worked out pretty well.

At around the 6th mile I got a second wind and went with it, but was careful not to over do it. The pace sped up until around mile 10, where I had my slowest mile. This is when the run got both physically and psychologically difficult. But somehow my brain was able to convince my body that I just had an easy 5k to do, and my body was gullible enough to go along with it.

The run course had two laps, which made things easy for pacing and nutrition. But, as a location, view, and experience it wasn't exactly memorable or noteworthy. Most of it went through the Whirlpool headquarter's campus, so there was a good deal of running through parking lots and around the back sides of buildings near dumpsters and loading docks. Not exactly the same as if it were running along the shore of the lake on the boardwalks between sand dunes, for example. But, I wasn't here for sight seeing, I was here to get something done and I enjoyed the functional aspects of the run course, even if the form was lacking.

Finally, the end! (Courtesy FinisherPix)

1 comment:

  1. That's an awesome finisher pic and one you should be very proud of! You worked hard to complete this race and I am duly impressed with your perseverance. Nice job, Joe!