August 1, 2009
IRONMAN 70.3 Steelhead
Two weeks after racing in a half-ironman distance triathlon in New York’s wine country I’m again lined up to race in a half-ironman distance triathlon in Michigan’s wine country. Either I have a drinking problem or a racing problem. I get a buzz from both if consuming in appropriate portions but the hangover is almost unbearable if overdoing either activity.
The whole family came with me: Chris, Hayes, and Caroline for a Midwest, mid-summer vacation. The drive to St. Joseph from Geneva took three hours plus an hour added for the time change. Michigan is synonymous with vacation in the summertime. I love the State and Lake Michigan, the first body of water I couldn’t see land on the other side. Lived a block from the Lake in Evanston, a near north suburb of Chicago for three years in the early 80’s. About every day in the summer I went to one of its beaches and felt like a beach vacation. Later in early 90’s would pack my wetsuit and go for a swim workout at Olive Beach before catching a train home to LaGrange. Our trip to Michigan for the IRONMAN 70.3 Steelhead triathlon seemed like the start to a three-day vacation.
One of the under promoted aspects of amateur athletes in individual sports like triathlons and running is we enjoy much more flexibility than team sports when combining vacation and competitions. Racers with their families make the race destination as a vacation choice, not a coach, a team owner, or a sponsor. We determine how we choose to train, race, and recover. We vote for races with our entry dollars and use of our disposable income for lodging, food, and extra-curricular activities. Community and government officials underestimate the potential amateur tri specific spending benefits of hosting races in vacation destinations especially in non-theme weeks of prime time or shoulder seasons. We arrive. We spend. We leave money then leave the area and tell great stories to others about the fantastic locations visited to spread a sustainable economic multiplier of benefits. A triathlete’s traceable trail of financial bread crumbs posted with pictures and retold to others of good times, great races, and fantastic community hosts.
The check-in at Benton Harbor was easy, uneventful, and required. The race briefing provided the most recent race information and freed the competitors to pick-up race numbers, a swim cap, and the swag bag. Once completed we headed to the hotel, played in the pool, and went out for a pasta dinner. We returned to the hotel, watched some TV, stretched out, and turned the lights out to sleep. Until now the whole trip was relaxing. As I envisioned tomorrow’s race I realized Steelhead served as a qualifier to The Ironman 70.3 series World Championship competition scheduled for Clearwater, Florida in mid-November. This race allotted two qualifying spots in the 50-54 age group. With race limited spots and my limited training, qualifying for “World’s” would be an individual stretch goal for the 2009 season. I fell asleep mentally finishing the race. Not sure what the time or place ended up being in my mind over night.
Chris dropped me off in the early morning darkness to the common T1 and T2 transition area as the girls slept back at the hotel. The paved parking lot of the Benton Harbor’s historic city Jean Klock Park was filled with bike racks and covered with blown sand from the beach. I racked the bike, laid out the race kits, and equipment for both the bike and run legs. Then I watched an abbreviated parade of some of the most elite world class triathletes, present and future, as they entered the transition of the Steelhead 70.3 Ironman. They included native Michigander Andy Potts, biking specialist Andrew Starykowicz, future Kona winner Leanda Cave, EPO drug infused 2004 Kona disqualified winner Nina Craft, and 70.3 distance specialist Amanda Lovato. Eventually surrounding them were 1,660 other amateur racers who were as intense and interested as the pros in our chosen hobby.
The Steelhead race is unique for its swim course. Some years the competitors swim 1.2 miles north to south paralleling the shoreline all the way down to the transition area. Other years the swim course is reversed to a 1.2 mile direct route south to north. The swim direction is dependent on the current direction. This year triathletes bused, walked, or jogged 1.2 miles south to the swim start from the transition area and swam north back to T1. Storms were reported in Chicago, over a hundred miles to the west across Lake Michigan from Benton Harbor and headed this way. Gentle swells broke into waves before crashing at the shore break. For us, nothing to be scared about but not glassy swim conditions.
My age group swam in the first amateur wave after the professionals started. This allowed for clear swimming as no one in this wave would catch any of the pros in front of us or be impeded by slower swimmers in subsequent wave starts. The leader in our age group stroked out to an early lead. Another guy and I became the front of the pursuit line as the arrowhead-shape pack formed behind us.
Within in the first 200 meters the gentle swells combined with early race jitters and being smacked in the head by this guy swimming beside me, created a queasy stomach. I broke stroke and took a couple of pulls of breaststroke to re-calibrate. Spotted the shoreline to get my bearings then settled back into a relaxed steady rhythm of swimming. We swam side-by-side, stroke-for-stroke for the next 1.1 miles. We never yielded to each other. Neither of us pulled away from each other. We never smacked each other again. We both proved our points to each other whatever they were then.
Later on in the bike my mind wandered thinking of past races with triathlon swim legs in Lake Michigan: Illinois, Wisconsin, and now Michigan. Only missing my native state of Indiana with its short coast line along the Lake.
The T-1 transition went smoothly. I popped out of the Lake once a hand touched the sandy bottom. I pushed the goggles to the top of the head, unzipped the wetsuit, and peeled away the long sleeves and took off running for the bike. Being in the first amateur wave we were greeted with a full parking lot of bikes. This required us to know the exact row and location of our bikes to minimize the time finding it and making the transition onto the race course. Once at the bike I slipped off the rest of the wetsuit, pulled off my goggles and cap, and swapped them out for a bike helmet and sunglasses. I also decided to pack away a handful of Clif Shot Blocks for fuel. In addition I chose to wear a pair of gloves for this longer race. This decision cost me more time in transition but provided more comfort on the bike leg. I pulled the bike off the rack and started running towards the transition exit.
Looking at the bikes racked up in the transition area convinced me some of the top end rides made up of carbon fiber frames, deep dish wheels, 10 speed components, power meters, and more instruments than on a car’s dash board cost more than many motorcycles. Justification of the minor fortunes spent on bikes come from lower lifecycle costs since there’s no additional payouts for insurance or gasoline. Maintenance and upgrades on both types of two wheel vehicles are on par with each other. However, if someone expanded the lifecycle costs to include race fees and family vacation expenses associated with destination races it’s a wash between motorcycles and race bikes. Okay, more on the latter. We triathletes rationalize the whole experience as a lifestyle.
Shoes were already attached to the pedals. The pedals were parallel to the ground held in place by a couple of rubber bands. This allowed me to push my bike out of transition area and to the mount line in the quickest manner. Once at the line I stepped on top of the left shoe and swung the right leg over the seat. Then placed the right foot on the right shoe and pedal to get moving forward on the bike. Once underway I cleaned off the sand from the soles of my feet then put the feet in the shoes, and dialed in the funky tighten mechanism to quickly pedal up to race cadence.
The bike course started with a short out and back one mile loop. Sort of like a the path of a four leaf clover exit where you overshot the road you are trying to get on by only doing a right hand turn for almost 360 degrees. That’s what we did to get on to State Highway 63 north which soon merged into US Highway 31. From there the course changed shape to look like a cowboy lasso. We biked north 15 miles along its rope’s spoke then turned east for a looping 30 mile ride in the Michigan countryside. The last ten miles of the loop put us back on US-31, Michigan’s Blue Star Highway designated as a tribute to the U.S. armed forces. The highway also paralleled the Lake Michigan shoreline all the way back to T2. While we enjoyed the south to north swim direction we paid for it on the bike as a stiff head wind out of the south challenged us for almost 25 miles as we rode towards T2. Combined with the constant rolling terrain the course tested all but the strongest riders. Oddly, while I was passed in the countryside by a few competitors in my age group and some fast ones in the wave behind me, no one passed me for 25 miles once turning south into the wind on the highway. Maybe I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Still, I followed the mile markers back to Jean Klock Park. Close to the transition area I pulled off the bike gloves and stuck them in the bike jersey, pulled out my feet from the bike shoes, and pulled the right leg over the high bar coasting right to the dismount line.
Behind me were scary times on the bike course. As a participant you do not hear the terror stories of racing unless sticking around afterwards and talking at random to new faces. The countryside portion of the race went through a notch of the Michigan fruit belt. So called because of the countless cherry, apple, and peach orchards, grape and blackberry vines, and blueberry and strawberry fields that seemed to go on forever. Amongst the fruits evidently were a few nuts. People let their pets roam free with some dogs chasing the competitors. One of the dogs went under a Canadian cyclist’s wheel. The wrecked triathlete was concerned he would go under the knife for a dislocated shoulder. He expressed his worries to anyone who would listen as he walked around the post-race refueling area with his arm wrapped up with tape around his mid-section to stabilize the shoulder movement.
The transition included a quick change to a running hat from bike helmet and racing flats from cycling shoes. I grabbed the race number belt and started the 13.1 mile run. The backside of the jersey bounced annoyingly. I reached back and felt the brand new bike gloves. I pulled them out and jammed them in a nearby resident’s newspaper receptacle as I didn’t want to get a two minute penalty for property abandonment on the course. (And yes, I did retrieve these gloves on the post-race warm down run).
The course included 1.5 mile flat run out to two snowman shaped laps. The bottom circle included a steep but relatively short climb with 150 feet of elevation gain. The upper loop went through the Maytag corporate campus on a paved walkway. The walkway provided a slight but undulating surface that broke the monotony of a flat out run found at some other race venues. The Steelhead run leg further added changing context as additional runners joined the loop on their first lap as my age competitors strode through on their second. This provided a mix of ages and speeds, much like a video arcade race car game where if you were not running around slower runners, faster ones were running around you.
The Maytag campus loop offered lots of shade. This helped as the air temperature climbed quickly since the swim start. The heated air combined with our physical exertion increased our core body temperatures to almost dangerous levels. Luckily aid station volunteers helped keep us filled with fluids and provided cold water dipped sponges. Aid stations were frequent and well-staffed with energized volunteers.
My favorite aid station was located outside of the snowman course, on the return leg to the finish line. My favorite volunteer there handed out cups of ice. Heck, she was the only volunteer there. She earned a nickname, the “Ice lady”. I’m forever grateful to her cold touch and frozen quenching aids she stuck in our hands with a grin stretched across her face from ear to ear. The ice went in the red run cap. I mentally thanked her for each melting drip she indirectly provided over the last mile and half of running to the finish line. After passing through the aid station I challenged myself mentally to cross the finish line before the ice totally melted. I needed the challenge to get qualified for Clearwater, the Kona of the Ironman 70.3 series.
Less than five hours later from the start of a queasy stomach I ran at a full sprint to cross the finish line back at Jean Klock Park. The favorite trio of fans: Chris, Hayes and Caroline, greeted me with cheers in the finishing chute. Our neighbor Ann Tuisl from Geneva joined them and gave a big cheer too. Ann, an avid runner and experienced marathoner, joined friends from her college years to cheer on one of their own in her first triathlon who was doing well in her race.
I grabbed a water bottle and my finisher’s medal and circled back to join Chris and the girls. As a pack we moved away from the finishing area to allow the next group of family and friends to cheer on their racers. And the replacement cycle continued for the next three hours. Greet. Meet. Eat. Repeat.
My adrenalin fueled body unwound while rambling on about the race to Chris, who always patiently listens and seems interested about each event. I know damn well she hears the same comments after each race only at different venues in different states. She is a wonderful person to put up with my tri addiction. After the unwinding comes the pain and stiffness. I jogged to warm down and to start the lactic acid flush from the muscles. Then we walked across the beach to wade in the waves building on Lake Michigan. I went back into the water to further reduce my body heat and remove some of the grime of the race. Hayes and Caroline loved the tactile feel of the water combined with the sand to squish through their toes. I felt human again. The girls said they felt like kids again. Oh the influencing power of a beach vacation. While in the water the winds from the west picked up in intensity. We watched a storm move quickly towards us across the Lake. We decided to start making exit plans. Chris found Ann and they agreed to dinner plans for 6pm along the Lakefront.
Competitors’ confidence builds from achievement at most destination races. The sense of confidence comes from much more than the actual races. Contributing to a racer’s confidence at destination races is similar to the proof of ability to get things done in a complex, multi-level organization. Training at the introductory level, then racing local is a step up from basic training. Next come destination races with different competitors in a different geographical area and everything needed to get there and get ready in a place outside of your own comfort zone. And when races are qualifiers for yet more intensely contested races, then there is more stress that can build more confidence. Why settle for entry into local races when you can earn a finisher’s medal or a podium spot and qualify to the next race layer up. Think of it this way, the progression of races is akin to the progression of promotions in a career or social organizations. You gain acceptance through an initiation or from being hired. You perform. You contribute. You travel to learn to develop additional skills or performance capabilities. You earn promotions or new levels along the way. And the whole time you gain confidence, then teach others how to increase their confidence.
I checked the early posting of finishers to determine if I increased my race confidence at Steelhead. I finished second place in my age group. I earned a qualifying spot for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater scheduled for November. I also learned I needed to register for Clearwater at today’s race. And pay in cash the $300 entry fee! After a full morning of racing I’m now in another race to pack up my gear, get to the car, get to an ATM, get back to the award ceremonies, pay the entry fee, and sign-up before my qualifying spot turned into someone else’s roll-down spot.
The first leg of this race included a mile long walk to the car. Since the bikes took over the park’s regular parking spots spectators were directed to park on the neighborhood streets on a first come first serve basis. Chris had to park over a mile away when she returned with the girls for the race start as early arriving competitors and spectators filled the once vacant streets. The skies dumped on us before we reached the car.
On the next leg of this race we drove soaking wet for a couple of miles to find a Bank of America ATM. Once there, another line was forming of other World qualifiers who were withdrawing cash trying to beat the clock to submit their entries. Everyone in line worried either the ATM would run out of cash before they pulled theirs or they would arrive back too late to sign up for the race. Little different than waiting in line to use the restrooms before the race in whether we could hold it in until entering a Porta-Potty then getting to the water before our wave started. On each withdraw the imaginary clock in my head ticked louder as its longhand jump closer to zero with each person in front of me. I put my card in the slot, keyed in my PIN, grabbed the cash, and Chris drove us back to the now cancelled award ceremonies.
Another line. Another wait. At least now the race officials told us they would process all us on-site for Clearwater. I was in for Worlds. Meanwhile, Chris and the girls waited some more.
Racers, here’s what our personal valet deals with after dropping us off after the transition areas open up on race morning. We get front door drop-off service with plenty of time to get our race gear set-up to our requirements. Our valet morphs into the lead support crew to retrieve the rest of the support grew who slept in. Then the entire crew returns to find parking is filled so far back their transition walk from the vehicle to our starting line is further than our warm-up for the race. Furthermore, they need to carry their gear around with them all day. No transition area exists for spectators to put stuff, then come and go a couple of times to shed some items and add others. They take off their morning warming hoodies but need to jam them in our triathlon hand-me-down race bags or backpacks. Our race equipment stays corralled in our designated spot, with security protection, waiting for our needs, as we race around with as little extra weight as possible. Our drinks and food are catered to us. At no additional cost. In contrast, our support crews need to wait in lines, in all types of weather, at varying times of the day as each crew member is on a different drink and feed schedule. They need to pay for their refreshments. We have watches, odometers, and portable GPS to estimate our arrival times to the finish line. Our support crew members have no clues where we are on the course, let alone where to meet to cheer us on for a few quick fleeting moments. They wait hours to ensure connections happen. And after our support teams experienced a half day or full day of Wide World of Sports theme line, you know, “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat! The human drama of athletic competition…” we expect our personal support crews to be so impressed with our own individual race performances they treat us like we are the next big international sports sensation to rise from the triathloning ranks. C’mon, let’s get real about the day’s race results. I’m happy to get a hug from one of them before being solicited to go back to the hotel to go swimming.
At Steelhead, received my hugs, signed up for Clearwater, and picked up my age group award. Met the winner and we wished each other well for the rest of the season with a planned next meeting at World’s. Then, with the support crew, we headed back to the hotel for indoor swimming as the rain continued.
Unrecognized in all the race day activities was acknowledgement of Chris’ birthday. Her 29th I think but my mind was hazy from the race and afternoon bonus swim. We met up with neighbor Ann as planned at 6pm for dinner with her friends. I was the only guy and enjoyed the company of nine women. We celebrated Chris’ birthday and a handful of first time half-Ironman finishers in the group. We gave multiple thanks to our respective support crews. We also toasted to the sole race volunteer at the table. She shared the best story of the evening with us.
Steelhead was her first Ironman 70.3 triathlon to volunteer. She knew the sport but not the participants. She shared with us some stories about her other volunteer experiences. At one race, she did body markings, writing race numbers and ages on soon to be race exposed body parts of the triathletes. She greeted racers as they entered the Transition area and directed them with one hand while holding a big, black indelible ink marker in the other hand. She asked each racer his or her number then wrote with care on biceps, quads, and calves. To her, every triathlete was a number, not a name. Nothing personal to any of the racers. Names or faces didn’t give any triathlete an advantage for her services. When she asked one racer for his number, he responded a bit indignantly and said, “Well duh! It’s #1”. At the dinner table, we agreed he was agitated from the pending race, not her services. I’ve been told multiple times since this triathlete is one of the nicest, most personal, and polite of any professional triathlete.
Everyone enjoyed the evening’s celebration in recognition of the fun filled day. I picked up the tab. Why not? Had the best support crew of any racer with my wife, who gave up her birthday and two lovely daughters who traded in hugs for some recreational swimming.
On Sunday we woke up to the last day of our Michigan vacation. The sun shone without a cloud in the sky. I headed north for an easy run along the Lake. The Michigan Twin Cities of Benton Harbor and St. Josephs provided an extreme contrast of haves and have-nots. I didn’t see this on race day. St. Josephs had more of what you would want to see while Benton Harbor, not so much. Benton Harbor was significantly more negatively impacted by the Great Recession than St. Josephs. Benton Harbor looked bombed out and St. Josephs looked like a beautiful lake side town. I turned around and headed back to the hotel.
We went for another hotel pool swim. Then we strolled along Old Lake Shore Drive to look for deals at an early morning combination antique/flea market event. While I liked St. Josephs, I could not forget about Benton Harbor, especially during our walk along the high class antique sidewalk sales on a beautiful Sunday morning. Being good tourist we dropped a few more dollars into the local economy. All of us thought we made a good deal on our buys. And a good deal on our vacation decision to come to Michigan. The back drop of Lake Michigan lured us to take what turned into our Christmas card picture for 2009. This morning in early August was a picture perfect representation of summer vacations in Michigan.
We packed our bags and headed out. But wait, there’s more. Caroline asked if we could go to the “wine stores.” That’s what she called wineries. She heard Chris and I discuss the possibility when driving over for the race on Friday so before we left Michigan, we visited some of the local wineries found a short drive inland. We dropped a few more dollars into the local economy for fresh fruit and fermented fruit liquids before crossing the state line.
Driving back home I realized I definitely had a racing problem. I raced two half-ironman distance races and an Olympic distance race in three out of the previous four weekends. Yesterday, I committed to a late season race, another Ironman 70.3 and at the highest caliber of concentrated competition possible at that distance in the world. Looking ahead, I had three weeks of rest until my next race, then my schedule included four Olympic distance races over four straight weekends. I should have dropped a few more dollars at the Michigan wine stores to help get through all the dollars I was dropping on races.
Results: 46th overall. 2nd age group.