Race Recap Time!!
We’re going back in time with this post to my very first 70.3 race in August of 2016. It was my first season of racing injury free. At this point I only had 2 olympics and a 70.3 Aquabike under my belt. Originally my plan for my first 70.3 was the one in beautiful Miami! I could drive there from Virginia and it was a place I wanted to visit (always a consideration for a traveling triathlete!). However, as planning progressed I realized it was going to be pretty expensive to fly 3 people to Florida and get hotel rooms for everyone. Having my family there for this big milestone was very important to me. I got on the ol’ google to learn about some races within driving distance of Chicago… like 70.3 Steelhead.
Ironman 70.3 Steelhead is put on in a little beach town in south west Michigan called Benton Harbor. It won an Athlete’s Choice Award in 2017 for Overall Satisfaction and Best Run Course. Upon further investigation I learned it was only 30 minutes north of my Grandfather’s beach house! It was settled. The course appeared flat, always a requirement for me, and fast. The multi loop lollipop shaped run course also would allow my family to see me a couple times. I liked that it was in a lake (albeit one that historically thinks it’s another ocean) with no scary marine life and comfortable temperatures. Plus it was an easy hour or so drive for my friends and family in Chicago. Everyone could stay at the lake house so no hotel rooms were involved. Big bonus. That just left getting me and my bike, Gwen, to Michigan.
Race Morning: 4am
I told my family and friends there was no need to get up as god awful early as I was going to have to at 4am. We decided to split into two groups with my best friend Felecia and my mum doing the early run. While Dad, sister Shea, Aunt Linda, and my cousins came later closer to the start. I ate my usual pre-race breakfast of oatmeal with a banana and started furiously hydrating. The 30 minute drive over was easy and parking wasn’t too much of a hassle. I racked my bike and started setting up my transition area as the butterflies and nerves mounted. Could I do this? Was I crazy? Was I going to fail in front of those closest to me??
As the clock ticked closer to 7am I was more and more concerned. We found out around 6am that the water temperature at Steelhead was sitting around 76 F and was therefore NOT wetsuit legal. This suited me just fine since I didn’t have much experience wearing my wetsuit and felt I was faster without it. My warm up swim was enjoyable and started to garner me some confidence that I could survive the swim.
Swim Start: 7am
Steelhead has a rolling start meaning the gun goes off for the pros ( around 6:45-6:50 am) and then each age group enters the water to about waist deep and waits for their gun. My wave ended up actually starting closer to 7:40 am by the time we got in the water.
The start of the swim was crazy. There were hundreds of people and bodies and limbs. The term “washing machine start” was in full effect. I kept to the back and outside and just tried to make forward process.
As Coach Cyndi always said “just one buoy at a time” and that is what I did. The swim here, in Lake Michigan, is a triangle course. You swim out, make a right hand turn, swim to the next turn buoy, turn right again, and then head for the beach. I felt all in all the swim was pretty great. Despite a few kicks to the head and being swam over by the men behind me I didn’t find it too stressful. The water was a little choppy but there weren’t any real waves to speak of.
T1 : 8:24 am
Gratefully transition was short and fast. You come out of the water onto the sandy beach and run through a sand corral that leads you back to transition. Fortunately you aren’t going far and there were some little kiddie pools you could run through to help remove some of the sand. A great tip from my coach that I used here is to keep a water bottle by your spot in transition just for rinsing. So while I was seated putting on my socks and shoes I rinsed quickly with the extra water to get any extra sand out. I hoped it would help with later chafing & rubbing. As it turns out, it did not.
I was not especially fast in T1 and this didn’t bother me too much in retrospect. My goal for Steelhead was to finish, have fun, and push myself to accomplish something I never thought I’d do. So I took my time and made sure I was comfortable. Double checking that everything was in working order. Even made a port-a-potty stop on the way out. I don’t remember seeing my cheerleaders but they told me that they could see me. I think I was in T1 for around 3 minutes and I was off on my bike.
Bike Course: 8:27 am
This 56 mile bike is mostly on Highway 63 and while it is not a closed course I don’t remember traffic being crazy. My memory of this course is nothing but a positive one. Steelhead has an out and back single loop course (woo hoo!) was scenic and enjoyable. The local police and volunteers made the turns clear and the aide stations efficent. The Athlete guide says that there is 1262 feet of elevation gain but I honestly don’t remember doing any climbing. All of that gain was gradual small rollers that were quick to hit and roll down the other side.
The worst part of this ride for me was getting stung by a wasp in the neck around mile 15. I wasted a lot of water trying to splash my face and decrease the swelling. Hoping & praying that my throat didn’t swell up. Unless your spectators are willing to drive around to see you they really won’t get a chance to see you on the bike course. My family said they had a great time watching the final swim finishers after I left on the bike. They hung out on the beach and enjoyed the lake until the cyclists started coming back in. Many families will set up a little beach spot and make a beach day of it while their athlete is out on the course.
T2: 11:23 am
T2 was a quick and easy transition for me. I changed my shoes. Found my visor and glasses. Grabbed my race belt and rolled out of there. Not before a quick pit stop at the T2 exit to get slathered with some sun screen by the volunteers.
Run Course: 11:25 am
My run started off strong, I thought I felt okay, … until I didn’t. You start out flat and shaded for about the first 1.2 miles until you make a sharp left hand turn and stare down a massive hill. In my memory this hill was Everest. I remember thinking I am not going to even attempt to run this – walking is the only way to survive. Essentially the entire N. Shore Dr portion on the map below is this deadly hill. Almost everyone was walking. I’m pretty sure it accounts for 80% of the 203 ft elevation gain. Once you get to the top of the hill you are at the base of the “lollipop”. I picked up my run again and thought I’m having fun.
Survival of the Fittest
As I ran through the streets of the neighborhoods in the course many people were on their lawn cheering the athletes which was really fun. One house even had dixie cups of beer! Don’t mind if I do! Around 3-4 miles in (EARLY) I started feeling some discomfort and blisters form in my arches and heels of both feet. So at the first aide station I came to I stopped to put on band-aides. When I stopped both hamstrings and groin muscles started cramping. Eat a banana. Apply band-aides. Keep going? But how?? I shuffled along for a few miles after that hoping that things would get better.
Fake it till you make it
It wasn’t until I hit the wooded park portion of the run through the Whirlpool Campus that I started to feel a bit better. I was sticking to my nutrition and trying to keep my head in the game. There is another short but steep hill that you will hit twice on the top part of the lollipop. Right when you exit out of the Whirlpool park you will begin this climb. At this point my feet were in extreme pain and the blisters were all I could think about. As I approached my second lap I could see my family at the head of the lollipop waiting to see me go by. I knew I needed to pick it up and not let them see how much I was suffering. Seeing them and their fantastic signs was one of the best parts of the day.
After I was out of eye-shot I resumed my suffering and my internal monologue about how awful this was and how I am never ever doing another one. Why do people do this? So a full Ironman is DOUBLE this distance? Never. The entire second lap I just couldn’t stop thinking about how much pain my feet were in. My legs didn’t feel too gassed but my feet! Good grief! I took out my special coin that I carried with me in honor of my boyfriend (now husband 🙂 ) and imagined he was running with me. Every step of that last lap was a dig deep struggle. I made it down the killer hill and tried to pick it up for that last leg. One foot in front of the other.
Finally into the Steelhead finishers chute and the coolest experience happened. Strangers left and right were cheering for me BY NAME! (Your name is written on your bib, they weren’t all psychics!) I was brought to tears by all these people supporting me (and others!). It was the best most motivating feeling and I realized I had finished! I had done it!
First Time Finisher
As I came across the finish line, exhausted, bloody, but proud. I received my medal and through the crowd pushed my sister to give me that first big hug. We were both crying and I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I finished with a time of 6 hours and 1 minute. Spot on my goal/projected time of 6 hours. I couldn’t be prouder. Finishing Steelhead 70.3 was easily one of the happiest days of my life. After the race I immediately took off & trashed my socks (which were soaked in blood – yuck), got a wonderful post-race massage by a blind man, and went to claim my victory pizza.
We drove back to the lake house and spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the memories of the day. All in all, I highly recommend this race to other first timers and may even consider racing it again sometime in the future for all the reasons mentioned above.
Recommendations in the Steelhead area:
Greenbush Brewery – excellent craft beers, even more excellent pulled pork mac n’ cheese! Definitely worth stopping by on your way to or from Benton Harbor
The Peasant’s Pantry – really delicious post race breakfast or lunch!
Mesa Luna – my fave upscale restaurant in Sawyer! Perfect for post race celebrating. You should go for the cinnamon-honey butter alone!
Bread and Bar – fun restaurant & bar to send your family to for provisions during the race, great atmosphere and view of the river
The Mason Jar – smaller cafe with an affordable breakfast and other meals throughout the day. Super popular in the area so you may expect a wait.