Monday, August 11, 2014

Steelhead 70.3 Race Report

The 2014 edition of Steelhead 70.3 was going to be my third attempt at this race.  The last time that I raced, the swim was cancelled due to large rip currents in Lake Michigan.  The race is known for having some rough water, so I was hoping that this year the winds would stay low so that we would race a full 70.3 distance race.  I had targeted Steelhead as the one I would attempt to crack the 4 hour barrier at if all went to plan.  I didn’t really put much of a taper or rest period leading into the race though as there is plenty of training to be done still leading into Kona in October.  After racing pretty much all of June, I spent all of July putting in some large training weeks on the bike.  I’ve noted that I run much better when cycling more, so have replaced a few recovery runs with recovery rides to really pile on the miles.  

The race weekend started with driving out on Friday morning.  I was scheduled to work the expo from 2-6pm on Friday and 9-5 on Saturday.  The drive itself shouldn’t be too bad as Benton Harbor is only a 125 mile drive, but summer construction really put a damper on the driving speed.  It took more than 4 hours to get there, but luckily I had left early enough to get there in time to set up and get prepped for the expo start.  With a short expo and not too many racers checking in, the day was pretty relaxed and low key.  Friday night, Jacqui and I went out for a quick dinner, checked into the hotel, prepped race gear, and called it an early night.  

Saturday morning, I got out in the morning for a relaxed run.  For some reason, I really struggle to get my body moving in the morning.  Example-  my first mile of the run was 8:20.  It was difficult to even go that fast.  But with continued running, my body started to wake up and without even noticing an increase in pace or effort, my 2nd mile was 6:40.  Jacqui has always made fun of me because I cannot keep up with her if we go running early in the morning.  I usually need a few miles before I start to wake up!

After the run, I showered and got ready for the long day out in the sun at the expo.  I grabbed my morning coffee, a few healthy snacks to keep in my booth (cucumbers, blueberries, raspberries, and grapes), and off to day 2 of work I went.  Day 2 was MUCH busier...especially the last 3 hours.  My day was spent getting samples out, filling and re-filling the cooler of PowerBar Perform sports drink, and talking to athletes and they made their way through the vendors.  My best pal, John, came up early with his girlfriend, Brittany, since she was racing her first half ironman.  They hung out at the booth for a while and even helped me with the sampling!  The day went by pretty quickly, but I could definitely tell I was getting tired near the end.  I almost couldn’t keep up with  getting samples out quickly enough!  Compared to Kansas 70.3 that I had raced and worked, I actually felt better post expo for this one, so I was excited to see what the day would bring.  

Once I was finished with the expo, I met up with Jacqui, John, and Brittany.  We all went out for dinner together.  It was fun to stay low key and be with good friends the night before a race.  Back at the hotel, I didn’t have too much to do as I had prepped my race gear the day before.  Into bed early and ready for the 3:45am alarm clock!!

Race Day!

Up at 3:45 (really 2:45 central time!), I got down my morning fuel of a PBJ PowerBar and some water.  I loaded the car pretty quickly, made a pit stop at Dunkin’ for for a coffee and bagel, and then parked in the remote parking lot.  Since we were so early, I hung out in the car for a while, sipped on the coffee, and then started to get all of my race gear ready.  It was primarily pumping the tires, filling my nutrition bottles, and riding the bike to make sure it was shifting and rolling smoothly.  

Sitting in the car at 4:30am drinkin coffee 

Race morning was nice and calm, low winds, and perfect temps (low 60s).  The transition area was LONG and narrow.  I was worried that with my start wave being near the end that I wouldn’t have room to get around other racers with my bike!  After racking the bike and run gear in transition, it was time to take the 1.2 mile walk down the beach to the swim start.  The water seemed calm, but winds were picking up and seemed to increase every minute.  A quick stop a the restroom and then off to watch Jacqui start!  She was in the wave started at 7:28 while I was 7:44.  I figured since she was 16 minutes ahead, I’d see her somewhere around the half way mark on the bike.  One thing to note, I tried to turn on my Garmin wrist watch before the start but had no luck---dead battery.  So I took it off, threw it into my morning clothes bag, and checked it in.  I didn’t really need the watch for the swim or bike (I have a Garmin cycling computer on my bike), but I really like having it on the run as I often feel like I’m running slowly, but actually not doing as poorly as I think.  With my goal of being under 4 hours, it would have been really nice to see where I was at during the race as well.  I was lucky that my dad was there at the start, so I grabbed his Timex wristwatch and planned to use it to try and get an overall time and get some run splits.  

Before I continue, here were the splits I was looking to target and aim for to grab a sub 4 hour:

Swim- 30 minutes.  I was 29 minutes in Kansas, 32 at Rev3 Dells, and have been swimming well so figured it was reasonable.

Bike- 2:12.  This is a fast bike course and with low winds, it seemed like that is where I should be around

Run- 1:14.  I ran 1:14 at Kansas on a similar type of run course, a few tough hard hills and heat, but nothing too crazy

3:56 which would give me 4 minutes total for the 2 transitions to break 4.


I lined up front row of my wave and a touch to the right.  When the announcer said that we had 15 seconds, nobody in my group seemed to be paying any attention.  They blew the horn and I was the only one that reacted.  I sprinted off into the lake and already had a big gap on my age group wave.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten to start my watch, but even worse was that I may have sprinted a little too hard out into the water.  The chop of the water was also rougher than I had anticipated.  As I went to take my first breath, a wave caught me in the face and put me in panic mode.  I started to hyperventilate and could not breathe.  Each time I went to breathe, I wasn’t able to take any air in.  I haven’t really had that feeling before and couldn’t figure out what was going on.  Had I sprinted too fast into the water?  Had the waves and chop thrown me off?  All I knew was that I needed to stop and re-compose myself.  Some of the swimmers of my wave started to go past me while I tried to calm down and relax.  I started to swim again and felt a little better, but the adrenaline of the first 100 meters took a toll on me.  After turning past the first swim buoy, we made a long stretch straight up the lake swimming parallel to the shore and into a current.  The chop was more than I like, which made it hard to sight and see if I was swimming straight and on track.  I often would look up and just see a swell of water hovering over the top of me blocking the path to the next buoy.  It wasn’t until around 600 meters that I started to feel better and comfortable in the water.  I started to pass a bunch of the guys that got ahead of me, and at the same time I was catching swimmers from earlier waves.  The race itself started at 7:00am, with a wave of about 150 athletes starting every 4 minutes.  I started at 7:44 (which made me the 11th wave) and also meant that there were close to 1200 athletes out in front of me.  Many of the swimmers that I started to catch didn’t seem to be doing very well in the choppy water and were often swimming sideways and completely off course.  One of these ‘sideways’ swimmers cut right in front of me and his foot caught me right in the mouth.  My lip swelled up, and I could taste the blood that came shortly after.  The rest of the swim was dealing with the slower swimming athletes and maneuvering around them.  A few times I almost had to swim over the top of them as I had no place else to go!  I could tell that my 2nd half of the swim was much better, but with the bad start and weaving in and out of other swimmers, I knew my time was not going to be where I needed it to be.  

Out of the water, I didn’t really want to know what my swim time was because I was afraid that it would discourage me.  Since I didn’t start my watch, I figured it would be a good thing that I didn’t know and would charge on.  Maybe the swim wasn’t as bad as I had thought!   Unfortunately, my dad was right at the swim exit and yelled out that I swam 32 minutes.  Not bad, but was hoping to be at 30 if I wanted sub 4 hours.  My dad then said Jacqui swam 36 minutes.  It was then that I got a bit discouraged.  Yes, I was thrilled to hear that she had swam that fast, but typically I am around 7 minutes faster than her.  Either I swam awful or Jacqui swam incredibly.  I couldn’t stop thinking that I most likely was the one that swam awful considering all the trouble I had in the water.  Turns out, my swim wasn’t too bad in comparison to other guys I’m typically around, but Jacqui had a GREAT swim!!  

Swim stats-
86th overall out of 2133
71st overall male out of 1442
9th in the 30-34 age group out of 228

Into transition, I threw on the helmet, sunglasses, and onto the bike course I went.  Right at the mounting line, it was a disaster.  All of the people that were still in front of me were stopping right at the line and trying to get on their bikes.  I accidentally ran into another athlete as he stopped right in front of me.  I continued to run past the mount line by about 25 meters and then did a flying mount to get up to speed quickly.  Looking ahead up the road, there was a continuous line of athletes.  It looked like the string of them never ended!  

Overall, the bike wasn’t too exciting.  I made sure to pay attention to my watts and not let them dip too low.  The first 28 miles (the first half) the course was still extremely crowded.  I was constantly yelling, ‘on your left!’  And often, the athletes wouldn’t move over.  There were even multiple times that riders were riding on the far left of the road when nobody else was around them.  For anyone that doesn’t know, there are a few rules out on the bike course-  1- you always have to ride on the right side (unless otherwise noted).  When you pass, you go around on the left, then go back to riding on the right side.  If you pass on the right, that is an immediate bike penalty.  2- you cannot ride on left.  This is called blocking.  So when somebody needs to go past you, they need to make sure they still go around on the left. Finally, rule 3- you cannot cross the yellow median line on the road.  This means that if somebody is riding on the left, you cannot go around them by crossing the median and then cutting back over to the right.  

Since there were a bunch of riders not following the rules, I would have to slow up, try to yell out to them to move over to the right, and then pass.  Thankfully, I had passed a lot of riders by mile 28 and things opened up for the 2nd half of the ride.  For the first half, I had averaged 270 watts and saw I was at 1:06:45.  That would put me at a 2:13:30 bike split if I was able to match my speed from the first half.  I also knew though that the 2nd half should be faster as we would have a little bit more of a tailwind.  I kept my head down and rode, trying to keep the calories coming in and the watts high.  My 2nd half, my watts came down a bit, but for the ride as a whole, I averaged 267- my highest yet for a half!  I also came in with a faster 2nd half and finished the ride in 2:10!  This gave me a bit of confidence going into the run as I knew I had a shot at going under 4 hours, but still was’t entirely sure as I didn’t know how long my transitions took.  

Bike stats-
2:10:16 (25.8mph avg)
16th place overall out of 2133
1st place in age group out of 228

Into transition 2, I had pretty much caught most of the amateurs and now only had the professionals ahead of me since they started 44 minutes before.  I had a very quick transition, grabbed my race belt, visor, and PowerGels to take off on the hot run course.  Immediately, my run legs were not there.  My inner thighs were really tight and were causing me to run with an awkward stride.  It felt like I was running around 7 minute pace and was becoming discouraged.  Negative thoughts of a bad run split started to creep into my head.  Near the first mile mark, we had to run up the first hard hill.  Mile 1 was actually right near the top of it, and I was a bit surprised to see that I was at 5:38!  Yes, I was excited to see a split that fast, but I did not feel good at all.  My legs hurt, I was breathing hard, and I was telling myself that I’d be running slower and slower each mile.  Just up ahead of me, I could see another runner.  He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, so I knew he had to be a relay guy.  But it seemed like he was running around the same speed as I was.  I slowly made my way closer to him and decided that I would just try to stay behind him and see what type of splits he was at.  At mile two, I was at 5:41.  I took in my first vanilla PowerGel, drank some water, and by then my legs actually started to come around.  I was feeling much better than when I started and the pain in my inner thighs had virtually disappeared. I let the relay guy get ahead of me by a little bit and used him as a pacer for the next few miles.  Step by step, the miles started to go by.  There were a few hard stretches in the middle.  I particularly struggled when running through the Whirlpool campus.  We had some small trail sections that was comprised of winding walking path.  I couldn’t seem to get going through there and had a slower mile around mile 5.  But once through the path, I bounced back and came up with a 5:22 mile.  The run was 2 loops through Whirlpool, so the 2nd loop was pretty much the same as the first.  I slowed through the bike path, but picked it back up once out.  At mile 11, I lost sight of the relay runner.  I had slowed around 10 seconds and was running around 5:45-5:50 pace.  I knew I was on track to run a 1:14 to 1:15, but still wasn’t sure how close I’d be to a sub 4 hour overall time.  I checked the time of the day on the Timex to see that if I finished up with 5:45 pace for the final 2 miles, I would finish at 11:44am (exactly 4 hours since I started at 7:44am).  The only problem was that I did not know if the watch time was ahead or behind the official time clock.  I pushed as much as I could the last 2 miles and really started to hurt.  I knew it was going to be close so pushed all the way into the line.  Looking at the clock as I was running in, I saw that it was at 4:44:45.  (subtract 44 minutes).  JUST shy of my goal.  I gave it the best shot that I could give it, but ended up finishing with an official time of 4:01:05.  Under my goal time- but a new personal best by 9 minutes!  

Run Stats
1:14:46 (5:42 per mile) - fastest amateur run split, 2nd with the pros
7th place overall with the pros
2nd overall amateur

4:01:05 - a new pr by 9 minutes

I was disappointed initially, but knew I had a great race and pushed myself to get to the finish line as quickly as possible.  Without some of the congestion in the swim and on the bike, I may have been there, but that is how the races are set up.  I quickly looked at all of the positives of the race and was thrilled with my performance.  

I stuck around at the finish with my dad to wait and see Jacqui coming into the finish.  She ended up having a phenomenal race finishing as the 1st overall amateur female (7th overall with the professionals!).  Oddly enough, I was 7th overall male with the professionals as well!  I did end up 2nd amateur as superstar Dan Stubleski scorched the course on the bike and run.  He was top 5 overall in Kona last year, so being just behind him gives me a lot of confidence going into the big dance in October!  

Looking back, I have made a lot of progress this year.  Coming into 2014, my half ironman best was a 4:18.  At Kansas, I knocked off 8 minutes to finish in 4:10, and had another 9 minutes taken off here at Steelhead.  The biggest difference is that I’ve been consistent on the run and am now starting to have some bike splits that are comparable to some of the professionals.  With my overall time at Steelhead, I was only 60 seconds off of the 5th pro male (money and podium!).  With a little work on the swim and some extra time spent on the bike, I know that some extra time can be taken off.  I just have to be patient, continue to put the work in, and listen to my body.  

And of course--a little celebration.  Ice cream and chocolates at Kilwins in downtown St Joseph!

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