FIRST: STEELHEAD 70.3

IronmanNo, I didn’t finish first in anyway at Steelhead 70.3 last month but there was many firsts for me including my first time at that distance.  This year I wanted a new challenge and something to keep me busy until it was prep time for the World Championship so I decided to move up in distance and try my hands, or I should say my feet, at the half ironman distance.  The one that would work with my schedule, wasn’t too far and wasn’t sold out was Steelhead in Benton Harbor, Michigan.  It was the first time traveling to the United States by myself, and on top of that for a race.  It was also the first time living the Ironman experience, about which the  other racers have been talking a lot.  This report might be a little bit long but it was such a great experience.

Getting there

We traveled through Sarnia on Friday night, making our way through some rain storms to Paw Paw – a little town 30 minutes away from the race site, where hotels were cheaper and felt safer according to reviews.  After checking in at a simple Travelodge, we got ready for a big weekend and went to bed.  The rain kept going through the night and in the morning, so we decided to take the morning easy and relax in our room while watching the Olympics.  

We left around 10:30 for the site and just like we were warned, we had to leave the car at the lot outside of the park about 2km away.  I brought my training gear, so I could bike and run after all the important stuff was done, and we did have to haul it with us everywhere.  

Once on site, I was shocked by the size of everything, specially the transition zone.  We walked through the Ironman Village and looked at the different vendors. Surprisingly, there were not  too many of them.  

At 12, we listened to the athlete briefing and that was where I heard about the swim being most likely non-wetsuit!  I never raced that distance and now they were telling me that I cannot wear what I consider my safety device?  So after learning about the course, the flow and few of the rules we were sent on our way.   

Yuliana and I went to transition just to understand the flow of where we would come in and out from the different legs of the sport. It was massive, and you had to know exactly where your bike was, or you would never find it.  

As soon as we were done looking around, we went in line of for registration. I thought it was long until I saw that 2 hours later the line was triple what it was when I was waiting.  Registration was easy: sign in, waivers, race kit pick up and to top it all off you pick up a swim bag full of goodies (t-shirt, clif bar, RedBull, and more).  

The exit of the registration tent leads to the Ironman store where you can buy everything Ironman, which is actually impressive (the prices are also impressive).  I ended up buying a set of clear goggles since I didn’t have some and they were calling for a foggy morning.  When that was all over, I headed out for a quick bike ride while Yuliana made good use of the beach. I also went for a quick run after.

Once we made our way back to the car, we drove the bike course and, after the shock of the possible non-wetsuit swim, it was nice to see that the course would be fun to ride.  Alright pavement in general, not busy roads, not too many incline and enough coverage if it was going to be windy.  

We headed back to Paw Paw shortly after.  A short nap and a shower later, we went to an italian restaurant called La Cantina.  Well known in the region for its food quality and service (the only complain I found online was that the portions were giant which I have to admit it’s true).  

After a nice dinner on the patio by the river we headed back to the hotel where I repacked my bag, checked my gears and got everything ready for my big day tomorrow.  We watched some Olympics, but went to bed early, because 3:50am would be coming soon.

Race day

I woke up at 3:50am, started eating, stretching and putting on sunscreen.  At 4:30 we were leaving the hotel room and making our way to the race site.  With plenty of volunteers directing us, it was easy to find a parking spot in the vast industrial lot about 2km away from race headquarters.

I pumped my tires at the car so I wouldn’t have to bring my pump with me and it was weird having to use my phone as a flashlight to see the gage.  

One of the first thing I heard when I got to transition was that wetsuit would have to stay in our bags today if we wanted to be ranked.  First time in my life that this situation happened and I was not too happy that it was at my first “half”.  

Once I found my spot in the giant transition I took some extra time to figure out the different ways I will need to use during the race.  

Calming my nerves while warming up on the beach was the fact that Michigan lake was not being itself today and was warm and calm. We had the right to warm-up for our swim between the start and finish arches under the supervision of the lifeguards.

Something you shouldn’t do, is to buy new goggles 12 hours before a race. What could possibly go wrong? Keep reading to find out!

The Swim

They played the American national anthem and at 7am the first wave was off. I went to see Yulia one last time before jumping in the water, if you didn’t get this from before she woke up with me (she’s awesome), and got in line behind the volunteer holding my wave sign.

Another thing I learned that day is pick your friends carefully. One late racer from my wave came running toward the competitor beside me and asked if he could help with his zipper which was in the back of his trisuit. Well the zipper got stuck and after few aggressive pulls actually came off. Quite an awkward situation to witness.

It was a knee deep in the water start and at 7:16 I was starting to swim. Surprisingly, the 2km went quite smoothly with no big stories to write about. It was a big rectangle course with a lot of lifeguards around keeping an eye on us. At the 1km mark I looked at my watch to see how long I have been swimming, not because I was tired but because I was bored.

It is at that point I realized that my goggles were a bit too tight and were hurting me,once again, don’t try new stuff on race day. I exited the swim course and ran up the beach in deep sand, it was hard but I had a smile on my face because I just survived my first non-wetsuit swim and in actually decent time. Swim time: 48:59 Division rank: 82

Bike

I quickly made my way through the long transition, put on my helmet and grabbed my bike. It was weird not to have to deal with a wetsuit.

The ride was awesome! You are rolling most of the time in some nice country roads with only few rolling hills. It is quite a flat course after, specially if you compare to the region that we live in. For the first time I had to keep track of my heart rate and watched the time, so I could eat and drink enough to keep me going. I was really enjoying myself and passing the better swimmers was quite motivating.

We passed 3 aid stations with plenty of choices of nutrition at each. From what I saw volunteers handing us there was water, Gatorade, gels and bananas. I didn’t grab any since I thought what I had with me was plenty but looking back maybe I would of grabbed a water bottle – live and learn.

At the last corner before entering the park I saw Yuliana who was waiting for me to cheer. I was happy to see her because it meant that I didn’t took too long and she didn’t get bored and left.

The last 500m of the bike course is through the park with a no passing rule and at one point you ride on an old boardwalk that have seen better days.

The tired rider in front of me decided to reach for his back pocket swerved across the path and crashed. I was able to brake on time before rolling over him, hold balance, watch the rider behind fly over his handlebars because he got taken by a surprise and used too much front brake, and went around them without wasting time to start running. Bike time: 2:22:42 Division rank: 22

Run

Again, long run through transition, this time my legs were not as fresh as the first time around, but still going strong after a nice ride. Put my shoes without socks, grabbed few gels and my hat and started running.

So the swim went well according to my standards, my bike was excellent but the surprise of the day that was not too “surprising” turned out to be the run. My goal of the day was to do the whole race under 5 hours. According to the race clock I saw coming into transition after the bike I had to run an hour and 45 minutes or faster to achieve that.

The sun was high and not much clouds around so It was hot. I ran the first km in 4:13, passed Yuliana once again which pushed me a bit more but in the second kilometer there was a nice, short but steep, hill so my time went to 4:23. I blamed my slower time on the hill and kept pushing. In the middle of the third it hit me – I was hurting and I still needed to run 18km!

Before this race, I always ran through the aid stations, almost laughing at the walkers. This time, at my third station I walked and I believe I walked all of them after that. I was able to run at a decent pace in between the aid stations.

By the way if you ever do long events like this one, make sure to have big pockets and grab as much stuff as you can! There were gels, chews, bananas, water, ice, Gatorade, coke and redbull and only what I saw and/or grabbed.

The course is pretty neat and simple, you run about 3 km, where you meet only one major hill, out to a loop that you do twice. The loop consist of a mix of residential and industrial area and there’s one nice steep hill in there. On my second loop, the fire station that we were passing in front installed a hose which felt awesome for those few seconds under.

Speaking from this new experience, I can tell you that  if you are planning to get wet feet from, let say, water, ice, sweat or whatever is falling in your shoes, socks are a nice accessories. One month passed since and I still have the marks left by the teamwork of the time chip and sand on my ankle. The last 3 km were nice because you ran downhill and you knew that you are almost done. You ran along the transition and when you round the corner you have about 75 m left to the finish line. At that point I had about 30 seconds left if I wanted to go under 5 hours so I “sprinted” and succeeded with 4 seconds to spare. Run time: 1:42:24 Division rank: 16

Overall time: 4:59:56 Division rank: 16/121

And then?

Once you cross the finish line, even if you feel beat up, the volunteers make you feel like a rock star. Water bottle from one, chocolate milk from the other, someone is grabbing my timing chip, I get a medal and a finisher hat and before getting out of the finish line area you can get your official finish picture.

I met up with Yuliana and I decided to go for a swim to cool down and rinse myself. Let me tell you, it didn’t feel as good as planned –  from the chafing on my neck (hint: put bodyglide even if you don’t wear a wetsuit), to the cuts and blisters on my feet. The first minute in the water was spent trying not to scream and scare everyone on the beach or in the water, since all the people in spandex were probably doing a great job already.

Once changed, we went to get food. Unlike many races that I did where you get a burger or a sandwich with a bag of chips with a pop, they had pizza hut there with a giant buffet. Pizza, burger, salads, pasta, fruits (too healthy for post race food to my taste but it’s a nice thought) and pack of 6 cookies.

We  had to kill a bit of time so we enjoyed the beach and looked inside the Ironman store but everything was quite pricey so we didn’t spend money there. Once we had the right to grab our stuff, I packed everything and at the exit of the park they actually check that the number on your bracelet match the one on your bike and also on your gear bag.

Once you leave the Ironman world

We made our way back to Paw Paw where after a nap and a shower we headed to a small restaurant for some burger, fries and a beer. Went for a walk to listen to a live band by the water and finished the evening with some ice cream.

If you are looking for a nice, low profile, not so hilly Half-Ironman I would recommend Steelhead 70.3. The main reason why I won’t go back next year is that there’s so many races on the circuit that I want to try.

After a nice break after the race and back to school I’m starting to work my way to my next big goal of the season and that is the ITU World Cross Triathlon. But before that I’m racing an 8 Hour mountain bike relay race on a tag team with my little brother and the week after that I’m participating in a 25 km trail run.

And lastly, a question for you guys, what should we see in Sydney while we are there?

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