Ironman 70.3 Steelhead - 2016

How Not To Run A Race - Or - How To Persevere When A Race Goes Badly

Stick with me, this is a looooong report and a bit of a bumpy ride, so, can't guarantee that it's worth your time, but, hopefully entertaining. From my times you can see I did not "kill it", "crush it" or "smash it" out on the course, but, I did finish mostly self-coached (lots of advice and words of wisdom from a good friend and Ironman finisher), and made A LOT of mistakes, which means lots of learning. Hope you learn something too.

Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Transition Area
Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Transition Area - Jean Klock Park

Warm, pleasant morning with climbing temperatures, turning hot, sunny and humid for the bike and run.
Half Ironman (1.2mi Swim / 56mi Bike / 13.1mi Run)

56:09 - 2:40/100 yards
3:46:34 - 14.83 mph
2:48:29 - 12:51 Minutes/Mile

About The Venue

Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Swim Start Area
Jean Klock Park Beach - Swim Starting Area Day Before Race

Ironman 70.3 Steelhead is headquartered at Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor, Michigan making for one of the best race atmospheres I have experienced to date. If you are at all familiar with Lake Michigan, you know that there is stark contrast between the West shore and the East shore. The Eastern shore has expansive beautiful beaches and dunes with patches of various grasses to give a very ocean side feel. The entire setup for the race seems just about perfect with the way that the Ironman Village and transition flow into each other nestled among the sand dunes. The surrounding area has equal natural beauty with lush forests as well as clean and well maintained roads. Parking is ample, however, most of it is 1/2 - 1 mile away from transition. Shuttle busses run often but, you still need to plan accordingly so that you have ample time to check in or get setup in transition.

Check-in for me was very smooth with a short line since I had arrived mid-day on Saturday. As the day wore on and approached the end of registration, the registration line had grown quite long, reaching all the way to the transition area with further snaking of the line beyond that. I don't know if it is like this every year, but, unless you don't mind lines, I would show up mid-day and not show up at the end.


Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Swim Exit Area
Jean Klock Park Beach - Swim Exit Area Day Before Race

The anticipation leading up to this race was absolutely excruciating. Months and months of training while closely watching my times to make sure I was fast enough to make cutoff times, which many times I wasn't. Slowly building endurance to make race distances. Studying race maps, reading race reports, watching the weather. Obsessing over nutrition, water temperature and water currents. I was a total head case the weeks leading up to the race with the absolute biggest fear being a DNF.

This was not supposed to be my "A" race. I was supposed to be winding my season down, basking in the glory of my finish at the Racine 70.3, but, due to the swim and some of the bike being cancelled in Racine, here I was, 4 weeks later, trying to finish what I had started long ago.

With the race being about a 3 hour drive from home, it was pretty much a necessity to spend the night at, what I think, was the last hotel room in the whole St. Joe's/Benton Harbor area. It wasn't cheap but had a heart shaped whirlpool tub. Having a childhood friend staying with me and running the race helped a lot with nerves, relaxing and having a good dinner before the race.

I arrived the day before the race to check in, rack my bike and attend an info session. Water was just barely wetsuit legal with all signs pointing to a wetsuit legal race. Who would have thought this would be a concern in Lake Michigan? What a relief. It was a beautiful day and I soon started to realize I better get out of the sun as I could feel the beginnings of some sunburn, which is not good for racing.

Race Day

Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Finish Chute
Finish Chute

Sleep was hard to come by, but, actually got a number of hours of solid sleep which is better than I usually do. Feeling pretty good, I had my yogurt and a granola bar and headed out for the race fairly early, as I usually do.

Once I started getting close to race parking I could see a very long line of taillights and realized it would be a while to make it into a parking lot. After 20 minutes of stop and go, finally got parked and unloaded my gear for the near mile walk to transition.

Arriving at transition, the first thought on my mind was water temperature. Sure enough, despite the optimistic forecast from the day before, the water temperature had crept a couple tenths of a degree above wetsuit legal temperatures, so, now I was faced with a decision. Go without the wetsuit or swim in the last wave added to the race for all those wanting to wear a wetsuit and not be eligible for winning age group awards. For me it was mostly a no-brainer since I never swam open water without a wetsuit and lacked the confidence to do so. Unfortunately, this added extra pressure as there were conflicting reports as to whether or not the "wetsuit wave" would get the full 1:10 to swim the course and full 8:30 to run the race. So, I had to be extra sure that I was not too close to the swim cutoff time.

To make things even more stressful, starting in the final wave, if you don't make swim cutoff you get pulled from the race where if I was in an earlier wave, I might get a DNF for not making cutoff, but, I would not be pulled from the race and I could at least complete the course.

Nothing I could do about it now except setup transition and head out for the long wait with wetsuit in hand.


Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Swim Exit
Race Day - Finishing The Swim

Well, it turned out that I was not alone in wanting to keep my trusty wetsuit and as I lined up for the swim start I estimate there were maybe 300 of us with about 200 of them behind me, not a position I picked on purpose.

The beginning felt very rushed as they told us all to just keep moving, walk to the water and start swimming. Packed in tightly there was no way to find a good starting position or time to really think much at all. Walking out into the 1-2 foot breaking waves, it was a bit chaotic and more difficult than I thought it would be to fight to get away from shore, beyond the breaking waves.

Within 300 yards I knew I was in big trouble. I was struggling to fight the 1-2 foot rolling waves and slight current, I couldn't stay on course, my heart rate and breathing were out of control and I was getting kicked, punched and swam over in a never-ending column of swimmers from behind. I tried to stop to get my bearings and catch my breath, but, the tight swimming conditions and traffic from behind made it impossible. At this point I realized that I was not prepared for this type of swim and knew my day was in jeopardy of coming to an end very quickly, unless I started getting my swimming under control and started to make some progress.

Accepting that this was going to be a very difficult 50+ minutes, I got to the task of swimming as best I could. With a crooked combination of breast stroke and freestyle I made my way, buoy by buoy, exerting far more energy than I had hoped, dodging lifeguard rafts and other swimmers. The rolling waves were very different than anything I had experienced before where you could actually feel yourself rise and fall with the waves and also made sighting difficult. Turning parallel to shore I felt quite a bit better as we picked up a little push from behind thanks to the angle of the waves and the current. At the half-way point I checked my watch to see how I was pacing and I was just about at 30 minutes which sent me into a new panic of making cutoff. I was getting pretty tired, but, knew I had to keep a good pace to make sure I wouldn't get booted from the race.

After turning for the final leg toward shore, I started to relax just a little, knowing that I would probably be OK. It was still tough going with waves coming from behind and occasionally crashing over my head. When I finally reached shore, I was wiped out. I had made it, but, it was going to be a very long rest of the day.

In hindsight, my problems were about 90% mental. I proved this by swimming a 1:58/100 yard pace at the Chicago Triathlon two weeks later. All I needed to do was keep my head down, stay calm and swim like I did in training.


Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Bike Course
Heading Out On The Bike Course

There is nothing better to induce some race anxiety than to get back in transition and find it almost completely devoid of bikes. I took a lot of time in transition to kind of gather myself back together after the swim and not add any new problems into my race. I carefully put on my bike gear, took in some nutrition, double and triple checked everything and headed out. It felt great to be on the bike where I felt much more comfortable and the natural beauty of the area made me quickly forget the struggles of the swim. The first 40 miles of the bike went fairly well. Not easy, but, I was keeping an OK pace and trying to cram in as much nutrition as possible.

Well, somewhere around mile 42ish things started heading downhill very quickly and I experienced for the first time ever what I believe was the dreaded "bonk". I lost all energy, everything hurt, I was dizzy, I struggled just to not fall over on my bike. In a couple more miles I reached the last aid station and what do I do? Pass it up of course because I just wanted to push through and finish the bike! In about 2 miles I realize this was the most horribly stupid decision of the day as I look down at my near empty water bottles.

The remaining miles were an absolute horror show of a ride. All I could manage was a very easy pace and every time I pushed just a little hard dizziness and light headedness set in and I had to back off to keep from falling over. Accepting my situation, I just settled in as best a pace I could to make sure I did not wind up with a DNF. Being at the very tail end of the race, I was not the only one suffering. I found it somewhat comforting when I saw more than one person deciding to walk their bike up hills.

As I got within earshot of transition and heard Dave Kappas congratulating all of the finishers, I got a tremendous boost of energy as I know I would soon rack my bike and head out on the run where I was most comfortable, and, perhaps the greatest relief was knowing that I could just sit down if I was hit with more dizziness.


Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Finish
Finishing The Race

Once again in transition, I took my time to be sure I did not make any rookie mistakes and ensure I would be comfortable on the run. Grabbed some nutrition, made sure to apply sunscreen and headed out feeling better. However, I don't think I was quite in my right mind as it took a bit of running before I realized I was still wearing one of my bike gloves.

I always love the triathlon run because I feel that's where the party is, especially if it is an out and back or multi-loop run. It's the only leg where you can find someone at your pace and run together for a while sharing your story of the day so far. It's where I always see a friend who started before or after me and get a quick update and some words of encouragement. The volunteers are always awesome at Ironman providing a full buffet of sports nutrition and junk food every mile.

For the first time in the race I was feeling pretty good and somewhat confident I could finish this thing. It didn't take long though for me to once again be reminded of my limits for the day. As I pushed my run pace a little, I was hit by nausea, dizziness and chills (It was now early afternoon, sunny and in the 80's, so, I knew this was not a good sign.). Once again, I had to accept my situation and played the pacing game and spent a large portion of the run walking. When I was walking I actually felt quite good, so, made the decision that today was about finishing by race cutoff and that's it. Watching my watch closely I calculated my pace and estimated finish time over and over again striking a run/walk balance that would get me to the finish with a nice bit of padding for anything unexpected.

As I approached the Ironman village for the final time, I could hear the crowd and music and broke into a very slow run. Crossing the finish line was a huge mix of emotions. It was the end of an almost year's long journey and I had made it to the finish line, but, it was a much harder day than I had ever thought it would be, though ecstatic with receiving my finisher's medal and cap, I also felt mentally drained and humbled by the shear difficulty of the event that took every ounce of my will to get through.

Post Race

As I headed into transition to gather up my belongings I was quickly starting to realize that I was not feeling well at all and everything was a huge blur. Now the sun was high in the sky with no shade or clouds to be found. In hindsight, I really should have headed to the med tent for help, but, instead I gathered my belongings as quickly as I could to walk the mile back to my car.

Back at my car, I realized there was no way I would make the 3+ hour drive back North of Chicago as I could barely even keep my eyes open long enough to call home and give my wife a quick recap and then book a room at one of the nearest hotels. The 15 minute drive to the hotel was almost as agonizing as the end of the bike as I struggled to keep my eyes open. It was a very odd feeling that I never felt before in my life. My body was screaming to just go offline for a while.

Finally checked in, I proceeded to eat, drink, sleep repeat for the rest of the day and night. It wasn't until I was lying comfortably in bed that I was able to truly enjoy the accomplishments of the day. All of the anticipation and stress of the last year were suddenly gone, replaced with peaceful reflection of the days events and lots of room service. And as I felt better, I could not help but have the thought, "OK. What's next?"

Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Bike Check In Line
Bike Check In Line

What Went Wrong

What Went Right

What Could Be Improved

Final Thoughts

My race day at Steelhead is a day that I will never forget, not only because of the accomplishments, but, also due to the fantastic natural beauty of the race course, fantistic volunteers throughout the course and one of the friendliest groups of triathletes I have ever met. (Triathletes in general have always been welcoming at every race, but, the energy and comradary at Steelhead was above and beyond the norm.)