This was my fourth Steelhead Half Ironman Triathlon, which last year became a Ford Ironman 70.3 qualifier and therefore a big deal. My time of about 5:31 last year was similar to the prior year, but my finish spot went from second to fourth in the age group.
Sherry and I drove up to St. Joseph-Benton Harbor, Michigan, last Friday. I got Walter Payton's numberr 34 and racked my bike. Then we had a great dinner with friends Brad Webb and Kathy and kids, and Kevin Kelly and Mary.
At 5:15 on Saturday Brad picked up Kevin and me up at our hotels, so we had some good guy time together pre-race.
The water and weather were about ideal - neither too hot, no real waves, just a little breeze.
No pier start this year - we grouped by waves on the sand and entered the water wave by wave separated by a minute or two. I was in the first wave after the pros. Despite my encouragement to "be early," Brad's 5:15 pick-up was not early enough given the traffic congestion getting to parking pre-race. We were bused from parking to the transition area. I was pretty organized and methodical in setting up my transition space and gear and preparing, but with the time squeeze I had a little less time than I am comfortable with to get myself metally prepared. They had us walk the 1.2 miles down the beach to the start area near the pier, which I very much enjoyed. Wound up walking with a Canadian who had just come back from watching the tour and riding a stage in a race ahead of the tour - this guy also will be at Ironman Canada, so it was great to connect. Our delay getting to transition came to a crux when as I neared the start area they were calling my wave to form up behind the pros. I did not have my wetsuit on yet and had to run to the start area and get suited up very quickly. Luckily my wetsuit went on easily, which is not always the case. Little time to think about the swim or get nervous. Invocation, bang the pros go, we are herded to water's edge, bang we go!
As swims go, this was pretty enjoyable. Not too much contact even though as the race went the faster younger folks swam by me. I found some feet to draft behind just a little. Otherwise, a nice solo swim in near ideal lake conditions. I did wander some - the buoys were tough to see in the sun - it cost me time. Overall I had a slow swim - but I had not been swimming for a few weeks so no surprise. I enjoyed it and did not cramp, in any case.
It's a long run to transition up the beach and then through the dunes to the park. Because I did not cramp my transition run was better than usual - I was passing guys. In transition I set no records but on the other hand my wetsuit came off easily and I had no glitches.
I started the bike without pushing hard, wanting to save something for the run. Brad started in a later wave and passed me on the bike at maybe mile 18. (I caught him soon after and zipped by him climbing a hill - I teased him about having to haul too much up the hill and he called me a "little squirt!" But then he powered away.) After Brad passed I started paying attention to my average speed and heart rate and realized I had a shot at what for me has always been the gold standard of a great longer distance bike leg - 20 mph average. My average was 18.8 at that time. Over the rest of the race and especially after the halfway point I built my average speed, trying not to lose too much going up the hills and to pedal the downhills (many people coast and don't realize they can gain a lot if they pedal as much as possible downhill). I especially hit the flats, where my bike and riding style let me fly relative to others at the same level. I hit 20 at about mile 48, only to drift off it a little in some up and down over the next few miles. At mile 50 I knew I had to push hard through the remainder if I was going to make and hold 20 average. In the last mile at 19.9 I knew I had to go all out to lift it to 20 and hold it through the slowdown to transition. So I did and was really flying for me, I would guess 27 mph, as hard as I have ridden in a race since 7-8 years ago when I had an all-out race to the line with another guy in the Shelbyville Sprint Triathlon. Wow, that was hard...and really fun! I hit 20 at about 1/2 mile to go and held it to transition.
Bike to run transition went well and even with a porta-potty break the clock said I had a little more than 2 hours to make sub 6 hours overall. Perhaps doable.
Coming out of transition, I discovered the price for being undertrained for the swim and my 27 mph finish and 20 mph average at my current level of bike conditioning. A muscle in my lower back starting hurting. If I tried to pick up the pace, it hurt a lot and going uphill put stress on it and it hurt more. So I was walking the back half of the first hill when Matt Dell ran up to me and started walking with me. Matt is a Healthtrack buddy/Glen Ellyn guy/former Ironman and fantastic biker from years ago/out of shape overweight guy recovering from a stress facture and from some other physical problems. He was a great companion, since he was doing Steelhead just to get back into racing, specifically for the swim and bike. He expected to do no more than 1/2 the run and less if he started to hurt in any way. He was happy walking, talking and running slowly. So after we walked the hill Matt ran with me for about 5 miles. Every mile or two I laid down on the grass and stretched - it helped. Over time the cramped back muscled released some and I was able to run a little faster - but still very slow. Eventually I bid adieu to Matt because I could run faster than he could . I slowly ran the balance of the 13.2, "passing rocks and trees like they were standing still" as ultramarthoners say, watching my shot at sub 6 hours fade away and then be long gone. 6:31, I think, was my finish time, about an hour slower than last year when I took 4th in my age group. Oh well, I know I was way undertrained, I had a great time (except for the first half of the run) and I finished the race.
On to the final training for Canada!
Brad won the Clydesdales! He was very happy with his race - 5:18 I think. Kevin cramped badly on the swim and the run was a real crampy trudge after an OK bike. But he too finished.