PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Location: Benton Harbor, MI
It’s been a week since I raced the Steelhead 70.3 up in Benton Harbor/ St. Joe’s, MI, so it’s high time I sat down and scribbled out the old recap. Having watched Amanda race the event last year, I knew I was in for a real treat this time around. We have a really great homestay family up there (shout out to the Borahs!), and combining that convenience with a tad bit of race course familiarity, I was pretty fired up for the race.
The two highlights of my travel to Michigan happen to coincide with my very arrival at Chicago’s Midway airport. First, I bumped into Karen Smyers, who is one of the coolest triathletes on the circuit. She’s got great stories, and is not afraid to chew the fat as much as I tend to do! Next up on my highlight reel was that my newly formed “twosome” demanded that we rent the Ford Flex, a car I thoroughly enjoying driving. Boom: travel was easy-breezy.
I took a little dip in Lake Michigan on Thursday night, and with the warm and choppy swim gained confirmation that we would not be having a wetsuit swim on Saturday. Post-swim, Mark and Julie treated me to a healthy dose of Italian food, in honor of what happened to be National Lasagna Day. (Highlight #3?)
Race day greeted us with a few gnarly thunderstorms passing their way across Lake Michigan. The water was calm as it could be, but the skies were angry. Mark and I spent a bit too much time analyzing the radar, and we consequently proved that we learned very little from the Meteorology courses we both happened to take in college. Despite our thoughtful predictions, there was no rain/ lightning delay in store for us. (This is only worth mentioning in an effort to foreshadow my untimely arrival to the swim start.)
Rather than sit around in the pouring rain and face the (imminent delay!), I opted for a later departure than originally planned. I arrived at the race site about half an hour after I had planned to do. (Not liking where this is going.)
Leaving transition, I was hopeful that the warm-up jog en route to the swim start would be quick and painless. I had just enough time to cover the mile+ at a leisurely pace. Unfortunately, I made a wrong turn or two, and somehow I ended up back on the beach with way too much running still in front of me. I finally made my way to the start, where I proceeded to struggle to get my wet and sandy body into my blueseventy PZ3: not an easy task. The only true casualty here was that I gave myself zero opportunity to warm up, and even less of a chance to find a good starting position on the line. With two strikes like that against me, I stood little chance of showcasing what I believe to be a vastly improved swim game.
Exiting the water, I faced a substantial gap to the leading few. It turned out that there were quite a few cyclists up the road, and with quite a nice gap. I was unsure of how my body would respond to the truly high-end effort I would need to put out, but when Eric Bean passed me about five minutes into the ride, I decided it was time to find out. He set a nice tempo for a couple miles, and I allowed myself the luxury of following his lead as we gunned down the first chase group. Passing the group of four or so, I took the reigns, and urged Eric to drop the hammer with me so we could dispatch the now followers we had picked up.
After a few miles, we managed to spit out a few of the hangers-on, but still had a bit more company than I would have liked. I found myself on the front again, pushing a solid pace to try to break the group apart. I realize it’s probably smarter to stay at a steady effort, to ride with the established bunch, and to steadily pick away at the ride. I also realize this would have probably suited my run legs a bit better. However, my goal was not to sit in; my goal was to catch the leading group of five.
Several miles later, I made a break on the group, and managed to put a gap between us. I could finally see the leaders – when on long stretches of road – and my confidence was climbing. I knew I just needed to make a bit of contact with the leaders before the closing miles of the bike.
With a few miles to go, after not gaining any more time to the leaders, Eric closed up the gap again. We entered transition together, and left for the run in fourth and fifth place. (The front group lost two athletes: one to a puncture, and one to a penalty.)
I immediately found my stride, so I set out to chase down the leading trio. My effort felt strong, and my pace felt quick. I was absolutely certain my mile splits were going to reflect the solid effort I was putting out. As I glanced to my watch, I was sure there would be a string of 5:40 miles. Shockingly, my perceived pace was no nearly close enough to my actual pace. I was seeing way too many 5:50 and 6:00 miles. Soon enough they had turned to 6:05 and 6:10 miles, and I had actually picked up the pace. How was that possible? I was running as hard as I could, yet my opening miles on par with the opening miles of an IM marathon. Shocking!
I had been on top of my hydration and nutrition since the very outset, so I knew I was not bonking. I could only conclude that my hot pace on the bike had taken away the speed from my run legs. In other words: I had ridden too hard! Crap. Readjust the mindset, and keep on plugging – that would be my plan. I kept on plugging, and despite the loaded quads (something I was suddenly very aware of), I pushed the pace harder and harder to the finish. Around ten miles in, I was overtaken by a runner who relegated me to fifth. Residing in the last money spot is an uncomfortable yet motivating place to be. I could feel – hear, sense, see, smell – the sixth place man coming, so I dug a bit deeper, and grunted a bit louder. I don’t think the final miles were very pretty, but fortunately, I was racing for fifth rather than the ever-elusive style points.
I crossed the line a minute or two under four hours, sore, happy, and satisfied. And thanks to my good friends at Boulder County Communications, I crossed the line to my favorite Aerosmith/ Run-DMC song, thank you very much. (I hope these guys are working in Kona!)
Looking back at the race, I am quite pleased with the result. I entered the race with a few performance goals in mind. I managed to realize a few of them, while I came up short on a few more. I got a huge boost to the fitness – one that can only come from a race-day effort. And along the way, I got to have a lot of laughs with Mark, Julie, and Karen, as well as many others here and there. However, with the athlete’s critical eye, I can also clearly see that a few key mistakes on my part may have cost me a bit more overall success. Living and learning is the name of the game, even at this stage of the match!