Sunday, August 2, 2009

Race Fallout in Michigan - Not the Expected Disaster

It's the day after a hard effort in the Whirlpool Steelhead Ironman 70.3 triathlon in Benton Harbor, Michigan - my last-ditch effort to pull success from my wasted legs, six weeks after Ironman Coeur d'Alene and six days after a hard comeback effort on the run in the Pittsburgh Tri. I took today off. Yesterday was a long day - not only because it was a 5-hour drive home.

Steelhead takes place in Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor on the shore of Lake Michigan. It is a beautiful setting for a race, but I wouldn't describe the course as "fast," mainly due to rolling hills on the bike and run, wind, and a severe lack of crowd support. I've done Steelhead three times, probably more because of the location (driving distance) than anything else and the fact that I get to hang out with my good friend Mickey Rzymek who volunteers his time to support many of the Ironman races (and for some reason, it's easier to see him at races even though he lives close-by). Steelhead also has a great post-race spread by Pizza Hut, and who can argue with THAT?!

In 2003, the first year of the event, it served as a qualifier for age groupers to get into a full Ironman event. That year, I was still recovering from a bike accident in May, and I was trying, as usual, to get something out of my season after missing most of it from the injuries. I managed to win the overall women's race at Steelhead and got a slot in Ironman Florida that year, only to drop out of Florida from heat stroke on the run and subsequently give up triathloning for 5 years.

Last year, 2008, I decided to go back to Steelhead, only to realize it had become a HUGE event - someone told me it is the largest of the Ironman 70.3 races. That year, the swim was canceled due to high surf and I had a less-than-stellar race to finish 4th in my age group (40-44). But I still went back, and THIS year, the water was relatively calm and the day started out sunny and in the 60s.

The event had to compress space this year because of construction of a golf course where the parking lot - and the transition zone - used to be - in a nice square lot that provided ample space. This year, the transition was moved to a spot that had much less space and was very long and narrow. The result? Thousands of bikes had to be crammed on racks leaving almost no space between racks to run (with OR without your bike), and very little space between bikes to layout your stuff. Athletes also had to run a long distance from entrance to exit. It was a disaster in the making, for everyone.

The swim starts 1.2 miles down the beach - a distance that athletes have to walk. No one was happy about that. While we walked, my husband Jim and I (and some other athletes) contemplated why they don't do a loop swim in this race. Is the current too strong? The swim is set up to be "with" the current: if the current is south to north, the swim starts at the south point on the beach, if it's north to south, it starts 1.2 miles north. There were at least 16 start waves, and I realized how lucky I was to be starting in the 5th one. Waves were set up by age. While we were corralled at the swim start, I couldn't help but notice two women in my wave looked like teenagers - not a single line on their faces (!) and they were in two-piece suits, no wetsuits. One of the women in the group said "you can't possibly be over 40!" and we all laughed - the 18-24 age group was also starting with us. So we made a pact to just let them go first!

I came out of the water third in my wave - knowledge acquired thanks to Jim and a race official who shouted "third white cap!" But the full impact of having a good swim and being in the 5th wave didn't occur to me until I exited the water and arrived at the transition zone (to avoid being a nuisance in T1, I took off my wetsuit on the way in). Upon entering, I noticed there were very few people in transition, and things were still in a state of relative non-disturbance. By the time I finished the bike leg, the place looked like it was hit by a tornado. I had to swerve to avoid running over wetsuits, shoes, goggles, Clif Bars, bottles, AND PEOPLE who were sitting down. Lord knows how many people got hit and how much stuff was lost or destroyed. I never heard so much frustration voiced by athletes before, during and after the race. Unfortunately, the only thing for the race organizers to do would be to limit the number of race entries -- there really was NO other place to put the transition zone.

The bike leg started out calm and cool, but by the time I finished, the wind had picked up quite a bit. I spoke with pro triathlete Andy Potts after the race and he noted the wind was increasing at a rate of 4 mph PER hour, which meant that the people in the last waves were in for quite a ride. And the finishers who came in after 1 pm were treated to a driving rain as well. Although I avoided the rain, there was a constant headwind from about mile 40 to the finish for me. My average speed was up over 21 mph for the first half of the race, but once I hit that headwind, it rapidly decayed. The wind had gotten so strong that it also became a factor on the run. Surprisingly, I saw very few people on the bike leg. Three women in my wave passed me. I eventually re-passed one of them who was having problems with her bike. When that happens, I always feel a twinge of sorrow (even if it puts me ahead) - but equipment upkeep is the fourth leg of triathlon. I said a thankful prayer that my bike-mechanic husband helps my bike (and me) get to the starting line in top shape.

After pushing the bike leg harder than usual (part of my strategy), my run never really took off. I knew there were at least four women in my age group in front of me. I thought I could catch them because I started out feeling ok, but after the first mile and its large hill, I felt like I never had any "pickup." It could also have been fallout from running hard in Pittsburgh on Sunday. The run goes through the Whirlpool Headquarters "campus" and has very little shade, but the support stations are great and provided us with ice, sponges, and sprinklers! I started to feel some stomach discomfort around mile 6 and expected to have to stop at a port-a-john, but I just plugged away, walking the water stops and trying to keep my miles under eight minutes. I caught several women in my age group, the last one around mile 8 or 9 (I think) -- my hope was that she was dying harder than I was. The saving grace of the Steelhead run is that the last two miles are flat or downhill, and that carries you to the finish line. At that point I looked at my watch and became desperate to get in under 5 hours - which I did (barely). My time? 4:59:21. When Jim said he thought I won my age group, I was incredulous to say the least. My time seemed hardly worthy of that. But indeed, it was true. I won my age group and landed a slot to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida, in November. One last chance to reap something from this season before I hit a new age group next year.

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