Review: 2013 Ironman 70.3 Steelhead

One Great Lake down, four to go. I am guilty of being late with this post (nearly a year), but with many of my friends getting ready to go to Steelhead in 2014 (and later!), I am putting together a sort of “mini review”. First off, here is what I thought about the race a week after the event, from a slightly edited FaceBook post. This has more “me” stuff than usual but it helps capture the spirit of how I felt after my first 70.3.

  1. I was going for 7:00 and did it in 6:38. My family was there, first time they’ve been to a race (because it was at someplace worth going!). 10 members of StL Tri Club, and 4 of us doing the 70.3 for the first time. 72 degree weather (max, later in the day), moderate breeze and relatively sheltered courses. My “A” race that I’ve trained for specifically for 5 months. Can you say “formula for success”? (Note: Obviously I was still on a high when I wrote this, it was such a perfect day that you may have to temper my review of the race!)
  2. Swimming in Lake Michigan was AWESOME! Finally figured out that I think I like swimming in open water as much as I dislike swimming in pools. Water temp was 68 degrees, which we all found refreshing (I went with the short sleeve suit). Interesting water dynamics as we swam with the current (south to north), but the wind-generated waves were from the opposite direction; the swells took some getting used to. I’m a crummy swimmer so ironically it didn’t seem to bother me much, I already knew it was going to take me forever; infinity is only a little bit longer! Tough part was that we swam along a line of 16 buoys that – surprise! – lined up with the Sun. Finally figured out I could sight by glancing BACK over my shoulder at the prior buoys when taking a breath, if they were lined up and to my right, I was OK. Then “running” up a beach (i.e., dry sand) to transition = not my favorite.
  3. Nice bike course. Rolling. No “stand up” hills. Some bad pavement is supposedly being fixed right after the race (i.e. should be repaired by 2014). My bike did 56 miles of rubber-side-down with no penalties! I wanted 16 mph and got 18.6, shaved off 30 minutes from plan, and didn’t feel like I was doing anything stupid. Hugged my wife later for letting me have the Zipp racing wheels as they reduced human suffering (mine, to be specific).
  4. Nice 2-lap lollipop run course. Part is on the Maytag campus and includes paved running trails. I dialed things back in the latter part of the run to make certain I finished this first one; I had a lot of leg cramping issues I still don’t have the hydration/electrolyte thing figured out but it was better than I had been having considering the much longer race. Wound up jogging/massaging the last mile. Can you believe that? One stupid mile (downhill yet!) and having to hobble most of it. Made sure I looked good in the finish chute, though (the most important thing!)
  5. Awesome, awesome volunteers. Many are from the local high schools. Cannot praise highly enough. They were very excited and it helped us.
  6. Not-so-awesome price gouging by the local motels.
Fellow club members and myself after a practice swim the day before the race.

Fellow club members and myself after a practice swim the day before the race.

Now for the rest of the review…

Date

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Location

Jean Klock Park, Benton Harbor, MI The parking at Jean Klock Park is limited. People coming to cheer you on will need to either take a shuttle or will have a considerable walk. There is not much for them to beyond watching the race, ignoring for the moment that if you are having good weather, well, it’s a day on the beach!

It’s on the website, dude…

Ironman 70.3 Steelhead website

The Swim

Note: Beginning in 2015, the race has switched to a triangular course. I am going to put my good friend Dianna Shank’s file for the swim in 2015 after this section. So…

The (up to 2014) Swim

The swim at Steelhead is 1.2 miles, point to point. The direction is with the current, although as noted above, the wind may be from a different direction and give you the illusion that you are swimming against the current. In 2013, the swim was from south to north. In fact, every year that the swim has occurred, it has been from south to north. You swim out about 100 yards, turn parallel to the shore, swim in a straight line for 1.2 miles, and swim in. Water temperature was 68 degrees and sunny, I was very comfortable in the short sleeve wetsuit. We all decided we found it “refreshing” once we got going. Much has been made of the “frequent cancellation” of the swim and “not getting the swim off half the time”. Actually, as of 2014, the ratio is closer to 8 times successful swim out of about 11 races. The Michigan Sea Grant Coastwatch project maintains some very entertaining tools for following the status of the surface water temperature, current, waves, and so forth.

  • Follow this link to see the current water temperature in the area around Saint Joseph, MI. This also gives you an idea of where St. Joseph/Benton Harbor is when you are looking at other maps.
  • Then you can follow this link to not only get more information about other conditiond, but even get forecasts of the same. (The upper portion of the linked page gives you current conditions, and the lower gives you the forecasts.)

By this point we should have already had the discussion about my slow swim speeds; however, many did find the swim challenging due to the wave motion. If you are not familiar with large bodies of water, here is a tip: although the currents may be going in one direction, the wind-driven waves may be going in a different direction. This can give the illusion that you are swimming against the current, when in reality you are swimming with it. First tip: As you can see, from the transition area, you are going to walk 1.2 miles to the start. Go down to the water edge and walk on the hard packed sand that the waves are lapping against. I watched the vast majority of the racers walk on the dry sand, which is very difficult and tiring to walk in. So, unless I’m missing out on some new warmup procedure, that is not the way to go. Second tip: We think of the west coast of Michigan as running from north to south, but when you get down to details, it has all kinds of bumps, inlets, and so forth. Notice that the Steelhead swim (when beginning from the south, as is usual) does not go north, but rather northeast. This means that if you are in one of the first few waves to go off, there is a good chance you will be looking somewhat into the rising Sun as you are attempting to keep buoys on the right, so be prepared to wear tinted goggles. In my case, I really couldn’t see the buoys at all. Here is what I finally figured out: if you breath off to your right (or just do so occasionally) you can steal a glance behind you. If you see a line of buoys behind you on your right side and more or less lines up, you are just outside the line of buoys and just where you need to be. The swim itself is quite straightforward: swim out a hundred yards or so, turn, swim past about 16 evenly spaced and numbered buoys, then swim in.

The (2015 and later) Swim

Courtesy of my good friend Diana Shank – and see her review of Steelhead 70.3 as well!

T1

When you exit the beach, you are going to be running uphill to the parking lot where transition is set up. Remember the dry sand? Now you have no choice but to run in it, except perhaps the “run” part. I very quickly decided it was better not to wear out my leg muscles on the sand and just walked up. Many do this.

Bike in transition area the day before the race. Notice the plastic bags covering the gears.

Bike in transition area the day before the race. Notice the plastic bags covering the gears.

Notice that the transition area is in a parking lot very close to the sands. Since you set up the day before, you may want to rake plastic bags and tape with you to cover up the drivetrain (gears and preferably chain as well) on your bike, you really don’t want windblown sand to get into your machinery.

 The Bike

(I was having bike computer issues so don’t have the first 1.5 miles, I do not remember anything particularly unusual about the start.) The bike course is a lollipop type course with an outward bound segment, a single loop, and then and inward segment. The outward and inward bound segments are on state roads which may have some traffic, but there is a usable bike lane/shoulder for about half of it. The loop is on county roads, and the Columbia Illinois area gives you a good comparison for road surface. There was only one area with bad surface, and it was scheduled to be repaired right after the 2013 race. If the wind is coming from the east/west, you will have very little of it on the inbound and outbound legs due to the presence of trees on either side (especially to the east). The loop is generally more open area. There is not a great deal of elevation change in this course, specifically about 1500 feet of gain over 56 miles. Put simply, if you are from the Saint Louis area and spend some training time on the hills at Wildwood, Columbia, or Calhoun County, you shouldn’t have anything to fear from this topography. There is are two quick climbs around 27 and 48 miles, but honestly the rest is pretty much flat and rolling hills.

T2

Nothing remarkable here. The transition area is a long skinny parking lot with three very long rows of bikes.

The Run

My Garmin had a software bug in it so I don’t have a run profile, but my friend James Dezan captured his run, which is worlds faster than mine! The run is a lollipop course; you leave to the north, make two laps around and through the Whirlpool campus, and return to the finish along the beach. You go up a significant hill at the beginning of the run, but the neat part is that you come back the same way and a good portion of your last two miles will be downhill! There is also a significant hill on the the Whirlpool Campus loop; I chose to walk it both times.

About this race as your first 70.3

As I noted before, much has been made of the swim getting canceled from this race. While  statistically the chances of that happening are not that high (20-30%), this is higher than usual. It’s Lake Michigan. It’s not a lake; it’s an inland sea. Bad weather happens. So if you absolutely have to have all three legs happen for this to be a happy day for you, then you may not want to chance it. If you are prepared for the possibility, then it is what it is – and you get to claim an unsheltered swim in Lake Michigan! You should also be aware that, at least as late as 2012, Steelhead was one of the fastest 70.3 courses, making it a great first 70.3. You may also want to take a statistical look at RunTri’s analysis of Steelhead 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *