Steelhead 70.3

November 26, 2011

My original 70.3 race schedule for 2011 was Florida in May, Welland in June and Syracuse in September. Syracuse was my 'A' race for the year so getting in a couple of performances I felt good about in the lead up to that race was important.  The year started off well with a great race in Florida, but I had some major hiccups in Welland that cost me my race and left me near faint when I crossed the finish line.  Following that disaster my confidence was low and I wanted at least one more solid, successful race before Syracuse, and after giving it some thought and chatting it over with my coach, I decided to join a few friends that were heading to Steelhead.

Benton Harbor, MI, is a small beach town on Lake Michigan, and finding a place to stay was a bit tricky so close to race day (we started looking for a hotel only a few weeks before the race), but I scoured the internet, pulled a few tricks out of my hat and found a place with every amenity a small group of triathletes could ask for... it was only minutes out of town, had a back door that opened to quiet country roads and a front door that led you to your own private lake, complete with fishing boats and kayaks.

This is what we woke to Friday morning.  Our own private lake.
Back from the grocery store.  Just enough to feed four triathletes for the weekend.

We left Toronto late Thursday afternoon and woke up Friday to a beautiful sunrise on our sweet little lake and got right to business.  First up was a quick trip to the grocery store followed by two end-to-end crossings of the lake, a 45-minute easy ride and a short 15-minute run.  After breakfast we went into town to register.  Among our group was my friend Cindy, and during our morning ride she'd run into syncing issues with her PowerTap so we spent some time getting that sorted.  We got back to our place in time for a late lunch and spent the rest of the day relaxing.  I even got in a quick nap.  Saturday was more of the same... a quick, easy workout in the morning in full race set-up, breakfast, a trip into town, and back in time for lunch.  Rob and I also drove the first 11 miles of the bike course.

Right from our arrival, rumours were spreading that Sunday's weather was going to cancel the swim portion of the race.  Much of Saturday was spent checking the weather report, and as the day wore on, forecasts of strong winds and rain made the cancellation of the swim likely.  It was hard to wrap your head around the thought of a swim cancellation because the weather we'd had all week was sunny and clear with no wind.

Fishing Saturday afternoon.  Hard to believe the weather forecast on an evening like this.
We woke up early Sunday morning to, as far as we could tell, a clear day.  However, within seconds of parking the cars at the race the rumours of the swim cancellation were confirmed.  Still in disbelief (The weather is fine!  Why are they canceling the swim?) we walked around the tall sand dunes protecting the beach area and it was instantly clear why the swim was abandoned.  It was like walking into a wind tunnel.  Sand was blowing everywhere, flagpoles had been toppled over, and banners were blowing horizontally in the wind.  The waves were higher than my head.  A small craft advisory was in effect so the life guards couldn't get onto the water on their paddle boards and kayaks.  With or without an official cancellation of the swim, there was no way I was getting in the water.  The waves were taller than me.

This would have been the swim exit.  Big waves and big wind.

The way the race was to proceed was like this: it would be a duathlon with no first run and a time trial start on the bike.  The pro men would start, followed by the pro women, and finally the age group athletes.  The pros would be sent of 30 seconds apart and age groupers would be sent off every five seconds, two at a time in order of their bib number.  Everyone watched and cheered the pros as they went off and the long queue of age groupers formed soon after.

The pro men lining up for their start.
The pro women.  Cindy and her bike are second from the left.

My bib was #1978 so I had a long wait and it was a difficult one.  Lots of time was spent sitting around.  My age group wave was supposed to start the race at 8.14am, and before the race I'd eaten and prepared myself to be ready to go at that time.  With the new starting format I'd calculated I wouldn't be starting till well after 9.45am so I delayed my warmup and kept myself hydrated.  When it was finally time for me to start I was itching to go.  I'd eaten a couple of my race gels and finished off a bottle of fluid and was jacked up on caffeine and needed to burn some energy.

Me and another athlete pulled our bikes up to the start line and were sent on our way.  The first kilometre of the bike wound along a golf course before a short, steep climb to the highway.  The terrain was rolling hills and I started making my way up the field.  There was a slight headwind for the entire first out-section of the course (the first 11 miles we'd checked out the day before), and then we turned onto secondary county roads.  Things felt good on the bike, but not great.  Something was slightly off.  I felt sluggish.  I was blaming the crosswinds, but I kept telling myself to keep pedaling because the winds were slowing everyone down.  Except for the guy drafting me.  There was some dude that sat on my wheel for about 20 miles.  He would slingshot past me on every climb, I'd overtake him, and he'd grab onto my wheel again.  I was giving this guy way too much free help.  The last section of the course was a set of long rollers that was pretty much straight back into town for 12 miles along the Blue Star Highway.  The wind was at our back for this entire section.  I took advantage of the wind and the terrain and kept up a 45+k/hr speed all the way back.  My drafter was long gone and my average speed started to come up fast.  It was below 38 before I'd hit this section of the course and I'd check it every so often.  I got closer and closer to the end of the ride and my average speed creeped higher and higher to the elusive 40km/h.  Averaging 40+ for 70.3 is a goal I'm working towards and I was at 39.6.  A few Ks later, 39.9.  The end of the course was in sight and thought I'd run out of road before having to slow down for transition.  A few hundred metres before the last turn my speedo rolled over to 40.0, and with the help of one last steep downhill, I made the last turn into transition with a 40.2 average speed.  I was amped.  I dropped off my bike, grabbed my running gear and left transition with confidence soaring.

One thing I've been struggling with is mental strength, especially on the run.  I'm a good runner and am fully capable and, at the time, fit enough to run a sub-1.20 half-marathon (not at a triathlon), but the problem is pushing myself to sustain the necessary pace.  It hurts to run fast, and holding that threshold of being just below a tolerable level of pain is difficult for me.  My goal for this run was to overcome that mental struggle and run a sub-1.24.  I started off well.  For the first 7k I was just above the pace necessary to run a sub-1.24, which was part of the race plan.  The pace felt easy and solid.  At about the 8k mark the course went into the Whirpool compound and there were two loops of narrow roads and cross country trails.  I slowed down here, and that funny feeling that started on the bike had fully manifested into some severe GI issues.  After 14k of increasing discomfort I had to stop.  I spent a couple minutes in the port-o-potty and sprinted out the door when I was done.  My pace improved immediately but with the pitstop I was nowhere close to where I needed to be to run a sub 1.24.  However, on the final leg of the run, just after the steep climb that starts you on your way home, a couple of guys started coming up behind me and they were coming up quickly.  When they caught me I grabbed on.  They were running at the pace I wanted to be at, a pace I knew I could manage.  It was late in the race but knew I could hold this pace with them there to guide me.  The three of us were cooking, and me and one of the others dropped the third.  For the last few kilometers we were running well below 4min/km, and for the last two we were running sub 3.30.  This surge over the last 7k was exactly what I needed.  I knew I had it in me to hold this pace this late in the game.  As we reached the finish chute, I let the other guy go ahead and cross the line on his own.

Later on while checking my results I came across a few surprises.  The first was I'd finished 3rd in my age group, which was my first podium finish in a triathlon.  The second was the average speed of my ride.  Whereas I thought I'd finished with an average of 40.1, my official speed was more in the range of 39.5.  I've had some problems with my bike computer over the past little while so it probably reset itself at some point which would explain the discrepancy.  The third was that, even with my little pit stop, I still managed the third fastest run in my age group.  I felt amazing.  Finishing on the podium in my age group was a long-term, three year goal for me, so accomplishing that here in my first season of 70.3s was huge for me.  My instincts tell me I'd have gotten that third-place finish even if the swim hadn't been cancelled, and don't feel my years of duathlon experience gave me any sort of advantage over the field (there was no first run after all).  I'd wanted to use the swim here to gauge my progress in preparation for Syracuse, but even without it I had a good ride and run in the bag and left Benton Harbor with renewed confidence heading into the final weeks of preparation for my 'A' race.  Booyah.