Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Race Report - Steelhead 70.3 Half Ironman (Benton Harbor, MI) 08/19/2012

We are IRONMEN (...and women)!!!  This past weekend, my wife, myself and a Missouri man and his fiancé completed our next tier of endurance sport - the Half Iron Man!  This will certainly be my longest post to date, which is not surprising considering it is my longest race to date (second place goes to the 32 miler I ran in June, that one clocked in at roughly 5hrs28mins).  So, grab some snacks, pull up a chair and enjoy my FIRST ever Race Report for a Half Iron Man!

The Lead Up
Planning for a relaxing day before our race, Annie and I arrived at our "Home-Away" home Friday around 3pm, leaving us just enough time to unload our bikes and bags, reload ourselves back into the car and drive to packet pickup at Jean Klock Park.  Jean Klock Park would also be homebase for the race Sunday, so packet pickup provided our first glimpse at the destiny we had invested so many hours and dollars into.

Registration was a breeze.  Out of the 1500 registered competitors, 150 showed up Friday to pick up their packets, resulting in absolutely no waiting  in line.  The volunteers were mostly retired residents of St. Joe and the surrounding community and were incredibly positive and helpful.  We were surprised, though, at the lack of goodies in our goody bag!  The bag was of high quality material and is sure to last, but we were bummed to discover that along with our t-shirt and bib numbers, the only give away was a washer detergent... for cleaning your washer.  Really???

There were also an incredibly small number of vender tents set up selling their wares, far different from the cornucopia of venders and samples that assault the senses at half/full marathon pickups.  Regardless, we walked the lane of vendors and sampled some of the "bonk breaker" bars that would be available throughout the course (delicious, but pricey).

Finally, we risked jinxing ourselves and took some pictures by the finish line before heading out to grab a pizza down in St. Joe with the couple we would be staying with.

Outside of packet pick-up in Jean Klock park

Finisher Shirts!

The Finish Line

Annie was particularly photogenic that day :)


The next morning we slept in...till 7am St Louis time (8am their time).  I made a huge fruit smoothie using some fresh peaches, old bananas and preservative-packed OJ.  Following a smoothie and some coffee, we were ready to try wearing wetsuits for the first time!  Lake Michigan was an absolutely perfect temperature and, after kicking around in the water for 30 minutes, we felt as prepared as we were going to be for the 1.2 mile swim the next morning.  I should probably mention that this would be our very first triathlon, as well as the first time we've had to swim in open water.

"Banana Peeling" our way out of our suits and drying off, we made our way to the body marking station and had our race numbers marked on both arms, then our age by the end of the year written on the back of one leg.  These would be our badges of honor over the weekend and have the added benefit of acting as a very effective sunblock.  We won't be forgetting these numbers any time soon, as the pale skin that was exposed beneath the ink following a long shower Sunday evening showed that we will be branded until we either get back in the sun or our present tan fades away.  Oh the memories!

We headed back home (35 minutes) to tune up our bikes one last time and take them for a brief test ride.  Thank you Alpine Shop (http://www.alpineshop.com/) for your free bike maintenance class, as I had no problem tweaking the brakes and gears to offer smooth braking and shifting on both bikes.  After much debate, we also decided it would be best to drop our bikes off the night before so we could take the shuttle to the start the next morning.  Parking was roughly a mile away and not checking your bike the night before translated into having to bike ALL of your stuff into the transition area from the parking lot.  Not worth the hassle.  We loaded BACK into the car, bikes in tow and drove (35 minute) back to Jean Klock Park.

We were definitely ready to hit the hay, but first needed to carb up!  Our good friend Nathan gifted us some delicious heart shaped pasta the week before, so we boiled it up while our friends cooked some chicken and we had a delicious dinner in no time, rounded out by a large bowl of fresh greens.  At 8pm Benton Harbor time, it was time to close up shop and hit the hay.  Tomorrow was the big day!

Looks like a pro!

Halfway there...

I'm ready!

Race Number 1230

Race Number 539

Carb'n up

Thanks Nathan!


BEEP BEEP BEEP It was 3:50am, but race day was here.  Countless hours of training, countable dollars of gear, all leading up to this one day.  Turning off the alarm, we rose with purpose in our minds and hopefully strength in our bodies.  I had my usual race morning breakfast - a fast cup of coffee and a pb&honey sandwich - but decided to add a peach for the extra boost I assumed the HIM would require.  Annie chose to follow suit, sans peach but adding a banana.  Finished my morning ritual (runners will understand), packed the car, took a deep breath and started the drive (35 mins) to the race.  WAIT - I FORGOT TO GRAB MY SAMMICHES!  Turned around, ran inside and grabbed the two pb&honey sandwiches I had made that morning to eat in transition.  Okay, off we go....

We were early enough to be in the first wave of athletes to stage their gear, so we had plenty of time to methodically organize exactly how we wanted to set up our gear for our transition.    A HUGE thank you goes out to my mom for buying my the GYST BP2 I used in transition.  It kept things simple and clean.  The nerves were starting to kick in, so I played an encore to the port-a-potty before hitting the beach with Annie, carrying our wetsuits the 1.2 miles down to the swim start.
Everything I took with me (minus the bike of course)
Here we go...

                                                            Before and After of my transition
                                                            Before and After of Annie's transition

Swim (36min 49sec)
We watched the pro's go, then wave after wave of age groupers before it was finally Annie's turn to put all of her training to use.  The blow horn sounded and, without hesitation, she bounded into the water.  Due to the recent drought and high temps in MI, the lake was at a record low so she actually had to run  30-40 yards through the water before it was finally deep enough to start swimming.  From that point on, she blended into a sea of swimmers and it was time for me to start mentally focusing.  I was the final wave of the day.

The entire time training, I had planned on starting in the very back and walking in to allow enough space for my newbie self to be safe from the other, more experienced triathletes.  However, all that changed when I felt that eternal flame of competition first ignite, then swell inside of me.  No, I would not be in the back of the pack today.  Instead, I would place myself in the second row behind the start line.  Far enough away not to risk over confidence, but close enough to strike!  The horn sounded and one single purposed mass of 25-29 year old men swarmed into the inviting 67 degree waters of Lake Michigan.  My race had begun.

Hands occasionally touched feet in the beginning, but the rhythm of the stroke-stroke-stroke-breath-stroke-stroke-stroke-breath fell into place and, minus a few drifts uncomfortably far from the buoys and an unfortunate arm-pitting of one man's face, my first open water swim exceeded everything I had hoped for.  I felt great.  I had no idea how far or for how long I had been swimming when I sighted the red buoy.  I wasn't sure if it was marking the halfway point or end since my goggles had a light fog that prevented me from seeing any type of distance in detail.  It turned out to be the ending buoy, signalling the swimmers to turn in and begin their amphibious assault towards T1.  Running up the beach, a huge grin stretched out across my face.  The race had started and I was in it!

T1 (7mins 10secs)
Slowing as I entered transition, I quickly found my transition point.  A competitor I had talked to earlier arrived at nearly the same time and took his time ensuring everything was ready for the bike portion.  Taking a cue from him, I removed my wetsuit, thoroughly dried what I could (I had worn my bike shorts and shirt under the wetsuit) and donned my socks and sneakers for the bike. Yes, you read that right.  I did not have clipless pedals, nor did I have clip-in pedals.  I would be biking with flat pedals wearing sneakers.  Aerobars?  What aerobars?  My Fuji rides just fine with the bars it came with ;)  Slapping on my helmet and shoving pb&honey into my mouth, I made my way out of transition.

Bike (3hrs 6mins 5secs)
The bike started fast and on pavement.  I had set a goal of hitting an avg of 18mph and the speed I was hitting early on made that goal seem like a bar set low.  Channeling the advice I had picked up a few days earlier, I kept my effort level flat so as not to burn out on the bike and planned to go negative split.  That would all change as we turned right and transitioned from smooth, paved speed to country road.  Not smooth.  Not paved.  Definitely not easy speed.  Pumping the pedals, I made the conscious decision that, come bumps, cracks, and gravel, I would hit 18mph.  My ego was inflating as I passed bikes that were worth easily double, triple, etc. what I had paid for mine.  Yes, I belonged here.  I was doing well.  All that quickly deflated when I was passed around mile 10.  The overweight guy I had noticed in my wave?  He was now to my left.  Not only was he now to my left, but yelling at me, "I BET YOUR GONNA GO A LOT FASTER NOW THAT YOU'VE BEEN PASSED BY A FAT GUY!!!"  While my senses reeled to absorb everything that had just happened, he dissapeared ahead of me, a sizable blip blending into the horizon.  I mended my ego with soft condolences and promises that yes, I would go a lot faster and make sure I caught him on the run!

 This was my first organized ride, having aid stations along the way to refuel and re-energize riders.  Finding the proper compromise between pace and safety when grabbing bottles, gel and food was found quickly, as the first volunteer was unfortunate enough to be sacrificed for my learning curve, nearly loosing a hand as we contacted on the bottle exchange.  Slower exchanges would be the rule from that point on.  Somewhere near the halfway point, a major hiccup occurred.  Shifting to a lower gear, I heard ka-chunk.  My chain had fallen off.  I hopped quickly off the bike and tried to slap the chain back into place.  Ka-chunk.  I tried again.  Ka-chunk.  This wasn't going to work.  I stopped, stood up and took a deep breath, calming the adrenaline that had been flowing since my wave had hit the water, and mentally coached myself to calmly put the chain back on.  I put the chain back on.

In total, there were 4 aid stations.  I cruised through 3 of them, grabbing a full gatorade at each and making sure it was empty by the next station.  I wore a 2L hydration pack on my back and was sure to compliment my gatorade intake with lots of water.  Towards the end of the bike, my side started to feel tight and the mixture of sugar, energy gels and liquid felt to be reaching a tipping point.  The fourth station was skipped and I started to grind out the last few miles.

Rounding the final curve, I check my watch.  AVG SPEED = 18 MPH.

T2 (5min 37sec)
Hopping off the bike and slowly jogging it in, I had two very pressing things on my mind: change my clothes and relieve the 4 liters of water and gatorade I had consumed in the last 3 hours.  Having opted to not wear a tri-suit, I wrapped myself up in a large beach towel, exchanged bike shorts for running shorts, slipped on my trusty running shoes (kudos Big River Running - http://www.bigriverrunning.com/) and walked the 10 feet to the port-o-potty.  When I finished I was ready to run.  WAIT - MY SAMMICH!  I grabbed my final pb&honey and headed toward the transition exit shoveling the rare bit of solid food in my mouth.  I spotted a sunblock station and sacrificed a minute to prevent melanoma before heading out on my run.

Run (1hr 57mins 18secs)
There always seems to be an extra bit of inertia in the legs after a long bike ride, as if the blood in your bike muscles needs to be re-routed to fuel the run muscles. However, this time seemed to be different.  My legs felt GREAT.  In fact, my whole body felt great.  I had to mentally coach myself to slow down - 7:45min/miles was not how I should start out, no matter how great I felt.  Pulling back on the pace, I started hitting my new default, 8:45min/miles.  Since cramping is such a problem for me, I had decided to stop at every aid station, walk and gulp down at least 1 cup gatorade 1 cup water, more if I felt I needed it.  Around the 5 mile mark, I saw my wife.  Or I should say, she heard me!  She turned around after hearing me talking to another running and I sped up to meet her.  Running the numbers, I had expected to meet her a little earlier given our training speeds, but sure enough she had also found another gear and had really blown away the swim and the bike.  We ran/walked together for a few minutes and then I was off again, hitting just under 9 minute miles.

It was incredible how great the run felt.  I almost felt remorse at having not pushed harder on the bike, but then, climbing up for the second time that day a vicious hill at mile 9, the inside of the legs started to cramp.  I immediately stopped, stretched and started again.  No way was I going to cramp while the rest of me was feeling this good.  At the next station, I grabbed a banana, two gatorades and two waters.  I repeated the grab at the next station.  The cramping had passed and I was home free.  I dialed the pace up and decided to really nail the last 1.5 miles.  Aid station?  Nah, I don't need that last one, I've got this.  1 mile out I was hit by a sudden, explosive cramp on both hamstrings.  Paralized, I Frankensteined to the side and desperately stretched the cramp out.  Would I be forced to walk the last mile and miss my goal time?  Just as the cramp was entering the land of bearable, a runner I had passed earlier yelled out to me, "Come on man, I know your cramping but you can do this.  Think you can run the last mile with me?"  It was just the extra push into accountability I needed.  I finished the last mile in 8min 40secs, crossing the finish line in under 6 hrs.

TOTAL:  5 hrs 52mins 59secs
5 minutes after finishing

The Iron Couple!
The Iron Crew

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