Yesterday I did my fifth half Ironman, which was Steelhead 70.3 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Benton Harbor is on the south west side of the state right on Lake Michigan. It was soooo beautiful. The Ironman Village and transition areas were literally almost right on the beach with a great view of the lake, beautiful little sand dunes and whispy grasses along the beach. It was really pretty and everything, but I knew I really wouldn’t be able to relax and enjoy it since I would be a little more focused on the actual race. SAD.
This was one of the few races I didn’t feel that nervous for. Usually the night before I can’t sleep and I spend hours stressing about little details or focusing on things that could go wrong. I just chose to relax and have fun and use this as a training race for Ironman Louisville in October. I didn’t even really taper for this race either. I had just done a 60-mile bike ride on Saturday and a 9-mile run on Monday in the intense summer heat.
So I’ve heard the swim at Steelhead can be really cold or it can be really rough. I know they have cancelled that swim in the past for rough waters. However, when I checked in on Saturday afternoon, the water was super calm so I figured it would be calm the next morning. Lakes are usually calmer in the morning. Or so I thought…
Also, since I was super relaxed about this race, I didn’t even check any of the race info that morning. It turns out that the race would not be wetsuit legal. This means that the water is too warm to wear a wetsuit, but if you so choose to wear one, you have to start at the end of the swim waves and you cannot qualify for age group awards. Now, I didn’t think I was going to qualify for an age group award or anything but I still chose to not wear my wetsuit. First of all, I would not want to start my swim last because then you finish the race way later in the day and it gets hotter on the run. Second of all, and this is an unpopular opinion, but I DESPISE wearing a wetsuit. I always get super hot in it, it makes my neck chafe, and I am overall not comfortable in it. People like to wear them because they make you more buoyant in the water but TBH I don’t really care about that.
ANYWAY, they started this swim as a rolling start instead of going in waves. Normally, you start in a big group with people of your gender and age group but for this race, we lined up in groups according to what time you think you’ll go. Then, you start from a little chute four people at a time. I went in the 27-30 minute group which I think was perfect. I also really liked the rolling start because I hate starting in a huge group where I have to run people down. Or when I catch up to the slow people in the wave in front of me and have to run them down. This was nice because everyone was right around the same speed so no one was getting run down!
So you know how I said the water was calm on Saturday? HAHA. The waves on Sunday morning were INTENSE. I have never swam in anything like it! I mean I have played around in waves before but never have actually attempted an open water swim in water like that! the swim was kind of a triangle shape, so swimming out, we were swimming against the waves, the once we turned they were pushing us sideways, then on the way in, the waves were at our backs which was kind of nice but after each wave there was a bit of an undertow pulling us back. I choked on water almost every time I tried to take a breath. I couldn’t site the buoys because every time I looked up, the only thing I could see were waves. I was V stressed and V unhappy during the swim. It was just super frustrating to not have a perfect swim.
My time ended up being 34 minutes which was quite slow compared to my fastest time of 28 minutes. However, under the circumstances I think 34 minutes actually wasn’t that bad. I think everyone had a pretty slow swim. Oh also, they had to pull 150 athletes from the water. ONE HUNDRED FIFTY. I’m assuming some got pulled for not making the 1 hour 10 minute swim time cutoff, but I think some people were actually struggling really hard and needed to be saved. I feel for these people. I can’t imagine spending all that money on a race and not being able to finish. I just have to say, if you aren’t super comfortable in open water, I probably wouldn’t recommend Steelhead.
First of all, I must say the transition from swim to bike at this race is crazy! The first 100 or so yards of the run out of the water is on the beach and the sand was super soft and hard to run on. Then the transition area was super long, I swear I had to run about a half mile barefoot just to get to my bike! I also thought my transition was super long, like 7 minutes but it was only like 3 or 4 LOL.
The first 5-10 miles on the bike were not fun. I was already annoyed from the swim, plus there was a pretty bad headwind and a lot of rolling hills. It also always takes me a few miles to get warmed up on the bike, so I wasn’t feeling great at first. However, around mile 15 I finally started to get a good cadence going and started feeling great. I don’t have too much to say about the bike course. It was pretty standard but it was nice because for a few miles of it, if you looked to the side, you could see Lake Michigan through the trees and it was really pretty.
I think I hit my nutrition perfectly on the bike too. Sometimes I think I eat too much and kind of burp-puke on the run but not yesterday! When I had about 10 miles left on the bike, I looked down at my watch and did some mental math (which is super hard for me) and figured out that if I kept going at that pace I was going to PR the bike!!!! WHICH I DID. I ended up going 2:53 and smashing my best bike time of 2:59. Oh, I should also mentioned that my last bike PR was from Ohio 70.3 last summer which is the flattest course ever. I PRed on relatively hilly course!
Having to run my bike into that long ass transition area in my bike shoes was kind of rough I must say. But I racked my bike, put on my running gear and was off. I felt great starting off on the run and I almost never feel good starting the run! I think it was probably the high from doing so well on the bike! About a half a mile in, we turned a corner and there was the steepest hill I ever seen. My high was crushed. The good news was that we only had to go up this hill once. I decided to save my legs and walk this hill which was a good choice.
During this run, I had a really nice pace going and decided that I was only going to walk at any major hills and at aid stations. This was the perfect plan because there were only 2 or 3 big hills so I didn’t really end up walking much. This race was actually the least amount of walking I’ve ever done during a half Ironman! At each aid station, I poured a cup of water into my hand water bottle, I would drink a small cup of Gatorade (and switched over the Coke at mile 8 (I don’t even like Coke but during a race it tastes soooooo good and the caffeine boost is great)), and then I would grab a handful of ice to shove into my sports bra to stay cool. Also, after I would leave the aid station, I would take the ice out of my bra and chew it. Which is probably the most disgusting thing I have ever done during a race considering how sweaty I was BUT GOOD LORD, that ice was amazing. Plus the sweat on it helped me get my salt intake LOL. Don’t judge me.
At mile 11 I started doing mental math again to figure out what my run time was going to be. I deduced (I’m so smart) that if I continued at a 10 minute per mile pace that I would end up around 2:15 which is actually pretty good for me. WELL, with the adrenaline from the crowd towards the end, I ended up running faster and finishing a 2:13! The fastest I have ever gone on a run during a half Ironman is around 2:20 and my fastest half marathon (by itself) is 1:55 so I was pretty happy with that!
I finished with a time of 5 hours and 49 minutes which crushed my previous time of 5:56. I was little annoyed because I knew if the swim course was calmer, I would have probably gone closer to 5:45. BUT, there’s always next summer!
Overall, this was probably my favorite race. It was so beautiful and I’m sure it helped that I went a best time too. It was also really excited to see all of my bike training paying off. The bike is the discipline that I’ve been doing for the least amount of time so I have never been great at it but I can finally see myself improving! Which is exciting!! This was the perfect race to get me ready for Louisville. I wish I had time this summer to have done more than one half Ironman. But I mean, Australia was pretty cool so I guess I can’t complain too much! Anyway, this is probably my last race until Louisville unless I decide to do an Olympic distance in September. So stay tuned!