Steelman: Champion of the Small Events

As I flipped through the multi-sport setup pages of my Garmin 310XT, I was quite proud of myself for remembering to synch my mostly-running computer with my power meter. In 2 prior races this summer, I had forgotten all about it and ridden without power data. (My non-racing computer knows all about my power meter.) I was setting up my transition area at the 2015 edition of the Steelman Olympic Triathlon along with hundreds of others. My friend Jen Bush was not far away and setting up her area for the Sprint Triathlon that occurs simultaneously. I added “power” to my bike feeling smug that I was so calm and thorough in my processes these days. Like most triathletes, the first times setting up a transition area can be a bit daunting and intimidating. Now I was experienced and confident.

“Multiple Power Meters Detected”. I looked around at a couple hundred nearby bikes mostly with power meters. Rats.

I have raced Steelman once before and to date, it was one of my best-ever races. I was hoping today would be good. I was also hoping my current luke-warm attitude toward triathlon would improve during the day. I don’t know if I’ve gotten a bit burned out or just tired of the daily training grind but I had been finding it hard to focus on completing workouts. It seemed easier last year when I had the scary goal of completing an Ironman. Now I was training for distances I have “been there and done” before. As an aging male, I NEED to stay in shape and my unforgiving metabolism requires much calorie burn to keep ahead of the battle of the bulge so the idea of not working out and losing all of my positive gains over the years is not acceptable.

Steelman is one of the best local events around anywhere. Where other local races have been killed off by WTC, Challenge and other corporate race series, Steelman seems to be thriving. This is mostly due to the closed road for the bike, the somewhat forgiving nature of the course but mostly race director Dale Winterhoff’s complete attention to detail. Steelman forgoes the typical finisher’s medal and t-shirts in lieu of more unique schwag and great food. This year,

2015 Schwag Blanket
2015 Schwag Blanket

entrants received a fleece blanket and piles of fresh fruit at the finish as well as plenty of other food. In the past competitors have received bag chairs, back packs, etc. Additionally, Dale provides one of the most thorough athlete’s guide I’ve ever seen. He also sends out detailed e-mails the week of the race regarding the condition of the bike course, including locations of bad potholes (clearly marked with pink paint), and the best line to ride. He also assembles a great core of volunteers. This is truly one of the best run races anyone would ever attend bar none.

I finished setting up my transition in the Wave 3 area and headed off for a warm-up swim. After plunging in to the cool, dark, deep lake I returned briefly to transition to take off my wedding ring and leave in my bag lest it slip off mid-swim. (What was I saying about being experienced and confident at this?) Once done, I found Jen at the start and waited for proceedings to begin.

At any triathlon there is always a “mandatory” pre-race meeting. It is the race director’s opportunity to provide last-minute advice or course information. If the course is at all confusing it is a good time to listen up. Otherwise it is a bit like the flight attendant’s pre-flight speech on an airplane. Nobody pays attention or cares what she is saying until the plane starts to crash. That said, I’m guessing that floating seat cushion isn’t doing you much good if the plane falls out of the sky from 30,000 feet. Similarly, Dale was saying something about swimming, biking, and running while those of us too far away to really hear him talked among ourselves. After Dale’s speech, one of the competitors sang a very moving rendition of the National Anthem while we all pretended to look at a flag that couldn’t be seen. At least we all looked the same way.

Finally, it was time for Wave 1 of the Olympic to start. A group of people greatly resembling Minions with their yellow swimMinions caps headed down the embankment to Lake Nockamixon and gingerly waded into the rocky water’s edge to the start. No cannon, no fancy trumpet, just Dale shouting “GO”! And they were off. 5 minutes later the green-headed Wave 2 left. I was next. Wave 3 took our turn over the rocks and were sent off on to the 1500 meter swim course with a shout from Dale. “GO”! Actually, I don’t remember hearing anything but everyone else started swimming so it seemed appropriate to join them.

I immediately began a steady freestyle pull through the water navigating in and around the white capped swimmers of wave 3. The swim course is a bit technical with several turns but VERY easy to navigate courtesy of the local sail club who stations a big sailboat at each turn. You just keep the buoys to the left and the sailboats to the right and you can’t go wrong. If you somehow do Dale has no less than 37 kayakers out there to set you right.

It is nice to write about my race without focusing on my swim demons of the past. While it is nearly impossible to believe, I am falling in love with the swim. As I’ve developed better form and a plan for dealing with mental issues, I find myself wishing the swim were a longer portion of the race.love_swimming

In any triathlon the first third of the course is spent mostly in semi-combat mode. You do your best to not swim on top of others or hit or kick accidentally but you don’t want to have to zig zag all around people either. In the past I’d go way off course to find open water where just me and my demons could swim alone. I don’t have time for that now. I take a direct line and if that means I swim along in a pack right next to someone, or draft off someone, or am forced to climb over top of them . . well then that’s what that means. Which reminds me. To whomever I smacked in the head near the start. Sorry. It was an accident.

Things began to thin out a bit by the first turn. We had left the slower swimmers from our wave behind, and the fastest folks were off ahead of us somewhere. The second turn on the olympic swim is not long. Maybe only a couple hundred yards. Thank goodness for that sailboat and the splashing of competitors though because it was straight into the sun and nearly impossible to see the buoy but suddenly there it was. Now it was a long swim back toward shore, around a bit of a bend and out around a peninsula. It was shortly after turn 2 that I realized we were catching wave 2 swimmers. The number of green swim caps grew as I focused on my entry, catch, and pull. Turn 3 is the turn that begins to send you around the end of the peninsula. I was now seeing a mix of green swim caps and Minions. The swim course grew really crowded for the finish with a lot of slower swimmers from the first two waves really struggling and taking up a lot of space in the water.

Overhead of Olympic Swim
Overhead of Olympic Swim

I made the last turn toward the boat ramp and had to go wide around a big pack of green and yellow dog paddlers and side strokers. (Not making fun . . believe me . . I’ve been there.) But there was a lot of scissor kicking going on and I didn’t want a shot to the head. There was another white swim cap in front of me and I honed in on it and followed it to the boat ramp. The bottom of the boat ramp is VERY slippery but Dale has you covered. There are a line of volunteers down into the water waiting to help you up the ramp. Once toward the top, there is astro turf that gets rid of the slippery. As I was handed up the line on my way out of the water, one of the volunteers reached behind me and pulled the zipper on my wetsuit down. Aweseome! I crossed the timing mat, finished pulling my wetsuit down to my waist, ripped off goggles and cap and trotted toward transition. Somewhere in there I heard my name being called out and caught a glimpse of a pink hat or visor and decided it must be friend and fellow runner/triathlete Tina Devlin. (Later confirmed.) Her Dad was racing as well.

Swim Time: 26:42 (One of my best swims ever, but rumor has it perhaps the course was a hair long.)

My transition area was not on an outer end but rather the last spot bordered by a Giant food stores trailer (think 18-wheeler trailer). I ripped off my wetsuit, and chucked it under the trailer. There was a gentleman next to me I had chatted with pre-race. Apparently he was an okay swimmer, strong biker, and weak runner. He was sitting on the ground and struggling to get out of his wetsuit. I grabbed it and yanked it off his feet. He gave a much appreciated “Thanks”! I donned bike shoes, glasses and helmet, sprayed down with sunscreen and I was off to bike mount.

T1: 2:32 (timing starts at water exit and ends at bike out)

The Steelman bike course is known as “hilly”. In my opinion that is debatable. If you ride your bike in Pennsylvania, I would call the course normal. Yes, there are hills, but they aren’t that bad. However, upon leaving transition you do have to climb out of the parking area and up to the main road outside the park. That climb can be a little daunting on legs that aren’t warmed up and may be a bit tired from the swim. This year the bike course took a windier path out of the parking area due to some road resurfacing (aka oil & chipping). But the net climb was likely still the same as years past. Here is a link to my uploaded Garmin data. See for yourself: Steelman Bike

I made my way up the hill and exited the park proper near the ranger station. Once out of the park riders in the Olympic event make two loops of the better part of the main road. 3 miles north, loop back to the entrance, 3 miles south, loop to the entrance . . . repeat.

As I pedaled, I noticed that despite finding multiple power meters, my Garmin was indeed detecting wattage from my Powertap hub. Maybe it was not exactly right since it was showing 1 or 2 watts while I was rolling down hill but I decided it was close enough. Unfortunately, I hadn’t really put much thought into what my target power should be. It occurred me that I had become so preoccupied with becoming a better swimmer that I had neglected cycling. Yes, my coach Mark Kotarski had prescribed excellent workouts and was usually pleased with my results but I hadn’t put much thought into race day goals as far as cycling pace. I worried about using up too much gas on the bike. I decided to keep an eye on power and try not to go too crazy jamming on the pedals on the uphill sections. Climb but climb efficiently. I also made it a point to add some power where possible on the longer downhill stretches. Still . . no real clear cycling goal. I need to work on this.

Like the swim course with it’s 37 kayakers, the bike course at Steelman is well-supported. There were volunteers everywhere including the local fire company and 2 sag wagons provided by Bike Line. At the North end of the course I had a little personal laugh when I saw the yellow highway warning sign with a picture of a truck on it.truck (Presumably trucks entering highway). Right behind it was a truck from the local fire company. Probably not all that funny under normal circumstances but with the pink marked potholes, cones at speed bumps and volunteers yelling when to slow down for big turns, I could only picture Dale out the night before erecting the sign to tell us a truck would be parked here.

Loop one was faster and more uneventful on the bike than loop two. As I came back past the park entrance at the end of loop one, I joined in with the Sprint athletes who started after the Olympic. This is a tremendous race for beginners and, as such, you see folks riding all sorts of bikes. It is fun but you also need to be a bit more wary around the less experienced and maybe nervous beginners. I navigated all such crowds successfully and managed to grab a bottle of Gatorade from the aid station on the second loop. My thought was that would act as my in-race nutrition due to it’s calories and sugar.

The only place the bike course seems a little unfair is that when heading South you climb a good hill and get a great roll down the other side. But the 180 degree turn is only a 1/3 of a mile or so down the hill. Then you have to turn and go back up to the ranger station. No free ride here. But I climbed back up the hill and made my way past the ranger station, around the speed bump and back into the park swilling a bit more Gatorade and fluid to get ready for the run. I rolled down hill, braked hard at the bottom and made the sharp right turn into the marina parking lot. The finish line music and crowds of spectators around transition help you get jazzed up for the run. I unclipped, dismounted, and ran with my bike into transition.

Bike (24.6 miles): 1:16:28 (A couple minutes slower than my last Steelman)

I racked Betty, threw my helmet down and whipped off my bike shoes. On with the Zoot running shoes, hat, and race belt and off to the run course.

T2: 1:34

The run course at Steelman is kind of an awesome little run that requires some patience. If you’ve ever walked through the paved walking trails at a State Park that is what you run on at Steelman. It is all athletes, Sprint and Olympic with the Olympic athletes doing two loops. Runners stay left except to pass and you need to be careful and patient so you don’t collide with someone passing going the other direction. There really is plenty of room if you pay attention.

Part of the run course. I'm too cheap to buy my run photos.
Part of the run course.
I’m too cheap to buy my run photos.

Running is my best weapon in Triathlon. It is still hard to get through the adjustment from bike to run and I tell myself to be patient and wait for the transition difficulty to pass and it becomes just running. This usually takes from 15-20 minutes or 2-3 miles of running. In this case, that is nearly half the distance of the entire 6.2 mile (10K) run. On the first loop, at the 10K turn I grabbed Gatorade and water from Randy Latza and the Lehigh Valley Endurance Club. Drinking the Gatorade and pouring the water over my head, I mentioned to Randy that I was kinda wishing I did the Sprint. Running was annoyingly difficult so far but I kept going. I heard Kelly Roth from Endurance Multisport cheer me on as I went by and managed to raise my hand in a wave of acknowledgement.

I made my way back toward the start and looked longingly at the Olympic 5 mile sign picturing coming back by in another lap. I was holding a good pace but struggling a bit and I couldn’t figure out why. It suddenly occurred to me that I had a gel with me which I downed immediately hoping for a boost. At the start of the second loop for the 10K I pitched the gel wrapper, poured a cup of water over my head and bore down for 3 more miles.

I guess the gel worked. After another 1/2 mile or so I began to feel stronger. I was mixed in with many Sprint competitors at this point but kept an eye out for O and M45-49 body marking signifying those in my age group. I picked off several on that second loop including my transition mate whom I help with the wetsuit. He had told that I’d probably catch him on the run. He was right. I also caught up with Jen on the run. I had been worried about her having to wait around for me since she was doing the shorter event but as it turns out her Sprint wave didn’t start until more than an hour after my wave so we wound up finishing at almost the same time. I actually passed her twice because the Sprint turnaround is before the Olympic turnaround. She has been having some difficulty with her hip but I noticed she seemed to be running conservatively, but well. No limp or no apparent change of gait to accommodate a bad hip. That’s good. She is doing a full Ironman distance later this year.

That second loop went quick. Before I knew it I was back at that mile 5 sign and then mile 6. I was enjoying the run now and was wishing it were a bit longer. Nonetheless, I rounded the last turn, and followed the sign for the finish where I was greeted by a volunteer with a cold, wet towel that felt so much better than a finisher’s medal. A young lady removed my chip and brought me a cup of water. Moments later Jen crossed the line in the Sprint finish.

Run 45:21

Finish: 2:32:36

Despite feeling like a strong race, I was a few seconds slower than the last time I did Steelman. The bike was down by 2 minutes and the run a minute. Oddly, the bike has become my weakest leg. This shouldn’t be surprising since I really haven’t been biking all that many years but it is clear I need to buckle down and improve here.

On the run the slightly run split is attributable to the run in 2013 being one of my best triathlon runs. I felt strong from the start. Today I spent  probably 30-45 seconds at aid stations and didn’t feel quite as strong from the start. The gel helped so maybe some nutrition work here. I don’t think I should need a lot of food for an Olympic distance event. I may be a few pounds heavier than my last Steelman as well.

Enough boring post-race analysis. Where’s the food? Steelman has one hell of a spread. I’m not a big one for heavy post-race food like pizza or pasta which was offered in abundance but there was also mounds and mounds of fresh fruit. There were big bins of cherries, fresh peaches and nectarines, bins full of grapes and the ultimate post-race food: Watermelon! I gorged myself on about 3 slices.

I’ll probably be a regular at Steelman for as long as Dale is willing to run it. It is simply a fabulous race. If you are remotely close to PA maybe I’ll see you there next year!

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