My level of enthusiasm was not high as I unloaded Rakita from her rack on the back of the car. My low-level of excitement was only matched by that of my Iron-friend Jen Bush who was preparing her bike to take to transition. Neither one of us were cranked up about the day’s coming effort at the Steelman Triathlon. I sign up for this race every year because it is close to home and one of my very favorite events. But August has not been kind to me. First there was a delightful and stubborn UTI that forced me to defer Rev3 Pocono to next year. Then, I rolled my foot for the second time in a month during an easy run. Add in a late-in-the-week bad reaction to eye drops used at the eye doctor and the mid-90s heat and high-humidity and I really just wanted to crawl in to a cave and hibernate. But I muddled forward, gathered my race things and wandered with Jen toward transition to setup. I was hoping for some Steelman Magic to help my mood.
You see, Steelman always brings out my best. I love the swim. It isn’t downstream, or current assisted in any way, but it isn’t your basic rectangle or triangle either. It may even measure out a little long if one were to examine it carefully. But the out, over, and around course keeps me entertained and I always swim well there. The rest of the day is equally enjoyable. I’ve never had a bad day at Steelman.
I had a t-shirt on over my race kit, and after a getting body marked and setting up my T area, the t-shirt was soaked from sweat. It was around 6am and the temps were already well into the 80s. It would definitely be a hot one. I downed the better part of a bottle of Powerade
in preparation for the dehydration festival to come. I made a quick stop at the port-a-john, double checked my transition setup, grabbed swim goggles & cap and was about to head for the warm-up swim when I was stopped by fellow racer and local running store owner Sorita Averill. “Are you going to swim with your wedding ring”? Thankfully she was more observant than me. I slipped my ring into my backpack and headed off to warm up.
I got a mediocre warm-up in that featured a prominent appearance from the “you really don’t want to do this” demons. After ignoring them, I swam a bit more and then clambered out of the rocky beach to wait for the start with my friend Larry. I hoped that as starting time neared, my race-day genes would kick in and get me going.
I was in starting wave 5 which was the last of the Olympic waves. There would be several sprint waves to follow on the shorter version of the course. I watched waves 1 through 4 go. I was surprised to see swimmers backstroking from the start. I also saw at least two swimmers start, stop, and turn around to wade ashore and turn in their chips without giving themselves a chance. The water temperature was 80 degrees so no wet suit for me. There were a fair number of folks still using them despite being eliminated from age group awards. I imagined how sweltering a wet suit would be partway through the swim and was happy I decided to not only ditch my wet suit but also my tri singlet. I would have to wrestle the singlet on in T1 but that seemed like a better option than wearing a parachute on the swim.
Moments before my wave was to enter the water I found my foot tapping along to the music that was being played and I looked longingly at the first turn buoy in the distance. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get in the water and start swimming.
Soon enough we were called to the water and a bunch of orange capped old folks waded gingerly through the rocks to the deeper water. I began to mentally channel my inner Katie Ledecky
with her efficient looking, long distance swim stroke. MEEERRRPPP! The air horn sounded. We were off and I began to swim. I don’t recall what I was thinking about during those first couple hundred yards. Usually I focus on my rapid heartbeat, or claustrophobia but I don’t even think I thought about swimming. Suddenly I was aware of paddling along with a relaxed stroke past a buoy making my way steadily toward the sailboat that marks the first turn. For some reason, I love this particular swim. It is the poster child for successful wave starts. There is no beat down from fellow swimmers and in short order I am always able to find clean water that allows me to choose my pace. Once in a while, I found feet to follow and did so until they slowed down enough that I’d go around. I felt like I was having my best swim ever at Steelman. That is a tall order because I have had my best triathlon swims at this race and this is the first non-wet suit version of Steelman for me. Still, the swim is relaxing and energizing.
As I made my way toward the boat ramp and swim finish I mixed in with waves of swimmers from the sprint waves. I weaved through and around slower swimmers and on to the slippery ramp. From past experience I used the traction grooves in the ramp to pull myself toward the waiting helpers rather than try to stand-up. The ramp is too slippery to try to run up. With helping hands, I was able to get on the turf that had been put partway down the ramp and made my way toward transition. Like every year, I wished I could dive back in and do another loop of the swim. Instead, I headed into T2 for the bike ride noting along the way that Jen, who was doing the sprint event, was still waiting to get in the water. My swim time was 33:07. Definitely not my fastest, but given my performance of late in swimming 1500 meters, it seems slow. I really believe this portion of the course might be a touch long. But that’s okay. We all swam the same course.
It was not my fastest effort in T1 especially considering I didn’t have to remove a wet suit. But I took the time to don my singlet and spray down with sunscreen. I headed out of transition, mounted up, and headed for the big climb out of the parking lot to the road. T1 time: A slowish 2:56
It is noteworthy that this would be my first race with Rakita, my new bike. The olympic distance is only ~24 miles on the bike so while it does not require huge amounts of hydration I wanted to test out the fuelselage built-in hydration bladder. The plus: I really like it. The minus: The bladder slides down in to the black frame of my bike that was sitting in the sun. It’s a shame I didn’t add a tea bag.
The Steelman bike course is mostly loops on the road outside the park. If you are doing the sprint, it is one loop, the Olympic two loops. There are some rolling hills the whole way so it is never boring. It is not an especially difficult ride but it is always interesting especially as the sprinters arrive on the course for the second loop. You see everyone you know and other interesting things like the giant dead black snake after the turn. You might have thought someone could have moved it off the course. Pro tip of the day for beginners: While it is perfectly fine to use whatever functional bike you have for your triathlon, before setting out on your big race day you may want to remove the 4 lb. lock and cable and saddle bags. You won’t be stopping to do any grocery shopping along the course. Lighten down to the essentials.
Time on the bike whizzed by. Due to the continuing painful conditions “down below” I didn’t really expect to be able to ride the aero position a lot. But as it turned out I spent most of the bike course on the bars. Rakita invites it. It is so comfortable and feels speedy. I rode aero and sipped warm water through my fuelselage straw. Thankfully, I also had a bike bottle with more refreshing cherry/lemon Nuun.
After 1:12 on the bike, I slipped out of the pedals and ran across the orange mount/dismount line back toward transition. T2 was quick. I ditched my helmet pulled on my Zoot race shoes and hat and took off for run out. T2 time: 1:41.
Right away I noticed something different. I love to run and always look forward to the run in a triathlon. I’m usually disappointed because I come off the bike with a tired, aching, uncooperative body. Not today. I felt pretty good immediately. I had no back pain, no shoulder stiffness, and fresh legs. This is a testament to good bike fit, and Stu Waring at Parvilla Cycles.
Were it not hotter than Hades, I think I could have put together a pretty fast run. But given conditions I knew it would be best to stay conservative. I decided to target 9:00/min miles as a starting point and then play it by feel. I don’t think I even ran a ½ mile that slowly. Mentally, I planned my strategy from the start. “Just run steady, and stay cool and hydrated. You’ve got to do your best to keep your core temperature down”. Having done the course several times in the past I knew where the aid stations were. I picked my way through the sprinters and slower Olympic athletes weaving my way along the trail. Halfway to the sprint turn I spotted a familiar face with a garden hose spraying down athletes upon request. And EVERYONE requested! It was Craig Durant (aka Big Train). Craig is a coach and superior triathlete himself. I didn’t so much bother with the hose bath on the way out but made a mental note for the return.
There was an aid station just before the sprint turn where I grabbed a cup of ice putting most of it in my hat and continuing on. I knew there would be another, less crowded station at the Olympic turn just ahead. There I grabbed some Gatorade from another tri friend Dave Dammer. I downed the juice, crossed the “no cheaters” timing mat and headed back toward the park.
The heat built up by the minute. Fortunately the Steelman run course is pretty shaded and I was managing well with hydration and ice. I was, however, looking forward to that cool hose water. As I rounded the bend and saw Craig with the hose, I ran toward him and got a thorough soaking with cold water. I gasped as the water hit me but instantly I could feel my core temperature drop and I could run on.
Like the bike course, the Steelman Olympic run is two loops. There is a convenient jug handle toward the start where we loop and head back out. After making the loop, I grabbed a bit more Gatorade and made my way back past Craig and out to see Dave again. I felt pretty good and was running steadily. I didn’t concern myself with pace but did note I passed a lot of other athletes (both sprint and Olympic). The aid station at the sprint turn was now out of ice but I knew there would still be ice at the Olympic turn. I hit the turn and asked Dave for ice water and said “Who thought the Olympic was a good idea again”? He replied “Nobody made you click that button”. He was right, but I signed up over the winter and it was a lot cooler then. I downed the water, put the ice in my hat and kept running. It was less than two miles back to the finish now. I can do anything for two miles.
The heat was definitely having an effect as I passed the “Olympic Mile 5” sign. There was only a bit over a mile remaining but I was starting to suffer. My ears rang a bit and I could hear an echo as my feet landed on the pavement as if I were listening to an impact under water. I focused on running tall and clean. I made sure I could feel the rock tape on my hip stretching which meant I was running upright and not slouching.
A bad habit I have when I am tired. I passed the sign for a ½ mile to the finish then the “Olympic 6 Mile” sign. I could hear the music blaring at the finish. I turned off the paved trail and on to the gravel finishing chute through the woods. I found myself mildly annoyed by several slow-moving runners who were managing to block the entire trail. I dodged around them and turned the last bend to see the finish line. My ears buzzed. Someone yelled my name. (Pretty sure it was fellow racer and Ironman Tina Devlin). I crossed the line and made a bee-line for one of the waiting chairs.
Steelman has never handed out finishers medals. Instead, they have cold, wet towels. A volunteer handed me a towel that I draped over my head and neck. It was positively glorious! She asked if I was okay. Another quarter mile and my answer may have been different but I was indeed okay.
Jen had finished her sprint event shortly before me. She was standing behind my chair and asked if I was okay. I was okay but thirsty. We went off to the food tent where I got water and yummy, awesome post-race watermelon and cherries. Steelman has tons of post-race food including bagels, pizza, etc. None of which has any appeal to me immediately after racing. But fresh fruit? Well now, bring it on! Especially the cold slices of watermelon. I’m firmly convinced that if someone had handed Pheidippides a slice or two of watermelon after his run, things may have turned out better for him.
Jen and I agreed neither one of us had a great reason to hang out terribly long so we checked results, grabbed our bikes out of transition and headed for the car. I noted to Jen to never let me not sign up for Steelman. Be it hot or cold or in between, Steelman is always magical.
Author’s Note: I would be remiss if I didn’t give kudos to Craig Sheckler, Kelly Roth, and everyone else from Endurance Multisport. Craig signed on this year as the new race director stepping in to the rather big shoes of Dale Winterhoff. Craig and Endurance Multisport didn’t miss a beat. The race was flawless and lived up to the high standard the participants have come to expect.