Seven years ago, I stood on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan in the pouring rain about to race in the inaugural Steelhead 1/2 Ironman Triathlon.
I had raced in a few other 1/2 Iron distances, but this race was different. At the time I was a part time single dad, with a 3 year old daughter, a sort of job and had finally met a woman who not only loved me, but understood the passion I had for triathlon.
A sad but true side note, while we were dating, I had tried to break up with her, because I thought she had to be mentally ill for loving someone like me. Luckily she is both pretty and smart and made me realize how truly insane that was.
Even the race was very much like the area, little, a bit sloppy but filled with great intentions. The swim was an odd sort of triangle that kept us running into a sand bar, so at times, we would have to stand up and run through the water, the transition area was a combo of sand and mud hole and the rain it never seemed to stop.
None of that mattered, I was on a mission, finishing was only part of the goal. The waves beat me up, the wind and rain soaked me to the bone, and my wet socks tore my feet into a raw blistered mess. As I ran towards the finish, a woman I was running with told me "if you are truly in love, you will run faster." Though I couldn't run any faster, it made me think a lot about what I was running to and from. Things in my life had been hard, I had "lost" almost everything that mattered to me, but found so much more, including this insane sport.
I made it in a little over 6 hours and after a well deserved nap, I got down on one knee, looked into my girl friends eyes and suffered a massive leg cramp! After a little stretching and some Gatorade, on the second take, I got it right and she said "yes."
Things in my life, like most of our lives have gotten busy. Our kids are busy, our lives are busy. Planning my 500 mile journey, I thought going back to re-visit Steelhead would be a great way to re-connect with an old friend and also race up some good miles towards my goal. Steelhead, like my life and St. Joe Michigan has changed a lot, all for the better.
The secret got out, that this sleepy little race in a sleepy little Michigan town was something special. The first year about 400 people raced, this year over 2000 people from around the world headed to St. Joe to race and possibly qualify for a spot at the 70.3 Championships in Clearwater, Florida.
Steelhead is no exception. Everything from check in, to the volunteers to the support on the course, were as good as it gets. The park that once housed a ramshackle old beach house, is now completely remodeled with a massive paved parking area, large enough to hold a transition area and thousands of cheering fans.
However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That first year, in the pouring rain, I learned a lot of lessons, one of the most important is always, put your socks in a sandwich bag. I didn't and suffered for it the entire race. I vowed to never race in the rain again, not a fan. So when I woke up Saturday morning, and the rain was coming down in buckets, it made me laugh. "Here I am again, cold wet and miserable." Unlike seven years ago, I wasn't also muddy, sandy and relatively alone, looking around at the other wet athletes and families, made it somehow comfortable.
Seven years later, I stood on the shore of Eastern Lake Michigan, looking out at the rain. As we got closer to the start, an two old friends came up to visit me, the first was panic. It's no big secret, that I am a swimmer freaker outer, I freak in the water, it's my thing. As we got closer to my start time, I felt the panic set in, just as I was about to give into it, old friend number two came along, Training Bible coach Adam Zucco. Adam, was my coach 7 years ago, he got me through the first Steelhead as well as the Ironman. I haven't seen Adam in years, but suddenly there he was with a group of athletes in front of me. " I am poop in my pants freaking out, dude, I'm scared," is what I muttered to Adam. He looked at me straight in the eye and said something I will never forget, "It's just swimming, biking and running, what's the big deal? You can do this." And then he was gone.
Simple words but so true, it was like a splash of cold water in my face. I needed that, it brought me back to where I was and put it into perspective.
A few minutes later, the gun went off and I was swimming, faster than I have ever swam, no panic, no stopping, no worrying. I was in my lake, the same lake I play in with my kids, a lake I grew up in, on a beach that I know, it was smooth, fast and beautiful.
Then I biked. Instead of trying to hammer through the course, I decided to break it up into several goals: first of which was to stick to a certain attainable speed, which I did. The second goal was something I learned from Lauren (Outside The Girl Box) Kamnisky- "celebrate every mile, or the next one will be mad at you." Every time, I hit a mile marker I yelled out "woo hoo, mile #2, #38, #50, woo hoo!"
Even during the run, when my foot fell asleep and my quads cramped up, I saw my personal best time disappear, it didn't bother me. It was the hardest, most painful run I have ever been on, but, forward is a pace and I kept on going, one painful step after another.
I couldn't wait to get to the finish line, not because I wanted the race to be over, but because I wanted to see my family. I missed them.
My post race thoughts about Steelhead are all positive. It is a great event, run by a class organization in an amazing location. There are times when massive growth can mean many problems, with Steelhead this isn't the case, I think they could stretch it to a full Ironman and things would still be great, nudge, nudge. I would go back and do it again and recommend it to anyone looking for a local race with world class style.
A short 12 hours after I woke up and 70.3 miles later in the day, I was back on the beach with my daughter, son, dog and my in-laws, legs cramping, shoulders cashed, looking out at the same water. As I passed out in the sand to the sounds of my kids splashing in the water, I thought, life is good.