Ironman 70.3 Michigan 2021 Race Report

This past weekend I competed in my sixth 70.3 distance triathlon (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run), this time in the small town of Frankfort in northern Michigan. This was my favorite so far.

TL;DR: The weather was perfect. I had a great swim and bike. The bike course had some hills but was smooth and felt downhill both ways. I was able to be in aero about 90-95% of the time. The run was meh. Overall, I PR’d by 2 minutes with a finishing time of 5:45:07.

My last 70.3 was two years ago in Traverse City, a race that I struggled with. I had gone into it thinking I was prepared, only to be put in my place by the hills on the bike course. I finished in around 6:23:58, my slowest time to that point.

I’ve had a triathlon training streak going since 1/1/2020 (swimming 500m, biking 5mi, running 1mi, or walking 2mi minimum every day) in an effort to maintain my fitness. However, until this June – a month after I was fully vaccinated – I had done no swimming since March 2020 when the gyms shut down due to Covid (I had swam 5km that day!). Since 15 months had gone by, I started with two short, easy swim sessions in the pool to avoid injury and assess where I was. My endurance was ridiculously poor. The next week, Infinite Multisport, the triathlon club I belong to, held an informal practice sprint tri (750m swim, 12mi bike, 3.1mi run) at a local park. I was nearly breathless coming out of the water even for that short distance and pushing myself hard on the bike resulted in me bonking and only having enough energy to mostly walk the 5k.

That was a wake-up call. I thought I had been doing great maintaining my fitness during the pandemic, but I realized I had a lot of work to do to prep for the 70.3. I swam twice a week, eventually getting up to 2100-2500m every session. I did more bike rides and integrated hills into the routes. I even rode my mountain bike to/from the gym every time I swam. Though the route is less than 3 miles each way, it goes down to the Clinton River and back up, so there is a long gradual climb both ways.

I didn’t focus so much on running during my training, as I’ve been doing ultra marathons for years. Probably relatedly, my average pace has been slowing over the years. I figured as long as I could get through the first two disciplines without wrecking myself, I could push through on the run (albeit slowly).

I was able to squeeze in a shake out ride Saturday morning before athlete and bike check in. Throwing caution to the wind regarding the adage “nothing new on race day”, I decided I wanted to change out my tires. I had a pair of 23mm race tires on my tri bike that I have never felt stable on, particularly on any surface with a modicum of slickness to it. I recently put a pair of 25mm Continental Grand Prix 4000 GatorSkins on my road bike and loved the feeling of stability, so I decided to put them on the tri bike Saturday morning. I was worried about possibly getting a pinch flat from doing so (and therefore risk using up my spare tube), as well as clearances with the frame. I was able to put them on without issue and went out for a ride on the southern part of the bike route to make sure everything was good. The tires were great, though the wind was pretty strong at 15-20mph. I was a bit worried it was going to be like that for race day, as it was also causing a bit of chop on the bay, too.

Fortunately the weather on race day was perfect. Winds had died down to 2-4mph over night. The temp was 58°F at the beginning of the race with overcast skies. The high was forecasted at 68°F. The bay was smooth as glass and the water temp was around 68°F, a full 10°F warmer than the air.

The swim went great. Due to the layout of the course and competing boat traffic, there was no opportunity to warm up in the water. It was a rolling start, with self-seeding into approximate expected time pace groups and 4 racers entering in the water every 5 seconds via boat ramp. I expected to take about 40 minutes, so I found a spot in the back of the 37-40 minute group. Several of my friends felt the water was too cold, but having swam in much colder water (Escape From Alcatraz in San Francisco was about 55ºF), I felt fine in my sleeveless wetsuit. I took it relatively easy for the first 100-200m, but then just got into it for the rest of the 2000m. At one point the sun briefly broke through the clouds, which made sighting to the right side a little tough, and there were miscellaneous strands of seaweed that I’d snag, but it all went off smoothly. I came out of the water in 37:50, beating my anticipated time.

I often feel a little disoriented coming out of the water, so I took it easy walking into transition, gradually stripping my wetsuit off as I went. Once I got to my bike, I sat down and pulled the wetsuit completely off, threw on all my biking gear and was off.

The ride was fantastic. I had gotten a preview of the first 13 miles on my shake out ride the day before, which was an out-and-back to the south of town. It was mostly flat and straight, with the largest hill on the course at about mile 5. Throwing it into low gear, I didn’t feel much need to even stand up. Coming back down the hill I reached over 35mph. The rest of the route was an out-and-back to the north of town. There were about 3-4 other decent climbs, but the rest was so flat and the asphalt so smooth that it felt downhill both ways. I was in aero position for 90-95% of the course. I was worried that I might get too carried away and not leave anything left for the run, but I never felt like I had to work that hard to go fast. And because the temps were cool and much of the route shaded, I didn’t feel like I was sweating much or burning much energy. I drank maybe a liter of water, ate some licorice I had brought with me, drank half a bottle of Gatorade from the 30 mile aid station and ate a half banana at the 45 mile aid station. I did have one mechanical issue: on the climb up the very last hill, my chain popped off the front cog as I threw it into low gear. I quickly hopped off the bike, guided it back onto the cog, then jumped on the bike again, probably only losing 20-30 seconds. In the end I averaged about 20.6 mph. If I had carbon fiber race wheels like most other competitors, I probably could have averaged 22 mph.

I took it easy in T2 again. It always takes a little to get my legs working properly coming in off the bike, especially in cycling shoes. I quickly swapped my biking gear for my Luna sandals and visor, then took an opportunity to quickly use a nearby port-a-potty before heading out for the run.

The run pretty much went as I expected. At the athlete briefing they said that due to the multiple out and backs, there were 17 opportunities to hit an aid station in the 13.1 miles. I didn’t bother carrying nutrition. I ran pretty much the whole thing but would walk through the aid stations and grab miscellaneous things as I needed, mostly dumping water on my head (the temps weren’t hot, but it felt good) or sipping some water and/or Red Bull, but not so much that I’d have too much sloshing in my belly. I started out at about a 8:45 min/mi pace but then gradually slowed down to 10:00 min/mi then 11:00 min/mi at times. I averaged a 10:16 min/mi pace, pretty much what I was anticipating based on how my training had been going and the fact that I’d have swam and biked before the run. Considering I walked through the aid stations, I must have been going faster than that in between.

In the end I finished in 5:45:07. Though comparing races is like comparing apples to oranges due to there being so many different factors (weather, geography, transition distances, etc.), I was super stoked that I beat my 2019 Traverse City time by nearly 40 minutes and even my previous bests of 5:47:22 (2016 Chattanooga) and 5:53:53 (2016 Steelhead).

Race aside, I thought the location was great. Everything was within walking distance from the condo we rented. The restaurants were nice. The town seemed to be genuinely happy that we were there, which is not the vibe I got while in nearby Traverse City (and likely part of the reason it was moved to Frankfort). The scenery was great, with the lakes and covered road for much of the bike course. The asphalt was smooth and in good condition. I wasn’t a fan of how crowded the path around the lake was for the run, nor that it passed the odoriferous water treatment facility 4 times (bleh!), but the numerous aid stations were great. Relatedly, I had never seen so many port-a-potties in a transition zone before. It really helped make the pre-race lines go quickly.

My tri club had about 200 participants in the event, about 10% of the ~1900 competitors at the race. It was great to have so many “bees” (our club colors are black and yellow) out on the course, not only to yell out encouraging words but also have that encouragement returned and to be cheered on by their friends/families at the race. The vibe was awesome.

Overall, I had a great weekend. It was almost certainly the best triathlon weekend I’ve had and I am definitely considering going back again next year.

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