By Dawn Hinz
Many athletes were excited when Ironman announced the Inaugural Half Iron Distance Triathlon in Traverse City. It’s a beautiful venue and popular tourist destination in Northern Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. However, Ironman already had a Half Iron Distance located in Michigan; Steelhead. Steelhead is held in the Southwest Corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Steelhead is scheduled in late June and Traverse City is held in late August. How would these events be similar and how would they differ? Could an athlete do both?
|Race||Swim||Swim Condition||Bike Elevation||Bike Road Condition||Run Elevation||Run Condition|
|Steelhead||Lake Michigan||Possibly Rough||1,306 Feet||Good/
|203 Feet||Full Sun
3 Big Hills
|Traverse City||West Grand Traverse Bay||More likely calm||2,455 Feet||Nearly Perfect/ Very Hilly||314 Feet||Partly Shaded|
Steelhead starts from the sandy beach of Jean Klock Park into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is one of the Great Lakes and shares more similarities with an ocean or the sea than it does an inland lake. Which means the swim can be unpredictable. It can be smooth or choppy. Sometimes the swim is cancelled due to large waves and strong currents. Then you run across the beach into transition.
Traverse City starts from Open Space Park into West Grand Traverse Bay. The Bay is actually a part of Lake Michigan. This means it could still be choppy but it is protected by land on three sides. Which means it’s more likely to have calm waters. However this is not guaranteed and you should still prepare for an “ocean water type swim”. You swim out a few hundred meters and then turn east; straight into the rising sun. You swim past a marina and exit at Clinch Park where you then run through a tunnel into transition.
Steelhead’s bike course changed this year due to road closures. It’s an open course mostly along Blue Star Highway with some back country roads. Roads surfaces were mostly favorable with minimal fresh chip seal and only a few potholes to avoid. This course has a few rolling hills with 1306 feet of elevation gain. It’s a fast bike.
Traverse City’s bike course starts through Downtown Traverse City out to Sleeping Bear Dunes up the iconic M-22 Highway and back M-72 Highway. One lane is closed to vehicles in the direction you’re cycling. The first few miles is uphill and will probably be your slowest split of the bike but it gets fun after that. With hill after hill this course is anything but boring. It has 2,455 feet of elevation. You’ll want to practice going downhill as much as you practice going uphill. At mile 53 you start a nearly two mile decent before it flattens out down Grandview Parkway with the Bay along your left.
At Steelhead you’ll run two loops of a lollipop course around the Whirlpool Corporate campus park. There is very little shade or breeze. In full sun it was hot. There’s three decent sized hills and a total of 203 feet of elevation gain. The last 2.5 miles are downhill to the finisher’s chute.
Traverse City takes you through downtown out to Boardman Lake where you run along a path of paved surface and crushed gravel. There is actually a lot of shade on this course. You return back to the town with the finish line in view where you turn around for your second loop. Surprisingly there’s more elevation here at 314 feet of gain but there are no big hills and the last couple miles are flat.
SPECTATORS And Crowd Support (Because it’s not all about the athlete)
At Steelhead family, friends and spectators can enjoy a day at the beach while occasionally checking back in to cheer on their athlete. There’s also a playground to help keep the little ones entertained. With one transition location they can see your swim, bike, run and finish without leaving Jean Klock Park. There’s food for sale at the beach or multiple restaurants a short drive away if they feel like leaving. If they don’t mind walking or biking a short ways they can cheer you on multiple times during the run.
At Traverse City the start is about a quarter mile walk from transition but there are many points where they can watch the swim and cheer you on as you leave the water. The crowd support as you start the bike and through the run was fantastic. There was a lot of energy and it helped keep athletes motivated. Spectators can find multiple restaurants to feast at while waiting for their athlete. Many children were entertained at a splash pad and park. Overall I feel spectators get to view more of the race in Traverse City but it was more crowded since this race sold out.
Which race is right for you depends on your strengths, weaknesses and goals for your race day. I found more satisfaction at the finish line of Traverse City because it was a more challenging race but it was not a personal record. The faster of the two courses is Steelhead.
With two months between races you might not have to choose; you could do both.