Steelhead Triathlon 9 years running

Published 8:38 pm Monday, August 15, 2011

The ninth Whirlpool Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Triathlon is Aug. 14. Photo by Pat Moody

As she neared the finish line of the 2010 Whirlpool Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Triathlon, last year’s race winner Kelly Williamson wasn’t squeezing out her last bit of energy to make that final push across the finish line — she was stalling. Down the final stretch of cheering supporters Williamson checked the timing clock, slowed her pace, and five meters in front of the finishing tape she stopped.  And waited.
Recalling the bewilderment of confused onlookers, finish line security coordinator Paul Settles said, “People were looking at (Williamson) like, ‘What is she doing?,’ because she got to the finish line and just stopped.”
But Williamson knew exactly what she was doing. Ironman events typically pay out cash prizes to qualifying race professionals who come in with the top eight finishing times. However, athletes must finish within 8 percent of the first place time in order to be eligible for prize money.
“(Williamson) stopped short of the finish line and waited for enough time to pass because she wanted these other athletes — who she is competing against but are also her friends — she wanted to make sure they got paid too. It was just an amazing display of sportsmanship,” Settles explains.
In seven years as a volunteer for the event, Settles has come to admire the unique spirit that courses through the triathlete community.
“There is a real camaraderie among people that do a race. The people who do it encourage each other; they’re very driven individually but they want to see other people around them do well and succeed as well,” he says
The ninth running (and biking and swimming) of the Whirlpool Ironman 70.3 Steelhead Triathlon begins at 7 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 14. Approximately 2,300 participants come to Benton Harbor each year to compete in the grueling 70.3-mile race, which is broken down into a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
Participants come from as far as England and Australia to compete in the largest sporting event in southwest Michigan and, according to co-founder and race director Mike Ryan, that makes the Steelhead an easy local showcase opportunity.
“I think the race shows off our community, how we’re growing and what we’re doing here, and what we have to offer,” said Ryan.
The race course itself highlights southwest Michigan’s natural landscapes, beginning with a dip in Lake Michigan’s chilly waters at Jean Klock Park.  For the second leg of the competition, the scenic bike course tours the fruit orchards and vineyards of Northern Berrien and Eastern Van Buren counties.  The race ends with a run through the city of Benton Harbor, around the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Harbor Shores and along the St. Joseph River.
Ryan said the Steelhead also brings a major late-summer boost to the Southwest Michigan economy each year.
“We figure each racer spends about $1,000 over the weekend, so with 2,300 to 2,500 participants that comes out to roughly $2.5 million that stays here in the community each year,” Ryan said.
In addition to the $50,000 prize purse, 50 qualifying slots for the 2011 Marine Corps Ironman World Championship 70.3 will be awarded to the top age group finishers.
Whether they are cash prize-winners, world championship qualifiers or just plain finishers doesn’t matter to Settles.  For him, it’s the human element that keeps him coming back to volunteer year after year: “I enjoy seeing how emotional people are when they finish, and you know that they have just accomplished something that is significant,” he said. “You don’t get to see that every day.  When I come to work every day I don’t get to see that kind of emotion, that kind of passion.  It’s very cool to experience.”