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There are just a handful of triathlon events out there that seem to make nearly every triathlete’s bucket list. This past winter when I heard of the opportunity to qualify for the Escape from Alcatraz event via a local yet nationally ranked race – I gave it a shot. Sure enough, I got a slot – and plotted my training schedule towards June 10th.
Unfortunately, the realities of life and work got in the way – so my training this spring has been sporadic at best. Some sports were fairly consistent, for example, running. Some so-so consistent – cycling, and then there’s swimming. As I mentioned a few days ago, when it came time to balance life and training, swimming usually got cut first. No worries though, I was treating Alcatraz more of an experience than the hope of snagging some sort of AG podium. And in many ways, that made it a really fun and enjoyable day. When you have no expectations or assumptions, it’s much easier to just enjoy it as it comes. And I did exactly that.
With that, let’s dive into the race!
I got up early. Really early. 3:55AM to be exact.
Transition area opened at 4AM, and you had to be on the buses no later than 6AM, with the boat leaving at 6:30AM. They were pretty clear to not be late or push the later busses – so rather than rush around, I just started early (unusual for me, I know).
We were staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, so it was a relatively short 8-10 minute easy bike ride to transition area, especially with the streets quiet at 4AM.
I was somewhat surprised to find that aside from a single set of lights near the entrance to transition – the rest was dark. Some of the smarter athletes had actually brought headlamps to help illuminate their preparations. Me…not so much. Nonetheless, I put all the pieces together without too much trouble.
Once all set, I headed over to board a half-full bus to the boat, which was docked a handful of miles away.
All 2,000 or so athletes would start from the San Francisco Belle, which is fully decked out complete with a paddlewheel at the rear.
When I boarded, I found signs that directed me to the appropriate spot to hang out based on age group. Though, there was no enforcement of this in any manner. Nonetheless, with it being fairly empty at this point – I got a prime window-wall spot that I’d get to hang out in for about 2 hours.
Note that I’d highly suggest getting onboard early – otherwise, you’ll find this by time you board – which does not get you a window seat:
Now that everyone was onboard, we set sail for the island.
As the race name optimistically implies, you’ll be starting from near Alcatraz Island. This little rock of a land mass hangs out in the San Francisco Bay about 1-2 miles from various points of land around it (depending on where you measure from).
(Photo The Girl took early on race morning!)
The boat will power it’s way out next to the island (but does not dock on the island). In our case, we got a little tour of the island, able to check it out while they burned a bit of time until race start:
This might be a good time to mention ‘marine wildlife’. The official race literature will note that while there are sea lions, seals, 6 species of sharks, and other assorted animals, none of these will harm you. I actually saw a sea lion shortly before the swim start.
However, what the literature fails to ‘update’ is that in 2010 a study came out that found that Great White Sharks do indeed venture beyond (into) the Golden Gate Bridge. How far is anyone’s guess, since the acoustic receivers placed at the entrance only captured them entering, as they were designed to track salmon – not great whites. Given the extreme closeness of the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz, it’s kinda akin to saying the shark merely had to walk across their front lawn to find 2,000 pieces of sushi-grade triathletes. However, given my experience with Great White sharks on numerous occasions – I simply hoped that the stray sea lion I saw would be their breakfast rather than us (certainly more fatty).
As 7:30AM neared, everyone finished up getting on their wetsuits and prepared to exit the boat.
The Escape from Alcatraz is a cross between a mass start and a time trial start. It’s essentially open the hatches, and everyone pours out. It takes approximately 6 minutes to empty out the boat of 2,000 athletes. Here’s a photo I took from inside the boat, just after the start.
You cross timing mats at the door to the outer deck, though, but as was the case for me – it took another 20-30 seconds before I was in the water due to a traffic jam.
Once I jumped into the water, I was immediately reminded of the Boise 70.3 water temperatures last year (not much different than this year) – which put the water in the mid-50°F range. I was wearing booties (Side Note: triathlon/swimming booties are not boots, they are merely neoprene socks) to help, and had doubled up my swim cap. I have a neoprene cap as well, but I generally hate it – so I just went with two swim caps. No problems there.
It took approximately 2:00-2:20 minutes before I felt fine with the water temperature. I was making forward progress during this time, just minimizing face contact. Think of it as a sighting focused segment of the swim.
Around this point, I decided I had found a near clear spot and grabbed my waterproof camera from my wetsuit and snapped a couple of quick pictures before continuing on. If I was going to swim my ass across 1.5+ miles of really cold great white shark water, I’m darn well getting a photo of it.
Here I am, looking back at the boat:
All of these photos that look like they are taken by me…are. I use a waterproof camera that’s simply flippin’ awesome. Most of the shots you see on the blog from training or racing or day to day activities come from it.
And here we are facing forward towards the city (click to expand – the detail is really good in this photo!):
With that, I plodded along towards shore. I was sighting off of the apartment buildings that all race guides noted, as well as a chunk of trees in the Fort. In the end, I did a superb job of not getting caught ‘downstream’ (aka: towards the Golden Gate Bridge). This section is known as the river, since it’s screaming along towards the Pacific Ocean (tidal action), and if you mess up – you’ll end up really far downriver of the swim exit (very bad…washed out to sea, much bigger great white sharks).
During the swim, I assumed I was too good at not getting caught downstream, and thus assumed I swam too conservative of a route (thus adding extra distance). But in looking at the Garmin FR910XT swim file afterwards (which I wore on wrist, not swimcap), I was actually pretty darn spot on:
(Ignore the straight line, some strange oddity in my swim file, I’m the slightly squiggly line – which, is pretty darn close to the point to point straight line)
In the end, my swim time was 42 minutes, a bit longer than I wanted – but from looking at the results, most folks were a bit slower than other years. The below photo from The Girl captures just how vast a sea of athletes there is. With the water nearly flat – every bit of white you see is a swimmer…as far as you can see.
I stumbled out of the water onto the beach, where The Girl was waiting. I’m the one in the red swim cap:
Thankfully, when I came out of the water, the below had stopped. Some crazy waves came in at one point that The Girl captured:
With the swim behind me, I rushed through the half-mile-long T1 back to the bike racks. They did have wetsuit strippers available, which I used. Though I was super-concerned with not doing further damage to my ankle that I sprained last weekend. Additionally, I learned that it’s completely impossible to get the wetsuit off over the Magellan Switch GPS unit (with quick release kit).
When it comes to the bike, it’s a relatively straightforward concept: You’re either climbing, or descending. Aside from the short section between the start/finish and the Golden Gate Bridge – there’s very little else aside from going up or down. Hence one of the reasons that many prefer a road bike, as a TT bike with aero-helmet just isn’t really super-advantageous for most. But since my TT bike is lighter than my road bike (and has a compact crank on it ideal for climbing) – it’s what I used.
I zipped out of transition and quickly got underway on the brief section of flats – trying to keep the speeds as high as possible here, before we hit up the first major hill near the Golden Gate Bridge:
Now, rather than fully narrating my bike, I’ll instead give you the GoProHD footage of it – condensed down to a super-quick 4 minutes. I had mounted it below my aerobars, and recorded the whole bike leg – from T1 to T2. Here it is in all its glory!
Some of you may have observed a few things from the above video:
1) I suck at descending: Yes, mostly. But, mostly just because I don’t know the roads here well. Throw me up on Skyline Drive (which I’ve done 30+ times) and I’ll nail those corners at full speed. Huge local advantage here for Bay Area folks.
2) I’m really good at climbing: I did a ton of passing here, and very few people passed me on climbs, so that’s positive.
3) The camera kept on slowly changing views: This wasn’t because I was adjusting it – but rather because my aerobars were slowly adjusting themselves, downwards. While they seemed awfully tight when I re-attached them after the bike shipping (and in a test ride the day prior), they were anything but tight on the steep descents. In fact, you can see at one point where they actually drop down next to the wheel when I hit a bump coming down a hill. Eek!
My bike split was alright, I think if I had a bit of practice on the course I could easily slice off a minute or two in descents and nailing the turns. As most will note, it’s a super-technical course – one of the few out there that really require one to pay attention to every little item. Otherwise, you’ll end up off the side of a cliff, in the drink, or something else non-happy.
I should point out that the bike course is amazingly scenic in some areas, particularly when you descend down to the beach:
I cruised back into transition in 58 minutes.
That’s me, above – running the bike in (in front)! I did avoid the flying dismount this time since I figured that landing awkwardly would probably be the last thing my ankle wanted.
The run course is in many ways like the bike course – starts and ends flat, accented with hills and is super-scenic. First up though, is exiting transition:
The first two miles are along and within Crissy Field, which is a massive park that butts up against the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a great place to get your running legs in, since it’s largely compact dirt and easy to run quickly on:
From there you hit the first major climb/stairs – up to the roadway leading over the Golden Gate Bridge. This particular climb I was able to complete without walking, though I did have to make a number of passes around folks that were walking:
Once you clear the top of the hill (which, is a really long painful hill), you’re rewarded with the below view. At this point you’re on single-track trail that etches itself above the cliffs that drop down into the Pacific Ocean.
Going outbound, the path was pretty open, since there were only a scattered handful of top pro’s coming back (inbound/outbound share the same path). But when I returned, it was quite a zoo – people barely squeezing by in both directions.
Here I am going out, with the Golden Gate behind me. In case you’re curious, I just simply stashed my camera in my Spibelt, along with three gels. For some, taking a camera along with them might be awkward – for me, it offers a way to enjoy the trip more (and is second nature). I’ve long ago proven I can run pretty fast with a camera, so I wasn’t concerned.
After hanging out along the bluff, we dropped down to the beach – where we ran all the way to the very other end of this photo.
And then, we got the pleasure of running back across the same beach. This time towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
Every once in a while a runner would misjudge the incoming surf…though, the folks below managed to just barely eek out a few close calls.
At the end of the beach the fabled Sand Ladder awaited us. This gazillion-step obstacle wormed its way up the hillside, supported only by logs and sand.
The trick to the sand ladder is using the cables along the side. The ladder itself has a separate time that shows up in the results. The top pro’s can do it just under 2 minutes – which means even they are doing a mix of walking and jogging. My time came in at 3:08 – not bad.
With the ladder behind me, there remained only a short climb until I got to cruise back along the bluffs and under the Golden Gate Bridge roadway.
From here, it was enjoying the run back across Crissy Field and towards the finish – 2-3 miles of downhill and flats, an awesome way to finish up the race!
I hit up the finish line in a total run time of 1:00:39, which puts me at a 7:35/mile pace. I’m happy with that. And, more than anything else – I’m actually happier at how stable my run was. Very measured, and I didn’t ever want to simply stop running (an occasional issue for me in the longer races). I just enjoyed the whole thing – end to end!
In total, it took me 2:50 to complete the course (which is a heavily modified Olympic distance course at 1.5M swim, 18M bike, and a 8M run). My time put me in roughly the top 10% of finishers, which isn’t anything to sneeze at.
I do want to say thanks to all that cheered me on – especially those racing. It was awesome to hear cheers from other competitors mile after mile – so cool!
And, if you’re ever given the chance to race the Escape from Alcatraz (either via lottery or qualifying), I’d definitely take the opportunity. It’s an amazing course and I’m looking forward to someday heading back there!
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