It is First Friday Flashback, and since last weekend I spent volunteering at the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, I figured I would talk about my experience with actually being a participant in that race. This race was one I wanted to do long before I got into running. I saw the race on television at some point in the mid 90s and knew I wanted to do it. How cool would it be to say that I had escaped from Alcatraz.The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon was first run in 1981 and the current course has a 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz Island (okay, really a boat off Alcatraz Island) across the bay to St. Francis Yacht Club, a half mile “warm-up” run from swim exit to transition, an 18 mile bike ride, followed by an 8 mile run, including a run up the Equinox Sand Ladder (400+ steps from sea level to about 200 ft elevation).
So, back in late 2010, I was in marathon training and figured I could handle more than 4 hours of sustained activity. At that time, I figured I could do the swim in the 60 minute time limit, the bike ride in about 90 minutes, and the run in 90 minutes. Tack on 15 minutes in transition (and warm up run), and it was 4:15 and well within the cutoff. So I took a chance and entered the lottery for the race. I figured, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Well, the worst happened, I got in. It was like having the cute girl (or guy) in class come up and start talking to you. I stared at my computer screen, my pulse doubled, and had the, “Oh crap! This may actually happen” moment. I have heard of people trying for years to get in through the lottery, and I got in my first tri (pun intended). I have also heard folks say, if you are only going to one triathlon, you might as well Escape from Alcatraz.
Once I realized I got in, I had to get a bike, and start swim training. I had a mountain bike, but I wanted something more suited to road use. I was nervous about buying a road bike, and ended up with a used hybrid bike I bought off Craigslist. I spent $150 for it, I ended up having to replace the front and rear gears, but it was still a good bike. For swimming, I got a gym membership through Costco.
I trained my ass off. I found hills that were steeper, longer, and had more climbing than the course did and biked them. I also found a set of stairs on my running route, and ran those all the time. Once the weather warmed up, I started meeting with folks for open water swims. Luckily the lake nearest my house was just as cold as the ocean.
Once of the side effects of all this training was watching my running speed increased dramatically. I ran my second half marathon during this training, and took nearly 27 minutes off my first half six months earlier. Also, my knees stopped hurting when I ran. Note: It could have been that they stopped hurting a while back, but I did a run where I had forgotten my knee braces and had no pain when I ran. So I stopped wearing knee braces and haven’t had knee pain since.
In other preparation, I joined a local tri-club to get advice and support. I did run another triathlon a month or so before Escape from Alcatraz. And I also drove the bike route, checked out the swim exit, looked at the run route as best I could, and actually ran the sand ladder to familiarize myself with the course. When race day came, I was going to be prepared.
As race day approached, the weather was horrible. We had tons of rain the week before and it looked like it was going to carry over into race day. They were going to evaluate conditions on Sunday morning to shorten/eliminate the swim and the bike portions. It was going to be the Escape from Alcatraz….. run.
On Saturday before the race, the rain was still coming down that morning, but by 12:30pm or so it lightened up and stopped raining at Marina Green where the expo was. The ground was still wet, much to the enjoyment of the Dashing Son (who is 4 years old at this point in time)
I got checked in, got my packet, and got my body marking, then checked out the expo (which was ok, not the best, not the worst). While waiting to get my packet, a guy who had on an Ironman Texas jacket (with a date four weeks prior) was saying how this race was one of the hardest triathlons out there, harder than an Ironman. Needless to say this didn’t help my confidence.
After going through the expo I scoped out my spot in transition, so I could find my bike on race day, and I looked at how to go through transition. I also listened to a swim lecture by Pedro. He was from a swimming club and gave awesome advice for the swim (which had done that morning). He said the current was ripping and basically a slower swimmer like me should never turn to the west until I was about 100 yards or so away from the shore, and always keep the Golden Gate Bridge on my right side. Look at the southern tower only when I breathe.
From there, I went to the Dashing Brother-in-law’s house in nearby Richmond, had a good dinner, and went to bed at 8:30 pm, so I could wake up at 2:45am and get to Marina Green when transition opened at 4am. By the time I got to the city and Marina Green the sky was clearing up and I could see the Big Dipper over Alcatraz Island. I got my bike racked, transition stuff set up, and got on the bus to the docks. On the docks and on the boat, I basically chatted with all those around talking strategy for the swim, exchanging advice we got. The sun was up once we left the dock and there were blue skies with small clouds over the Golden Gate, the weather was going to be perfect.
At Alcatraz, everybody starting going to the port side to jump off the boat, and the boat started listing so bad, one of the crew had to push a bunch of us back to starboard. I was in the back of the pack, so it took more than 6 minutes for me to get across the timing mat. Before jumping off the boat, I looked out and the water was a frenzy of arms and colored swimcaps splashing in the water. I jumped in and took Pedro’s advice and swam like hell to get away from the Alcatraz current that would sweep me out to sea.
Side note: as I approached the edge of the boat, my heart was racing. Like asking that cute girl in class to dinner or something. The guy next to me had a heart rate monitor and the warning alarm was going off. We still had five more steps to the door, and three more steps before we jumped into the water. Once I was in the water and focused on swimming, my heart rate actually dropped.
I kept a decent pace in the water, but the current was moving, and according to my Garmin, I hit 1/2 mile in less than 10 minutes. I thought my Garmin was broken, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to check on it while in the water. Note about my Garmin: I stuck it in a plastic bag, on the back of my head, between my neoprene swim cap and the latex race swim cap. I had practiced with this during my open water swims and it gave me decent results. I set alarms for time (10 min) and distance (0.25 miles) so I could keep track of my pace.
The conditions of the water couldn’t have been better. The water was flat, with the biggest wave being from one of the chase boats. I just kept aiming south, not turning west at all, maybe even a little to the east as I watched the Fontana Towers, Fort Mason, and Coit Tower drift to the left (these are all sighting points they talk about in the training videos for the race). I ended up about 50 yards east of the exit point, but on a beach, so perfect in my book. My Garmin said 1.9 miles (rather than the 1.5 it was supposed to be) in about 37 minutes, which was still a good 14 minutes faster than my normal 1.5 mile pool time. Like I said, the current was ripping. While my body faced due south almost the entire time, my direction of travel was actually southwest.
Once I hit sand, I knew it was all good. I didn’t drown (well… I did, but I got better), and I didn’t need to get rescued.
I got up the steps to swim transition, got my wetsuit off, found my swim to run bag, put my running shoes on and set a good pace to transition. I found my bike (turned around from how I left it because I racked it wrong), got all geared up and walked/ran to the mount line. I did not have bike shoes or clips, I had cages. So the run to the mount line was much easier. The bike started off good, I was setting a good pace, and then I dropped my water bottle. So I had to deal with that until mile 5 at the top of the Legion of Honor, the highest point on the bike course. There was an aid station there. Note: the 2011 race was the last race to have a bike aid station. Apparently there was too much dropping of bottles along the course.
The hybrid bike did quite well on this course, I had the triple chain ring and a hug large rear gear (no, I don’t know the ratio), which gave me the lower gears to pedal up the hills and staying in the saddle. While some of the folks on $5000+ carbon bikes were standing, pushing really hard up the hills, I stayed sitting and granny-geared my way passed them up the hills. I actually got a lot of complements from others saying how well I was doing with my “mountain bike,” one guy actually caught up to me during the run to tell me. The bike up from Golden Gate Park up to Clement was a killer, a 300 ft climb in a mile, with the last part being the steepest. I saw several people walking their bikes. All in all, the bike went well, and I did the 18 miles in under 72 minutes. Not only was this 18 minutes faster than I thought I could do the bike when I signed up, it was about 3 minutes faster than I thought I could do it based on my training.
Bike to run transition was slower than it should have been, even though I didn’t have to change shoes. I spent too much gas on the bike, my stomach was acting funky, and I really needed to pee, so I walked through the run chute out of transition. I did get to see my family, which did help my spirits.
There was also a line for the port-o-potty, so I didn’t stop to pee, I just kept going (the advantage of being a dry suit scuba diver). Once I hit the run course I got up to speed, found somebody running at my pace and kept with them for the first 2 miles, which were nice and flat.
Thanks to that guy who pointed out the view to me. I actually realized what I was looking straight at, the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a good backdrop to look at as you are doing the run. Mile 2 to 3 was crazy as you have to go up these stairs (not the sand ladder), on the narrow muddy trail, though 150 year old tunnel (that you have to duck through), up on some of the old coastal batteries until you finally get to Lincoln Blvd. During this mile, you can barely pass because you have so many other runners coming at you, so you really can only go as fast as the person 20 people in front of you, which gave me a great excuse to walk and take it easy, enjoy the scenery.
The funny thing was the loud Spanish lady yelling at us to run faster. She managed to pass the group, and then 100 yards farther along, the run course opened up, and a bunch of us ran right past her. Mile 3 to 4 was fast, all downhill until you hit Baker Beach. On the way out to the beach turn-around point, you run along the top of the beach which was loose sand. There was a huge groove in the sand from all the runners. I would occasionally leave that groove to pass people. On the run back up the beach, we could run by the water’s edge, where the firm wet sand allowed us to run much faster on the way to the sand ladder.
The Equinox Sand Ladder was BAH. RUT. AL. It is a 400+ step (logs buried in the sand, attached by cables) path from sea level to about 200 ft, approximately 175 to 200 yards long. Everybody around me walked, and walked slowly. They gave times for going up the sand ladder, which for me was under 4 minutes. We got running again at the top of the ladder to mile 5. After mile 5, it was back down the narrow trail, but with less people coming at you (it helps to be towards the back of the pack), and the last two miles weren’t that bad. I had some stiffening in my thighs but managed 8:30 pace those last two miles and came in to the finish with a run time under 75 minutes and a finish time around 3:15:00. I wanted to finish in under 4 hours, and was really hoping to finish in less than 3.5 hours, so I was extremely happy about my time.
Things that I saw during my Escape that were truly inspiring: The athletes you didn’t expect to see on the course, like the blind guy (he had a helper who was on a tandem bike and was tied to on the run), the ten or so amputees (two guys missing most of an arm, a few missing feet, one above the knee, and one guy missing an entire leg), the young kids, the 70+ year olds, the bigger folks – the fact that they were doing it always inspires me; all the people cheering and who recognized my tri-club jersey. I even ran to the other side of a crowd to get a high five from a former club member, and of course my family who came to cheer me on.
They had some great signs.
I have not done another triathlon since the 2011 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, I loved every minute of it. It was a time and money commitment I couldn’t continue with work and family. I was going to do an Ironman in 2013, but couldn’t afford the gym membership or the large race fees. I could do 7 to 8 half marathons for the cost of an Ironman. However, I have volunteered at Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon each year since I ran it. I will continue doing so, until I run the race again.
The race is still my most memorable, and gave me my biggest feeling of accomplishment. I really want to do the race again, and try to break 3 hours. My running has gotten better as has my biking (and I have a road bike now that is much faster than the hybrid), so I think I can do it. Well, as long as my swimming improves as well.
What race have you done that was a major goal for you?