“Escape From Alcatraz” race report. Warning: it’s long so I put headlines so you can jump to the part you want to read, if you don’t want to read the whole thing:
What initially attracted me to the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon years ago, was the fact that it was only an 18-mile bike. My strengths are swimming and running, so a race that had a long swim and run with a short bike seemed ideal. Initially the only way to get in was to qualify, so the race became a far off dream until they finally opened up to lottery. For the past ten years or so I have entered the lottery but never got in. It was a Monday morning in October 2015 when I opened my email and saw that my name had been selected. I literally jumped up and down in my kitchen. I couldn’t believe I had been selected; I was thrilled. After waiting for years, there was no way I was not going to do this race. My summer vacation 2016 was going to be built around a trip to San Francisco & Escape From Alcatraz (EFA).
The weeks prior
For many weeks/months prior to this race, I watched videos over & over again of race tips and the race course. There was nothing easy about this course, it was extremely challenging and I wanted to be as prepared as possible considering I didn’t live there. The race itself had videos explaining the sections of course & I watched those numerous times. Then I found two different guys who raced with a GoPro strapped on, so I watched their videos on UTube while I ran on the treadmill and biked on my trainer, so I had a little bit of knowledge of what to expect (side note; both guys were very fast & passed a lot of people, so it was a little deceiving but gave me a general idea). Yes, I did a lot of runs & bike rides inside, so needed something to watch, and EFA it was.
I also swam a mile in Lake Allatoona in March (in 57-degree water) so I could know what cold water felt like. I ran up & down stairs at a high school football stadium. I biked around my neighborhood, which was constant up & down hills. I felt mentally prepared & knew what to expect on that course, even though I didn’t live there. My fitness could have been a tad better, I had only run 8 miles on two occasions in the past 6 months with many other shorter runs, but my top goal in this race was to have fun & to experience all that it offered. I didn’t care about time; I wanted to have fun & didn’t want to be surprised by anything. If anything, I was nervous that I was NOT nervous. How could I not be anxious about this race? Maybe because I was treating it more like an adventure than a race, or maybe because I was so excited about it, or maybe because I have been doing triathlons for 30 years and have plenty of experience, or maybe it was because I had mentally prepared and was as ready as I could be. Or maybe it was all of that. Regardless, nerves never set in and I was excited to go. Of course, I got adjusted once a week and massaged every other week to help my body perform at it’s best.
The days prior
I arrived in SF on a Thursday afternoon and on Friday morning went for an easy 3-mile run and then a 20-minute swim at Aquatic Park, an enclosed area of SF bay. The water was about 60-degrees and certainly chilly, but warmer than the 52-55 they expected. My husband, son & I spent the day sightseeing, including a visit to Baker Beach & the famous “sand steps” that we would encounter a little after mile 4 on the run. We walked down to the beach, back up the sand steps & around the area. The sand steps did not seem that difficult, and I looked around to take in the views. We had dinner in our hotel and I saw pro triathlete Andy Potts (my favorite triathlete) walk into our restaurant — how could I ignore that? So as he walked by I said “good luck in the race” or something like that. He then stopped and chatted with me for about five minutes. He was kind & cordial and we talked about the race, providing me with some tips that I certainly used during the race. Of course, he was nice enough to let my husband take a quick photo.
On Saturday (the day before the race), my friend Dawn (who lives out there) was kind enough to drive some of the bike course with me so I could see first hand what the hills were like. There were 7 large hills and about 20 turns in an 18-mile course, leaving little to no space to go fast, as you were either going up, down or turning. I was happy to see these hills, leaving me a feeling a little more confident going into the race. The rest of Saturday was spent at the expo (fast 10-minute line to pick up my race bag & numbers!), athlete meeting, getting my bike ready (I shipped out my road bike through Tri Bike Transport, thank you Curtis for getting it SF ready!), and prepping for the day.
On Saturday night, we went around the corner to an Italian restaurant, and as we were sitting down eating, Andy Potts walked in. Yes, two nights in a row he’s following me (hahaha) into a restaurant. I called it good luck (or just that we both have good taste in food). The coolest part was that he did a double take when he saw me, recognizing me from the prior night, and wished me good luck. Of course I again wished him good luck, as I was hoping he could win, especially since the prior year he lost just by a few seconds (side note: he came in 5th this year, though he’s an Olympic swimmer the bad conditions led him off course a bit).
Race morning & time on the boat
I did my best to stay on east coast time (went to bed by 8pm each night), so getting up at 3:45am for the race was not that hard. It was 1.5 miles to the race transition area, so I met up with a fellow triathlete and we rode our bikes there. It may sound dangerous, as it was dark outside but there were plenty of street lights, yet I still had my head lamp on. And we were not alone! As we biked, more & more people came out of hotels and by the time we arrived, we had a large pack of probably 30+ triathletes all biking along to the start of the race. I set up my transition area (was thankful for my head lamp) and boarded the bus for “Pier 3” where the Hornblower Belle waited for us, a large boat that would take us out to Alcatraz (large enough to fit 2000 people!).
On the boat, I sat on the floor by the window & chatted with other triathletes. I only met one person who had done the race before, everyone else nearby was a first-timer, so needless to say, we all asked him questions about the race. After 1800 or so triathletes piled on the boat, the engine started and we took off for Alcatraz, and the “buzz” on the boat picked up. It took about 20 minutes to get there, and I walked outside to get a good look at where we had to go. Luckily, the skies were clear and it was a beautiful morning. Once I realized that there was no organized order to jump off the boat (basically it was whoever wants to go, jumps first, we didn’t go off in our age groups), I moved down the stairs, waiting as they played the National Anthem. From where I was standing, I could see the pro’s as they dove into the water. The mass exodus then began, and we were like cattle being herded through the double doors, inching our way to the exit. I wanted to get off as soon as possible, though considering they get all 1800 or so athletes off the boat in 7 minutes, I knew my wait wouldn’t be that long. Once I got through the doors, the man in front of me jumped, and as soon as I saw him come back up from under the water and swim away, I took the plunge….
The swim – 1.5 miles
It was maybe a 8’ jump down (took about 2.5 minutes from the race start until my turn to jump, so it wasn’t that bad) & I didn’t hesitate at all. If you can smile in water I was; I was so happy to be there. It was cold but refreshing, it really didn’t seem that bad. I was wearing an insulated bathing cap under my official swim cap, along with booties so those two things plus my wetsuit kept me plenty warm. Since there are NO BUOY’s on this course, you have to figure out where to go by looking at the buildings on shore. I did as instructed and swam towards two tall apartment buildings across the river (they call the bay a river because of the strong current) and then was planning to turn right (like an L shape) since if you swam directly towards the exit, the current would pull you out to the bridge, and you didn’t want that. I looked back briefly to see Alcatraz (it looked magnificent & large!) but could not see the Golden Gate Bridge. Every time I took a breath to the right all I could see was water. The water was very choppy with very large swells, and it only got worse the further out in the middle of the bay you got. I had to time my breathing not to swallow a large wave, and had to stop a few times to get on top of a wave to see where I was.
Normally in triathlons you are looking for buoys and crashing into people; here we were so spread out I was alone most of the time (which was a tad bit scary at times). I found myself going at an angle more than the L shape that they said, but I was making progress so I didn’t worry too much about it (which ended up being a good thing). Eventually I made it to the other side, very close to the swim exit. I only had to swim parallel to the shore about 100 yards or so before I turned a corner and saw the beach…yea I made it! My watch said 45 minutes and I was a little disappointed because I thought I’d be closer to the mid 30’s (based on prior year results).
Time: 45:57 — 3rd fastest swim in my age group (out of 29 who finished the race). The swim times were 10 minutes slower than prior years, which tells you how much harder it was due to the currents and choppy water. They said it was the worst swim conditions they’ve had in 10+ years.
T1 (transition from swim to bike)
Transition is all about comfort or speed, you can’t have both and in this race, I wanted to be comfortable. I opted to put on sneakers to run to my bike (normal triathlons are 100-200 yards so running in bare feet is fine), but this was more a ½+ mile run, so I took off my wetsuit and put on running shoes. That was actually one thing Andy Potts & I talked about on Friday night, he said he runs in his wetsuit & goes barefeet but for us age groupers, throw on the sneakers, so I did. The volunteers were awesome as some woman grabbed all my stuff from the swim, threw it in my bag, and took it away. (A little TMI to follow, this is your warning…..). Female mother nature greeted me on race morning, and I knew there was no way I would make it on the boat and through this whole race without taking care of “business”, so I had to use the porta-potty in T1. I probably lost 2 minutes in there dealing with some female stuff, and it kinda sucked since 2 minutes is a lot of time to lose. I also put on socks and biking gloves in T1 as I wanted that extra comfort. Yes I lost several minutes due to all of that, but this race was about needing/wanting to be comfortable, it wasn’t about rushing through transition. Finally, my bike and I ran out of transition.
The bike – 18 miles of hills
Most people were scared about the swim in this race, however I was scared about the bike. Cycling is my least favorite of the three sports. There’s not much to say here except there were mile long up-hills followed by short steep down hills and lots of turns, and then repeat over & over. It was an out & back course, so we saw the pro’s zoom by as well as the faster age-groupers. One descent was so steep I sort of felt like I was going to fall forward, it was that steep of an angle. I made a mental note of the green building at the bottom, as cyclists were coming up this steep hill so I wanted to make sure I knew where that hill was so I could be in the right gear when we got back to it. There was a short stretch of flat/rolling where you could go a tad faster, but otherwise, it was just as I expected. Riding around my hilly neighborhood was very helpful, but it doesn’t mean I like it. I was very conservative on the bike and dozens of people passed me. After my bad bike crash 10 years ago, I have an underlying fear of crashing again and I didn’t want that to happen. The worse part was about 13 miles into the race as we went down a steep hill and took a left turn (and then climbed), I heard brakes screeching behind me and just prayed that that person didn’t crash into me. Luckily, he didn’t. The entire course was closed to just us triathletes, so that was a really good thing as we didn’t have to deal with cars. When we came down the last hill, it was about 1.5 mile flat stretch to transition and I was so relieved. I didn’t crash. I didn’t have to walk up any hills. I survived.
Time: 1:19, average speed 13.6 mph (winner in my age group was 17mph, so that’s typical of me to be a little behind).
As I headed out on the run, the first 1.8 miles were nice and flat as we ran on a trail alongside the bay. We were headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge and I soaked in the views. One of the tips Andy Potts gave me (yea, remember our chat?) …. was that it was important to take it easy the first 2 miles, since the run got really hard and you wanted to save yourself for those same 2 miles — which were the last 2 miles of the run. So I kept it steady, paying attention to all the runners around me & the scenery. This race had triathletes from all 50 states and 15 countries…that was really cool.
After 1.8 miles we turned left and ran UP stairs (luckily I knew these were coming since I had watched the videos). At the top of the long wooden/dirt stairs, it turned into a curvy winding trail and continued to climb up one mile, including going under the Golden Gate bridge and along the coast. That was really neat going directly under the bridge. The only bad thing was that this part of the course was not closed off, so you had to get around people on bikes & other casual runners (non-racers), making it very congested at times. ………. Finally at the top, we began the long beautiful descent down the other side on a beautiful dirt path, ending up on Baker Beach. The sand was so deep, it was hard to run through it but we all ran across the sand and ran next to the water, where it was a bit more flat. At the 4-mile mark we turned around and headed back on the beach, totaling about a 1-mile run on the beach. As I approached the famous (and feared) sand steps, I walked through the sand. It was so deep and I wanted to save my energy for the steps.
I walked up the middle of the steps as the boards were loose & wobbly at first, then I moved to the side and held onto the cable wires to get up the rest of the way. I walked a steady pace all the way up, getting to the top in 3:36 (under 4-minutes was my goal). The sand steps were NOT as hard as they said. I was relieved. However it didn’t stop there, we had to continue to run up this hill, on the trail until we made it back to the top. The next ½ mile or so was mostly down, but also included more up/down cement stairs & several twists & turns, until we made it back to the Golden Gate bridge and headed down the winding trail & down more stairs. When I reached the bottom, I knew the next 1.8 miles was flat trail along the water. My average pace was slow (all that climbing threw it off), so I picked up the pace (thank you to Andy Potts for that bit of advice, haha!).
As I got closer to the finish, I looked around for my husband and son yet didn’t see them. I was bummed, I really wanted them there yet knew my son had a fever throughout the night so I was wondering how he was doing. As I took the last turn into the finishing chute, it was about 100 yards on grass, with people all around. Soon I heard my name and saw Matt & Alex. I gave Alex a high five and had to fight off tears going into the finish line. I was SO happy they were there and was SO happy to be crossing the finish line of a race I had wanted to do for so long. I felt great & I wasn’t dragging myself across the finish line.
Run: 1:20:09 10:24 pace/mile.
Final time: 3:39:02 — 8th AG. I figure I’d finish somewhere between 3:30-4:00 so I was right on target. My husband had my final time and results pulled up on his phone and I was pleasantly surprised to see I finished 8th in my age group. Top 10, wow. There were 34 in my age group but only 29 started the race, so that’s top 30% or so. Not bad for a first timer.
It’s now been a week since I did that race and I am STILL thinking about it. Often times I do races and check it off, and look for another race. Other times I say “I have to do that one again!” (as is with most local races), yet I keep thinking about this race. I want to go back. I wasn’t sure at first, but I want to go back. I don’t think I need to do it three times, but two times just may be perfect. I wonder if I’ll get accepted again, after all, it’s lottery so I’ll have to keep fingers crossed. And if you’ve read this far, thank you, you just finished a marathon of your own. 🙂
Nutrition – since someone asked: Hammer bar on the boat; peanut butter Salty Ball at start of bike and towards end of bike; Electrolyte Fizz in my water bottles; Hammer Gel at 4-mile mark of run; Hammer Recoverite at the end. It all worked great for me.
#EscapeAlcatrazTri #chiropractic #triathlon #optimalfunction