Escape from Alcatraz Race Report

Alcatraz deserves a full race report so buckle up! This is, for most of us, a real bucket list event. I’d rate this right below Kona, for me, as one of the most iconic venues and “must-do” races. So I can’t thank Bill Burke & PEM enough for making this possible. If you want to read this one you might want a pot of coffee ready.

The Training

Normally I wouldn’t bring this up but the training for Alcatraz was supposed to be a heavy focus on the swim for me, which is by far my weakest leg of triathlon. I know I can do the distance but the temperature and the conditions in the Bay are so much different than any other race I’ve done. What I didn’t plan for was, right when I intended to ramp up the training, I got knocked off my bike and broke my elbow. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a major injury but it kept me out of the water for almost 2 months and also kept me off of my bike, other than the trainer, for about the same. I was very nervous about the swim given my lack of proper preparation. I did what I could and I seemed able to do the distance but I only had a few weeks of real preparation for the swim.

Pre Race

Alcatraz puts Ironman to shame with everything they give you. The backpack I got is a nice Tyr swim bag and they give you a choice of several additional gifts at check-in. I ended up with arm warmers, a tumbler and a nice visor. It’s all quality stuff too. I could have picked a hat, gloves or googles if I’d wanted. Otherwise, check-in was basically like any other race. I spent the rest of the day just walking around San Francisco with a friend of mine who had planned a trip around me doing this event.

Race Morning

Getting my stuff to transition was easy enough. I got on the first bus over and set up my gear in the dark. Christian and I hunted for a bike pump for a while and by the time we found one, the light had started to come over the horizon which let us double check our transition area. I’ve gotten this all pretty down pat after 5 years of doing triathlon so I almost felt like I was missing something since set up goes so quickly now.

After that we hopped a bus over to the ferry and I spotted Bill and made sure to go thank him for the race. After a bit longer, Christian and I went to our respective waiting areas and the boat got underway. This was really fun. It was just time to take in the view and get your mind into race mode. The water was about as calm as you could hope for I think and the day was as clear as could be. I had a great feeling at this point for the race. I was still nervous about the cold but I had all the same gear as everyone else so I felt ready to face it.

After the National Anthem, the pros were given the start. I was expecting some sort of delay between them and us but we were given the starting horn almost immediately after them it felt like. It was go time!

The Jump

There’s two iconic race starts to me. The mass start of an Ironman (may they all rest in peace) and the boat jump from Alcatraz. Nothing else compares to these two so I was probably most excited about this part of it. I was nervous about the swim but I couldn’t wait to jump! I got to the edge, made sure I wasn’t about to land on someone, hit start on my Garmin (don’t want to forget that) and into the water I went! It was fun!

The Swim

Of course, now I was in the water and it was time to swim. There is NOTHING that prepared me for what this swim is like. Your sighting is less on where you’re going and more on making sure that you’re always pointed towards land. You swim towards shore the whole time but the current is pulling you out to sea the whole time. The trick is to get to shore without getting swept out to sea or trying to fight the current. Just go towards land at all times.

Right after I got in the water, I realized how much tougher this swim was, conditions-wise, than any other I’ve done. It’s a true open water swim and even on a calm day like Sunday, it was pretty choppy. I have swam in worse, for shorter distances, so I knew I could handle it but it was causing lots of problems for people. Within a couple minutes of getting in, while we were still in a pretty big mass of swinging arms, I noticed a guy ahead of me who was clearly not swimming but instead was just looking around. I kept my eye on him for a minute and that’s when he started to call for help.

The kayaks were pretty far out from us since there was so many people and he wasn’t shouting very loud so I don’t know that he was being heard. He also wasn’t raising an arm up, making him hard to spot. Since I was close I got his attention first because I wanted to calm him down and keep him from panicking. I think my rescue diver training kicked in a bit here. I also made sure to keep out of arm’s reach from him because I didn’t need a panicked swimmer drowning me.

Once I had him talking to me, I convinced him to just calm down, tread water and I’d get the kayaks attention, which I managed. They got over pretty quickly after that and they got him almost immediately onto a jet ski and taken to shore. At this point my heart was racing and I had gotten myself worked up so I actually signaled for a kayak myself. I just needed to make sure I was in control before I set off on the swim, which had only just started for me. I hung on for a few minutes. I think the whole incident probably only took about 5 minutes judging from my Garmin log including my own time resting.

The rest of the swim was uneventful. My only real goal was not getting lifted out of the water and I knew going into the race that my training combined with my normally slow pace was not going to make that easy. Losing 5 minutes early on certainly didn’t help. But hey, I got through the arch at 59:58…2 seconds under the cut off! There is no penalty for missing the cutoff though. The only thing that happens is if you’re too far out, they move you 200 yards offshore to finish the swim. I knew I was never really at risk of that. I hit the beach long before the cutoff (long being relative here) but because I was such a slow swimmer I ended up down the beach and had to run back to the arch. I was actually laughing about this since I was far from the only one at that point.

I’m happy to report I never felt cold. My wetsuit, booties and hood more than did their job.

T1

T1 is an event itself! Once you’re out of the water you have a half mile to get back to transition. A lot of people put swim bags at the swim exit with a towel and shoes. But I didn’t see the point and elected to just run in my booties to T1. That was a good choice. Don’t bother with a swim bag…it’s really just going to waste time putting shoes on and off multiple times. T1 was slow but considering how far I had to just run, my overall time was decent.

Bike

Get ready to climb. In 18 miles you’re doing over 2,000 ft of climbing. That’s what I did in 56 miles at Chattanooga. Given that I was so late onto the bike course, most of the race was ahead of me, so I spent the whole ride passing people, which was fun. I only remember a single person passing me during the whole ride (not that there were many people behind me that could pass me). This is a course you should really have your road bike for. The bike course is beautiful when you can take a moment to look around, which you should do often during this race.

T2

Just a normal transition this time. My normal, kinda slow, transition. I need to get faster at tying my shoes or something.

Run

I will say that every leg of the race felt a little easier than the one before it. I had a great run and looking back I regret that for the first couple miles I went a little easy since I didn’t know what I was going to get into. First 2 miles were flat and the last 2 miles were flat. Everything in between was hills, stairs and sand. There are SO MANY STAIRS. Seriously, forget the sand ladder, what’s with all the other stairs? Not that you can forget the sand ladder. It was as hard as I envisioned it would be (does anyone use those stairs on a normal day? If so, why?) but we were all joking our way up between gasps for breath. Once I got to the top I took a moment to just enjoy the view. It was a good way to get my heart rate back down from “exploding out of my chest”. Fortunately though, once you’re up the stairs, there’s very little climbing left and most of the uphill at that point is very gradual.

Overall

Everything about this race is special and unique. I’ve never experienced anything like that swim before and while challenging, is incredible to be able to say I did it. This isn’t a race for a PR. I was just happy to be able to get to the starting line after breaking my elbow a few months ago, so any finish was going to be a good one. But all that meant was that I was going to take the time to let the race sink in. After I jumped in the water I made sure to turn around and get a good look at the boat and the masses of people all around me in the bay. On the bike and run, I took it all in. The hills, the bridge, it’s just a great venue. If you get a chance to go do it, do it! Just be ready for that swim.

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