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First With the Head, Then With the Heart.

2011 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon Race Report – 2.4km swim, 1km run, 29km cycle, 13km run

"Alcatraz was never no good for nobody." - Frank Weatherman, last prisoner to leave Alcatraz

 

Spontaneously in mid-October 2010 I entered the lottery for the 2011 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. January 28th, 2011 I received the confirmation e-mail that I was one of the lucky 2000 participants. June 5th, 2011 I stood on the deck of the San Francisco Belle waiting for the guy who had just jumped off the deck to reappear above the surface for my own turn to launch myself into the icy, 9 degree Celsius brackish waters to which great white and mako sharks call home.

 


Swim for the Chocolate

In it’s 29 year history no prisoner ever recognizably escaped from Alcatraz. Few prisons offer inmates the privilege of hot showers. Alcatraz, however, did. The powers that be didn’t want prisoners to acclimatize to freezing cold water so that prisoners could feel more confident in attempting escape. For the past 31 years triathletes from all walks of life have been jumping at the opportunity to tackle the challenge of swimming from Alcatraz across the bay.

The currents in the bay are quite strong and the waters can be rather rough. Siting is incredibly important. Race organizers tell you to look for two 1970’s era apartment buildings as your first landmark. Myself? I’d rather focus on the building next door – the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory.

I mean seriously. You’ve been up since 3:30am, you racked your bike in the pitch black at 4:30am, shuffled groggily onto a shuttle bus around 5:00am, nervously trudged around 6:00am onto the boat that becomes the start line, suffered through the tension of over 2,000 wet-suited triathletes, watched waves crash violently upon the rocks of Alcatraz Island, felt the boat list as the doors opened for the start at 7:30am, witnessed hundreds of swimmers thrashing madly in snow-melt-infused chilled waters knowing it was only 3 more seconds until you joined them. As the water hits your face and the temperature shock makes you hyperventilate do you really want your first thought to be “where are those ugly buildings” or do you want it to be “rich dark chocolate cocooning smooth caramel”?

I swam for the chocolate.

There are three other easy landmarks as you swim on a bit of a hockey stick curve from swim start to finish. 15 minutes of hard swimming, bumping and clambering over other swimmers, cutting through rising swells and suddenly you feel the current turn.

The San Francisco Bay flows like a river so at some point you get a nice 8km per hour push on your back. Even still there’s about 10 minutes that follow where no discernible landmark is visible. Just make sure there are more swimmers on your right than your left. The swimmers on the right are going to overshoot the swim exit and loathe every second of it as they battle back against that 8kph current.

32 minutes after jumping into the Bay I had completed the 2.4km swim and was making my way to the bike transition.

Pfffffffftttt….

The swim is certainly the most nerve racking deterrent for participants and onlookers, however, the rest of the triathlon should not be underestimated. The Escape from Alcatraz triathlon is a little unique in that as you exit the water there is an optional mini-transition to shed your wetsuit and throw on running shoes as your bike is still racked 1000m away.

The 29km bike course rolls through the Presidio Hills of San Francisco. Long, steep uphill climbs coupled with nightmarishly fast downhills featuring hairpin and 90 degree turns are signature elements of the bike course. Confident (read death-defying) cyclists hit speeds upwards of 85kph on pieces of machinery that weigh less than a few pounds. One small mistake and much more than the race is over.

With approximately 1.5km left in the bike course I heard some friends cheer me on. About 1 second later I felt a bump on my rear tire and looked down to pfffffffftt… My rear tire had blown. Because I could see the transition area I decided to gear down and ride in on the rim while any air remaining in the back tire flowed out rather than changing the tire. Just over 63′ after beginning the bike leg I rolled in on my flat gearing up for the run.

Running on Empty

Throughout my entire training I was sure that the run was going to be where I could make my move. Starting strong I began passing people on my way out towards the Golden Gate Bridge on the 13km run. Completing the first stair climb I continued to build momentum. Running down the chip trails towards the beach I kept passing people.

Each leg of the triathlon delivers its own challenges. The run sends you across loose sand for several hundred metres and then returns you along the tide line to a 400 step sand ladder: railway tie stairs covered in sand. Most participants walk this section. My coach had prepared me to run it. I was losing energy but I was still passing people so I felt confident.

Descending that first staircase you have to avoid runners coming up towards you. Technical descents only build my confidence. Feet flat on asphalt with 4km to go I suddenly started to cramp and dramatically slow down. I tried to slow my breathing and flush out the cramps but my body only kept begging me to stop. People I had passed much earlier in the run were now flying past me. I had no desire to eat anything but I finally decided to force some electrolyte chews into my system. Two minutes later I was off to the races.

Nutrition and fuel on course are integral parts of an endurance sport event. You need to give your body fuel before it asks for it; whether you feel like it or not. If I had remembered this my energy levels probably wouldn’t have fallen at such a critical part of the race where normally I’d be mentally getting myself ready for my final push.

Shawshank Redemption

A little bit of fuel made a big difference and as I passed the smiling faces of supporters along the final 1.5km my energy levels built. Crossing the finish line in a clock time of 2’59’24 and an official time of 2’58’01 I had achieved my goal of escaping Alcatraz in under 3 hours.

This is a great event and while I had a goal time it is not a race that is done for time or even performance (just don’t tell Andy Potts who won for the 4th time). The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon is an experience to be taken in. Amazing scenery are the backdrops for the challenges the course lays down in front of you. It is a unique and challenging event that encourages camaraderie amongst  participants. Few displayed that better than a friend of mine who did not know how to swim in mid-February of this year and didn’t own a bike until April. To learn more and how you can register for 2012 check out the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon website.

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6 thoughts on “First With the Head, Then With the Heart.

  1. Graham you are so inspiring and I loved reading all about your escape!! Congratulations again!!!
    I’m looking forward to your next adventure!! Take care buddy!! Tony

  2. Great article and it sounds like an amazing race!

    But this gentleman you speak of. The one that didn’t know how to swim and didn’t own a bicycle. He sounds like a true ATHLETE. Very inspirational indeed.

  3. Graham, that was one of the best race reports that I have ever read! You not only conquered Alcatraz but you learned a TON about training and racing along the way. I think the lessons you learned in those 3 hours will definitely come back to help you in Racing the Planet. Congrats again on a great race!

  4. You’re a racing monster, Graham! Go on ya! We can all live vicariously through your racing exploits.

  5. Pingback: It Takes A Village « Racing for Lives

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