2012 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon Race Report
Not so long ago, I escaped from prison. Again. The first time was in Turkey and….well, let’s just leave that in the past. Of course, I am referring to my participation in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon yesterday morning. While the triathlon is not quite as exciting as Clint Eastwood’s adventure in the famous movie, my race did involve sharks, months of small spoons (think diet) and a sore butt (think….nevermind). This is a pretty in depth report, even by my standards. Judging from the popularity of my Coeur d’ Alene course review, people want course details. So, I tried to pack in as much detail as I could, and I hope this report can help future racers plan their escape. So, grab a beer, kick up your feet, and join me in my escape experience. It took me almost as long to write this as the race itself!
I wont recount the last few days as I have already been through that here. Needless to say, I had a fun few days of sunshine before the race. These were much needed. Unfortunately, I had so much fun that I lost track of time the night before the race and I didn’t get to bed until around midnight. That gave me a whopping 4 hours 45 minutes of sleep the night before the race. Luckily, I had slept to near 10:00 that morning, and when the buzzer went off in the am, I didn’t feel too much like crap.
Hit the shower, got a single cup coffee, ate a couple handfuls of Chex Mix and a Hammer Apple Cinnamon gel. After that, I was out the door at 4:15 am. My hotel was a good 4-5 blocks from transition, so I had to ride there. This turned out to be quite a surreal experience. First, I was just cruising in the dark between the townhouses of San Fran. Then I made a turn and suddenly, I found myself riding in a pack of like 20 triathletes. In the dark. With just our little blinker lights trying desperately to say “please don’t kill us.” Everyone was carrying transition bags on their backs (except for me, I use something called a backpack that is 4 times cheaper) and we looked like some weird carbon fiber gypsy caravan.
I arrived at transition at about 4:45 and quickly found my spot in the dark. Once again, I failed to bring a headlamp. Must remember that for the future. I set my bike up in my traditional speedy nature, and I was done in about 5 minutes. I hadn’t brought a pump as I figured I could just use one in transition. Unfortunately, the nearly 2000 other participants apparently had the same idea, and there was a huge line for the single event provided pump. Rather than risk using a random pump, I decided to just go with what I had in my tires, which I would guess was about 100 PSI. On a side note, it would be kind of cool to lend a pump at an event like this, with the stipulation that everyone who uses it signs it. I bet you could get quite a decorated pump out of it….if it ever came back to you.
Someone please must tell me one day why people take so long in transition. It still perplexes me. Gears right. Wheels turning brake free. Set up right. Out I go.
After setting up, you get to board a bus to the ferry. They said in the pre-race information that each age group had their own bus. This turned out to be rumor as we were just told to get on the first bus in line with open seats. It was a moderately cool morning, and the buses were nice and warm. I was told to stay warm as much as possible before the swim, so I got into my wetsuit bottom before getting on the bus and kept a sweatshirt on.
After you get on the bus, its about a 15 minute drive to the ferry. I know there was some talk on Slowtwitch asking if you could walk from transition to the ferry. Let me make this clear for future participants; you do not want to walk it. It is FAR. Plus, as you might have heard, San Fran is kind of hilly. I would guess it would take a least 30 minutes to walk it. And yes, we are all endurance junkies, but come on. Get on the bus.
After we arrived at the ferry terminal, we had a few moments to get prepped before boarding. I took the time to apply some liberal body glide. The last time I swam in my wetsuit, my neck emerged looking like I had worn a necklace made from barb wire. When comes to lubrication, really in all aspects of life, more is always better. After taking care of business in the Porta Deaths, I got zipped up fully in my suit to stay warm and boarded the ferry after dropping my morning clothes bag off. I took in one more Hammer gel.
Despite my fears of missing the boat (the warning not to miss the boat is plastered all over the pre-race info) I apparently was one of the first people on. There are a couple of floors to the boat, and all floors are enclosed and warm. Ages 29 and below were on the first floor and 30 above were on the second level. I quickly found a quiet wall to sit against, closed my eyes, and got some shut eye unbelievably. I awoke a good 25 minutes later and the boat was full of triathletes. Fortunately, we weren’t packed in like rubberized sardines; there is plenty of space to stretch. As for supplies, they had plenty of ice water and a small bathroom. Second word of advice, and this is from experience, use the facilities before getting on the boat. I think the line for the bathroom extended back to shore.
After what seemed forever, we finally left the dock and headed out to Alcatraz. Something I really enjoyed is that the boat made a lap around the island for us tourist types. Unfortunately, this was as close as I got to the island on this trip. The tours to Alcatraz sell out days in advance and I didn’t realize this until the day I wanted to go. So if you’re planning on actually setting foot on the island next year, plan accordingly and buy tickets in advance.
After the boat settled, just off shore from the island (100 yards away?) it was time to escape.
Swim: 1.5 miles, 43:06, 1:38/100yd, 102/277 AG
Conditions for the swim were perfect. No wind. Sunny. There were still some natural swells, but nothing like CDA 2011. So here is how the swim start works. After the national anthem, the pros jump off the boat. Then the rest. Despite some information that I read prior that stated people went in by age divisions, the only real difference was that the first floor went first and the second floor next. I know for a fact that I saw plenty of people with my age group cap going early, meaning that they snuck downstairs to leave early. In any case, the timing mat for the swim start is right at the boat edge, so your chip doesn’t start until you are literally ready to jump off the boat. One plus of getting off early is that there are less people to navigate around in front of you later in the race. But I play by the rules.
I was herded down the stairs from the second floor to the first moderately quickly. However, after I got on the first floor, I was greeted by a deserted deck and the volunteers telling me to hurry up and jump. So I dashed towards the deck edge and waited for the guy in front of me to move.
How does one jump off a ferry? Carefully! Here’s how I did it. One hand on my goggles to prevent them from flying off. One arm and one leg extended to prevent me from jumping to deep underwater. The result? I jumped and I was totally underwater. It was kind of a shock really. A couple of kicks though, and I was up on the surface in a few seconds. Here is a trick that worked great. Remember the ice water I mentioned? Before I jumped, I took a glass of ice and water and dumped it on my face as I made my way downstairs. This “pre-cool” took the shock effect of the cold water away, and when I jumped in, I had none of that horrid “take my breath away” feeling.
Rather quickly, I found myself swimming. Amazingly, it was way more crowded in the initial part of the swim than I had anticipated. I found myself swimming on people and I took a couple of good hits to the face. This lasted for about 5 minutes and then things began to thin out big time.
What about the water temperature you ask? I went with a full body wetsuit, no gloves (they are not allowed any how), no booties, a neoprene squid crap, and my race swim cap on top. Clear goggles. With this ensemble, I had no trouble with the temp. Honestly, I don’t ever recall feeling cold. Yes, I have traditionally been cold resistant in the water, but I honestly thought the 2011 CDA swim was way worse.
As I said above, after about 5 minutes, the swim pack thinned out significantly. This was both good and bad. It was great because I could actually swim. It was bad because you truly are left pretty much to your own in the tricky navigation across the bay. I stopped briefly to get my bearings and noted several packs of people heading in different directions. A definite warning for future participants: you cannot rely on other participants for navigating.
Everyone wants to know this really works so here is the nitty gritty detail. For the first 5-10 minutes of the swim, I swam towards the Fontana towers. I say 5-10 minutes because I didn’t swim with a watch. After that, I slowly started moving through the sighting landmarks. After the towers, I began swimming towards the trees of Fort Mason. I did that for a few minutes, and then I began swimming towards the piers of Fort Mason. Afer, that, I headed towards the radio tower. Next, I swam towards the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. So, you basically start moving along landmarks, going from left to right.
While doing this, it didn’t seem to make much difference in the water. I didn’t feel like I was being pulled by the current at all. For some of the swim, I was with people. There were also some times when I was completely alone. I did have a couple of memorable moments. I swam into a guy who was holding up a waterproof video camera and doing some filming. I just smiled and said hi; I desperately hope he posts that on YouTube for my enjoyment. I also did the requisite stop in the middle of the bay to take in the Golden Gate Bridge, San Fran, and Alcatraz; it is something I will remember forever.
It was when I began approaching the end of the swim that things got more interesting. As I was about 300 yards out, I noticed I was between two lines of swimmers. I could also see the yellow “if you go to the right of this you are screwed” buoys. The line of swimmers about 20 yards to my right were headed right towards the buoys, so I decided to swim towards them and join up. After about a minute of swimming, I looked up and noticed that I was indeed joining up with the swimmers but we were getting dangerously close to missing the beach! I remembered hearing that the current picked up speed significantly closer to the shore, and I think this is what caused my sudden change in position. Not wanting to miss my one goal of ending up at the right beach, I quickly began swimming way left to another group of swimmers. I mean way left too; it basically felt like I was swimming at a 45 degree angle to the beach. I joined up with the second group and then I turned more towards the shore. By doing this, I got realigned and the current carried me right into the middle of the beach.
A couple of surprises at the exit. It stays pretty deep until you get right up on to the beach. I don’t think I actually stood up until I was close enough to bend over and build a sand castle. The other big surprise were the waves. Nothing big, but enough that I almost got knocked to my face in front of the crowd. How big? This big:
Okay, you asked about sharks and wildlife. I honestly can say I didn’t see anything more dangerous than type A triathletes in the water (They are admittedly pretty dangerous when provoked). In fact, I couldn’t see more than two feet in front of me in the water. I kind of had expected to be staring into this empty abyss with little sharks swimming ten feet underneath me. But nada. It actually was less freaky than good old Foy’s Lake bay in Montana.
Overall, my swim time was way better than what I had hoped for. I have been severely slow in my swim practices leading up to this event. I was averaging like 1:45/100y in my sets. So coming across at 1:38/100y despite the navigation difficulties and the initial five minutes of “battle swimming” is a win in my book.
T Zero and T1: Swim to Warm Up Run 9:32
The swim exit is a pretty unique feature of the race. You don’t actually end the swim next to transition. You have to run from the beach to transition, which is about half a mile. To facilitate this, there is a pre-transition at the beach where you can pick up a bag and don shoes for the run. You can also run barefoot. I had planned on running barefoot to transition, especially since I heard it was impossible to find your bag. After spending an hour in the athlete check in line and hearing about how you just got to have shoes for the warm up run, I caved in and threw some Teva like sandals in my T zero bag.
So, I get out of the water. I ran into the bag area where the bags are arranged in rows by numbers, ie 1000-1200. It took me about one minute to find my bag. Despite the reputation of the swim, neither my hands nor my feet were numb. I quickly got out of my wetsuit. That’s when I started shivering. I donned my shoes, shoved my wetsuit, goggles, and cap back in my bag, and started off to transition. Here is what it looked like:
The ground to transition is a mix of packed dirt and slightly grainy sidewalk. In my opinion, you can do the run barefoot. I will probably try to do that next year, especially since it took me a whopping 9:32 seconds for T Zero, T1, and the run combined.
After I got to transition, nothing to special to report. Quickly in my gear and off I went. The warm up run actually did what it promised; I was pretty comfortable temp wise as I set out on the bike. No arm warmers, toe caps, or gloves.
Bike: 18 miles, 1:01:43, 17.5mph, 73/277 AG
So, the bike gods must have looked favorably on this day. The initial two miles or so of the course are pancake flat. I dropped into the bars and hammered it as I knew this was one of the few places I could use my time trial bike to my advantage. There surely appeared to be more road bikes than TT frames out. In my opinion, the deciding factor is what you can do hills and descents more comfortably on. For me, I am way better on my TT bike. The choice may make more of a critical difference on the pointy end of the field; I think Potts was on a road frame with clip ons. Cave was on a TT bike.
I must have been using adrenaline early on because I gained a lot of places in that first two miles. That was a lot of fun. Then came the moment of truth; the first hill. I had been prepping for hills all this year, and I was eager to see how I stacked against the rest. Fortunately, training seems to have paid off. As I headed up, I was able to keep a nice steady pace and gain more on the field. I was hurting, but in a good way. Not in a “oh my god kill me now” type of hurt. The hill started out moderately steep after a hard left turn, then there was a nice bump up in grade at the “switch back” to the right. After that, it evened out into a smooth climb about a mile long. I had heard there was some poor asphalt in section, but things were pretty smooth here.
I got to say, the day was PERFECT for a race. And there are some seriously amazing views on this course. As I crested the first hill, I got an awesome view of the bridge and the ocean spreading out in the glimmering sun. This was hands down the most beautiful course I have ever ridden.
After the first hill, it was time to face my fears. As per tradition, I suck at descending. AKA, I am a wus at going downhill fast, and it showed. People went zinging by me like crazy as we did some nice curves down. Yes, you can get some serious speed on these descents, but I went with caution as there were some good turns. Of course, just in time for the downhill, the asphalt turned a little more rough, but I don’t recall and sink holes or anything.
After the first descent, it’ was time to go back up again for a fun double peaked climb. The grade here got a little higher and I took a fresh dose of pain. The first peak ended up at the Legion of Honor. There, they had a Super hero themed aid station and I took in some nutrition, my first drink of the ride, from some comic hero that apparently masquerades as a young, Asian teenager in a volunteer shirt. After that, the road descended quickly through the golf course. Smooth pavement here. At the bottom of the short descent, I got introduced to the technical nature of the course with a sharp right hand turn at the bottom. I made that fairly well and carried plenty of momentum into the climb up the second peak.
After that, it was another curvy descent down to the beach. Things were a little tricky here as there was a sharp 90 degree left hand turn at the bottom of Seal Lock Drive; I went pretty slowly around this one. After, I decided to toughen up as people were eating me up and I sped up out of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t say I got on the Highway to the Danger Zone, well maybe the slow lane, but I went faster than normal for sure. I think I could get used to descending. I must admit, it was pretty fun to zip around the corners. I need to get more concentrated practice in this skill. I digress. After this, I entered a beautiful but short flat section where I got down into the bars some. Aero bars, not beach bars, although a margarita was tempting at this point. Overall, I would say I was in aero for 1/3 of the time.
After that, I entered the Golden Gate Park. I think this was my favorite part of the course. Basically the first half of the counter-clockwise loop is progressive rollers and the second half is back down to the beach. During this section, the grade didn’t seem too bad at all. Also, there were some good spots for just fun standing and mashing over small rises and gentle sweeping curves. On each side of the course, you are sheltered by the huge trees of the park. Again, it was beautiful.
After I made it back to the flat beach section, it was time to do the descents in reverse. This is when the steep grades really came out to play. Going back up the curvy descent to the beach was fairly slow going and painful. My legs were feeling descent still and I was able to keep up pace, moving up on the field. Its about 1.1 miles and you gain about 300 ft. Things were so bad at this point that there were some people walking their bikes.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a San Fran triathlon without one of those crazy “I can barely walk up this thing” type of hill. There was just one, and it’s on the 4th climb right after the right hand turn back onto Seal Rock Drive. I noted it on the way out, and I made sure to get my gears ready before making the 90 degree turn into the base of it. I rode momentum in, stood, and slowly but surely I made my way up without a hiccup. The momentum and gearing was key.
Then it was time to hit the double peaked climb in reverse; the second peak was back at the Legion of Honor. The grade at the start of the climb back to the Legion started pretty rough, but it evened out and I was able to keep consistent effort up. At the top of this climb, I took in more nutrition (this time, I think it was actually Wonder Woman), and then, you guessed it, I headed downhill again. I do remember the asphalt getting a little rough at this point and its a wonder my ~100psi tires stayed intact.
Then, finally, it was time for the last climb (1st descent). This part parallels the run course and it admittedly felt like a Sufferfest as I started up. Luckily, I have been doing plenty of Sufferfest sessions, and I was able to still move up the field more.
After the last climb, there was another very technical descent. Asphalt was a little rougher here and near the end of the downhill, there is a high speed turn onto a bike path that is about four feet wide. It struck me as a place that if I was going fast enough and didn’t adjust my position, I could do one of those airborne launches like Kevin Bacon in that horrible Quicksilver movie. Quicksilver is the one exception to the universal rule that everything is better with Bacon. Then it was back to the two miles of flat before transition. I took in one more gel, settled back into aero, and cruised an easy 24mph or so. About 1 minute out from transition, I shifted into a high cadence to loosen up my legs for the run.
Here are the magic numbers and shots from Garmin and WKO. pNorm was 202 and IF was .959. As I wanted to push hard, but not so hard that I blew up on the run, I am happy with that intensity. Cadence was also good at mostly between 80-100.
Entire workout (166 watts):
Work: 624 kJ
TSS: 95.3 (intensity factor 0.959)
Norm Power: 202
Distance: 17.678 mi
Elevation Gain: 1182 ft
Elevation Loss: 1240 ft
Grade: -0.1 % (-66 ft)
Min Max Avg
Power: 0 507 166 watts
Cadence: 15 182 89 rpm
Speed: 0 35.9 17.0 mph
Pace 1:40 0:00 3:32 min/mi
Altitude: 23 365 186 ft
Crank Torque: 0 1109 163 lb-in
Took a little too long here, but oh well. I had to pee really badly. Amazingly, I was leaving transition when Andy Potts finished the race for the win.
Run: 8 miles, 1:07:51, 8:29mi, 84/277 AG
I start the run and I am doing that awkward run on uneven grass thing that is requisite for transition. Then thankfully, it went to pavement. To my surprise, my legs felt decent and I settled much more quickly into form than I hoped for. As I have run more this year, I am coming to realize that I often “self limit” my stride when it starts to feel awkward or painful, ie like during that first mile of the run. This is very counterproductive as once I do open up my legs and start a fast cadence, I am able to keep moving along like that. It just takes a little pain at the begging to crack the egg. So, in the first mile, despite the pain, I focused on turning my legs over and lifting my knees up.
For about the first half a mile, we were on pavement. Then it was time for packed gravel. Not my favorite, but I have been getting more used to this in the past few months with practice. First mile came across at 8:21, a little slower than I had hoped for. My goal was to run 8:00s for these flat two miles, so I picked it up. Next mile, still on flat packed gravel, came in at 7:43 comfortably. I was much happier to see that. Especially since for once, I was actually passing people on the run.
Interestingly, the course is open to pedestrians on this part and it was kind of fun to get gawked at. No, I didn’t have any problems dodging strollers either, but not everyone was so lucky. Here is a cool video of the transition from pavement to gravel. What’s even cooler is at 3:26 you see Andy Potts blaze through on his way to victory. Also, at 8:30, there is almost a pro versus pedestrian collision. Luckily, everyone emerged safe.
After two miles, the real fun started. I had heard there were tight spots on the course. In retrospect, this is like saying the Titanic was a big boat. The course basically became an urban obstacle course. After two miles, I was running up a set of steep stairs with only enough room, barely, for two skinny triathletes to stand side by side. And these were not like concrete stadium stairs. They were all uneven and irregular. Then there were some of those crazy steep ramps you see on bike path turns. The traffic here was two way, and I brushed elbows more than once with the fast peeps coming down. I’m not complaining; this was mad fun and it made you feel like you were really running from the law. But rest assured, the ability to just keep pace, maintain form, and pass people is severely limited in this course.
After going under the Golden Gate Bridge, I started trail running. Amazing views were had here. Again, it was very narrow. At this point, with the hills and crowding, I managed a 10:14 mile. Fortunately, I wasn’t hurting much at all. I was working; breathing hard, had a little acid in the legs, but nothing drastic. I can give more next year.
As I made made my way from the bridge, the trail got even narrower. I would say not even two triathletes my size could stand side by side on this cliff path. This was particular tricky as there was still two way traffic here. I literally had to turn my shoulders side ways to make sure I didn’t merge clavicles with an oncoming runner.
Next up, the course turned even more urban as I ran through the remains of Battery Boutelle. This involved running on the actual battlements, down stairs, and through a tiny, low tunnel. And I mean low. Anyone doing this race needs to be careful here. I went from the sunshine into the darkness of the tunnel with sunglasses on and I couldn’t see anything, including the low ceiling at the end that was adorned with reflective tape. I am only 5’ 7” and I had to duck impressively to get under it. If you smack this thing with your forehead, you race day will likely be over.
After that, it was a long, long downhill to the beach. It was pretty steep in some sections and I took the time to recover. I had put in plenty of practice with going downhill for extended periods of time, and I was able to move along fairly efficiently without much knee pain. As soon as I hit the beach, I was greeted by plenty of loose sand. My Newtons, with their mesh front, quickly filled with sand in the first few steps! After about 50 yards, I made it to the relatively more packed sand, but still, this totally sucked as I had no energy return from the soft ground. I had heard that running closer to the water is better as it is more firm, but the oncoming runners had that privilege, so I was kind of stuck in the softer crap. I tried to run as if snowshoeing; focusing more on driving my knees up and forward seemed to work moderately well. At the turnaround on the beach, insult was added to injury as I had to run up the beach back into the soft sand before heading back down. My shoes needed a good refill of sand at that point anyway.
I took in some fluid here and headed back along the beach. Now it was my turn to be closer to the water. Thing were a little better, but at points, it got pretty mushy still. I also had to dodge the incoming surf a few times. Sand plus water in the shoes would have really put a “damper” on the rest of the run. After running along the shore in epic Chariots of Quads On Fire fashion, it was time to for the dreaded sand ladder. Only of course after having to run back across the soft sand. I swear, I won’t be longing for a beach run anytime in the near future.
Sand Ladder: 400 steps, 3:14, 78/277 AG
Okay, I hadn’t had a chance to examine the ladder before the race so I was a little unsure what to expect. I had heard from pretty much everyone that it was like going to the DMV, i.e. hell. I had wondered if I could run up it. The answer is no. First, I was shot after running back across the sand. Second, it is so crowded, I couldn’t move pass people. The veterans had said to use the cables on the side of the ladder to help pull yourself up, but there was lots of thorny brush that made the rope mostly out of my reach. So, I just focused on efficiently moving my feet from step to step, making sure to land on the exposed wood parts and not the sand. I leaned WAY forward, so much so that I felt like I was falling UP the stairs, and I used my arms to drive me upward.
By doing so, I was able to move through the crowd well. Midway through the ladder, the grade turned less severe but the rungs also disappeared, leaving only soft sand. This was actually worse than the first part of the ladder. After trudging through that, the ground became more firm and I started running, again focusing on leaning forward, driving my knees up, and short, fast arm swings. With this strategy, I was able to crest over the top of the hill feeling great for the rest of the run downhill.
Following that nightmare, it was back along the battlements and cliff paths that I previously described. Then it was back on to the gravel flats back to transition. One of my secret goals was to run this section at 8:00 pace and finish strong. Unfortunately, this desire also coincided with the mental pain associated with being so close to finishing. The tendency is to slow down at this point, so I had to focus hard to keep my legs moving. I’m thrilled to say that I came through the last two miles at 7:46 and 7:35. I didn’t have much left in me to sprint at the end, and two dudes in my AG came by me in the chute. I didn’t mind; I just wanted to enjoy my moment at the finish. This time, the announcer not only completely butchered my name, but he also butchered the pronunciation of Kalispell! At least “Montana” came through correctly. I crossed the line and another triathlon adventure was complete.
Synopsis: 3:05:16, 86/277 AG
Performance wise, this has actually been one of my most personally successful races. I never felt out of control effort wise, form was good, and no nutrition disasters. I also did way better than I thought. Secretly, I wanted to just be in the top 50% of my AG. Normally, in these popular international type events, I come in like 56-60 percentile. So to finish in the top third of my AG is a win in my book.
I just want to say thanks again to all my virtual training partners, friends, and of course family. You were all with me on race day….especially on the swim.
This is a bucket race to remember. The race was well organized and the city of San Francisco is just incredible. And nothing beats the thrill of swimming from Alcatraz. It really what it was hyped up to be. Hopefully, it won’t be long before Alcatraz imprisons my racing passion again and challenges me to once more escape for a day.
Posted on June 12, 2012, in Race Reports and tagged 2012, bike, Bike course, Escape from Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, race course, race report, run, San Francisco Bay, Sand ladder, swim, wetsuit. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.