The Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, for me, is a bucket list triathlon. It has intrigued me ever since I started this sport and so when I got a ballot place, first time of entering, there was no question... I had to give it a crack. I am only likely to do it once and so wanted to have the most important people in my life experience it with me, and what better way to do that than to build it into an epic family holiday. So, on the 25 May, we flew into Los Angeles, California: home of Venice Beach & Hollywood for me and my wife Karen, and Disneyland for our 3 year old son Harrison…. ok that might be for us as well.
4 Days of LA (2 of which involved taking in the magic of Disneyland!) were followed by a 3-day road trip up the West Coast to San Francisco. Now, you can’t go to this city without visiting Alcatraz Island itself can you? In between throwing out quotes from “The Rock”, much to the annoyance of Karen (“losers whine about their best…”), we took the audio tour and learned of the rich history of the island; from civil war stronghold and infamous prison, to Native American occupation and natural wonder, I learned so much about this place; including all too often reminders that there were sharks in the waters and that during the prison days, no escapee, it is believed, had survived the swim…hmmm! It was also hard not to constantly be thinking “… this wind is a bit strong, and that water looks a tad bit choppy to me!”
Following some further sightseeing, I took my rental bike for a jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Marin Heights for a bit of a pre-race loosener and spectacular view of the city.
3 June 2018, up at 0400, I chose to rack my bike the morning of the race and, after setting up transition, we all headed to Pier 3 to board the beautiful “San Francisco Belle”. The atmosphere on the boat was electric, 2000 triathletes from all over the world; all different shapes, sizes and ages, brought together in a swarm of neoprene. Positivity, community, and camaraderie were constant themes of the event, being encouraged at every stage to talk to a stranger and make new friends… after all, we had all been, for whatever reason, drawn to this most iconic of races.
At this juncture, I would like to take a quick detour to tell you briefly about a bloke I met on the boat, in my nervousness and excitement I am afraid that have forgotten his name, and where he came from… but he was in his forties and this was his first triathlon… EVER. He was doing it in the memory of his father who had passed away last year. His dad was an enthusiastic triathlete and had tried to get into this race for years, but to no avail. Within 2 weeks of his dad passing, this bloke had entered the ballot, desperate to honour his dad’s memory. He was surprised to have got a place and, having never done a triathlon before, had planned to get some done before the event… alas he hadn’t managed to… but he was here and as ready as he was ever going to be. I never saw him again, but if by some fluke you are reading this, congratulations my friend, I hope you made it, you did your old man proud!
Having been for a bit of a test swim, I knew the water would be cold, but without a warm up swim, was apprehensive about jumping straight in. They had jugs of ice water at the bar… so 20 minutes before the start, I began to flood my wetsuit with the icy cold water and then moving around to warm up: it worked, my face may have got a bit cold but my pre-warmed wetsuit was a dream!
With the Belle bobbing around just off the coast of Alcatraz Island, at 0730 the horn went off; the pro athletes went first, followed by the rest of us; 2000 athletes in quick succession, jumping off the boat and swimming for shore. Within 7 minutes, the boat is clear and the Alcatraz Shoal awash with “escapees". My swim prep had been less than ideal, so I wasn’t expecting to exactly shoot through the water, I wasn’t expecting to even enjoy it to be plainly honest… but even with the salt, cold and chop, it was the most fantastic swim I have ever done. Raising my head out of the water to sight and catching a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance on one side, and the Bay Bridge the other… awesome!
T1 was just under 1km from the swim exit and gave me a good opportunity to warm up en-route to my bike. This small section was lined with spectators all cheering words of encouragement to everyone.
The bike route itself was a 29km, near out and back, with 461 meters of ascending and took us through the wonderful Golden Gate Park. The surface was a mixed bag to say the least, from smooth tarmac to deeply potholed and loose debris; so you had to keep your wits about you, especially on the descents.
Whilst it is a non-drafting event, it was clear that there were many that were seemingly ignorant to this, and to be fair, with such a mass start and short course, it was inevitable that you would find yourself surrounded by riders at some point. I tried not to let it bother me and just rode my own race.
The Bike route wasn’t anything special to be honest and I would have liked to see them tidy it up and make it longer, especially given the price of the race!
Coming into T2 you go down the same stretch as into T1, the crowd cheering words of encouragement the whole way.
After a quick transition, I was out onto the run. The 13km run, with 167 meters of elevation gain with 2 particularly brutal ascent sections, starts on hard pack trail and heads out to the Golden Gate Bridge, climbing up the Presidio Headlands and under the bridge onto the Coast Trail. Along the trail you run past the Coastal Defence Batteries and then down onto the sandy beach… that leg-sapping sand! I hadn’t run on sand in preparation and it showed, my feet sinking into it until I could get nearer the water’s edge where it was a little harder packed. Then at a turnaround point we headed back along the beach, heading for the brutal “Equinox Sand Ladder”: 400 steps of sand and logs, each step sapping more and more out of my legs.
At the top, we headed back along the coastal path and before long started the descent down to the seafront again. I suffer from poor circulation and by this point, my feet had gone completely numb; each step felt like I could just trip over my own feet, but the thought of the finish line only 3km away kept me focused and before long I was cruising down the finish straight surrounded by some of the loudest cheers I have heard in triathlon, willing me over that line.
As soon as I crossed the line, the medal was hung around my neck and there, waiting for me, with my wife, was my son… the reason I do this stuff. I want him to grow up believing in himself, knowing the value of health and fitness and thinking that it is the norm, but above all, believing that if you set your mind to it, you can achieve anything.
And that is what I did. It may not be the longest, or hardest event I have ever done, or ever will do… especially considering the Trailwalker 100km ultra marathon I have next month… but the history, ethos and spectacle of this race makes it a “Bucket List” event for me… and that is another one now ticked off!