Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
“Ride it like you stole it!” and “You need to have the skills to pay the bills.” seemed to be the two catchphrases of Eric Lagerstom, the race organiser and I must admit, I quite liked them.
2016 “Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon” marked the exact 64 year anniversary of the Morris brothers legendary escape. They created a raft from inflated raincoats and by the cover of darkness launched from the infamous island into the cold, choppy, shark infested waters, never to be seen again… My escape was a little less life-threatening and a lot more fun.
The event involved a challenging 2.1 mile swim, an 18 mile ride and 8 mile run and it was an event worthy of its outstanding reputation! The simple proximity to world-famous landmarks such as Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge made this event a visual delight. The organisation was spot on and the atmosphere created by the loud “Yehaa” of American supporters throughout the course was fantastic.
The date of the race changes each year. This is to ensure that the swim starts as close to the turn of the tide and still water as possible. 390 billion gallons of water flow under the bridge as the tide rises or falls. That’s a staggering 1 billion gallons per minute, so an immense flow of water that could easily redirect 2,000 eager swimmers swiftly out into the North Pacific Ocean. An organsier’s nightmare! One of the brain washing mantras of the race organisers is to “Swim across the river and then down the coast” an additional precaution to minimise the exposure to the more extreme currents.
The event begins with a 6.30am ferry journey. The Hornblower’s San Francisco Belle heads out towards “The Rock”. It’s a little like the ascent before the thrill of the roller-coaster. Nearly 2,000 athletes all clad in neoprene suits, squashed into the close proximity of the 2 story ferry for one hour, on a one way journey. As the ferry progresses the adrenaline levels steadily increase. As 7.30am approaches everybody is standing, wetsuits now fully zipped up, swimming caps positioned and checking their goggles. There’s a lot of banana skins on the floor, the result of last minute fueling, so watch out! Then the horn sounds and 2,000 athletes stream overboard through two tight entry points in a period of less than six minutes. It’s a pretty unique start to race!
The water is normally shockingly cold at 10 C. This year it was 60°F ( 15°C ) so luckily for me, one of the warmer years. It was refreshing! I’d already squeezed into my hired wettie for a pre-race swim so I knew exactly what to expect and it was a perfect temperature for racing. It was also a welcome reminder of the bouyancy benefit the wetsuit gives too.
What I hadn’t anticipated were the waves! First thing in the morning should mean calm waters and the promise of a smooth swim. Today was obviously the exception! The swim was a 50 minute battle against the swell. Every time I breathed to the right I seemed to get a mouthful of San Fran’s finest salt water, which definitely slowed me down but probably helped with hydration and electrolytes!
Sighting the key landmarks is an important part of the race in order to help you navigate the waters. Initially you aim for Martime Park, then the prominent dome of the Palace of Fine Arts, followed by Saint Francis Yacht Club. Each wave seemed to literally shove me in the wrong direction, making it far harder work than expected. In fact hard enough that I completely forget about the sharks, harbour seals, sea lions and other sea life that may have been an additional underwater spectator. There is actually a large great white shark population but they are apparently just not interested in the skin and bone of skinny, loud mouthed triathletes and would much prefer to wait for a nice juicy seal…… or that’s what we are told anyway….
Once they have jumped from the boat the swimmers disperse pretty quickly and for the majority of the swim you are on your own in a personal battle against the sea. I took a couple of moments to flip onto my back and adjust my goggles and looking back towards Alcatraz and the Hornblower,was an incredible sight from this rather unique perspective. Well worth losing 20 seconds…
A quick transition and you are onto the ride.
The ride was pretty straight forward and was over incredibly quickly. The poor quality of the roads and the technical nature of the course, with steep ascents, descents and many sharp turns, mean that you needed to commit full concentration on where you were going, rather than on the impressive sights, otherwise pain!
The route headed down the flat and fast coastline to the bridge, then up through the green Presidio Park, back down to a wilder Kona Coats with some big breakers pounding the sand, and then looped around the Golden Gate Park and golf course, which is also very green. A great variety of scenery and some really nice riding and about 400m of climb.
As I headed out the professional racers, clad in their space age aero kit, were flying back the other way, nearly finished. It was incredible to see just how fast they were moving on their wafer thin riding machines. My ride in comparison was solid and I overtook far more “targets”, athletes who had sneaked past me, which is always very satisfying, although I didn’t seem to be smiling very much on the photos!
My moment to be, “blinded by sheer awesomeness” was when I was overtaken by a one legged athlete who was riding at a phenomenal pace. He obviously swam well and then cruised past me on an uphill section. I didn’t see him again until we approached the beach on the run, some 14 miles later. He’d struggled with a steep downhill on his running blade and was about to tackle the even bigger challenge with the blade, which was unfortunately poorly adapted for a 1.5 mile run on loose sand. Respect!
For me, the run was a delight.
The variety of terrain is great and really tests your technical skills. I loved the off road sections. The real treat was the simple proximity to the Golden Gate Bridge, which is apparently the most photographed object in the world! Throughout the entire run it looms in your peripheral vision and becomes an ongoing reminder of just where you are and how special it is. You seem to get every possible angle of the big red structure and really appreciate just how impressive it is.
The run starts flat and fast for the first 2 miles, then ascends up some narrow steps towards and then past the bridge, before descending down to Baker beach. The beach section is hard, especially on tired legs. A U turn at the far end of the beach gives you an opportunity to identify any vulnerable targets ahead of you, to try and pick off, but also lets those behind you assess whether they can take you or not…
From the beach you head up the infamous sand ladder, 400 steep, sand covered steps, back up the hill and from here another 150 feet of steady climb to the bridge. I was expecting this to be tough but actually found this pretty straight forward. A combination of the great racing weather verses the heat and humidity of training in Singapore and the smell of the finish line! Once at the top there is a descent and 2 mile flat race to the welcoming cheers and motivational effect of the finish chute.
I was delighted with 3hours and 2 mins. 37th in my age group and 206th overall.
Now what race next ?