In June, I competed in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. It is a race I had been thinking about for a few years, but the sticker price was a little high for me. When I got in through the lottery this year, I finally bit the bullet – after all, there aren’t a lot of purchases you think about making for several years, and if I was still thinking about it, maybe it was worth it!
The race is a fairly famous olympic-esque distance triathlon. It’s loosely organized around the myth of Alcatraz Prison, which is now-defunct prison on a notoriously-difficult-to-escape-from island in the San Francisco Bay. The island has been made famous by movies such as the eponymous Escape from Alcatraz and possibly slightly more renowned The Rock.
There are many Alcatraz-oriented athletic events, including swims and duathlons. This is one of the more well known races and (possibly?) the only triathlon. It starts on a boat just off of Alcatraz Island – athletes jump into the ~55*F water and swim 1.5 miles to shore. A hilly 18 miles on the bike follows. The last part of the race is a mostly-trail, also hilly 8-mile run, which features a couple of miles on the beach and the “sand ladder,” a quarter mile climb back to the road.
I didn’t have a lot of expectations going into this race. The part I was most nervous about was the swim, because cold water is challenging and I lose feeling in my extremities fairly quickly relative to other athletes when submerged in the open water for a while. I spent a lot of training time in open water training specifically for the swim – thanks especially to Pedro’s Water World Swim for looking out for me, especially on the days I forgot my wetsuit!
This was also going to be a fun weekend because my parents had decided to come up and help me move into my new house, so I got to see them several times on the course.
The worst part of triathlons is how much logistical overhead is involved. With running, you show up and start. With triathlons, usually you have to get there a day early, there’s a convoluted check-in process, you have to set up your bike and other gear… and on the day of, you still have to get there SUPER early to finish setting up your gear in the transition area and deal with pre-race logistics.
This race was no different. I probably spent ~2 hours at the check-in area on the Saturday before the race. There were six or seven stations to go through, where you checked in, picked up timing chips, picked up gear bags, picked up race numbers, got race numbers applied to your body, picked up swag (I think I have a shirt somewhere), etc. Separately, there was a different process for bike dropoff, and there was a mandatory pre-race briefing (which honestly could have been skipped. They basically told you “don’t be dumb” in the water or on the bike).
The pre-race briefing had a lot of notes about the weather, which was predicted to be completely terrible – lots and lots of rain. While this doesn’t matter so much for running, it is bad for swimming (lightning) and biking (slippery roads -> crashes).
I got to the transition area at some ungodly early hour – probably 3:45 or something. The race doesn’t start until 7:15, but in order to get to the start, you have to ride a bus to a boat, get on the boat, then take the boat out. All of these things take a while. The staging area to get on the busses was the transition area, so that’s where we assembled.
One thing that is neat about triathlons is they set up the transition area in a very specific way. They put athletes in the same age group next to each other – probably to make sure that everyone you are competing with has the same experience (e.g. walking their bike approximately the same distance out of the transition zone, is running in bare feet the same distance, etc). What this means is I got to meet some fellow F 30-34s before we got on the bus, and I spent the next couple of hours with them on the bus and on the boat.
The boat was absurdly nice – an enormous vessel with multiple floors and very nice carpeting. One of the women said that she had had her senior prom on the boat!
Once on the boat, we moved out into the Bay. No rain, but it was medium foggy for San Francisco (which is to say, pretty normal). All the athletes were sprawled out on the floor in various stages of wetsuit dress or undress.
After a while, I noticed we were moving a little closer to shore. Apparently the fog was too much of a risk factor for the race organizers, so they wanted to keep us a little closer to shore and away from the center of the bay. We still would end up swimming the 1.5 miles, but the start wouldn’t be as close to Alcatraz as originally intended.
The swim was the part of the race that I was most nervous about. Specifically:
- I wasn’t sure I was going to make the cutoff (about an hour), because I typically swim about 35-40 minute miles and I wasn’t sure about the conditions
- I was worried about hypothermia
- The transition from the swim to the bike involves a ~5 minute run, which I would have to do without running shoes
To address these concerns, I did a few things ahead of time:
- Swam a lot in the bay to try to get used to cold water (1+2)
- Bought swim booties (legal in this race) to keep my feet warm and also protect them during the ~5 minute run (2+3)
When it was time for the race to start, the athletes crowded onto the main deck of the boat. There was a national anthem (swim caps mostly stayed on), and then they started basically pushing people off of the boat and into the water.
There isn’t a lot of time to think when you get to the edge of the boat, because there are lots of athletes behind you, so you pretty much have to jump as soon as you get to the edge.
The water wasn’t as cold as I expected – maybe because I had been training in the Bay since January, with temperatures as low as 51-52*F (which is really, really cold for swimming). So that was a nice surprise.
The most challenging part of this section of the race was trying to avoid getting kicked in the face by other athletes. I tried to give people a lot of room, but after around the 5th or 6th slap to the goggles, I started being as aggressive as the other swimmers to claim space in the water. The thing about this strategy is that it’s exhausting – in addition to swimming in the right direction, you also have to try to be aware of where other people are and make an effort to stake out a little bubble of space. It does not always work well. At one point I swam off to the side to try to get around the massive swarm of athletes, but the kayaker safety patrol got grumpy about that and told me to go back into the hoard.
One of the pieces of advice I got for the swim was to keep swimming until your hands were grabbing sand. I think this is to prevent you from standing up too early. Anyway, I kept swimming until I could feel the bottom, then stood up and waded out.
My time in the water was 37:32, which was actually not long at all, because the tide was on the way out and helping push us along quite a bit. I was pleasantly surprised. This put me at 29th out of 42 women in my age group, which isn’t great. However, I was so relieved to have made the cutoff that I didn’t even care.
Transition / T1
The water egress area is near Chrissy Field, next to one of the yacht clubs. As I got out of the water, I was happy to find they had wetsuit strippers ready to help us out. Getting out of a wet wetsuit can be quite challenging, and some triathlons will have dedicated volunteers who will pull the thing off of you. I availed myself of their services, keeping the booties on, and started the run to the transition.
The bootie strategy worked well – I was one of the only people wearing anything on my feet for this transition. The ~half mile was literally on asphalt, and a lot of people were definitely hurting in bare, wet feet.
I also didn’t wear a swimsuit for this, so was just running in a sports bra and underwear. I hoped people would be convinced that this looked like a swimsuit, but a friend of mine definitely spotted me and called me out later for it. (most athletes are wearing tri-suits, but I’m too cheap to get one of those for a one-off event).
By this time, it was raining pretty hard. The roads were very slippery, and this part of the course had a lot of hills. That said, it was also a pretty short segment – only 18 miles – and I knew the roads very well from having run and biked them extensively as part of training for prior races. So I felt confident in this section.
The course headed west along Chrissy Field, then up to the Golden Gate Bridge, which we crossed under. We descended along the string of beaches towards Cliff House / Lands End, and headed into Golden Gate Park for a quick loop before returning the same way we came.
I rarely do outdoor bike rides that are this short, so this section was actually really fun, because I felt like I could really push the pace quite a bit. I passed a number of people, even with my ~25lb, ten year old, off-brand bike. I finished 11/42 for my age group, which meant I took down a lot of people in this section.
The weather did take its toll on the field, though. There was significant carnage along the way – several folks with popped tires, some who were walking their bike on the shoulder. Two people wiped out on a turn right in front of me – the first person fell off, and the second one fell off trying to avoid the first one.
Transition / T2
Not a lot to report here. No change of clothes was needed – just switched shoes and took off.
The run was surprisingly not my strongest section relative to peers (12/42 for the run vs 11/42 for the bike), but was definitely my strongest compared to the rest of the field (469/1371 total competitors is the highest I ranked in any section including transitions). I got a compliment from a competitor on the appropriateness of my trail shoes for the course, which was hilly, wet, and – surprisingly – significantly on trails.
We headed west towards the bridge again, then took on some trail stairs to get up to the crossing beneath the bridge. We descended to Baker Beach, ran a few miles along the beach, then ascended the Sand Ladder. I’ve included some pictures of the Sand Ladder because of how silly it is.
After that, it was back up the hill to Golden Gate Bridge, then down again to Chrissy Field, and to the finish line!
Afterwards and reflections
Overall, this was a fun race – I would definitely do it again. The logistics were the worst part. The best part was the energy around it – and the fact that it’s such a short event. I also am a bit sad we didn’t start the swim closer to Alcatraz, but I guess that’s what would make it worth coming back for.
My time was pretty good (top third for age group) for something that I wasn’t specifically training for and for a race that was not a target race. There are definitely areas where I could improve (e.g., the swim, and I had more gas in the tank for the run) but that wasn’t really the point of this event.
Advice for people who want to do this race
- The swim is easier than you think it will be. The current helps … a LOT. For training, spend some time in open water so you get used to the cold, but realize that you’ll be getting pushed fairly quickly along due to the tides.
- Swim booties for T1 / warmup run! These saved my feet for sure. Some folks will keep a pair of shoes ready for right after they get out of the water, but I think this takes up time that maybe isn’t really needed. Barefoot seems like a terrible idea / will tear up your feet.
- Practice climbing for the bike section. There are some steep areas and it will help to have done some heavy climbing in training.
- Trail shoes for the run isn’t a bad idea, since maybe 3-4 miles of that section are on trails.
- Get there EARLY for the day-before check in. I spent like an hour in various lines and it wasn’t super fun. One strategy could be to get there super early, do the check in, get lunch, then come back for pre-race briefing (which is theoretically required … will let you make that call).
- Bring a book or magazine for the morning of the race. You spend a lot of time on busses and then on the boat, so unless you’re there with friends, there’s a lot of downtime.