Monday, March 4, 2013

Escape from Alcatraz 2013

Escape from Alcatraz 2013

Well, right now I’m sitting on the plane back to BOS from SFO and reflecting on the torture that was yesterday’s Escape from Alcatraz. While the event normally takes place in June, it was rescheduled this year to accommodate the America’s Cup yacht racing series in San Francisco this summer. The course consists of a 1.5 mile swim from a ferry just off Alcatraz Island (the site of the notorious prison, from which no one ever escaped successfully), a 0.5 mile run from the beach to the transition area, a hilly 18 mile bike ride along the coast, and an 8 mile run with hundreds of stairs. Yes, stairs. Course map and elevation map available at:

The Swim:
Oh, the infamous swim… From the transition area, we were taken by charter bus to Pier 3, where we boarded the San Francisco Belle and set out at 6:30 AM. Everyone cheered when we felt the engines roar to life and start to push us away from the dock. The ferry ride took us out around Alcatraz, for a sightseeing tour of the island. This was quite the scene, with some 2000 people clad in wetsuits preparing for the swim. As the start time approached, they gave us weather reports: 4 knot current going westward toward the Golden Gate, water at 51F (10.5C for you metric folks), and a wind coming out of the west that was ranging from 15-25 knots. Not exactly ideal conditions, but apparently there was a system off the coast that was churning up the water and providing swells of 3-5 feet. When the clock struck 7:30, the unload started. All of these 2000+ contestants jumped off the ferry in the span of about 6 minutes. The neoprene cap and wetsuit made the temperature of the water bearable, though maybe that was because the waves were a bit distracting. The general consensus was that the swim was quite comparable to being in a washing machine, with one competitor (a Chicago police officer) saying afterward: “I’d rather chase down drug dealers with guns than jump in that water again!” Quite a few people were picked up by the Golden Gate Bridge and returned to the course… I can’t say I remember much about coming out of the water, but there were volunteers in the mini-transition to help us shed our wetsuits before we put on shoes for the run to the main transition area.

The Bike:
Sure, only 18 miles, how bad could it be? This is San Francisco, so…  The course was out and back, so I’ll just talk about the trip out with some notes about the return. The initial mile and change was mostly flat, heading into a nice headwind. Aero bars would have been helpful for this portion of the ride, but would have been mostly unused for over 70% of the ride. The first ascent up to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge presented some challenges, but I was mostly able to stay in the saddle for the full ascent. The road was rough on the descent from this and I managed to lose a bottle as it bounced from one of my cages, though I had no hope of retrieving it at over 30 mph. This was immediately followed by a sharp right turn and a shorter uphill and an extremely steep downhill with a sharp left onto another downhill (this particular combination resulted in a lot of walkers on the return leg). From there, it was a nice flat stretch along the beach with some gorgeous surf (pretty to look at, but not to swim through), then into Golden Gate Park for some cruising and then looping back around. Overall, I managed to stay in the saddle more on the ascents than on the descents.

The Run:
Stairs. Lots of stairs. Aid stations were located at every mile marker, making it not matter so much that you probably used all your gel on the bike leg. This course was also out and back, with one notable exception – more on that later. The first 1.9 or so miles were flat and really quite reasonable, then just past the 2nd aid station, the course turned and showed its first challenge. This was in the form of a rather long hill that counted for a 250 ft climb (with plenty of stairs) over the span of a mile that also passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. The marker at mile 3 started a descent down to the beach over the span of about 0.5 miles for a turnaround at mile 4. The return on the beach was slightly longer than the outbound leg and stopped at the base of the Sand Ladder. What is this Sand Ladder? Stairs. Lots of Stairs. Over 400, allegedly, though I was too tired to even think about keeping track. It was only on seeing the mile 5 aid station (also the mile 3 aid station) that I felt confident of actually finishing the race. Most of the ascents and descents for the run were narrow, so opportunities for passing other runners were few and far between, with the exception of the flat portions along Baker Beach or Chrissy Field.

Overall, the race was an amazing experience with fantastic views of San Francisco. With all its hills, the course was extremely challenging and seemed to test everyone involved, including the current reigning Ironman champions and the 2012 Olympics silver medalist, though I imagine they had an easier time of it than the rest of us. Unfortunately, as some of you may have already seen, the event also made the national news for a reason that none of us ever hopes to see in our sport. It seems that a competitor suffered a massive cardiac event toward the beginning of the swim and did not survive in spite of rescue efforts by the event staff and emergency responders. I only learned about this from the news and so can’t really comment any further on this other than to remind everyone to make sure that you’re healthy enough for such competitions before pushing yourself. That said, stay healthy, stay safe, and keep going!