2012 Escape From Alcatraz Race Report

All of the things. All of them.

I’m actually missing the evil wetsuit. And food.

I’ve been told eleven million times (10.5 million of them from race officials once I got to SF) that this race is a bucket list triathlon experience. And, marketing machine aside, it’s not hard to see why. It’s slightly longer than Olympic distance (1.5ish mile swim, 18 mile bike, 8 mile run), hella difficult and technical, but absolutely gorgeous when you look up from what you’re doing and just enjoy the space around you.

I arrived on Tuesday for the race and have been spending most of my time with a friend, who has offered herself up as a host and Lovely Companion for race day. She has graciously indulged my need to do neurotic triathlete things like drive around the course, get up at 6am to go biking, and be completely sober all the time.

She lives in the East Bay and we are collectively carless, so the plan was to get a hotel for Saturday night so that I would have an easy race morning commute.

Gear bag full of stuff

Everything fit! I love this bag. I will review it when I have the time because I never knew a bag could give me so many feelings.

I packed my gear Saturday morning and we toddled down to transition and the race expo for packet pick up. The nerves were starting to get to me. Well, and also the walking and the sun. San Fransisco’s idea of a heat wave is to try to blind you to death with reflective sunlight.

Packet pickup was a breeze and the required meeting didn’t contain much new information, so we headed off to my hotel for my Last Meal, which was tasty in that too tired and nervous to care about it sort of way. The hotel restaurant we ate at did have some spectacular views, though, and was speedy enough that my Lovely Companion was able to ditch me fairly early in the evening. I managed to lay out all my stuff and get settled by 8pm and it only took me <1 hour of visualizing and self talk to fall asleep, which was good because my alarm was set to go off at 3:15am.

SF skyline

Alas, none of my race sighting markers.

I popped out of bed at my alarm and had a pretty easy time getting ready. I left a little later than planned because I forced myself to sit down and eat at least half of the breakfast I prepared. As far as nutrition goes, it was a good breakfast for me: large hunk of buttered bread, a nectarine, a banana, cheese stick, and a lara bar. All but the cheese stick and lara bar eventually got eaten, though I did take some of it with me to the Pier and eat it there. Because my stomach was just not having any of it. Given the safe blandness of the stuff I ate, I knew it was entirely nerves. In lieu of trying to figure out a hill-less route from my Market St. hotel to the race course down at Marina Green, Frankenbike and I took a taxi. I arrived in plenty of time to set up transition and wander around a bit trying to figure out where the run out/swim in were. Bike pumps were in high demand, more so than usual, I thought, but some lovely woman had a spare that she was totally comfortable letting folks pass around.

Transition in darkness

There were two lights for the entire transition area (which we were warned about). The Accomplice’s head lamp would’ve come in handy.

Eventually the sun started coming up and I decided to get on the bus to the pier. I sat for a while on the pier benches while folks got their wetsuits on and chatted around me. I managed to eat a bit more breakfast, half don by suit, and stare for a bit at my lucky bee. One good thing about the race is that that there were only a couple hundred women competing, which meant that there was no line at the gendered pier bathroom while the men’s line was out the door.

About 10 minutes to take off, I got on the boat, was denied a second swim cap for warmth (even though they told us they had them!), and had a devil of a time trying to find a spot to sit on the floor because there were so many people. I saw DC Rainmaker sitting by the wall but didn’t go up and introduce myself since he looked like he was concentrating and I was pretty close to throwing up from nerves. I eventually found friends from DC, who commiserated about the nerves while we suited up and watched the pros do their warm ups out on deck. About 1 minute to start, we saw an abandoned race cap on the ground, which I grabbed for a second cap. Score! Then, without any further ado, the race started. Two thousand athletes get dumped off the boat in about 6 minutes, which is very different from the drawn out age group starts that I’m used to. Basically, we walked to the deck, crossed the timing mat on the threshold, and…jumped. And then you’re in the 55F bay. 1.5 miles from shore. It is, let me tell you, an excellent cure for nerves.

Swim

I wore two swim caps and a sleeveless wetsuit. No booties, no squid lid, no sleeves. I maintain that the trouble with the bay was not the cold. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s cold and it takes a few minutes for all of your exposed parts to go numb, but cold is not the problem. Salt water and waves were the problem. I didn’t realize how much of a spoiled freshwater river swimmer I’ve become. I was totally unprepared for the mouth cottony dehydration of salt water, which I swallowed at pretty regular intervals. The waves were also more than I was used to, but manageable after a few minutes. The race officials remind you over and over again which buildings to sight off of at which points during the swim, but once again, I got into the water, my goggles fogged over, and I spent the entire swim not being able to see much of anything. I swear I spent about 15 minutes Saturday night carefully defogging my goggles and they still sucked. I couldn’t see any of the markers they wanted us to look at in the swim. I could see colors, though, so I followed the brightly colored caps from the other athletes and I followed the red roof of the Yacht Club by the swim exit and the gold dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. Unfortunately the reason they tell you to sight on things before the swim exit is because the current was super fast and once I was finally able to make out where the swim finish was exactly it became clear that I had totally overshot the exit.

I’d like to tell you that I overestimated the difficulty of this swim and it wasn’t that bad after all. But…it was hard, you guys. I couldn’t see a damn thing the entire way, the current was strong, I wasn’t used to swimming in salt water and swallowing bits of it in combination with getting toss around by the chop made me a little queasy at times. I sang to myself Dorrie’s song, ‘Just Keep Swimming,’ and reminded myself that no matter what they pull me out of the water after an hour. They didn’t pull me out of the water; I made land about 500 meters away from the swim exit down the beach. I had no idea what time it was or how far I actually ended up swimming and, in retrospect, I wish I’d swim capped my Garmin so I could get my accurate time and distance. At the time though? I didn’t care. I was thrilled that I made it to shore and didn’t get pulled out. Several other triathletes who’d also made sighting errors were a bit grumbly as they jogged/walked back to the exit and I wanted to shout at them to be happy that they made it. I refrained as athletes don’t always appreciate these bits of advice during races, but for me, it was one of the few times during a race where there was some sustained smiling. The beach jog/walk took me about 5-7 minutes, I think? It was nice to jog on the sand, but eventually there was a rocky bit that required me to walk/hop around some wood and rocks to get to the exit.

Official time: 1:06:05 (2:31 100 meter/mi)

T1

T1 included wetsuit strippers! It was my first time having them in a race (and my first time using a wetsuit in a race) and they were pretty awesome. After the stripping, I took off to find my pre-T1 bag with some run shoes and water. There was a half mile jog between the swim exit and the bike transition that I dreaded before the race but was grateful for the day of. It was the prefect amount of time to unfreeze your feet (which do come out of the water as useless stumps of numb flesh) and regain some balance. While I was forcing my feet into shoes, a woman came along looking for her bag and rather abruptly confessed to me that she’d relieved herself in her wetsuit. I was confused because, well, most folks do, it’s just not something you confess to random passersby, but then she followed it up with, ‘Not #1; #2. I’m not sure how I can take off my wetsuit now.’ Oh. Ah. Awkward. I wished her luck and ran away, quite literally.

Official time: 15:08

Bike

Me on a bike with golden gate bridge in background

Me on a bike looking all scenic and pleased to be on a downhill

The first two miles of the bike were flat along Marina Blvd. and I used the time to settle down, fight off calf cramps, and take nutrition. Once you turn off Marina/Mason, though, it’s all hills all the time. Starting with an uphill to get you used to pain, I suppose. I was slow on the bike overall. Uphills were steep and slow and I got passed a lot, but Frankenbike handled them beautifully and I never contemplated walking even when folks around me were doing it. I think I probably could’ve pushed myself more on the bike. I averaged lower than what I’d hoped to and some of that was not pushing enough on the uphills and then being content to meander down the downhills. The second half of the bike, when I realized I was going so slow, I stopped being wimpy on the downhill and started descending like I know I can and usually do.

Official Time: 1:41:01 (10.7 mi/hr)

T2

Uneventual, but, as usual I could go faster. There was a lot of walking out of transition.

Official Time: 4:47

Run

This more accurately could be title “Hike”. The first two miles are flat on Marina Green. The entire run is an out and back so I got to see all the athletes coming into the finish as I was heading out. Despite finishing up their race, many were very happy to cheer for me as I headed out, which was quite nice of them. I actually didn’t like the flat part much. It was unshaded and crowded (none of the run course was closed to the public, which was fine, but became crowded if you are slow like me). Once you turned off of the path and onto trails it was more interesting, if harder. The trails start with a stair climb. No, not the infamous sand ladder, just normal stairs that no one tells you about. There were a lot of normal stairs no one told me about. I counted 3 extra sets. Surely these were noteworthy for someone else?

Once I hit the hills I walked. And climbed and walked. I walked more in this run than I’ve ever walked in a race. I was mostly ok with that. I’m a terrible runner and I haven’t been training enough to run a hilly 8 mile trail run at the end of a race without hurting myself. It gave me more time to take in the views.

I did love the stairs, but I dealt with them. I didn’t love the hills, but I was prepared for them. I wheezed my way up the sand ladder but it was not as bad as feared. What I was not prepared for? The fucking deep sand running. That was just some cruel and unusual punishment right there. And, actually, now that I see DC Rainmaker’s photos of when he ran it about 3 hours before me, I think I got screwed more than was intended. By the time I got there, the tide had gone out and more of the sand had dried out so the out portion of the sand was completely dry and deep and awful. There was not even a hint of hardpack, whereas it looks like in his photos that the tide was closer in and everyone was running on at least semi-hard pack in both directions. Bah.

The sand ladder was oddly uneventful. I stopped a few times because I was exhausted from Baker Beach sand walking, and I’m sure I made a face at the photographer.

Sand Ladder: 6:40

After the ladder, I continued walking to the top of the hill and chatted with another competitor. He’d had the pleasure of seeing the underside of the Golden Gate bridge that morning during his swim and had to have two boats come and retrieve him. This was also the shortest race he’d ever done, which was a bit cool (his only tri distance before had been half-Ironmans). Once we billygoated down the hills, he left me and I continued run/walking back on Marina Green. It was even more crowded than before and getting super hot. I was ready to be done. Eventually the finish line came up and my Lovely Companion was there to cheer for me.

Final Time: 5:30:44

44 seconds off from my predicted time. I had a bit of energy left and I could’ve pushed more in those final 2 miles but I was ready to be done. This was my longest and hardest race so far, and it was a learning experience trying to pace myself for the entire thing.

Alcatraz Race Medal and a Very Lucky Bee

The bee is the important part of this photo, really.

Would I do this race again? I don’t know. I stand by something I told the guy I was walking with during the run: for all that Augusta 70.3 is going to be a longer day, I think it’s going to be a much easier race. There were no points where I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this is much easier than I’d feared.’ There were few points where it was worse (deep sand), but mostly it was exactly as hard as expected. Perhaps coming back to it once I am a better athlete and have more experience on difficult courses would make this a different experience for me. I did spend an awful lot of time thinking to myself, ‘wow, I would be enjoying the hell out of this route if it were just a training day’ (and I didn’t have more exhausting race work to do before/after).

My other hesitation for doing this race again would be the cost. Let’s be real here: this race and its associated travel and required/optional paraphernalia cost me about what I’m planning to spend on my summer Olympics trip. And it’s not like I’m hurting to for good triathlons on the East Coast. Still, I’m very very glad I did it. It was superb experience and just a well run race. The volunteers were fantastic and all the other competitors were super nice and encouraging.

And now I can say I’ve escaped from the rock!

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