Last Sunday (June 14, 2009), I did Escape from Alcatraz- 1.5 mile swim, 18 mile bike and 8 mile run. (Info at http://www.escapefromalcatraztriathlon.com/site3.aspx). Typically, there are several SB area/SB Tri Club members doing the race. This year, I think Ross Adams and I were the only ones.
I first did the race in June, 1999, along with Fred Maggiore, Brian O’Connor and Steve Issaris. (All current Club members know Fred and Brian; Steve Issaris is our Club’s legendary Ironman triathlete and friend who died in January, 2003.) I did the race in 1999 to give me a “stretch” goal and force myself to improve my swimming. I have gone back most years since. It is a race that is many things: totally unique; different each year …as the ocean currents change daily !; expensive….now almost $400 entry fee; extremely well run by Tri California, with very cool race swag (including synthetic fiber shirt you can actually wear, cool bag, nice hat, etc ; hard to get in…..lottery (or a funky qualification process) required; full of top age groupers and top pros. (Note- there is another Alcatraz race- Escape from the Rock- I did that race one time, I would not do it again for a variety of reasons, which I can share with you if interested; it is an option if you want to say you did an “Alcatraz” race.)
Here are some thoughts about the event for those who may consider doing the race. (I will limit comments on my own performance this year, I promise.)
Expo- All day Saturday for the Sunday race. Great booths and as noted above, killer Escape from Alcatraz gear. It also is scary to see how much Alcatraz “logo wear” some people buy. One feature that is mandatory is attending one of the three triathlete meetings (all in the afternoon). The race has some confusing elements- you check in early on Sunday morning and leave your bike at the transition area, with a bag for your shoes on the swim to run transition…confused? Stay with me. You take a bus to the boat; you swim, you run ½ mile to T1, then get on your bike, etc. So, at the triathlete meeting, they carefully explain all of that- why you need two sets of running shoes, etc. After you do the race one time, that info is clearly understood.However, the most important advice is how the currents will be running the next day. Two guys who swam from Alcatraz that morning (no wetsuit; one of them has done it 500 plus times, never with a wetsuit) tell you the speed of the currents and depending on your swimming strength, where to “aim” on the 1.5 mile swim. No matter how many times you have done the race, the info from these guys is critical. There is a 20 minute difference between my fastest and slowest times, all on the same course. It is all about speed of the currents, sighting (if foggy, you’ve got problems) and not getting “stuck” in one of the eddies near the rocks. Oh yeah, luck is also helpful. It is really dangerous to draft someone you don’t know at this race, as there is a chance that he or she may be taking you WAY off course.
Swim- You get on the boat and it leaves at 7 am sharp for the 8 am wave start. This year we were among the 2000 other participants You do the hour ride out to Alcatraz and then cruise around the island (mostly for dramatic effect). One cool feature of the race, noted above, is the quality of participants. Typically, 5-10 of the top male and female pro triathletes in the world are there competing. Each year, there are more top age groupers. Much to my surprise, this year my age group (60-64) had not only the periennial winner and age group record holder, Tim Lavalle- super nice guy- but also at least two of the nationally top ranked guys in my age group, according to Tim. I think every age group is now like that. In the “early days”, a podium spot (top 3) was easier to grab. I somehow got 3rd place in 1999. Many SB folks have done well at this race- Andrew Maxwell, David Groom, Joe Sullivan and Ross Adams have all been on the podium. All things considered, it is a race biased in favor of swimmers. (Think of how much longer the swim is, compared to the bike/run distances, then throw in the vagaries of the swim course year to year……this thing is made for swimmers.)
This year the sun was out, so we could see the right targets. The ocean was “running slow”. Temp was great at about 59 degrees; have done the race in low 50s and it was brutal. It was choppy, although looked calm from the boat. My swim time of 48 minutes was one of my slowest, but probably accurate for me for a 1.5 swim (with no help from the currents).
As noted, once out of the water, you run ½ mile to the bike transition, in large part to warm up and so that racers are spread out on the bike course. Like about 10-20% of the racers, I opted to not stop to take off my wetsuit and put on shoes. I just ran in my wetsuit, taking the top half off as I ran, and wore booties to protect my feet.
Bike- 18 mile course that is fun, lots of hills and very technical. Folks who are not used to hills and steeps descents are very uptight on this course (according to racers I talk to from Florida or the Midwest). It is still a time trial or tribike course. (I used my road bike one year; a mistake.) My bike leg this year was one of my fastest yet- just over an hour, and that was with a stop to remove someone’s race number stuck to my tire!)
Run- This is an epic run course. A couple of miles of flat, on Marina Green next to the ocean, then lots of stairs, single track, through a low (4.5 foot high) tunnel, across soft sand on Baker Beach, up a “sand ladder” of railroad ties covered in sand going up a cliff, then about 3.5 miles of downhill on the out/back course. It is very cool to be going out on the run as the top male and female pros in the world and running back in.
I ended up 7th in my age group. Disappointed at first, then pleased when Tim, the record holder guy I mentioned, told me about some of how the other top guys finished. Other than the 3rd place in my rookie year on the course, I typically am 4- 7th place, so it was a standard performance. Ross was competing essentially on one leg (his left leg is ready for the surgical knife), and he still managed to have the fastest bike leg in his age group and a 5th place finish. Last year, healthy, he was on the podium.
I think this race is one of a handful of truly epic triathlons- Wildflower, Ironman Hawaii and of course our local race (by the way, did you know it is the oldest ‘long course’ triathlon on the mainland?) If there ever is a race to impress your non triathlete friends, this one is it. (“What, no way you swam from Alcatraz…..that is impossible; what about the sharks?) Feel free to ask me any questions you may have. I recommend the race for a variety of reasons, and a weekend in San Francisco is another plus. Try it; you’ll like it.