The Escape from Alcatraz triathlon has always been on my to-do list. I got close 4 years ago when I swam on a whim from Alcatraz to aquatic park while I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. Then I had applied for the lottery last year and didn’t get in so now June 1, 2014 was the day!
I was going to write a blog about what I’ve been doing since the LA marathon, but the short story is not much. The brutal winter we suffered through has been well documented and that, coupled with some mental burnout from being on the treadmill all winter really got me down. After LA I didn’t even want to continue with triathlon or Ironman and I just wanted to run marathons until I get my BQ. Then the weather continued to be awful through March and April and it wasn’t until the beginning of May that training could proceed in any reasonable way outside.
At the end of April I ran a half marathon with a new Betty friend and felt awesome throughout, and cooled down that day with a 3 hour ride. Finally I felt I was ready to get training again! Then the next day at a brick session, I was riding my Cervelo for the first time (seriously, I had to brush off the dust) since IM Tahoe. Almost immediately I felt a sharp pain in my left knee but I was able to keep biking and running for about 90min when I had to stop because the pain was too much. I took a rest day Tuesday then tried to ride on Wednesday and couldn’t even make it out the parking lot. I don’t complain about pain a lot but this was excruciating pain in my left knee that almost reduced me to tears. The next day I tried to run and it was the same result. The knee hurt while driving, going up/down stairs and even swimming, during the kick (I’m a big kicker though) and especially pushing off the wall. So the only thing I could do was swim with a pull bout and push off the wall with one leg. For 3 weeks. Brutal. Before Alcatraz I had been able to ride for about 10 days and run for 7 days.
I arrived in SF late Friday night and met my friend Michelle at our hotel room in the Marina area. The hotel was not the nicest but I love the area and it was super convenient for the race. Saturday I woke up feeling like absolute shit. I thought it might be allergies so I took a clairitin but that did nothing. The day was spent getting the bike together then a little cycling tour of SF before package pickup. There was a “mandatory” athlete meeting at 1pm which was not helpful (so if you do this race in the future you can safely skip the meeting and not miss anything). The wind was wicked cold and I spent too much time standing around getting even more cold. After much debate, we also dropped off running shoes for the run from the swim exit to T1. My runny nose and sinus stuffiness got worse throughout the day until I started downing Sudafed and I really started to wonder how it would feel the next morning. I did not sleep well Saturday night, but mostly because I was having nightmares about the cold medicine + cold water shock affecting my heart and worrying about having to be rescued once I hit the water. Needless to say, that was not a fun night! (and those nightmares didn’t come true!)
Early wake up race morning, and I HATE early mornings. I loaded up on cold medicine and put on my Team Betty Designs tri kit. From our hotel we were able to ride to transition, get everything set up, and board the bus for the trip to Pier 3 where the San Francisco Belle was waiting for the one way ride to Alcatraz. The whole morning was very well organized, even though the buses were supposed to be boarded by age group (which didn’t happen) it all went very smooth. There were not that many porta potties at transition but there were lots at the ferry dock. There were also apparently washrooms on the ferry but I didn’t use them. We boarded the ferry about 6am for an on time departure of 6:30am, except for one guy who was running up the plank to catch the boat as we were pulling away, with a camera crew in tow. I don’t know who the guy was or why he had cameras following him but I do know he didn’t make the ferry. Too bad for him!
The ferry ride was about 45 minutes. We just sat on the ground, trying to get the last few calories in. I am very prone to motion sickness especially on boats and I was ok on this ride but I likely couldn’t have lasted much longer. I had decided I wanted to wear my GoPro camera for the swim, basically just to film jumping off the ferry. I wore the GoPro chesty and it worked awesome. I’ll try to post the video once I get it together. So I took some photos and video to pass the time. Finally everyone started standing up so we got our wetsuits zipped up. The Star Bangled Banner was sung and immediately after the horn sounded for the start of the pro race. They actually hang over the railings and dive all together into the water. That is just too many people diving, too close together for me!
When I swam from Alcatraz 4 years ago we swam into Aquatic Park. I was SO NERVOUS about the current and the possibility of missing the entrance (it looked like trying to find a needle in a haystack from way out in SF Bay) and I was not worried about the cold at all. Yes, the water was freezing but I managed fine and I had no problem with the current and ending up where I needed to be. This time however, I was SO WORRIED about being cold because of my PTSD from IM Tahoe and being cold for 14 hours, and since I had no problems with the current last time, the current hardly entered my radar. Well, that was the wrong way to think!
Pretty soon we started moving towards the deck door. I made sure to have my goggles on and the GoPro turned on. Michelle was ahead of me and she jumped right off the gate out the door. I was directed to the right for a short run then the big jump. It’s very exciting, the race directors yelling “go! go!” and you have no time to think. They apparently unload close to 2000 athletes in 6 minutes.
I hit the water and my first thought was that the water was not that cold. What a relief! I ran water through my goggles to defog and floated on my back to get a quick shot of the ferry and the Rock. Then it was back to business to swim to shore. I felt like I was never able to get in a groove. At one point there was about 5-10 minutes of pretty big waves. Like, I was catching air off some of them! I like swimming in the ocean so the salt water doesn’t bother me, but this time it bothered my neck. I felt like my wetsuit was on properly but maybe it wasn’t and maybe the salt made things worse, but I could feel some major chafing starting. Of course there’s nothing you can do in the middle of SF Bay to correct that so I just has to keep swimming. I also felt that I was sighting properly, off the 5 points they told us about. But I noticed I was swimming quite clearly all by myself and I was still quite far from shore. Where was everyone else? Every time I tried to change course though towards shore, someone would run into me at a 90 degree angle so I would just continue only previous path and assume I was doing ok. I continued on like this for what seemed an eternity until I could finally see the expo and finish line. And that’s when I saw the hundreds of colourful swim caps all moving in a big bunch along to shore nicely to the finish line. How did they end up there?! I was still like 500m out from the shore and now being dragged by the current past the finish line! I was so annoyed to see everyone running out of the water! I tried to swim back to the finish line on my left but the current just kept pushing back. I looked to my right towards the Golden Gate Bridge and everyone on that side of me was getting towed back to shore by kayaks! One guy was kneeling on the back of a standup paddle board looking totally happy as they cruised past me struggling to stay afloat. But there was NO WAY I was going to be rescued! (At this race even if you have to be brought in by boat from the swim, you still get to bike and run and be an official finisher which is super cool). Man, that current was strong! When I got close enough to the buoys I tried to grab on for a break but I got swept away again! So I started looking down the beach past the finish line to see if the beach was runnable. It didn’t look good. Pretty much rocks right down to the water. So my only choice was to just put my head down and swim as hard as I could to the shore, and that’s exactly what I did. I finally found the shore at the finish line, proud that I did not have to get towed in but a little disappointed and a lot discouraged by my poor swim time. Oh well, I just got my money’s worth for time spent in SF Bay. 🙂
I quickly found my shoes and started the run to T1. I decided to keep my wetsuit fully on and zipped, again because I was so scared of being cold. I was glad to have shoes for this run. It’s on the bike path and it’s almost a mile. My biggest concern though was that the tip and ventral surface of my tongue was numb. At first I thought I had something stuck to my tongue so I kept trying to pull something off my tongue. But nothing was there. The numb feeling lasted until about half was through the run. I probably should know what that’s from, but I don’t. I’ve never had that feeling before and I’ve done quite a few ocean swims and spent a lot of time surfing.
At T1 I took off the GoPro and decided not to wear it for the rest of the race. Would have been cool but whatever. I put on pink arm warmers and my Team Betty vest, again so I wouldn’t be so cold. I was actually not cold out of the water but it was a typically foggy June SF day and in the end, I was really happy with my decision. I never got too hot and just felt comfortable.
Right from the start of the bike I started passing people. This made me nervous because I never pass people on the bike or run. Normally I’m a pretty decent swimmer so I come out of the water early then spend the rest of my day being passed by everyone else. But I guess this time, because my swim was so slow I came out of the water with slower people overall so that’s why I was passing so many people. Like I’m not even kidding, I think I passed 200 people on the bike. And I’m not a good cyclist. It was interesting because the bike is only 18 miles, although hilly, that’s super short (for IM standards). I held back a little bit because like I said, I’m not used to passing so many people so I thought maybe I was pushing too hard and I wanted some juice left for the run.
I have never considered myself a strong climber but I sure felt like it on this course! The hills of SF seemed no problem for me. I think Argon helps me a lot on the hills, I seem to do well on that bike. The course is very technical, always up and down, lots of corners, lots of steep uphills around tight corners and I really enjoyed it. There was no time to zone out like in Ironman, something was always coming up to keep my head in the game. That, and it was fun to play games with the guys who don’t like being chicked. I had a big back and forth with one guy who as soon as I tried to pass him, sped up and wouldn’t let me get by him. I did eventually leave him in my pink dust.
Back to transition, I took off my vest and put on the Newtons, pink Betty trucker hat, and Oakleys and set off. My knee was ok, not 100%, it was uncomfortable during the bike but nothing that made me need to stop. Just like the bike, I continued to pass what seemed like hundreds of people on the run. The first part of the run is flat through Crissy field to the bridge. I’ve run this part in races so many times before and that was really helpful towards the finish. Less than 1km from the finish the first place female came flying by followed in hot pursuit by Rinny. She was absolutely hauling ass. I yelled at her to catch the girl in front but it turns out she just ran out of real estate. Next was a big uphill, mostly stairs to the top of the bridge. I was in a long queue of people going up the left side with fast age groupers and pros coming down the right so there was no room for passing. In the past this would have really stressed me out but I just took it as a nice break and decided I could run hard once there was more room. Then there was a lot of downhill to the beach. I was really trying to enjoy the view but the section of the run on soft sand really bothered my knee. I can’t remember if I walked but if I didn’t, it was close. That definitely made my knee angry and that was only about half way so I was just hoping the knee would hang in there until the end.
The sand ladder wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. Again, I was stuck in a line of people so I didn’t bother trying to pass. I used the cables to help pull myself up and although a little awkward, I think it helped. Sure, I could have pushed harder up there but I was just enjoying it. At the top a girl was coming up fast behind me, passing lots of people and she wanted me to tuck in behind her. “Come with me! You’re strong! Let’s pass these people!” So I went. But we were now on single track and likely my Canadian politeness got in my way and I didn’t want to be too pushy to get people out of my way so I let her go. I totally was feeling good and I could have kept up with her but that’s ok.
Finally it was back down to the flats for the final push to the finish. Some spectators started yelling at me “go Betty! Go pass that guy! Get him!” There was a guy just ahead of me so I picked up the pace and came up to pass him. I could still hear the guys yelling at me but of course this guy tries to not let me pass too! We ran stride for stride for a bit until finally he said he couldn’t do it anymore and dropped back. Chicked! I could hear the guys who had been cheering me on before yell even louder “yes! Way to go!” I continued to pass people all the way down the finish chute right to the finish line. I felt so strong and I never get to feel like that. It was awesome.
My first thought post race and one that prevails today, is that I love short course. Alcatraz is similar in distance to an Olympic tri, which I haven’t done since 2009 (!) because I’ve been focused on Ironman. But I have not had good success at long course and I think I’m better suited to shorter races. I love the burning feeling of lactic acid taking over my muscles and trying to push through that. And I can’t explain how awesome it is to be done a race before noon and not feel completely trashed! So I think I will be making a grand return to short course racing in 2015. 🙂
After the race I was able to meet up with Lisa, another girl on Team Betty who came all the way from the UK to race Alcatraz! It was so cool to meet another Betty and have some photos taken together.
In the aftermath of the race, my body pretty much shut down and did not let me return to training as planned. Oh well, more forced taper. I think all I’ve been doing this year is tapering! And then there’s my neck. My wetsuit did a real super job of tearing up my neck, something that has never happened to me before. I have been lucky enough to not have to deal with chafing from my wetsuit or tri kit/saddle, until now, and it’s a good one. All I can say is it has about 1 week to heal up before it’s next abuse at Boulder 70.3.
All in all, Escape from Alcatraz is an absolutely fantastic race. I highly recommend it, and there is no need to be scared of the swim. The worse that could happen is you would be brought in to the shore by a boat, but you get to continue! I will definitely enter the lottery again for a chance to redeem myself on that swim.