Thursday, June 09, 2011

The 2011 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon - ESCAPE!!!

Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure of joining 2,000 triathletes for the 31st running of the legendary Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco, CA. Once again, the experience proved to be like no other tri on the planet with it's dramatic views and sweeping hills. Amazing! It's no surprise this event is producing the same qualify-to-get-a-slot/lottery mayhem as Ironman, Western States, or the NY Marathon. It's simply epic through and through.

The course is a runner's nemesis, however, starting with a chilly 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz, then a quad-busting bike climb through the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, and concluding with an 8.5 mile mostly-trail run up and over the Golden Gate Bridge, out to Baker Beach, and returning up the dreaded Sand Ladder. There was no cruising in this one - if you swim too slow, you'll be swept out to sea. If you don't get out of the saddle to climb the hills, you'll go backwards (fall off a cliff, and then be swept out to sea). If you walk the run portion, there won't be any beer left by the time you arrive (blasphemy!). Time to push that red line and run like...well, like you've escaped from prison!

The prior day was so windy and rainy that the loudspeakers at packet pick up were constantly telling people to take it easy since "chances for hypothermia and/or bike crashes are much higher than normal". I just love that he threw in "and/or" - nothing worse than crashing with hypothermia! But the Race Gods threw us a bone, and come race morning it was warm, calm, and overcast. About as good as one could ask!

I racked my road bike (too many hills for a TT bike), and joined Mitch from Maryland on the bus ride out to the boats. He was readying for Ironman Kona (lottery winner!), and we chatted with our bus mates from Ireland, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, and Michigan. They came far and wide to get a piece of the San Francisco history captured on this course.

(Remember, you paid good money for this!)
As the boat launched towards Alcatraz Island, the "escape" began. It was impossible to waste time with small talk or "how's work" when the San Francisco cityscape was quickly becoming smaller than a postcard in the IMAX-sized windows of the San Francisco Belle. We were consumed by the here and now, this herculean task that we had volunteered (and paid!) for, the complete detachment from our day-to-day lives that only comes with the greatest of race courses.

The nervousness was palpable (or "smellable", as defending champion Andy Potts would later describe) and the slow rocking of the boat did little to calm the nerves. But every one of my neoprene-clad brethren were game and ready, and the ritual of helping zip and fit the wetsuit of the closest stranger eased the stress, if only to verify that we were only strangers by name. This band of warriors chooses to embrace life in blood, sweat, tears (and sea water!) until the cup of life is spilling down our cheeks. We live a life worthy of great stories!

I was stoked to be with my good friend Jose Caldera who was tackling his first Escape with his long-time friend Victor Brazon, up from Houston, TX. I had seen Jose train like a madman for this one, and could only chuckle to myself as he nervously assured himself if he was ready.  He was going to crush this, for sure! We passed around tri essentials like Pam, Vaseline, and lense cleaner, until the slowing of the engine brought us all to silence...then the boat roared with a spontaneous group guttural cheer that could surely be heard back on shore. YEEESSSS!!!

(Go, go, go!)
Thousands of color-capped adventurers headed towards the door, tilting the boat about 10 degrees and nudging the not-so-sure towards the exit. Before I knew it, I was jumping off the side and slapping my frozen paws into the sea water to get out of the way. I picked a line to the city, put my face down into the icy dark, and quickly found a rhythm.

(Gettin' it done)
I had no time goals for the day, other than to hopefully beat my time in 2002 (2:56), when Escape was one of my first triathlons ever. 2002? My God, am I that old?!? Older and wiser, let's hope. One thing for sure, my stress level in the swim was a fraction of what it was nine years ago. Perhaps I have clocked the requisite 10,000 hours for base expertise.

Well, maybe the beach came in view, it was clear that I had picked too aggressive of a line and the current was pulling me into the breaker rocks. Whoops! I doubled-timed it and backtracked 200 yards, easily adding four minutes to my swim time, but avoiding a kayak rescue. Phew! My watch said 35 minutes - dreadfully slow, but still faster than 2002, and I felt comfortable.

I quickly made it to T1, thanks to wisely wearing Injinji socks and Vibram Five Fingers into the water and thus jumping right out and running the half mile to my gear. I had a little trouble getting out of the wetsuit, laughing that even half of a can of Pam on my legs (and smelling buttery good!) still wasn't enough. But before too long, I was on the bike and picking my way through the pack.

(Busy T1)
I passed 70 (!) cyclists in the first mile, being sure not to boost my ego too much since it was the slow swim that got me here. But it did seem like everyone was moving at 80% speed...why would that be? Some were struggling with their TT bikes on the steep climbs, panting like this was Mont Ventoux. The descents were slow too...hmmm, I get the impression these guys don't have a 2,000 ft hill at the start/end of every bike ride like me. How could I ever have sworn your name in vain, oh blessed Kings Mountain Road? ;-) Just when I thought I was hauling ass, however, Andy Potts came screaming by in the other direction pulling 3 G's through the Presidio with three cruise missile pros on his tail. Wow.

Christine Bertram from Canada latched on to my wheel as we cruised past The Cliff House on the climb back, and she proved to be a great pacing partner. We blazed back to T2 (580 riders passed!) in our matching Trek Madones, and she transitioned like a pro, leaving me with some yardage to get back on her heels. But my secret weapon, Inov-8 X-Talon 212's that stood out in this sea of road shoes, were eager to dig into the dirt. Once we got to Crissy Field, I was in my element (at last!) and kicked down to a 5:50 min/mile pace. Andy Potts went blazing by on his way to win (1:59:45), giving high fives to everyone.

(Only two speeds on this course - climb-this-byotch or oh-God-please-don't-hit-a-squirrel)
(Half naked is twice the fun!)
The run course was a trail runners delight, with steep climbs, descents, and enough cliff-lined single track to make catching a view a life-threatening act. I saw Jesse Thomas cruise by (fastest amateur last year, turned pro and just won Wildflower a few weeks ago) with his tri suit pulled off his shoulders and around his that socially acceptable? Well I'm in for sure then! I was glad since by the time we hit Baker Beach, it was actually getting hot.

(I narrowly miss a snot rocket)
(Hitting the single track)
(All smiles!)

(Pro Women winner Nicky Samuels extends her lead, winning in 2:13:13)

(What a day!)

(Head towards that bridge!)

(Like angels they appear in the tunnel)

(Climbing up to the Golden Gate)

(A little beach running)

(Ahem...just a FEW nice views on this course!)

(The Sand Ladder)
The Sand Ladder was its usual glute-sucking spelunk into the pain cave, but it was clear sailing from then on. On the last straight away I caught a woman (pro? she had her name on the back with USA) and took her picture, only to have her scream "WHAT THE FUCK!!" and go into chase mode. She would later say "thanks for giving me a kick to get moving...I just don't like pictures of me sucking wind". Phew! I thought for sure I had pulled some serious faux pas that would result in getting twisted into a pretzel by an Amazonian. Kill the half-naked photo boy!

(Andy Potts with the win, photo courtesy of SFGate)

I cruised into the finish in 2:44:15, good enough for 227th place (results), but not quite enough to outkick 15-year-old Ryan Brady from Chapel Hill, NC, who handily won his age group (his teammate would tell me later, "he's kind of a beast"). Massage, food, and a round of beers with some great folks from Westchester concluded a perfect day. My kick ass parking spot was right on the course, so I had choice but to sip a few brews and relax until the last finisher came in. By the time my beer buzz faded, I think I had committed to meeting the NY gang for the 8-stage SOS Triathlon (doh!), but for now the glow of Alcatraz was more than enough. I successfully escaped, but I can't wait to get back!

(Steve the masseuse fixes me up)
(Shannon Warburg crushes the course and is still smiling!)

(Victor, Jose, and Me...successfully escaped!)

My thanks to IMG and all the great volunteers for putting on an epic race!

- SD


  1. Hi Scott, great way to resume what we experienced last weekend.
    Glad to met you there and be ready for my video inside the boat.


    Victor Brazon

  2. That was a great read, Scott! I LOL'd at the idea of a bike-crash/hypothermia episode; and, COL'd (Cried Out Loud *Trademark;) at the idea of running up "The Sand Ladder".

  3. This was my first Alcatraz and I'm totally hooked.

    My fave line of yours:
    "glute-sucking spelunk into the pain cave"

    Well said.

  4. All right, this sounds like a must do race. I'll fork out the dough. At least it's not as ba as the new NYC ironman - $1000? Really?!?

  5. I agree completely with the assessment that "This band of warriors chooses to embrace life in blood, sweat, tears (and sea water!), until the cup of life is spilling down our cheeks. We live a life worthy of great stories!"

    Thanks, SD, for being one of our *FINEST* storytellers, post after post, photo after photo.

    Awesome race, awesome blog.

    Happy trails--- SW


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