Synergy Club Member Jeff participates in Escape from Alcatraz
While on work assignment in San Francisco in 2005, I wandered into Fisherman’s Wharf on a Sunday morning and stumbled across the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. I had yet to swim a single lap in the pool and was still two years from entering my first multi-sport event.
Since then, Escape was routinely included in my first draft of planned races but until this past year anxiety over the legendary swim always led to its eventual cut. In late 2017, I decided to enter the random drawing for a chance to compete in 2018. Although I did not get in through the scheduled drawings, I received a call on April 30 and was informed a slot had opened up. I accepted it on the spot and immediately modified my training plan to accommodate the race on June 3.
On my drive to Hopkins Masters Swim the next morning, I dialed up Morphine’s “Sharks” from my iTunes library. I was looking for a little extra motivation to get me back into a good swim routine and hoped the thumping bass and Mark Sandman singing “sharks patrol these waters...swim for the shores just as fast as you’re able…swim like a motherfu**er, swim” would provide a spark.
While I suspect elite swimmers love this race because of the swim, I think it is also fair to assume most of us have avoided the race for the same reason. Growing up, swimming consisted mainly of splashing around in small farm lakes and flooded creek beds (see the leech scene from “Stand by Me”). I did not take a swim lesson until age 39. Both likely added to my swim anxiety and sleepless nights before the race.
After jumping off the boat and splashing down in the Bay at about 7:35 a.m., all the worrying and fear were gone and I found myself experiencing the most beautiful, enjoyable and fastest swim in 12 years of triathlons.
Leading up to the race, the swim was of concern for three reasons: water temperature; sighting; wind/waves. Viewing the general direction and distance of the swim course the day before the race added to an anxiety-filled night before the start.
Perhaps we were fortunate with the weather. I did not use an insulated swim cap or neoprene booties, and with an air temperature of 66F and a water temperate of 57F at race start, a silicone swim cap beneath my race cap was sufficient for a comfortable swim. We have all likely experienced colder and more uncomfortable swims in early season triathlons in Minnesota.
Sighting was much easier than I anticipated despite the absence of course buoys. I watched the online swim course tips, memorized and visualized the key buildings suggested for sighting, and followed the colorful swim caps ahead of me. Visibility was excellent, and despite a 4-mph breeze out of the west, I was able to get into a comfortable rhythm without swallowing too much of the brackish water.
According to my Garmin, I covered 3040 yards (~/1.7 miles) at a pace that was 25-30 seconds/100 yards faster than I can swim in the pool and in open water. I think it is fair to assume under these conditions athletes with widely varying swim backgrounds can successfully complete the swim with minimal stress and fast results. I breathe to the right and was able to enjoy stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge with every few strokes. I was out of the water in under 30 minutes, slipped on an old pair of running shoes to cushion the ½-mile run on a mix of grass and asphalt, and made my way into T1.
I found the bike course to be very challenging because of the length and grade of the climbs. While the first and last 2 miles are flat, you are otherwise either climbing or descending and the downhills often abruptly end with a sharp right or left turn. In addition, the road surface was a bit rough in places. I opted to bring my road bike instead of the tri bike and for me the conditions confirmed this was the better option.
The run course also started and ended on fast, flat surfaces. In between, there were hills, stairs, beach, loose sand, and the infamous sand ladder. While the run felt intermittently good and bad, I tried to follow the footprints of the runners in front of me while on the beach and despite a few stumbles walking up the sand ladder, the ocean breeze and scenery contributed a an extremely pleasant run.
Bar none, this was the most enjoyable race I have been able to complete and am so thankful I stopped fearing the swim long enough to enter the random drawing. Escape from Alcatraz allows you to see one of the most amazing cities in the U.S. from several vantage points as only a participant can appreciate! Thanks Bob, Rich, Ambrose and Synergy Triathlon (NOW Bikes) for the bike gear, bike service, and comfy tri kit and thanks to Bike Fit Guru Chris Balser for keeping me strong and injury-free on the bike!