Well here it is. The culmination of 8 months of both mental and physical preparation. The race fee was paid, the hard work done, the race day has come, and the finish line has been crossed.
Ladies and Gentlemen...... My 2016 Escape From Alcatraz Race Report.
I arrived in San Francisco Friday afternoon. After unpacking all my gear and assembling my bike, I ate dinner, then went to bed early.
Saturday morning, Jen arrived and we made our way down to Marina Green for athlete check in. After signing a stack of waivers and receiving all the necessary race items, I was surprised to see that, in addition to a race shirt, we also received a really nice transition bag.
Opting to body mark myself, I bypassed the last line up and met Jen outside the athletes only section. After spending some money on some swag (something I don't normally do, but this race was special), I dropped off my swim exit bag. After handing it to the volunteer, I realized I had tied it wrong, but didn't think too much of it.
We sat on the grass and listened as the Athlete Meeting took place. Most of what the race director went over I had either read on the website, seen in a video, or read in another athlete's race report/blog. I was very prepared for this race.
The race director acknowledged several athletes who would be racing, including some Olympic athletes going to Rio, athletes with milestone birthdays, the nephew of one of the Alcatraz escapees from the infamous 1962 escape, and a blind athlete, who went on stage to say a few words.
After the meeting, Jen and I went to check out the finish line and transition.
My transition area was near the finish chute and the run/swim entrance/exit. It was the perfect spot for Jen to watch the next day. I made note of what section I was in and what flag on the finishers chute to use a landmark.
After one last walk around, I went for a short practice swim. The water was much warmer than anyone had anticipated, and that helped calm some of my nerves.
After some lunch, we went back to the hotel to relax and finish prepping.
The day of the race started early with a restless sleep. I made the comment that after all this prep, the race would be over in 2 seconds and I'll wonder what I was so nervous about.
Transition opened at 4:00am and it was a half hour walk to get there. After collecting all of my things (and double checking them), we made our way down the dark, empty streets of Fisherman's Wharf to Marina Green.
As I setup my transition it dawned on me. This makes it real.
I double checked the entrances and exits, my bike gear, my run gear, and my landmarks. I stood for a few minutes, mentally planning my transition routes. Then I left transition.
After changing and leaving my bag with Jen, I gave her a kiss and boarded the bus.
It was real.
On the way to the pier, I chatted with a few other athletes on the bus. Everyone was nervous. We all shared the tips we had read and/or heard and tried to keep each other at ease.
When we got to the pier, it was still very early. I took the time to use the bathroom. We boarded to the boat around 5:30am and I found a good spot near a column I could lean against.
The boat filled up over the next hour and I soon found myself surrounded by several new friends. A guy from Long Island, a girl from DC, a guy from Utah, and several others I cannot remember. I saw Mike, a guy I met at the airport who was from Vancouver and staying at the same hotel. He wished me luck and gave me a hug.
Our group talked about the tips we had heard/read about. We shared tips about what to sight when swimming across 'the river'. The river was a section of the bay where high tide would be rolling out and the current would be quite strong. We joked and told stories to keep our nerves down. I know my nerves would behave until right at the start of the race.
At one point, Eric Lagerstrom, the winner of the 2015 Escape from Alcatraz, walked by our group. I made the joke that we should have reached out and touched him for good luck.
Then, before I knew it, it was time. The pros were lining up, then the horn blew.
My goal was to jump as far to the left as I could, and my new found friends had the same idea. As did the vast majority of the people on the boat. The line up at the left was huge. The guy from Long Island looked at me and said, "Screw it! Let's go right!" I agreed. I wanted to just get the water. The anticipation was the worst part.
I ran over the timing mat and out onto the deck of the ship. Then, I found myself in the middle exit! A voice in the back of my head was screaming, "NO! This is not what we planned!" But another voice was screaming, "Don't think!! Just JUMP!"
After making sure the summer below me was clear, I jumped. No thought, no plan, just one leap and off I went.
I hit the water and quickly swam away to ensure no one would jump on top of me. The water was still cold, so I ended up doing a very awkward front crawl with my face out of the water.
I saw yet another athlete who had lost their goggles, not from getting kicked, but from the jump. I saw several athletes tie extra goggles to their wetsuit zipper cords, so I knew it was a possibility. So this race, I had put my swim cap over my goggles.
Once clear of the other jumpers, I took the advice of pretty much everyone. All the advice I read/saw/heard said that if you have anxiety issues in the water (which if you've read some of my other triathlon posts you know I do), that you should stop, roll on your back, and take in the sights. I rolled on my back. The boat was behind me, back lit by the early morning sun. There were people cheering, people jumping, and banners all over it. Then I looked to the left of the boat. There is was. Alcatraz. Right freakin there! And here I was. Right freakin' here!
The sheer coolness factor of where I was and how few people get to see Alcatraz from this view washed away any and all anxiety. I was here. I was doing it. I was escaping from Alcatraz.
I started swimming, but like most swims, it took me a while to adapt the water and find a groove. I swam for a bit then did some breast and/or side stroke. Side stroke seemed to work better and I felt I was moving forward more with it and breathing was easier.
Although I saw several people grab onto kayaks, I did not have to this race. I felt fine. I was having fun. After I watched a group of pelicans fly over head, that all changed.
Right where I was supposed to be entering 'the river' the water changed. 3-4 foot swells were coming in from my right side. The side I breathe on. If I was not getting lifted and dropped, I was getting smashed in the face with salty sea water. I wretched quite a few times and even threw up once.
I kept moving forward, switching between front crawl and side stroke (side stroke on the left to avoid the swells). I kept sighting the landmarks I needed to adjust for the current, but I could not feel it. I stuck with the game plan anyhow.
At times, I would tell myself, "Just swim 20 strokes then side stroke to take a break." It was 20, then 30, then back to 20, or even 10. It all depended on how much I was getting thrown around.
Suddenly, I was in the middle of the bay. I could not see any boats on either side of me, nor any swimmers in front or behind me. Treading water, I took a better look around. I could see Alcatraz in the distance behind me and I could see San Francisco in the distance in front of me. I saw my sighting landmarks and knew I was not off course. I took a closer look and saw a large pack of swimmer between me and the shore. And beyond them, I could see the beach.
A woman swam by me and told me I was about to lose my cap. I reached up and realized it was indeed coming off. I readjusted it and wondered why it had come loose. It was because they were over my goggles. Usually, my goggles are over my cap, keeping it in place. Something to remember for next race.
I passed a man who asked me what way to go. I told him I was still sighting Fort Mason, waiting for 'the river' to carry me further down. He took off to the right. I thought about following him, but decided against it.
As I got closer to the beach, the thought of being almost done helped drive me. That is until I realized it was the wrong beach. I looked ahead to see that same pack, still halfway between me and the beach, take a hard right turn. I looked down the coastline and saw a steady line of swimmers parallel to the shore. It was the wrong beach. Luckily, I was far enough out to start to angle myself toward the correct beach.
What had happened? I sighted the correct landmarks. Why was I off course? Why were so many others off course. As I swam closer and closer to shore, the only thing I could think was that there was no river. The current/tide was not there. Other athletes throughout the race said the exact same thing, so at least it was not just me.
As I turned into the chop to swim along shore, I saw several athletes walking in waste deep water. I knew swimming was faster than walking so I continued to swim. I kept my distance from the shore as there were several big rocks to go around before making it to the beach. As I swam under the St. Francis Yacht club, I saw several spectators watching us from the balcony, looking bored. I yelled up to them, "You know! This is not as easy as it looks!" They then began to cheer us on.
As I made it around the rocks, I stood up. I began to walk forward toward the beach and suddenly realize, I needed to pee. Not wanting to deal with porto-johns or my tri suit, I stood in the water for a few seconds. All the athletes who went by me made comments about how difficult the swim was. I agreed and told them I was just catching my breath. It's triathlon, this happens.
After 'catching my breathe' I made my way onto shore, stripping the top half of my wetsuit off. Several spectators cheered us on as we climbed a few very uneven steps the the mini-transition.
It was a short run to the actual transition and I had put a pair of shoes and a water bottle in my swim exit bag for just this reason. As I approached, I saw that they had volunteer wesuit strippers, I did not need them. I found my bag, ripped it open (because I tied it too tight), stripped off my wetsuit, and put on my shoes. A volunteer offered to put my wetsuit in the bag for me, so I thanked her and took off towards transition.
Before I left, I took a big swig from the water bottle and then spit it all out to get the taste of salt out of my mouth.
After about half the distance to transition, I started walking. This was a tough course and I wanted to conserve energy. Plus my goal was to finish, no time in mind.
As I passed several supportive spectators, I found myself walking with a woman. We chatted about the rough swim and our goals for the race.
Soon I was in transition and walking down the long entrance. To my left I saw Jen who was just as happy to see me as I was to be out of the water.
I got to my bike, it was the only one in my section still on the rack, and went through all the same motions as any other race. Helmet first, socks, shoes, watch, grabbed a drink, quick double check, and I was off.
I ran my bike out of transition and past the mount line. Then I was off!
The first 2 miles of the bike were flat, so I took the opportunity to get some fluid and ease into the bike leg. My gels has not quite dissolved in my gel bottle so getting nutrition proved to be a challenge.
Even though I was easing into the bike, I was passing quite a few people early on. Andrew has said in the past that my strength is my strength. This shows on flats.
Soon, the flat straight course made way to a fun little s-curve. Then, around the last little bend, was the first hill. I got into in easy gear and exclaimed "It's time to climb!" In an effort to conserve energy, I got in my easiest gear straight away and was surprised at the amount of people I was passing during the first climb.
Around the 2 mile mark, the climb took a sharp right and became very steep as it took us further and further up. Towards the top of this first climb, the lead biker came whizzing down the out-and-back course. We all cheered.
The course had a slight down hill as we passed under the highway leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. I took this opportunity to hydrate and fuel. My gel bottle was still stuck, but I managed to get a bit out of it. Then it was back to climbing.
We saw more and more elites as they closed in on the end of their bike leg and we cheered for them all. I heard a great saying once. All athletes suffer the same. Some are just faster.
As we continued to make our way up the first big hill, several tourists on bikes were trying to cross. As the elites continued to bomb down the hill, they screamed at the tourist to move. Race officials were quick to remedy the problem.
The climbs were not as bad as I anticipated, albeit still hard. They were just long, but my training had prepared me for them. As we continued to climb and climb, the view off to the right was fantastic. We could see the ocean and coastline in the beautiful California sun.
At about the 2.5 mile mark, it was finally time for a downhill. There were some sweeping turns, but all the other bikers were good about shouting "On your left!" So no one got cut off in the turns.
Soon, it was back to climbing. Hill number 2 took us through a nice residential area. This was it. I was doing it. The bike was underway and the swim was behind me.
Around the 4 mile mark, the road split, the climb continued, and the elites kept whizzing by. Man, I love the sound those bikes make when they bomb down a hill.
As we continued to climb, I chatted with other athletes. I honestly don't remember what we talked about, but soon we rounded a corner and I could see it. The top.
As we rode by the Legion of Honor, everyone cheered as we started downhill. I got into my big ring and began to bomb down the hill. The pavement was very rough and the course became very narrow, so I did not let myself gain too much speed. I found that nice happy medium between speed and control.
Being the most prepared I have ever been for a race, I knew that at the bottom of this hill, the course took a hard right, then went immediately into another climb. As I approached the turn, I got out of my big ring, took the corner, and began to climb
After another slow but steady climb, it was once again time to go downhill. At mile 6, the course had an extremely steep descent followed by a sharp left turn, then a sharp right turn. I negotiated these very carefully. After the second sharp turn, was a nice long, curvy downhill. I was looking forward to this downhill. I knew I could let loose and pick up some major speed. I got into a big gear and began to power down. I took the first curve and was immediately hit by a strong crosswind off the ocean.
I almost crashed.
My race wheels are very deep and I catch alot of wind as well. Looks like I was not going to let loose on this downhill after all. I took the rest of the descent very carefully, another fine balance between speed and control.
Once at the bottom, the course was flattened out, I took this time to hydrate and fuel, as well as enjoy another ocean view. I picked up a ton of speed on this flat section, but still kept my cadence relatively low (somewhere around 75rpm). I like flats.
Around mile 7, the course took a left turn into Golden Gate Park. This section was relatively flat (compared to the rest of the bike course at least) and I was able to make great time. There was one small uphill, but I managed to power up without changing gears.
Around the 9 mile mark, I noticed the same serene pond I saw during my first marathon. There were several spots along this route I remembered from that day. The day I became addicted.
I went up a small uphill, turned left, then realized that I was over halfway done with the bike! The section out of the park was primarily downhill and I made excellent time, passing several people on my way out.
Soon, I was back at the start of the park section and could see other bikers as they came in. I was sure to encourage them as they rode past.
I exited the park and took a right back out onto the flats (narrowly missing a road reflector). After the flats was back up the hill I had come down earlier. It was the 'back' section of the out and back course.
This climb was a bit tougher. It was steeper, longer, and curved several times. At the top it evened out a bit, took a left, then a right. Then it got extremely steep. It was that section from before I had completely forgotten about. Several people were walking their bikes, others were just getting off to walk, and others looked like they were going to fall over. I was already in my easiest gear, so I stood and powered through. I wish my heart rate monitor hadn't of run out of battery. I would have loved to know what it got up to on this little section.
Halfway up, the course evened out a bit, so I got back in the saddle for the second half. Once again, during this long climb, I chatted with other athletes. And once again, I honestly do not remember what we chatted about.
I tried to get some gel, but it still had not fully dissolved in the gel bottle. I took it out of the aero bar mount and put it in one of my leg pockets. I put it in the opposite way, hoping the gel would move to the opposite side of the bottle, making it easier to get out.
Once over the top, it was time for yet another downhill. This one I could let loose on. At least until the end. I knew this was the downhill with the sharp left turn and then an immediate climb. Yup, the same one as before, just the opposite way. I shouted to the other athletes about what was coming up, as a friendly warning. One guy asked me if I did this race last year, because apparently there was a guy who looked like me who ran head first into a telephone pole at that turn.
I dropped out of my big ring, took the turn, and began my second to last climb. The course was narrow and the pavement rough. It made the climb more difficult. Andrew once told me it was good to train on all kinds of pavement because you never know what you will get on race day.
Soon I was at the top, back at the Legion of Honor. I got into my big ring and bombed down the hill. I favored speed over control on this descent, but still kept a good amount of control. As I took the corners I repeated aloud "Easy. Easy. Easy." I was so focused in on this that I missed the ocean views.
I sped through the area where the road split, dodged a few dropped water bottles, and continued down.
Around mile 14, the course began to climb again. As I climbed this last hill, I could see the run course next to the road and encouraged those on the last leg of their race.
Soon, I was at the top. You know the drill by now, big ring, bomb down, control on the corners. It was the last hill. I was so excited I was laughing the whole way down.
Then, I was at the bottom. The course flattened, I went through the same fun little S-curve, and then I could see transition just a couple miles ahead of me.
While passing several people on the flat stretch, I got into some rough pavement and lost my gel bottle (which I had remounted on my aero bars).
With a smile on my face, I kept pushing, dropping into my aero bars when I could. I passed cheering spectators and was at the dismount line in no time.
I dismounted carefully and ran my bike into transition. I saw Jen, who was very surprised to see me. Apparently she was not expecting me that fast. Next to her was spectator holding a sign with the name "Dozer" on it. I thought to myself, "That's a cool nickname."
As I ran into transition, I miss judged the flag that was my landmark. I went one row too far, I circled back and racked my bike.
I transitioned from bike to run, made my way all the way down to the run exit, then all the way down the chute and out of transition.
As I ran down the run exit, I noticed that the person with the 'Dozer' sign was my friend Sarah. It was a surprise to see her and her son and a huge smile went across my face as I ran out of transition.
I took several walk breaks on this run. This whole race was difficult and my goal was to finish, not PB. As long as I was moving forward, I was fine. I could have pushed, but I felt that this was not the race to do so. I'm here to finish, not PB. That mantra was repeated every time the run course got hard or I needed a break.
Everyone on the run was extremely encouraging and it made the already amazing experience even more memorable.
The course began to climb as we headed toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Around the 2 mile mark, we took a left turn and then went up the first rounds of steps. All runners were to stay to the left to avoid crossing over when the out and backs split and met back up. In an effort to conserve energy (and enjoy myself), I walked up the steps. The stairs were very narrow and it barely fit 2 people side by side. At one point, where there was room, I moved to the side to let a few faster people pass.
At the top of the stairs, the course took a right turn onto flatter pavement. I ran this part and eventually ended up right under the Golden Gate Bridge. It did not look real. The way the fog hazed the bridge out and the way the sun was hitting it made the bridge look like a computer generated set in a movie.
There were so many tourist in the area that they began to get in the way. Several were on bikes and trying to ride on the same course we were running. Runners on the back section of the out and back course almost ran them over. Everyone started shouting as we all ran past.
The course turned into a trail run as I chatted with an athlete who was also from Vancouver. We chatted about training, the terrible swim, and who our coaches were. We both had the same goal: No Goal, just finish. After an aid station I wished her luck and pulled ahead.
As the course started downhill, the view opened up to the same gorgeous beach/coastal view as the bike course. There were a few bikers still on the course trying desperately to make it up the last hill in time. I encouraged them as I ran past assuring them that this was the last hill and they had it in the bag. As the course took a sharp right back into a trail run, I saw the sweeper truck with several bikes in the back. My heart sank for the bikers I had just encouraged. Although the sweeper truck would take them to transition and they could continue on the run, it had to be hard to not make the cutoff.
As I made my way down the trail towards Baker Beach, I could see the aid station to the right. As trail gave way to sand, I slowed down. Running in sand was sure to zap the energy right out of me.
As I approached the ad station, I could feel large amounts of sand in my shoe. After the aid station, I stopped to empty my shoes. A voice behind me exclaimed, "That'll grind after a while!" I turned and saw a rather large man with an enormous smile. As we walked we chatted about our day and why we do this to ourselves. His name was Seth, and he was doing this for his kids.
When we got to the wet packed sand, I wished Seth luck and began to run along the beach. The waves were a few feet to my left and I took in the amazing sights, sounds, and smells of the ocean. A few hours ago I had been in that ocean. I had conquered it. A smile grew across my face and I ran on.
A girl passed me, commenting on how beautiful the scenery was. I agreed and said that all I could picture was Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed running down the beach. "I can't remember the song that was playing but I do remember it was one of those cheesy 80s songs." She laughed and gave me a 'this guy is nuts look' before continuing on.
We turned off the nice wet pack sand back onto deep dry sand as we made out way to the infamous Sand Ladder.
I caught up with Seth again and pointed out the hawk that was circling over the Sand Ladder. "That buzzard looking thing is not ominous as all." We both had a good laugh as we made our way up the ladder.
Positioning myself on the left, I walked up the sand ladder using my left arm on the ropes to help pull myself. I stared down at the step in front of me, not wanting to see how far we still had to go. Seth and I chatted the whole way up and it made the climb go by very fast.
At the top, I turned around, looked down the sand ladder, and with my arms in the air let out a cry of relief and triumph. I walked up the rest of the hill and took a left turn onto a narrow, uneven trail. Seth and I continued to play leap frog until the end of the race, encouraging and joking the whole way.
As I reached the top of the hill, I encouraged those on the out section of the out and back course. They had just climbed their first hill and they all looked beat.
"Great climb! You have a nice long downhill ahead of you! Enjoy it!" I shouted to every athlete I saw, bringing a much needed smile to their faces and mine.
The course took a left turn down through an old fort and over more stairs. I was so done with stairs by this point.
We passed even more tourist who were out and about, They asked us what we were doing and when we explained it to them they looked at us like we were crazy. For the record, we are.
One tourist had a dog with him and I joked with Seth about putting my timing chip on the dog and letting him loose.
At the 5 mile marker, the course continued downhill with a nice cool breeze off the ocean. We ran back under the Golden Gate Bridge, this time with no close calls with tourists.
It was the last downhill before the long flat end of the run. Again, there were athletes making their way up the hill, just starting their run leg. As always, I said some encouraging words to them as I passed.
Soon I was back at the steps. I walked down them fast, but under control. The last thing I wanted was to fall this close to the finish.
At the bottom of the steps, the course flattened out and I found a good pace to run. I still took a few walk breaks, but the majority of this last leg was a run.
I could see the transition area and hear the cheers as others crossed the finished line. I began to reflect on all I had accomplished that day. The leap, the swim, the waves, the exit, the relief, the hills, the sights, the run. I was here and I was about to finish. 8 months of preparation had all lead to this very moment.
Focusing on my breathing, I began to push a but harder. I passed an athlete who cheered me on, "We will have bragging rights forever!" We gave each other a thumbs up and I continued on.
I could see Seth ahead of me and smiled. He will have an amazing story to tell his kids.
As I reached the road, spectators were still lined up along the course cheering us on. I kept thinking to myself, "I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna finish the Escape From Alcatraz!"
It was not until a spectator responded that I realized I was thinking out loud.
I turned left and past the transition entrance and made my way into the finishers chute.
Jen was screaming and jumping up and down in excitement. I gave some kids a high five and continued down the finishers chute.
As I approached the finish line, I passed a man thinking, I will not let you ruin my finish line picture! Someone had the same idea about me as they sprinted past.
I saw the finish line, put one hand in the air, and let out a loud, triumphant "Wooo!!"
That was it. I was across. I had finished.
As I made my way to my much deserved medal, I realized my comment about it all being over in 2 seconds proved to be correct. It was over and a part of me was sad it was.
I received my medal and turned in my timing chip. After getting some water and a Muscle Milk, I saw Seth. We each smiled and gave each other a big hug.
While waiting in line for a photo in front of a banner, the blind athlete and his guide crossed. I stepped out of line to pat him on his back and congratulate him.
I left the athletes only section and went out to meet Jen. She gave me a big hug and congratulated me.
Sarah and her son came over and hugged me as well. She gave me some very thoughtful gifts from her family and we got a picture together.
After telling them all about the race, I went to get my bike and pack up. Once inside transition, I saw the guy from Long Island and Mike. They both gave me a hug and asked about the race. We stood here exchanging stories grinning from ear to ear.
I stood next to my bike in transition soaking in the sunshine and my victory.
Some runners we making their way down the finishers chute, but most of the spectators had left. I clapped and cheered as they ran by and those in transition with me joined in.
I packed up my gear in my new gear bag, unracked my bike, and met up with Jen.
After taking a few more pictures, Jen and I made our way back to the hotel. But not before a few more photo opportunities.
Back at the hotel, I stretched, showered, and took a well deserved nap.
The next few days were full of sightseeing and adventures around San Franciso.
Monday morning, we took a tour of Alcatraz. Jen got to see first hand just how far I had swam the day before. We took a cable car to Lombard Street and visited the Golden Gate Bridge
We ate good food and even went to a Giants game.
This past weekend was an amazing experience. I had completed something previously thought to be beyond me. It felt fantastic. Although some part of me is still sad that it is all over, I am glad to be done. And thrilled to have finished.
It was a day with one goal. Finish. And I did. I finished strong and I finished feeling good. That is all I could ask for.
I want to take this time to thank everyone who had any part of this journey. Those who coach me, those who train with me, my loved ones who support me, the strangers on the course who cheered me on, and the people who read my blog.
I was truly fortunate to have Jen there. She had never seen me race a triathlon and her support and love during the race helped keep a smile on my face even when I was hurting. And the time we spend together afterwards will never be forgotten.
Thank you for taking the time to read this report. This race is one of the most difficult triathlons out there. To have jumped on the boat at the start was a privilege, and to finish was an honor.
Gratitude goes out again to all who have supported me in any small way. This accomplishment and the hard work I put into it goes to show that if I put my mind to something, no matter how much it scares me, I can do it.
And I can do it with a smile.