ESCAPED from Alcatraz!
It has been 2 weeks since I escaped from Alcatraz with my fellow teammates from Team Cindy. After some much needed rest and a weekend away from training, I finally had a chance to reflect on this experience as a whole.
The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon has always been one of my bucket list items. Partially due to my childhood fantasy after watching The Rock, also because I am NOT a strong swimmer while The Escape is well known for its swim from the Alcatraz Island to San Francisco with mostly unpredictable conditions (more on that later).
The Executive Summary
June 12th was the annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. It consists of a 1.5-mile swim, 18 miles bike ride, and a 8-mile run. I raced as a part of Team Cindy raising fund and awareness for the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. Everyone from Team Cindy finish the race safely. I finish in 3:25:43 under my goal time of 3:30:00.
Having done several triathlons with longer distances, I knew the distance of this race wouldn’t be my biggest challenge. However, it was roughly 8 weeks before the race when I received clearance from my doctor to swim again since my arm surgery. I did not swim for almost 7 months. I knew I would have to focus my race preparation strategy around swimming.
I have prescribed 4 swims a week for myself before the race. From my past training experience, 3 swims a week is the least amount I needed to improve my swim ability. On top of that, I added another swim every week to train myself in a more race-like water condition to allow my body to acclimate, which usually means swimming in the cold, sometimes wavy San Francisco Bay water.
Half way into my training, I did a practice Alcatraz Crossing with World Water Swim to test my readiness for the race. I finished the swim in 1:10:13, with an average pace of 2:01/100yd, covering a total distance of 3,470 yards (~2 miles).
I was happy at first to finish the swim feeling strong, until I looked at my finish time. 1:10:13 means I would have to shave roughly 10 minutes off of my total swim time in 4 weeks in order to make the 1-hour swim cut-off at The Escape to avoid being “picked up” by one of the kayakers and dropped off near the swim finish. A 10-minute improvement over 3,470 yards in 4 weeks is ambitious, but not impossible given I was only 4 weeks into my “swim reconditioning” plan.
In the next four weeks, I spent most of the weekends swimming @ the Aquatic Park in SF, including a no-wetsuit, Speedo swim to build my tolerance for the cold water.
The Night Before The Escape
Given we need to set up the transition area @ 5am on the race morning, it made more sense to drive to the city the day before. I got to SF around 3pm on Saturday, June 11th, picked up my race packets, attended the athlete meeting, shopped for some souvenirs, had a light dinner and headed to my friend’s place around 7pm where I’ll be staying for the night. I then spent the next 2 hours preparing my race kit and visualize the entire race one last time before I headed to bed at 9pm.
The alarm clock rang precisely @ 4:15am, June 12th, the Day of The Escape. I had a small bowl of oatmeal and one banana as my breakfast. We were out of the door heading towards the transition area @ 5am. The temperature was at a warm 60 degrees. It was a very short commute from where I stayed to the transition area, so I was able to finish my set up @ 5:30am.
Next was to take the bus which would take us to Pier 3 to board the San Francisco Belle, a floating casino temporarily converted to carry 2,000 athletes from SF to the Alcatraz Island so they could swim back. The time was 6:15am when we arrived at Pier 3. The announcer welcomed us and called the weather today “probably the best race day weather in the last 5–6 years”. We boarded the Belle, left the pier, and headed towards Alcatraz.
It was a short ride from the pier to Alcatraz — the San Francisco Belle wasn’t a particular fast vessel, but we were at our race start point @ 7am. I managed to used the bathroom one last time before the national anthem was played @ 7:25am. I looked outside, the weather looked fabulous — I could clearly see San Francisco with little fog in between. This should make the sighting during the swim easier. I was very grateful of such nice weather until the race director kindly informed us: “Looks like it is going to be a choppy swim today”. I didn’t have enough time to process the association between “nice weather” and “choppy swim” — I found myself on the deck and being yelled at “Jump jump jump! Don’t think, just jump!”.
When I think back, in order for all 2,000 athletes to start the swim in 6 minutes, 5.6 athletes need to be jumping off the boat each second.
Immediately after I started swimming, I felt different comparing to my previous crossing a month ago. The water was constantly moving up and down. At first, I thought it must have been the turbulence created by all 2,000 athletes entering the water. However, this “roller coaster” sensation continued for the rest of my swim :-(
The race start time was planned when the tide is turning into an ebb, where the water is moving from east to west, towards the Golden Gate Bridge, out of the bay. This helps us to get to our swim exit at St. Francis Yacht Club, west to the Alcatraz Island. What created the waves and all the choppiness was the wind — 13 mph towards the south-east direction, which collides with the tide moving towards the west, creating waves.
Aside from feeling dizzy from being pushed up and down, left and right, the biggest challenge in a choppy swim for me was keep swimming “across the river”. “Swim across the river” is the key to a successful Alcatraz crossing according to the race director, where we aim direct south (across the imaginary river), and let the tide move us west. This also avoids “overshooting”, missing the swim exit and having to swim again the tide to come back (which happened to me). Or worse, one could end up at the Golden Gate Bridge, in which case, being picked up by the Swim Safety Crew would be the best bet.
I ended up covering almost 4,200 yards (~2.4 miles), or 20% longer than my previous crossing. However, I was happy to find out my total swim time was 1:02:11, or 11% faster than my last crossing. To put things in perspective, my swim time was ranked 53/57 in my age group which tells me a lot more work needs to be done on my swimming.
After a quick 3/4 miles run to Marina Green where the transition area was, I felt warmer and ready for the bike leg. One benefit of finishing the swim in the bottom percentile was the bike course was considerable less crowded when I first rolled out of the transition area.
The bike leg is an out-and-back course of 18 hilly miles starting west of Marina Green, along the coastline. I have spent a most of my training time on my stationary bike trainer earlier in the year when my doctor didn’t want me to ride outside. This ride was probably my 4th or 5th time riding under the sky this year. Given the relative shorter distance, I decided to give it all I have — to enjoy this ride and hopefully to make up some time I lost in the swim leg. The windy situation didn’t get better on the bike which made the pedaling on the way back harder as it was against the wind. Overall, I felt much stronger on the bike. My total time was 1:02:17, with an average speed of 17.1 mph. This placed me at 11/57 in my age group.
Back at Marina Green switching to my running gears, I felt a bit overworked as my heavy panting didn’t match my moderate heart rate. I didn’t have the time to sort out the reasons and figured I’ll just have to test it out in the field.
The 8-mile run course is also an out-and-back starting in the Presidio Headlands up and under the Golden Gate Bridge and then onto the Coastal Trail. Another thing this course doesn’t lack besides the beautiful view was hills. We have 600 feet to climb, including the Sand Ladder (400 steps up the cliff).
Knowing the first 1.5 miles are flat before the climb begins, I purposely went slower than my goal pace to conserve energy and to test out my exhaustion level. The first two miles went by very quickly, I was able to keep a 8:40 min/mile pace while my heart rate was in the high 150s — not bad for me from a cardio perspective but I felt I couldn’t push harder.
Hiking/running through the next 1.5-mile uphills, I realized this run was going to suck. I tried to push my heart rate to the 170s, which is normal for this race distance for me but my muscles wouldn’t cooperate. I developed a side stitch which forced me to slow down my breathing in hope to easy the pain. Mile 3 to mile 4 was all downhill before it went up again at miles 4. However, my pace dropped to 9:00 min/mile, slower than on the flats and my heart rate dropped to the lower 150s. Before I could come up with a strategy, it came the Sand Ladder.
I was in the survival mode in the next 2.5 miles. Fighting with the side stitch while pushing myself so my pace doesn’t drop too much from where it should be. On the last downhill before the final 1.5 flat stretch to the finish line, I started to feel better. Perhaps my body finally accepted what I have planned for him today. The side stitch went away and my muscles allowed me to push it to my normal race heart rate. I was able to finish the next mile with a pace of 8:05 min/mile and a heart rate of 168 bmp.
Running alongside of Marina Green in the last .5 miles with mountains of spectators, I pushed even harder, clocking a 6:48 min/mile pace with a heart rate of 178 bpm. When I crossed the finish line I was completely exhausted and I loved that feeling, comparing not being able to bring the best out myself. I officially Escaped from Alcatraz!
My run time was 1:09:29 with an average pace of 9:07 min/mile, which puts me at 29/57 in my age group.
My total race time was 3:25:43 and my final rank was 30/57. Not a particular time to be proud of but I was happy to be able to finish the race safely and to share my story with others. I can definitely see myself back on this course again in the future as this is truly a one-of-a-kind race experience — the unpredictable swim, the breathtaking views along the course, and the cheerful volunteers. Like the race director was saying, this is not a Sprint Triathlon, not a Olympic Triathlon, not a Half, not a Full, this is The Escape.