Escape From Alcatraz 2013 – Race Report

Escape From Alcatraz 2013 – Race Report

Mar 10
Escape From Alcatraz 2013 – Race Report

I ‘Escaped’ from Alcatraz!   As I found out last weekend, this meant a whole lot more than just swimming across San Francisco Bay. In fact, that was just the beginning.  I picked a mofo of a challenge for my first race of 2013, and it was a fantastic weekend all the way across the board.

This weekend was a whirlwind.  I had a recording session for The Simpsons late in the afternoon on Friday, so I wasn’t able to leave till Saturday morning.  Its not the ideal way to go into a race weekend, but work is work and its the way it had to be.  In typical Scotty fashion, I also didn’t start packing until after work on Friday.  How quickly I forgot just how much crap you have to pack and prepare for a triathlon.  Add in the complexities of this particular race (ie, 2 pairs of running shoes required instead of 1 which I’ll explain later), and I knew that mistakes were going to be made.

Saturday

Becca and I hit the road on Saturday morning, and promptly hit our first obstacle just minutes after starting our drive.  The 405 north was shut down to 2 lanes heading thru the Sepulveda pass for repaving.  We had intended to leave at 7, hit the road at 8, and thoroughly paid the price.  The traffic heading north thru the Westside was absolutely BRUTAL.  Fortunately it didn’t last past the Getty Center so once we got by it we were able to fly up the 405/5/580 into San Francisco.

As we crossed the Bay Bridge, we could see Alcatraz off to our right, and it was the first point at which I said to myself “What the hell have I got myself into?”.  The distance from the island to land was clear to the naked eye, and the whole thing suddenly seemed completely absurd and ridiculous to me.  We got into the city and thankfully the feeling passed.

After checking into the hotel we headed down to the race expo, where another dose of reality slapped me in the face.  It was FREEZING out.  The wind was howling off the bay, and Becca and I were completely under-dressed.   The race newsletters had suggested we wear arm-warmers on the ride as they would ‘save you’.  I don’t own arm warmers, so the plan was to pick some up at the race expo.  The only problem?  No one was selling them.  For the first time I was worried about this race…..not because of the swim, which I felt fully prepared for.  It was the rest of the race that had me concerned.  Getting out of 50 degree water and then trying to race in a wet and sleeveless tri-kit just wasn’t going to work.

A run over to Sports Basement was in order, where I picked up a long sleeve ‘wool-over’ to wear over my tri-kit on the bike, and as I’m SO happy I did.  I ended up with the perfect amount of clothing on the bike, which was huge for a course that is already challenging enough on its own.

A couple of my former Team In Training Ironteam teammates were also racing Alcatraz, so we got a group together for dinner after the expo.  We went to a place called Trattoria Pinnochio, which was great!  As is pre-race tradition, I drank a little wine (Sangiovese), and ordered a spinach/citrus salad followed by Chicken Saltimbocca with potatoes and veggies.  I skipped the usual ‘pasta carbo load’, going for a more #paleo friendly option.  I did eat some bread so the pre-race meal wasn’t completely paleo, but it was definitely different from what I’m used to doing.

They call early season races ‘tune-ups’ for a reason, and when I got back to the hotel it became clear why.  As I was putting my getting my stuff ready for the race, I realized all of the things I had forgotten:

- Race belt
– A functioning Garmin watch band (the one I had fell victim to Mr. Charles (my English Bulldog))
– Transition mat (I have yet to buy one since I left my TNT mat at Mari’s memorial)
– Ziplock bags for nutrition
– A towel for transition
– Spare tube(s)

I also had a dilema…..my front race wheel was completely flat.  I assumed that it had just gradually lost pressure over time since it hadn’t been used since September when I had lent it to my friend Kaity.  I figured I would just pump it up and it would hold enough air to get me thru the race.  The problem is, it wouldn’t pump up.  After messing with it for quite some time, I finally figured out that the valve extender had popped loose.  Once I got it back on and started pumping air, however, it became obvious to me that the tire had a hole in it.  Its a tubular tire, which means its glued directly onto the rim, and while one of the techs at Trilab taught me how to change it, I’ve never actually had to do it before and 1) Didn’t trust myself to do it, and 2) Didn’t want to do a temporary short-term fix on a really expensive tire if I didn’t have to.

I had a back-up wheel ready to go, but I really wanted to use the race wheel so I decided to try out the latex sealant that I have called ‘Pit Stop’ for ‘in race’ flat repair.  I’ve never actually had to use the stuff before, so I figured this might be a good time to test it out to see how it works.  I attached the Pit Stop nozzle to the valve extender and started spraying the sealant into the tire, and it turns out the tire had not one, but THREE holes in it.  A white/bubbly substance was oozing out of the tire in these 3 spots.  After about 10 minutes I wiped the excess latex away, then tried to fill the tire with air.  It worked!  I could feel the tire pressure building and I was able to pump the tire up.  My plan was to let it sit overnight, and if it still was holding pressure in the morning I’d go ahead and race on it.

With all my stuff ready to go, I was able to get to bed by 10pm, falling asleep almost immediately.

Race Day

The alarm went off at at 3:45, and I was stoked to get over 5 hours of sleep the night before a race.  That is a rarity!  I checked the tire and the pressure held!  With all of my stuff already packed, I took a quick shower and we were out the door by 4:20.

I was expecting parking to be an absolute nightmare, but I found a parking spot not more than a block from the race epicenter/transition.  It was dark and cold out, and the sight of Alcatraz across the bay was eerie as can be.  It has the oldest active lighthouse on the West Coast, and it we could see its ray of light shooting across the water in the distance.

After getting transition set-up, all of the racers piled into shuttle buses that took us over to the ferry that was going ship us out to the island.  The inside of the ferry was jam-packed with racers on 2 two levels, and despite there being close to 2000 people I managed to track down Eric and Justin for the ride out.  It took about 30-45 minutes for the ferry to take us out to the island….one of the things I love about race environments is the cross-section of people you come across.   There was a woman right next to us that came all the way from England to do this race.  There was also a 13 year old girl!

When we got to the island, everyone stood up and got ready to race.  With about 12 minutes to go before the race start time (7:30), we could see a cruise ship coming into the bay under the Golden Gate Bridge.  The swim course cuts right across the eastbound shipping lane, so everyone was wondering how this was going to play out…..in the end, the cruise ship won.  They delayed the start of the race to let the ship pass.  One of the biggest reality checks of the day had to have happened as that ship passed in front of us……we were going to be swimming across an effing shipping lane, which meant the water was DEEP.

Swim

Once the ship passed, they started the race.  The pros started first, and then they opened it up to everybody.  We were pretty close to the front, so there was no time to think.  We were herded out a side door of the ferry and the next thing you know we were in the water.

The swim start was very confusing……the pre-race talk had centered so much on how to sight for this swim.  There was a big emphasis on NOT trying to make a straight shot across the bay to the swim exit, but rather undercutting the swim exit, as the current would make up for not going in a straight line.  But as we jump in the water, it seemed like no one was doing that.  To make matters worse, you couldn’t see much, so sighting was a big problem.  And the water was choppy as fuck!  There were no buoys, with the exception of a big red buoy being dragged by a boat in front of the pros.  Between the group I was with all heading in the same direction and the red buoy in front of us, I decided to focus my attention on the red buoy.  BIG MISTAKE.

It took a couple of minutes to settle in to my swim, and my heartrate was racing.  The shock of the cold-ass water plus the chaos of a swim start had me in a slight state of panic, but I was able to settle down after about 3 minutes or so.  Before I knew it I had my breathing and stroke working smoothly, and I locked into what felt like a really good swim.  The water was so cold that I couldn’t close the fingers in my right hand.  I tried shaking my hand out as it exited the water, but I just couldn’t get the muscles in my hands to work.  So I swam with some crooked-ass fingers, but was still feeling very good all in all.

But then something strange happened……I had been in a huge group of people, all pointed in the direction of the red buoy.  Then, all of a sudden, I looked up and everyone around me was GONE.  I was out in the open ocean, by myself, and not a soul around me.  I didn’t understand what happened……was I swimming by myself because I was off-course?  Or was I just out in front of everybody?  I wasn’t sure, as I was swimming really really well….couple that with us starting near the front of the pack to begin with and I felt like the latter was the more likely scenario.  So I focused my attention on the red buoy and just kept plugging away.

Before long I had crossed the bay and could see the swim exit in the distance.  And then I noticed for the first time that the red buoy was actually PAST the swim exit.  WTF?!?  As I got close to the buoy, a kayaker was paddling towards me, yelling something I couldn’t hear.  It slowly dawned on me what was happening.  I had overshot the swim exit.  The kayaker pulled up next to me and told me I had to double back….In a foreboding fashion, he said “Don’t worry, you can do it”. I was wondering why, after having just swam across the entire bay, he was telling me this now.  Then, as I turned to double back towards the exit, I realized why.  I was swimming against the current, and getting nowhere!  After about 3-4 minutes of treading water, I started to get pissed off.  Why was the red buoy past the swim exit?  I had to kick it into high gear to make any progress, and I was exerting an enormous amount of energy just trying to finish the swim (which I should have been already done with).

As I slowly made my way towards the swim exit, I resigned myself to the fact that any ideas of actually ‘racing’ this race had to be put to rest.  I destroyed myself in that last 10 minutes of the swim, and when I finally emerged from the water, I was spent and completely pissed off.  I was mad that I’d been working so unbelievably hard on my swim, and had it completely derailed by going off course.  I finished the swim in 47 minutes, but had I not overshot the exit I easily could have been out of the water in under 35 with how well I was swimming.  And as I looked behind me, I realized I wasn’t the only one that had made that mistake.  There was a huge group of people behind me working their way backwards against the current….I felt like the Pied Piper, as I think my instincts had proven right and I had pulled away from everyone.  I just might have been responsible for leading an entire pack of swimmers astray.  Ooooooops!

Bike

This race is unique in that when you exit the water, you don’t immediately enter into T1 like most races.  This race actually has a pre-T1 transition area, as there’s a ½ mile run between the swim exit at T1.  You have the option of running to T1 in your wetsuit, with or without running shoes.  Bags were waiting for us with running gear…..my original plan was to just run in my booties, but when I got out of the water my right foot was pretty sore (the foot I injured last year), so I opted to strip out of my wetsuit and put on some running shoes.  I felt a little dizzy, as my body was recalibrating to being out of the water, so I took my time.  With my running shoes on, I started to make the run over to T1 and passed by Becca, Kat, and Nicole who were cheering me, Eric, and Justin on.  Seeing them snapped me out of my foul mood, and I quickly realized that I had an opportunity to really use this race as ‘training session’.  I decided right then and there that I was going to practice race management, focusing all of my attention on finishing the run strong without bonking.

As I was running to T1, I saw Justin fly out of transition on the bike.  With the bike course being short, I wondered if I could catch up, but because he had a good 5-10 minute jump on me I doubted it would happen.  I took my time getting on the bike, throwing on my wool-over and putting on some full-fingered gloves.  They proved a little hard to get on…..my body was freezing and the muscles in my hands still weren’t working well.  I eventually got it all together and hit the road.

The bike course starts with a 1-2 mile stretch along the bay that is completely flat.  It was a great way to warm the body back up, which is a good thing because the rest of the course was hills, hills, and more hills.  We climbed up to the Golden Gate Bridge, then hung a left and made our way out to the Presidio.  It was a non-stop barrage of climbing and descents.  I hadn’t done a lot of climbing leading up to this race, and I could definitely feel it in my quads.   But I still found myself passing people left and right.  The bike is my strong suit, and its very rare that I get passed by anybody out on the race course.  At about mile 7 the pros started to shoot by in the opposite direction.  I noticed that they were almost all riding road bikes, so I felt good in my choice to ride the road bike instead of the TT.

The bike was definitely challenging but totally manageable.  My only concern as I was riding was the front tire, but it seemed to be holding up.  I hit a couple of potholes that I was almost positive were going to cause me to flat, but the tire continued to hold up.

All in all, I had a good ride. I had originally hoped to finish the bike in under 1:00, but I ended up coming in at 1:03.  With my shift in focus, I held back just a touch to try and conserve energy for the run.  Its the best possible thing I could have done, because little did I know that the run course was an absolute soul crusher.

As I got off bike and was putting on my run gear, I could hear the announcer getting pretty hyped over the PA.  It turns out that Javier Gomez, silver medalist at the London Olympics, was just about to finish the race.  With transition set up right next to the finishing chute, I got to see him come screaming by to win the race.  It was really impressive to see happen live….he was pretty far ahead of the next couple of racers, including Jesse Thomas who has won Wildflower the past couple of years.

Run

As for myself, I felt pretty good.  My legs were heavy but I’ve done quite a few bricks/transition runs already and I knew that they’d eventually shake out.  One of the hardest pills for me to swallow in triathlon is that I completely suck on the run.  I’m still entirely way too heavy to run well, and it in the same way that I never get passed on the bike, I get passed by EVERYBODY on the run.  It can be pretty demoralizing, especially when I come from a running background and used to be pretty damn fast.  I’ve managed to tune it out and have learned how to just focus on my race.  Getting back to being fast is not going to happen overnight, so all I can do at this point is learn how to manage things better as I continue to shed weight.

So as people continued to pass me, I focused on keeping my heartrate down so that I could finish faster than I started.  After about 1.5 miles of flat ground, the real challenge of this race began.  There was a massive staircase in front of us….I apparently didn’t do my homework, as I was completely unaware about this staircase.  I knew about the ‘sand stairs’ at mile 5, but this set was completely unexpected.  My pace slowed to a crawl as I made my way up the stairs, but as soon as we got past them I was able to pick it back up, albeit slightly.  We winded our way up a single-track dirt trail that has traffic going in both directions (the course is an out and back).  It was a little tough maneuvering, so I just focused on continuing to to push forward.  We came across a tunnel that was straight out of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, starting out big and slowly getting smaller and smaller until the exit was about a foot shorter than my height.

After eventually making it to our peak elevation, we started heading back downhill towards the beach below where I could see a steady stream of runners making their way across the sand. As I was running down the trail towards the beach below, someone yelled out “Pain is only temporary”.  A runner next to me started laughing and said back, “Actually sometimes it isn’t!” . I couldn’t help but break out in laughter as I knew exactly what he was talking about.  Its true, sometimes pain ISN’T temporary and stays with you.  :) We made our way down to the beach, where again my pace slowed to crawl as we trekked across the sand.  After a quick out and back, we found ourselves at the famous Equinox Sand Ladder. Its a 400 step staircase made out of sand and logs…..Its about 5 miles into the run, when the legs are feeling heavy after almost 3 hours of exercise.  This part of the race is brutal enough to get its own timing….so in this triathlon they give you splits for swim, bike, run, and stairs.  It took me a little over 4 minutes to make it to the top, as I walked the entire thing.  But once I got to the top I immediately picked up my run again for one last little climb that would take us just a hair above the Golden Gate Bridge.

After cresting the top, it was all downhill.  In some ways, I dread the downhill more than the climbs.  The pounding on the legs is brutal on my left knee, which has no cartilage left in it so its pure bone-on-bone action.  But in this case, the downhill was pretty welcome as my quads were starting to tighten up from all of the day’s climbing.  All in all, I felt really good, was not even close to bonking and knew that I could negative split the end of the race.  I was able to pick it up over the last 2.5 miles, getting my pace up to around an 8:30/mile.  Nothing spectacular, but not bad considering I took 4 months off from running and have been doing it again for only about 2 months.  My overall pace for the run was just under 10:00/mile.  With all of the stair walking and climbing, I’m pretty ok with this.  My run time isn’t even close to what I’d like it to be, but the important thing is that I managed the race well, not burning myself out and not BONKING.  My overall time was 3:23:56.

Most importantly, I had FUN.  It was great to be out racing again.  I love the atmosphere, the camaraderie, and the feeling that even though we’re all racing our own race, the monumental challenge we all face somehow brings us all together.  Its what keeps me coming back over and over.

Would I do this race again?  I think I definitely would…..I’d love to take it on when I’m in a bit better shape.  It won’t be next year, but I will for sure be back sometime in the future.

My question for anyone reading this is……would you ever consider escaping from Alcatraz?  If not, is the swim what makes the answer no?  I imagine that for most people that say no, this would be the case, as its likely the most daunting aspect of the race.  For me personally, its the thing that appeals to me the most, but then again I’m an open water fiend.  I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this race and whether they’d ever add it to their schedule.

Here’s a photo gallery of pictures from the weekend:

Escape From Alcatraz - March 3, 2013