The 30th Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Race PrepI've done this race once before, in 2002. It is an iconic event. The race is high in every poll of best and most popular triathlons. Plus, being held in San Francisco, I get bonus spouse points for making the trip into a mini-vacation.
It is also unique in that it does not heavily favor one leg over the other two. All three are hard, and all three are a significant part of the total racing time. The swim is 1.5 miles from Alcatraz Island to the marina, in tricky currents and cold water. The bike is 18 miles up and down the steep San Francisco hills. And the 8 mile run includes major climbs, a beach run, and the infamous sand ladder.
Swim prep included a new wetsuit. My old suit dated back to just prior to the previous time I'd done this race and it was showing its age, so it was time. Fortunately, Gail had a couple of nice suits left over from Adrenaline Tri-Sport, which closed early this year, and one was my size. Gordo loaned me a pair of swim socks, and I already had a neoprene cap. I bought new goggles a half diopter stronger than my old ones. (I wear prescription goggles.)
I brought all the gear to the pool for a test swim. Strangely, it seemed I was actually swimming slower. I noticed that the tops of the swim socks were fluttering around, and they even started falling off while I was swimming. This was going to be a problem.
Since they were size "large," I bought a pair of size "small" and brought them to the pool on another day. They filled with water and acted as anchors. When I took them off I sped up considerably.
No other similar products were for sale in the Boulder area, and I was out of options. I decided to bring all the socks to San Francisco and wing it.
Getting ready for the run was also a challenge. I'd been getting a bit of patellar tendinitis ramping up my training for the season. I backed off a bit, got a neoprene knee sleeve, and it seemed to help. It didn't quite go away, but it was definitely under control. Starting about three weeks out from race day, Gordo had me do some challenging workouts at Wonderland Lake, including some race pace climbs up the big hill at the northwest corner.
The bike was the biggest logistical problem. We considered driving out to avoid the hassle of flying with the bike. In the end, with cheap airfares I decided to try out TriBike Transport. I'd drop my bike off at the shop on Wednesday before the race, and they'd put it on a truck with hundreds of others and magically get it to the race site in one piece by race day.
I also scheduled my bike for its annual spring tune-up a few weeks out. But this was complicated by the shop not having the parts. They didn't have my chain rings, so I had to bring the bike back in a week. Then, while working on it they decided the hubs needed to be rebuilt, but they didn't have the bearings, so I had to come back again. And the bearings weren't in until two days before I had to drop my bike off for shipment, so I debated whether it would be worth the risk to do this repair without more time to test it out. (I did.)
The bike transport was also stressful. The Wednesday drop-off was changed to Tuesday. Then it was Monday. Then it was Saturday at noon, more than a week before the race. Although this method of transport is convenient, for those who stress about having their bikes for the most time before and after the race I wouldn't recommend it.
In prep for the hilly ride in San Francisco, Gordo had me doing repeats up the back of Olde Stage. This hill is steeper than any on the race, and I did my fastest ascent time ever in these workouts, so I felt as ready as I was going to be.
Starting as soon as long range forecasts were available, I began to stress about the weather. The predicted weather looked nice, in the 60s or 70s, but severe winds (50+ MPH gusts) were also forecast, depending on which day I looked and on which website.
Pre-RaceWe flew to SF without incident, and found our hotel, about 2 miles from the race site at Marina Green. Of course, given we were in San Francisco, it was all steep hills, so there was more walking (and riding, once I was reunited with my bike) up and down these steep city climbs than was probably advisable in the days just before a race. (We didn't rent a car.)
I attended the pre-race advice meeting at Sports Basement. While I was there, I looked at their swim booties. They sold a different brand, Orca, and it was thicker (warmer), and had a Velcro closure, which I hoped would solve my problem with them filling with water and turning into anchors.
On the day before the race, my brother and cousin and their families came into the city to visit. It was stressful fitting that in while trying to work around packet pickup and workouts and trying to rest, but it was the only day that would work for them. So, as a condition of the trip I had them drive me to Aquatic Park for my test swim in the bay. (The kids loved the beach, and my brother loved the chance to take an embarrassing picture on his camera of me changing into my wetsuit.)
The gear was reasonably successful. My feet were warm, the new wetsuit was warm, and my ears were warm. Only my hands and face were cold, and I got in one 10 minute lap. The booties did fill with water and probably slowed me down a bit, but not too bad.
The clincher on the bootie decision was when I discovered that Gail had dropped out after the swim at Ironman St. George that very day because of hypothermia. Better to lose a little time on the swim than risk major problems from the cold.
Race DayAlcatraz has one of the more complicated race days of any triathlon because of its point-to-point swim. I set the alarm for 3:00 AM but woke up early to start my routine. When I race at home I like to get on the treadmill at a very easy speed for as long as it takes to get my insides moving and make sure I poop before the race instead of having to go during. Here, a jog around the neighborhood would have to do. Then breakfast, the last bit of getting my gear together, bathroom again, and ready to go.
I left on my bike for the race start. It was just before 5:00, right on schedule. But it was still dark, and I wished I'd brought my headlamp. A little later, I discovered it would also have been useful when setting up transition. There were three other competitors who had been staying at the same hotel waiting outside for a van to take them to the race, and that van was already 20 minutes late. I offered to show them the biking route to the race site, but they opted to wait and try to call the van company.
Rack spots in transition were pre-assigned, and I had a great one. It was at the very end of a row, close to swim in/run out but far from bike in/out. Not sure what the weather would be like when I got out of the water, I left arm warmers, gloves, and a light jacket next to my stuff. I left transition with two bags – one swim exit bag with the shoes I would wear from the swim exit back to transition, and the bag with the swim gear I would put on in the boat. A quick jog, another visit to the porta-potty, dropped my swim exit bag at the truck, and got on the bus to the pier.
At the pier, I got my timing chip, another short jog, another visit to the potty, then got on the boat. Finally underway, I ate my banana and Clif bar, and finally felt the desired movement inside. The restroom line was the longest of the day, but the boat ride was an hour so there was plenty of time to finish my necessary business.
I got on my wetsuit and other swim gear, and as the boat did a celebratory lap around the island I left my clothes bag behind and went to the window to get a good look at the shore and pick out the landmarks I'd be sighting on. When the horn went off, I watched the pros start, and they took off straight towards the swim finish at the St. Francis Yacht Club. The race director had repeatedly warned us age groupers not to do that because of the strong current, but the pros obviously knew what they were doing.
The pros and younger competitors had been organized on the lower level of the boat, and we older athletes were on the upper level. That meant that even before I could get downstairs many swimmers were already in the water. There were three doors at which people were entering the water, but the boat was oriented so that one door was closer to shore, and everyone wanted to go out that door. Knowing that official times were based on the timing mat at the door, I figured it was better to wait a bit longer on board and have a slightly shorter swim.
I finally got up to the front of the line, ready to go. A race volunteer suggested I go to the rear door. I looked down and saw I'd been standing on the timing mat, and had already lost a few seconds. I told the volunteer I was going in, looked to make sure the water was clear, and jumped in.
The SwimI went a bit too deep, but quickly surfaced and started swimming. With the adrenaline I barely noticed the cold. I immediately found myself in a big group, which was swimming in the conservative direction rather than the direct line taken by the pros. I'd like to go a bit more aggressive, but I concentrated on passing other swimmers and trying to find clear water.
The water was perfectly smooth. Visibility was perfect. I was really enjoying my new, stronger goggles. All of this made sighting much better than I was used to. I kept up as good of a pace as I could, given that I kept running into groups of swimmers and having to manipulate past them. I was not confident enough to just go straight to the swim finish because of the current, but I tried to keep fairly aggressive and aimed just short of the finish.
The last part of the swim was as hectic as the rest of the course. I ran into more swimmers. Swimming close to me, someone grabbed my arm. I felt someone on my feet and thought they were going to pull one of my booties off. I kicked harder and swam away. Finally I got to shore. I stood up and looked at my watch. It said 29 minutes. Certainly the quickest I'd ever swum that distance. It must have been some amazing current.
Here's where I was really glad I had worn the booties. My feet running up to the swim exit area were warm, not numb. I didn't worry about the gravel and rocks I was running on. I found my bag, took off my wetsuit, cap and goggles. I had considered doing the run to the transition area, about half a mile, in the swim booties. But they were totally full of water, and I figured it would be quicker to slip on the pool deck shoes I had left in the bag. I crammed all my stuff in the bag (or thought I did) and started the short run.
It actually felt pretty good. I remember doing this same swim eight years earlier, and feeling that same euphoria at the end of the swim. The air temperature was pleasant, and I was passing more people on the run. Back in transition, I put on my shades and helmet, changed my shoes, and took my bike out. None of the cool weather gear would be needed today.
The BikeIf the swim course had been crowded, the bike course was even more so. The course is out and back, and starts out with about two miles flat, and is up and down the entire rest of the course, until the end. The entire bike leg was spent maneuvering around other riders. Because of the hills, drafting was not an issue as a rule violation, but blocking (people riding on the yellow line) and passing on the right were certainly problems.
From 8 years earlier, I remembered that the first climb happens suddenly when you go around a sharp corner, so I geared down early to avoid the embarrassment of coming to a dead stop. Then I worked on the hills and the crowds for the rest of the 18 mile ride.
On the climbs, I was able to take advantage of my Colorado training, and work my way past the other riders. But I never got into that groove – with the bad road conditions (budget problems in California) and the crowds, my descents were cautious, not what I needed to hammer that course.
We got through the worst of the hills going out, and rode along the coast. This stretch would have been truly dangerous if the wind had been high, but luckily there was only a light breeze. We rode out and back through Golden Gate Park, where they had promised new asphalt, but still there was lots of bad road.
Then we reversed and came back. The climbs are actually a bit harder in this direction, which was okay with me, as that was where I was able to pass people. I saw Klaus going out as I was riding back. On the final flat stretch I drank as much of my remaining Accelerade as I could. Back into transition, racked my bike, changed my shoes, ditched the helmet, and grabbed my race number belt. My time for the 18 miles was over an hour, a bit depressing, but hopefully that meant I had something left for the run.
The RunThe run course is also out and back. In fact, at one point, the run from the swim exit, the bike course in both directions, and the run course in both directions are all next to each other. It makes it easy to see your friends (or rivals), but makes racing trickier. I saw Klaus on his final stretch of the ride at about two miles into my run.
The run starts out with about two miles flat. I held a reasonable pace of about 7:30 or so. At about a mile I saw Hunter Kemper coming back in. He was close to his decisive victory over Bevan Docherty and Andy Potts, and would eventually best me by about fifty minutes.
At 2 miles, the course starts up hill. First it goes up some stairs then onto a trail. For most of the course, the runners are coming back on the same narrow trail, so it becomes a bit tricky, and passing is sometimes a matter of timing. This climb goes on and on. You get to the Golden Gate Bridge and think you are at the top, but you keep going. I passed Charles coming down on my way up, but he didn't see me as he was concentrating on the footing on the descent. In all, there is about 300 feet of gain over about a mile. It's quite scenic, but I was thinking more about my legs and when I was going to reach the top. That mile was probably closer to 10 minutes.
Finally I reached the top and started the descent toward Baker Beach. Fortunately, I recovered well from the climb and was able to use the downhill to pick up some speed. Part of the descent is on the road, and the runners coming back were on the trail next to the road, so conditions were good to let loose. Then I reached the stairs down to the beach, which slowed me down, and the beach itself.
The last bit of the run out is along Baker Beach. The trick is finding the line in the sand that was neither too wet (the tide was coming in) nor too dry to get good traction. When I saw the turnaround, I decided to cut through the dry sand a bit – a shorter line, but worse traction. I think I made up a couple seconds. Then the turnaround (about 33 minutes) and the beach run in reverse.
Back at the end of the beach is the infamous sand ladder – 400 steps of mostly sand and a bit of ladder. I hit it hard and used the cable banister as much as I could, passing a few on the way up. It was tough, but I think that the climb by the Golden Gate Bridge had been mentally tougher. And, after the sand ladder, the trail keeps going up, reaching the same elevation as the climb in the reverse direction. This was probably my slowest mile, definitely slower than 10 minutes.
Then came the final descent, which I worked, except for the final stairs. The guy who told me he grew up in Boulder as he had been running behind me passed me on these stairs and left me behind. I hit the flats and the 6 mile marker at 54 minutes, thinking it was going to be a 1:10 run split by the time I was finished. I passed Klaus going out as I was coming in, and I found a strong pace I thought I might be able to hold for two flat miles.
I hit mile 7 at less than an hour. I was flying toward the finish. My goal at this point was holding my pace and passing as many people as I could. I hit the finish line at about a 1:06 run split. My pace for those last two miles had been an incredible (for me) 6:00 or 6:30 per mile, faster than my normal 5K pace. I need to run at sea level more often! Even after that brutal run I somehow found that final kick.
LearningsMy final time was 2:48:15, 11 out of 91 in my age group. In 2002, my time had been 2:46:31, and I was 23 out of 110. Not bad for 8 years older.
My knee was a bit worse, but ice and Advil helped. My calves were sore for a few days.
And even though I was sure I had crammed all my gear into my bag at the end of the swim, I still ended up with someone else's neoprene cap instead of my own.
What did I learn?
- Add a headlamp to my race checklist
- Add some petty cash to the list as well – not having the $2 Muni fare, I had had to walk back to the hotel after the race
- Booties are probably a net gain for a cold water swim, even though my actual swim speed might be a bit slower (but swim socks would definitely have been a problem)
- New, stronger goggles before a race are very useful
- Testing the equipment out in the pool before the race and having enough time to make changes is a good idea
- Leaving enough time after the bike tune-up before the race for things like ordering parts is also a good idea
- TriBike Transport reduces the stress, but be prepared to be without the bike for longer than you originally think
- Using ground transport for the bike allows you ship a CO2 cartridge with it – not needed, but good insurance
- A hotel that is an easy bike from the race start is ideal, and lets you bike to/from packet pickup, race meetings, and the race itself
- At Alcatraz, do everything possible to get off the boat as quickly as possible, because each person off ahead of you is someone that may be in your way on that rather crowded course
- Don’t stress out too much about the long range weather forecasts, especially when they change drastically from day to day or from website to website
- Thank the weather gods when they are so much in your favor, especially when other major races the same weekend are way too hot or too cold
- Bike handling, descending, and confidence represent a major opportunity for improvement
- Think about a sea level running race to build confidence and maybe snag a PR
- Need to work on technical running descents
- Escape from Alcatraz is a fun race in a great location, but there are way too many athletes on the course