So that’s it! The journey since this all began back in October is over!! 6 months of training all finished on Marina Green in San Francisco last Sunday! Everyone has their own Escape from Alcatraz triathlon adventure…here’s a recap of mine!
I entered into the 2nd part of the race lottery last October when I checked my diary & seen I had no weddings for a couple of weekends in June…why not give it a go, nobody ever gets picked on their first lottery try! How wrong was I when I found out a few weeks later that I was picked! A quick think about what training would be involved & I decided lets do this…even though I haven’t trained or done any tri’s for 3 years! This is the race that kick started me into triathlon when I spent one day in SF back in 2007 & the Escape race was finishing when I was wandering around the Marina.
A nice trip to the US & Exuma before I began my training in earnest in December. That’s the first tough part of Escape…most if not all of training in Ireland has to be done in the depth of winter & the worst weather…snow, ice, hail, gales, rain…you name it I’ve been out in it!
The second tough part of Escape is the cost involved in getting from Europe to SF. It’s not cheap. It’s not a cheap race to enter…very similar in cost to a full Ironman but yet it’s just a bit longer than Olympic distance…but forget that, it’s one of the few iconic races remaining on the calendar and is usually up there in either #1 or #2 position in races triathletes want to do…Kona Ironman is usually beside it!
The other cost is travel, accommodation & whether or not to bring your own bike or not! I love SF so that wasn’t a tough decision. To bring my bike or not was a tough decision, but I decided why not. For such a technical bike course I wanted to be on something I knew well…regardless of how old the bike is (Focus Variado 2008!!). So between buying a bike bag & cost of extra bag for airline, yes it would have been cheaper to rent one, but I felt confident flying around those streets on my own bike.
In terms of accommodation, I had originally booked a hotel in the Wharf area…it’s the closest hotel area to Marina Green where transition & finish is. But I’m not a fan of the Wharf area so when I found out about AirBnB, I looked & looked & found a fab apartment 2 minutes walk from Marina. This is was the best decision of the trip. Living like a local in a local neighbourhood,where we could cook for ourselves if we wanted and not have to deal with the touristy food places…it worked out brilliantly. The Marina area is one of the best neighbourhoods in SF. This is one of the few times you’ll get to feel like a local in the Marina area…rents typically go from $6000 – $15000 a month!! It also meant I had normal breakfast everyday, important when all my last training sessions were early in the morning to simulate race day and race day itself was a crazy 3am wake up call.
Onto SF. And after seeing the long swim route from the air, we got settled in & I had some of the most enjoyable running in Crissy Field & the Presidio to get the lay of the land & get my legs going again after a day off travelling. I think I enjoyed running here more than anything…and I’m not a fan of running! But when the scenery & routes are this good, it’s amazing. With a quick set up of my bike, I headed out mainly to check everything was working & perfect…it was thankfully! Scicon Bags for bike travel are superb, highly recommended! My legs at this point were finished with bike training…there wasn’t much more to do except check the bike & try a hill or two near the Golden Gate Bridge.
I also had two swim clinics booked in with Water World Swim, which were invaluable. Getting to swim in the open bay with a group is so much better than swimming around the calm protected water of Aquatic Park. The first clinic concentrated around the finish part of the race around St.Francis Yacht Club, and basically how to nail the finish of the swim…the most important part really. The second clinic brought us out to Alcatraz to simulate the boat jump (so cool) and swimming towards the Fontana Towers & Fort Mason (easier said than done), and then another finish simulation at the beach. This is the clinic I really recommend.
Saturday morning was spent doing yoga as I normally do on a rest day, then registering & getting my t-shirt/goodie bag etc. Again staying in Marina meant I strolled down at 10am to have a look around and I started queuing at 10:30 for 11am registration, which I’m glad I did. I was finished by 11:05 but the queue was already around the block at that time, and I know after that, registration was taking way too long, not far off 2 hours wait. But I was done & gone at this point, I wanted to switch off from the event for today!
So race day! An early start as mentioned but at least I had an enjoyable breakfast, coffee, my exact routine of the last few days so the early start wasn’t an issue. With all my gear sorted the night before, it was a matter of a short 2 minute walk to transition to rack my bike and jump on the bus to take us to Pier3 & the San Francisco Belle ferry boat!
A note about transition…I’ve never done a race as big as this before, so the idea of 2000 bikes in transition initially scared me. But you simply forget about everybody else’s bike & look to where your own is, and in Escape you just use one of the unique houses on the Marina…very easy actually. I just wished the race enforced a no transition bag/box rule in transition…some people brought more stuff in there & left it than I brought over to SF!
Bike racked & to the bus & onto the ferry. This is the unique part of Escape…the ferry & jumping from beside Alcatraz. I found my place on the ferry, near to the door I wanted to go out…the one the pros would use & the one that’s closest to land (only a little bit, but the ferry does drift so you want to get off fast). There is no enforcement of where you can sit on the ferry…it’s free for all but not crowded even though full of athletes. I also happened to sit beside probably the only other athlete in the race (maybe not but I didn’t see anybody else) using Vibram 5 Fingers to swim & run the mini-transition in!! That’s tip I got from a previous entrant & it worked out brilliantly…it’s nearly a 1km run from swim exit to bike transition…doable in your feet yes, but I didn’t want to risk stepping on anything, but also didn’t want to look for 1 bag amongst a 1000 or more in mini-transition!
The one way trip on the Belle ferry takes about 30 mins but you’re sitting around the boat around hour & half so get comfy! There’s a great atmosphere on the boat which obviously builds as you get closer to start time! It’s a very simple procedure then…national anthem, then the pros go and basically everybody else follows behind! A note on the water – if you’re used to swimming in Ireland in May in open water, it’s not cold in SF bay, especially in 2015 when May water in Ireland was baltic because of the crap weather we had. So it’s not cold, but it is very brackish, like swimming in a lake kind of brown!! Because of the mix of salt water & glacial run off (which usually makes it cold), it’s not very salty water, not like swimming in the Atlantic. So like a lake but the sea…much nicer than lake – I’m an Atlantic Ocean lover & do not like lakes!!
With the swim it’s a point A (Alcatraz) to point B (St.Francis Yacht Club) but because of the strong currents you cannot swim directly A to B or you’ll head to the Pacific under the Golden Gate!! But with the right sighting & line, you will end up on a straight trajectory. For this you kind of swim directly across from Alcatraz then down to the yacht club – this is the line I wanted to take, with easiest current near shore – or current depending you head in the general direction towards Fort Mason then down the shore – this is the line I ended up taking (not unlike the picture below). Swim distance is marked at 1.5 miles (roughly 2500 meters) so longer than a half ironman and depending where you finish you could end up swimming more!
After the jump, which as expected was mega, it was head towards the Fontana towers & then Fort Mason. The water is calm at first even with all the swimmers (they spread out fast), then right in the middle of the bay is when you get hit by the swell! Once you get closer to shore for the last third the water was calm again. Breathing – I can bilaterally breath when swimming but usually choose to only go to my left when racing, this is the side you want to breath if you only do one side in Alcatraz, because the waves are coming from the opposite side so you don’t swallow much water, and because it’s easier to sight looking to your left…so again forget the race notes saying to bilaterally breath…do what’s best for you (but left breathing is more beneficial).
The first part of the swim getting across the river of current is by far the toughest part, and the shore just never seems to get closer even though the boat behind is so far back so quick! With the tough currents, I just couldn’t make my way to Fort Mason as I hoped, so as I passed by them in the bay, I switched my sighting to the dome behind the exit beach…I knew heading for that would bring me close and it worked out perfect. I headed for the dome, then the yacht club itself and once there I done what I had practised on Thursday & Friday & I landed perfectly on the beach. Sounds easy enough right? Not when you consider that my wife said there was half the field getting pulled further down the beach towards the bridge! They’ll end up swimming further & having to run much further to transition as once past the beach you cannot swim back to the beach because of the current.
Finally after exiting the water & getting my bearings I ran off towards transition. That run is always tough even with practice! The support on the beach & lining the route up to the bikes was amazing! I ran all the way as in the photo above, wettie to the waist, hands free. Once in transition it was back to a normal tri routine, get out as fast as possible for the cycle!
I won’t go into the bike route too much, just to say it was flat at the start & end, then in the middle you’re either going up long hills or coming down fast ones! For Sligo people the ultimate training hill would be Hungry Rock…it’s long & tough, exactly like the hills in Alcatraz. It took my legs a good 10km to get going, not sure why but probably because the swim was long. After 10km, I settled into a rhythm and done a time I was happy with. (Bike is 18 miles or 29km).
Aside from having good brakes, you always want to be focused in front & behind you as there’s always guys coming fast on the left into corners. I have to say everyone that I passed or got passed by was great & I had no issues with near misses or anything.
Escape from Alcatraz is renowned for it’s mega scenery. Unfortunately this was a typical SF day…cool & foggy, so there wasn’t much to see!! And the fog actually made it feel wet, hence I had to dispense of my sunnies half way through the cycle when they were fogging up so much I couldn’t see!! But that weather came into play on the run…Monday the day after was very hot in SF & I think that would have killed me on the run as much as I do like it warm!!
Back to the bike & as I was heading towards half way, the pros were making their way back already. And they are a sight to see on the downhills! And it’s nice to see them grimacing too on the uphill…everyone suffers on the hills here, just in different ways!
I use a road bike as it’s the only one I have!! But as much as this is a technical bike course with hills galore, if I did have a TT bike, I would be on it, like most of the pros were. The gains on this course are how fast you can take the downhill, and there are some fast sections!! Road surface here is either pool table smooth, or like Irish roads (rough & bumpy with potholes & speed ramps). Again support all along the bike course was amazing, and every junction had cops & volunteers on it and crowds of people with cowbells!!
The last section of the bike is pancake flat again so good to get some final speed & get my feet out of the shoes & ready for transition. And even though the dismount line is a little dodgy on a 90 degree bend I nailed the flying dismount! I had a quick-ish 2nd transition, even though I struggled a little with socks – I normally would never wear socks in a triathlon, but because of the run on Baker Beach I decided too as I didn’t want sand grinding my feet for the final 3 miles…probably a good choice too.
Onto the run! Once here, I knew I could relax a little. The swim has it’s own unique worry here, and with the bike I had nightmares of a DNF because of a puncture or something (I don’t bring any spares on a short course cycle but I trusted my bike shop with the tyres they sorted me with). With the run it was down to me & my legs!!
Right from transition they felt ok. Knackered as expected, but feeling ok! The support again coming out of transition was amazing! People lining the route right up to Crissy Field. Like the bike the first part of the run is flat, and then the corresponding end of run is likewise flat, but deceptively long, about 1.7 miles in each direction…you want to hold the sprint until the very end, not the start of the flat!!
I have to say this was the most pleasurable run I’ve ever done in a triathlon! Even though the Golden Gate wasn’t really in view because of fog, the scenery was still amazing. And as I headed down towards the bridge, the leaders of the run were heading back through Crissy Field – Andy Potts was just in the lead at this point. And behind them the rest of the pros came through flying!
Once you get to the bridge, the climbing & stairs begin!! At this point with the first long set of stairs, I was as quick going up them walking as I was trying to run up them. All this section and towards the road section before Baker Beach is uphill, it’s a long way but nice & with great support. Another small note, nowhere on this course is as tight & narrow as the course notes make out – there’s always room for runners coming & going.
I weighed up my options for footwear for the run, and decided a few months ago to go with Nike Kiger2 which are trail shoes but not aggressive ones, so they’re equally at home on concrete/pavement. And these shoes were amazing. Alcatraz is two thirds trail run, one third pavement run, so I would recommend something that will bite into the trail.
Back to the run, and as you head towards Baker Beach, more pros are passing you, but you’re always on the same road as the bikes so that’s pretty cool! Before long I hit the downhill trail towards Baker Beach, and the sand part of the run…something I wasn’t sure about as I hadn’t tried any beach running! It wasn’t as bad as I thought, and basically you run through the sand towards the shore where the hard packed stuff is. The turnaround point of the run is at the end of the beach, then you head back up the beach towards where the bridge should be (still couldn’t see it!).
Then it’s the sand ladder! I had already decided to walk up it…again I’d be as quick as trying to run it. Yes, the ladder is tough, but what I found tougher was the last 200 meters of wading through thick soft sand at the top before you turn back onto the trail. If the sand ladder doesn’t kill you, that last bit of sand will!!
Once back on the trail it feels a little easier but there’s still a bit of an uphill…but only 3 miles left, essentially a 5km mostly downhill or flat! I took the last bit of my gel (I took 2 gels on the run which fit in a small bottle, so half the bottle as I went down towards Baker Beach, and the other half at the top of the sand ladder) and headed towards Crissy Field. As expected the last part of Crissy Field was tough & long. A couple of guys passed me here, but I knew to keep my own pace, and I re-passed them on Marina Green when I still had a little left in the tank! You could really hear the support here now for the upcoming finish on Marina….you don’t hear things like ‘Hang In There’ or ‘Nearly Done’…it’s more ‘Stay Strong’, ‘Finish Strong’, ‘Pick It Up for the Last Bit’…really encouraging things!!
Once I hit Marina I lengthened my stride to whatever I had left and when I hit the finish chute I tried whatever I had to ‘sprint’ to the line! I was elated to have finished and in that time – 2 hours 44 mins 9 seconds!
Back at the start of all this I said to myself I’d be happy with 3 hours or under. I kind of knew if everything went ok I could do better, so I’m delighted with that time! Especially the run, doing that run in 1 hour for me would have been unthinkable 6 months ago!!
Following the finish & crumpling up in a heap for 30 seconds or so to gather myself, I got my medal and some Muscle Milk (that stuff is absolutely disgusting) and a nice massage. After a quick trip back to the apartment to leave the bike back & shower, we headed back to the finish to watch the podium. I can’t wait to see the highlights of the pros race on TV later in the year – Eurosport usually show it in July or August. For a non-drafting race, it finished closer than the ITU races do, and they’re essentially a 10km run these days because of the peleton style cycling, which doesn’t really interest me anymore.
And it was pretty cool to meet Mirinda ‘Rinny’ Carfae after her 3rd place podium. It’s not too often you get to meet current & 3 time World Ironman Champion…and more sports people could do with seeing how the pro triathletes are with age-groupers…we’re all in the same race, & that’s how they act too, very normal & have time to chat too.
Overall Escape from Alcatraz triathlon was every bit as good as I thought it would be. I’m so happy with my finishing time especially having not trained or raced any tri’s for 3 years!! Would I do it again? For sure, but with my wedding photography work, who knows when that would be…but if the race is a week earlier next year I could be sitting on the San Francisco Belle again at 7:20am getting ready to jump again!!
Quick thanks to the following who kept me going & got me to the start and end of the race!
Shane O’Doherty – Metalman Swim Series – for the best swim plans for 6 months, getting me across that bay in great time!
Troy McKenna, Sligo Physical Therapy – for all the needling & massage work during April especially!!
Stephen & Alan, Chain Driven Cycles – for the last minute wheels/tyres/cassette/chain which essentially gave me a new bike for the race!
Turlough Conway of Strandhill for the great tips for the running! Good luck in the Warriors!
My family, uncle Sean & cousin Adam from LA & of course my wife Sarah, for the superb support at home & of course at the side of the course!!
And anyone else I forgot…thanks to all for the fab messages on FB….very much appreciated!!