I ESCAPED. The Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco was extremely challenging and insane, but also beautiful with its views and so much fun! The notoriety and history of Alcatraz Island have made this event a bucket list race for triathletes all over the world. I had my eyes on the 2016 race since November 2015 and prepped for it for about 6 months. This race is by far my favorite triathlon and definitely goes into the top moments of my life thus far.
Venue: Marina Green Park, San Francisco
Swim: 1.5 miles
Bike: 18 miles
Run: 8 miles
General entry by lottery
Here's a short video I made of the beginning of the triathlon's most coveted moments...the swim!
If you haven’t checked out my previous post, Escape from Alcatraz: Race Preview, feel free to give it a quick read before continuing with this post. I talk about my readiness both mentally and physically for the race (it'll pump you up)!
I arrived in San Francisco the Wednesday before the race as I wanted to get some local training in, pick up my bike rental, enjoy the city with my family and friends...and drink some local west-coast beers too, of course.
3 days out - Aquatic Park Practice Swim
My first order of business was to jump in the bay with my brand new Synergy Endorphin wetsuit, BlueSeventy Neoprene cap and booties (swim socks) and experience the cold. I had to acclimate my Miami Boy body to the chilly water temps. I’d done my research on places to practice swimming in San Francisco bay, and Aquatic Park came up as the place to be. It’s an enclosed part of the bay with a few boats in the calm waters, a view of the Ghiradelli sign to the south, and Alcatraz in plain sight to the north. There’s a sandy beach with outdoor amphitheatre-like seats overlooking the whole area. It was cloudy when my uncle and I arrived around 11AM. My concern was the water warming up because of the time of day. There were a few athletes already swimming the buoys that ran a straight line spanning about 400 meters one way. As I was getting ready, I met a few triathletes from the UK, Switzerland, and Australia who were also racing Alcatraz for the first time. We ended up chatting a bit too much; I was using the conversation as an excuse to delay my jump into the water. I finally sucked it up and made my way to the beach. I slowly walked into the bay. COLD. Even through my wetsuit and swim socks, I could feel the ~57 degree water creeping up on me. The triathlete from Switzerland had finished her workout and was “playing around” in the water. She shouted to me, “Come on in, it’s not that bad!”
I dove in and swam to the first buoy as a warmup. My body immediately adjusted and I began swimming the line of buoys. By the time I reached 400 meters, the inside of my ears started to ache because I’d forgotten to bring my earplugs. If I don’t wear earplugs in cold water, I get dizzy and my head starts to ache because of the cold water getting into my ears. I swam another 400 meters back and called it a day. Lessons learned: 1.) I can handle the cold temperatures. 2.) Don’t forget my earplugs for the race. Coming into the race, the two biggest factors for me on the swim were the cold waters and the current. This practice proved out that I was ready for the cold water. The only unknown factor left was how I’d fare in braving the currents.
2 days out - Bike Rental Pickup
I didn’t bring my triathlon bike to the race because I didn’t want to deal with shipping and worrying about my precious ride getting broken/stolen/etc. Many out of towners rent their bikes for this race and I did just that. My cousin from the Bay Area recommended to me UDC (Black Sheep) Bike Rentals in San Leandro, and I’m glad he did because they were amazing! Renting, using, and returning the bike was as easy as pie. The guys over there were super nice and also deserve 5/5 stars for customer service. I picked a 2015 Specialized Rubaix SL4 and specified the bike measurements during registration so it would be already be configured when I arrived. When I picked up the bike on Friday, they helped me install my pedals and saddle that I brought from back home. I leisurely rode the bike around to get used to its handling and switched through all the gears. It would’ve been nice to actually go into the city and cycle some hills, but there was no time for that. The next time I’d ride the bike would be during the race itself.
Day Before the Race - Race Expo
On Saturday after picking up my packet (timing chip, swim cap, athlete number stickers, etc.), there was an athlete meeting at 1pm. It was pretty cool because the guy from all the website videos was there in person, giving us valuable tips. He mentioned the landmarks that we were to sight off during the swim, and went over other useful information for the race. I checked in my swim exit bag, which is a bag that we’d have access to after we exit the swim. In this bag, I put a bottle of water to rinse out salt water from my mouth, a towel to wipe dry, and some gloves to warm my hands in case they were frozen from the swim.
I had some good Japanese food for a late lunch and spent the rest of the night relaxing with my family. I always manage to take a really long time packing for a race. I usually check my gear bag at least 5 times, and mentally go through the race in my mind to make sure I don’t miss anything. I ended up sleeping at about midnight and set my alarm for 2:55AM.
2:55AM: RISE ‘N TRI. Shoutout to my fam, aka support crew who were up at 2-2:30AM to get ready for our drive to the city, about 30 minutes from they live in San Leandro. When I arrived at Marina Green, the first thing that hit me was the cold weather. It must have been in the 50s, and windy. The main thought in my head was: "OK, so I'm freezing my ass off right now, bundled in warm layers of clothes...how the heck am I going to swim in this cold?!"
Time was ticking for us to board the buses to Pier 3, so I finished setting up my transition area and headed to fall in line for a bus.
Bus to Pier 3 and Ferry Boarding
I sat next to a girl on the bus who was part of a local triathlon club and had done the Alcatraz swim before. She seemed super calm and relaxed. I, on the other hand, was asking her for plenty of tips. I was feeling a few nerves but mostly excitement, and still couldn’t fully believe this was all happening. The bus dropped us off at Pier 3 where we would board the iconic San Francisco Belle Hornblower ferry and be taken to Alcatraz.
Before boarding, we were to check in our bags that contained anything we didn’t want to bring onto the swim. I brought my Sony Action Cam but wasn’t sure if I wanted to bring it during the swim. I would carry it in a zipper running belt around my waist; however, I had never practiced using the belt. I feared if I took out the camera during the swim, I’d be holding it with my bare hands and could easily drop it into the depths of the bay. Then I thought: the swim is the pinnacle of this race. I NEED to bring my camera. If I lose it, so be it...I have to take this chance and capture the moment I’ve been looking forward to for so long. I ended up bringing my camera with me on board.
Ferry ride to Alcatraz
The inside of the San Francisco Belle on race morning was just like the pictures I'd scene from previous races. 2000 hardcore triathletes jam-packed like sardines onto 2 floors of the ferry.
People were sitting and standing everywhere, including outside on the edge of the ferry. There were bottomless waters and long lines to the bathrooms. I took my camera outside for some shots of the views: the sun had already risen and the skies were blue, draping over the San Francisco skyline and chilly air. I stretched out, and proceeded to put on my wetsuit. Once the ferry had anchored by Alcatraz, it was another 10-15 minutes until start time. Before I knew it, the national anthem played, and the gun went off! GO TIME.
All 2000 of us were to empty the boat in 2 minutes. I was on the first floor of the ferry, towards the back. When I got to the edge of the boat, I decided to take my camera out for a quick video of everyone jumping off the boat, which was totally worth it. By this time, I was part of the last group of people to jump off the boat. I put my camera in my belt, looked down at the cold water, and said to myself “LET’S DO THIS.” I jumped.
Surprisingly, as they had notified us earlier, the water was warmer than normal. It was about 59 degrees. When I entered the water, sure it was cold, but it wasn’t as cold as I expected. I started swimming and my body immediately adjusted to the temps. After swimming about about 25 meters, I stopped and marveled at the incredible 360 view: I was so close to Alcatraz Island that I could see its plants. Bay Bridge to the south, San Francisco to the west, and the Golden Gate to the north, it was a truly breathtaking moment and one I’ll never forget. Treading water with just my legs, I unzipped my belt to take out my camera and got a pretty awesome 360 video of the amazing sights. I struggled a little to zip the camera back into my belt, but I was able secure the camera and not donate it to the depths of SF Bay. Now it was really gametime. No more lollygagging; I was really towards the back of the pack, and had to start the swim to land.
Because of the currents, it’s not possible to swim point-to-point (from the ferry to our exit point on land). If you did this, you’d end up being swept under the Golden Gate Bridge, towards the Pacific. We had to swim straight towards the city to the south, keeping our eyes on various landmarks, and allow the current drop us gently at the beach swim exit.
I kept my eyes on the landmarks, but the waters were not gentle at all. Although the current was pushing us west towards the Golden Gate, the waves were crashing east, right into me like crazy. They were so big that I could barely see anyone else around me. The only time I’d see other people was by sighting on top of a wave. I usually can time my breaths such that I breathe in rhythm with the waves, but these waves were irregular and thrashing constantly. Much of my breathing was done to the south (looking at the Bay Bridge) to prevent my face from getting splashed so much. I ate a lot of salt water. Little by little was I was making my way across the Bay, keeping my eyes on the landmarks. There were a few others around me, but not many (at least that I could see). At one point, I remember hearing a whistle, and seeing a jet ski whiz by. I was a little isolated, and the thought of marine life (ahem, sh*rks) crept into my mind, but I quickly shut it out. Just keep swimming, I thought, like Dory. I noticed that yes, I was progressing towards land, but I should have been closer to shore by now. I was trying really hard to swim straight towards the city, but the current kept pushing me towards the Golden Gate.
After about 40 minutes of tough swimming, I saw the beach exit and the cheering crowds. A huge relief. I tried to make a straight shot for the exit...but by then it was too late. I had not swam “across the bay” enough, so swimming a straight line to shore inevitably meant the current would push me way west of where I was supposed to exit. Race officials warned us that if we were to miss the swim exit, then just beach ourselves and run back. I had already missed the swim exit, but didn’t want to beach myself where there was no one around. I wanted to finish in the right place. So I turned around, and with all my might, I fought the current and began swimming back towards shore. Another triathlete nearby was in the same predicament; he was swimming back as well. Although no words were said, we both knew that we helped each other fight through it. I used all my strength against that current, and slowly but surely, I made it to land.
As I emerged from 59 minutes of swimming, I turned around and soaked in the panoramic postcard shot: the Golden Gate in plain, majestic sight, Alcatraz in the distance, and all that water that I had just swam. I thanked God and blew a kiss into the air (lol). I couldn’t believe what I had just done. But I believed. And it was done.
Talk about great timing- my uncle just so happened to spot me and shot this amazing picture of me walking up the beach!
Entering into T1, I grabbed the water bottle from my transition bag to rinse the salt from my mouth and began the short run to the main transition area. My hands had warmed up and I was super excited having completed the swim! The hardest part for me was over.
I spent the first mile or so on the bike getting my heart rate back down and settling into a solid cycling groove, because I knew those hills were coming. And the hills came. I attacked the first one with ease but there was a subsequent long and sloping road which didn’t look at all like a hill; however, it was slowly inclining for a very long distance. The entire course was pretty much sloping up or down. There were several steep descents where I wouldn’t pedal at all and was hitting 30mph+ speeds. I had no intentions of pedaling during those sections because I hadn’t practiced on those roads and wasn’t about to get reckless during the race.
My most memorable moment of the bike was when we were cycling downhill against the mountain cliffs on Point Lobos Ave by the Cliffhouse restaurant. I felt as if I was gonna bike straight into the Pacific! My second memorable moment was came shortly after the turning point on the Great Highway: we were met with the steepest incline of the race- a very steep grade that surprises you after a normal-looking right turn. Fortunately, I was prepared for this very climb because my cousin had warned me about it beforehand. Several triathletes were walking their bikes up the hill but my thunder thighs crunched those gears and got me up the incline. There were no aid stations during the bike, but my 1 water bottle was just enough for the 18 miles.
T2 was just like any other, I racked my bike, slipped on my running shoes, grabbed my headband, sunglasses, and gels and was off!
The run leg was challenging but lots of fun. The 8-mile course took us from Marina Green, to Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate, all the way to Baker Beach for the turnaround point. Baker Beach had really deep sands which made running there a challenge.
After those sands, I was met with this gorgeous view of the Golden Gate across the beach. Entranced by this sight, the course propped us right at the foot of the infamous 400-step Equinox Sand Ladder.
The race encouraged us to walk these steps, and as I almost busted my ass right when I got on the stairs, walking up the steps is just what I did. They were steep and never ending and took a huge toll on my legs. There were several of us enduring the steps together and laughing off the pain.
There was a lot of uphill and downhill running, running up/down steps, as well as some dirt running too. There were aid stations with water and the Cytomax energy drink which kept me hydrated throughout.
Seeing the finish line chute in plain site was an unbelievable relief. At that point, I was pretty tired and definitely ready to finish the race. I sprinted with every last bit of energy that I had left, and crossed that finish line feeling amazing. Throughout the entire race, I never looked at my watch to see how much time had elapsed; I just wanted to enjoy the race. I managed to finish in 3 hours and 59 minutes. Good thing I sprinted hard at the end to unknowingly stay sub-4 hours!
Going into Escape from Alcatraz, I knew it was going to be tough. The race surely proved to be a heck of a battle, or should I say, a scenic battle, to get to the finish line. Although the swim was hardest part for me, it was also the most rewarding: 3 years before this event, I could barely swim 25 meters. In this race, I'm pretty sure I swam just about 2 miles in the cold and choppy bay.
Hard work and perseverance got me here, and completing this race is an experience and memory that I will cherish forever. I definitely recommend it to any triathlete who's looking for a super tough yet fun challenge. If I can do it, you definitely can as well. Keep training, keep grinding, keep believing...and you too can one day, say:
I escaped from Alcatraz.