The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon is one of the most iconic triathlons in the world. It’s roughly the distance of an Olympic distance race. It begins, as the name suggests, just off Alcatraz island where athletes jump off a ferry and swim back to San Francisco. From the water, they ride sixteen miles of hills along the coast and through the parks and then run eight miles taking in some of the most beautiful views in the city.
I am very comfortable with ocean swimming but have never been swimming in the San Francisco Bay. It’s notoriously cold, choppy, and has very strong currents. So, registering for a practice swim with Waterworldswim.com was the best last-minute, pre-race decision that I’ve ever made.
Although I’m a confident swimmer, and a 1.5-2 mile ocean swim does not cause me any pause, I didn’t want to underestimate the risks of this particular swim. The race organizers published a fantastic set of pre-race documents and videos that explained most of the considerations we need to take. So, I knew, in theory, how to sight as I swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco. What I didn’t know was the nature of the different currents and how they would impact our swim.
Fortunately, I reached out to a few triathletes that I knew had completed the race and asked for their thoughts about how to properly prepare. I got multiple recommendations to sign up for a practice swim with the local group at Water World Swimming. For $75 they met us on the beach at the swim exit, explained the nature of the swim (currents, tides, the ferry placement relative to Alcatraz, and where we should keep our focus), and how to sight. Then, they took us into the water and we swam the latter part of the actual course.
Doing the practice swim helped me in several ways. Most importantly, I learned how close to the shore to position myself and where I should be relative to some of the permanent buoys that are in the bay. Assuming I am able to follow these instructions, there would be a very high chance of landing on the correct beach. Just as importantly, we were informed what to do if the current took us beyond the beach and further toward the golden gate bridge (aka the Pacific Ocean). Turns out that there are an additional 1.5 miles of beach beyond our target location and there would be no need to panic. Instead, we were instructed to continue swimming toward shore and exit as soon as possible. The downside would be affectionately known as the “run of shame” – an extra 1/3-1/2 mile run to the transition area. Second, I overcame the anxiety of swimming in dark, choppy, 58-degree water. We swam for about 20 minutes and it was only shocking upon the initial entry. After diving in, but before swimming, I paused for about 15 seconds and took some slow, deep breaths. The wetsuit added the typical buoyancy and thermal protection while the booties kept my toes from getting cold. I also used earplugs and wore a thermal swim cap, but I’m not sure that it made any meaningful difference.
Immediately after getting out of the water, I felt a rush of excitement and euphoria. Coupled with a massive sense of accomplishment and elevated confidence, I watched the sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge and felt like I was on top of the world.
Transition setup and riding the ferry to Alcatraz
During the athlete briefing, the race director made it clear that we must be on the ferry by 6:15 am. He told stories of athletes running down the pier as the ferry left the dock. He also emphasized that the last bus from the transition area would depart at 5:45 am. There are plenty of bathrooms and shelters at the dock so don’t wait for the last bus.
My hotel was about a 45 min walk, so I took an Uber and arrived at about 4:30 am. I haven’t done an Olympic distance race in a few years and had forgotten how much quicker the setup was compared to a 70.3 or Ironman event. I was ready to go at 5 am, but felt uneasy so I just lingered looking for things to do until 5:15, and then stood in line for a shuttle bus.
Once at the dock, I did my pre-race bio-business then dropped off my race-morning clothes bag before boarding the San Francisco Belle. With three levels and lots of open space, there were athletes sitting and lying everywhere. The energy was electric. Lots of wide eyes and smiling faces everywhere I looked. After finding a spot on the floor, I focused on relaxing with some deep breathing. I also had plenty of time to stretch and loosen up my back, legs, and shoulders.
The ferry ride was roughly 45 minutes. I think we rode completely around Alcatraz before stopping at the jump-off point. After a few announcements, the professionals lined up along the side of the 1st level and waited for the horn. Boom! They dove in and were led by a boat with a big yellow buoy on top. Immediately after they went, the crew began shouting for the next set of athletes to go. We were organized by age. The 39 and younger folks went first. Then older folks slowly went downstairs and as soon as we walked to the edge, were told to go! They emphasized that we must not hesitate. When they say jump, just jump. After landing, move away from the boat to adjust goggles or anything else or risk the next athlete landing on top of you. It was hectic and one massive jolt of Adrenaline! My buddy Jonathan was on board as a volunteer, so I was happy to see him.
As the pros and younger athletes were jumping, I stood on the 2nd deck just marveling at how quickly people were emptying off the ferry. It looked like an endless stream of lemmings jumping off a cliff while a pack of wolves were barking jump, jump, go, go go. The columns of neon green and pink swim caps moving away from us seemed to be heading right toward the Golden Gate bridge. I wondered, are they already taking the wrong line? They were not heading toward the buildings we were told to sight. There were even a few stray swimmers that immediately went off course and made their way through the link of kayaks. Were they sighting at all? Or, was the current taking immediate control and the group was doing the best that it could?
I would soon be reminded that being in the arena is completely different than spectating from the stands.
The Swim across San Francisco Bay
Jumping off the ferry is scary, exciting, and definitely adrenaline-pumping! While boarding the ferry, I tried to imagine how I’d feel as I stood on the edge, just before I lept into the cold, dark water. I thought it would be overwhelming and that I’d have a solid urge to hesitate. The reality was completely different. I didn’t have time to overthink the situation. As soon as I walked to the jump spot, the line disappeared and it was suddenly my turn. I stepped to the edge, looked down for the previous swimmer, put my hands on my goggles, and stepped into the abyss.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrDu4cerDgA[/embedyt]
Splash! I gasped. The water was cold.
I rinsed my goggles, let some water into my suit, then looked for my landmarks and began swimming towards the distant shoreline. The first few minutes were intense and my mind was racing. Would I be able to feel the strength of the current? How often would I need to sight? Damn, the chop is bigger than I thought and it’s really difficult to see over the waves. Sometimes I can’t see the shore when I look up, have I changed direction? No, but now where is everyone else? Why can’t I see very many kayaks? Am I off course? Am I going anywhere? When looking from the ferry, there were hundreds of swimmers, now I feel alone. I seem to run across a stray person here and there. Why is my goggles fogging up so quickly? I hope my calf muscles don’t cramp in this cold ass water….
Then, as quickly as the anxiety came, a calm emerged and I thought to stop and turn around to look at Alcatraz. I said to myself, you won’t get this view again, don’t miss it. So, I stopped, pulled up my goggles, and took a few seconds to observe the island, the ferry, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the hundreds (thousands?) of swimmers moving towards it.
I smiled, my heart felt full. I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing what I imagined for so many years.
The next portion of my swim felt relaxed and fairly easy. I realized the herd was turning west too soon, so I intentionally attempted to swim straight toward the shore. Little did I know how futile that would be. The anxiety of being alone was mostly gone, but sighting particular buildings was still very difficult, so I used some of the safety boats as reference points instead. After what felt like 20 minutes, I turned around to look at Alcatraz again and felt like I was in the same place as before. More of the mind games, I knew that I was making progress and I pushed on toward the shore.
Although I never intentionally adjusted my trajectory, by the rate at which new buildings were in front of me, I could tell that I was drifting west (towards the Golden Gate Bridge). I knew this was a problem. If I didn’t make more progress towards the beach, I’d miss the swim exit. The shoreline still seemed to be far, far away, so I stayed focused. Once I saw the “A” buoy, I knew where I was. The Water World swim instructor told us where we should be positioned when we approached it and I was out of position. They said if we are on the bay side of the buoy when we arrive at it, we will miss the swim exit, just keep heading toward the shore and be prepared to do the “run of shame”.
Minimizing my beach drift became my new goal since hitting the swim exit was not going to happen. My anxiety rose and my breathing became heavier. I decided to turn against the current and head upstream to try and land near the proper beach. At some point, a kayaker came up to me and told me to stop going against the current, and pointed to another landing spot. He said it will be much easier to get out there and run back. So, that’s what I did. And just like that, the swim was done. I made it to the other side!
I came for the swim and it did not disappoint. Unfortunately, I didn’t complete it as planned and was disappointed in myself. At the same time, I was very happy to have accomplished it.
What I expected to take 35-40 minutes took just over an hour to complete. While running along the beach, I looked back at Alcatraz in amazement. It seemed so far away.
Riding the San Francisco Hills
Those of us who landed on “alternative” beaches, first, had to run to the correct beach and cross the timing mats before we ran the half-mile to transition and get on our bikes. Since hundreds of us overshot our goal, the run back was not a walk of shame, it felt normal because there were so many of us. Once we got close to the correct beach, the cheers from the spectators raised my spirits and I got some pep in my step.
I forgot to bring a towel, so changing into the bike gear was a challenge. I wasn’t in a big hurry. Sure, I wanted a fast time, but I also wanted to be present the whole time. This race was special to me. The last thing Coach Johnny told me was to race like I stole something and I felt conflicted. I didn’t want to show up and not give my all, but I was concerned that I’d get tunnel vision and miss the experience.
As I exited the transition area, I saw my son and wife, waved, and then decided to push some power. The temperatures were in the 50s and I was still wet so I knew that I’d only warm up if I generated some internal heat by jacking up my heart rate.
The first couple of miles were relatively flat and well-paved. We rode parallel to the coast heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Before arriving, I didn’t spend much time going over the bike course. There were two reasons for this. First, I didn’t want to become overly anxious and worry about the hills. Houston is flat and I don’t have much experience riding hills. Second, I wanted to discover the course as I rode it. Not the best race decision, I know. But I wanted to be filled with a sense of wonder and adventure for as long as possible.
My 3T Exploro gravel bike felt light and smooth. Once we hit the first hill, I was grateful for its lighter frame. I planned for the hills with a larger cassette, but the derailleur wouldn’t go into the two biggest rings. Oh well, the legs were going to burn anyway, might as well prepare for an extreme burn. I wasn’t the slowest nor the fastest on the inclines, probably overly cautious because I observed many people attempting to climb in big gears and swerving from side to side. Those were accidents that were waiting to happen, so I avoided them like the plague.
Each successful climb felt like a win. Especially the longer ones. Riding through the parks was very peaceful and smelled wonderful. I remember the sweetness of what I thought was honeysuckle and a few scents that I couldn’t identify. The park was surprisingly empty of pedestrians. The few spectators that were there were loud and full of cheer. I even remember an adolescent girl with her mom. The girl was so cold that she imitated a turtle with her arms inside of her jacket and her head pulled down hiding her mouth. I made sure to say wave and say thank you.
On the way out, as we crested and then bombed down each hill, I had a moment of relief before noticing the athletes going in the opposite direction. I was going to see this hill again – from the other side lol. Just like Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga, I rode the brakes on the descents. Even though I badly wanted to let gravity grab hold of this 6 ft 2″ 225 lb frame and have its way until I reached the bottom. I didn’t have the confidence, so I held tight to the brake levers. As much as I enjoy riding the hills, I’m going to have to find a way to simulate riding on them in training. The only way to be comfortable riding with others is to actually do more group rides. The tastin’ is in the eatin’, right? Until then, I’m a slow, cautious descender.
As we approached the final set of hills, I could feel the fatigue in my quads. One of my goals was to avoid getting off an walking. So, as the fire raged in my thighs and my speed slowed to a crawl, I continued to grind, refusing to get off the bike. No matter what, I was going to make it to the top of every hill without walking. As we crested the last long hill by the Golden Gate Bridge, the spectators congratulated us and said that it’s all downhill now. YES! … my sub-goal had been achieved. I rode into transition feeling satisfied with my effort and ready to redline the run.
The most beautiful coastal run I’ve experienced
Having accomplished my goals on the bike (holding high power and avoiding getting off to walk), I was ready to run. Once in the transition area, I changed socks, took a gel, and put on my Team Varlo trucker cap. I didn’t need any additional hydration or nutrition for such a short, cool-weather run. Also, there were plenty of aid stations with water and electrolyte drinks, so I didn’t worry.
The initial portion was back along the sidewalk to the swim exit, then a left turn to run along the path that was adjacent to the beach. The temperature was still cool and I was feeling confident, so I decided to run based on feel, instead of pace. Typically, I struggle mentally when my heart rate rises above 160 and usually ease up as If I’m on a training run instead of in a race. Because of this habit, frustration is common. Today, for the first time, I decided to forgo holding a certain pace and instead just push for that uncomfortable feeling, hoping for additional mental strength. About 1.5 miles into the run, I glanced at my watch and it showed a sub-9-minute pace, which is fast for me. I certainly was uncomfortable, and my breathing was faster than I usually sustain, but I thought it was sustainable.
Not long after rejoicing in this small win, my left hamstring began to cramp. So, I stretched it out and proceeded at a slower pace until I was certain that it wasn’t going to cramp again. I still wanted to get uncomfortable, so I picked up the pace. This time, my hamstring immediately seized up….I repeated the process – stop. stretch. stretch, walk, then begin running slowly again. Feeling determined, I repeated this once more and realized the faster pace wasn’t going to happen at this point in the run. Maybe later after my legs are warmed up, I thought.
From the path adjacent to the beach, we meandered up a hill along the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. The path was a mix of gravel, wide sidewalks, and narrow one-track trails. We even went through a small pedestrian tunnel that was so low we had to crouch to get in and out. From there, we stayed on the one track from the top of the hill until we turned off and descended to the actual beach. Running on the sand was beautiful and cool, but not fun. We left the beach by climbing the infamous Baker Beach Sand Ladder….200 sandy and loose steps to get back up to the trail on the hill. The Sand Ladder certainly was epic, awesome, and brutally hard. A real lung buster!
Once we reached the top of the sand ladder, there was a small bit of elevation before we looped back onto the course and proceeded downhill, towards the finish line. There were moments when I looked over the cliffs saw the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog, and the bay, and became teary-eyed. I was in awe of the situation and filled with immense gratitude. Grateful that I was physically capable of doing this event. I was also filled with joy because I had the courage to show up and race fully present. And, finally, a sense of wonderous disbelief that I had made such a long-standing dream come true.
Approaching the final two miles, I attempted to pick up the pace and get uncomfortable again. Unfortunately, my body wasn’t going for it. Both the hamstring and the left calf cramped quickly and violently. So, I slowed back down and decided that I was not going to walk anymore. So, I ran the last two miles to the finish line.
How to process this event?
What happens when you live one of your dreams?
Now that the race is over, I’m having trouble processing what I’ve done. Normally, I let the past stay in the past and move forward to the next thing that needs attention. This event, however, is deserving of an elevated level of reflection. At some point in my youth, I visited San Francisco and fantasized about swimming from Alcatraz back to the city. It just seemed like a cool thing to do and I wanted to experience it. Every time I visited the city, I felt the longing to swim across the bay. Never actually thinking about how, I just felt the desire. I treated it like a silly fantasy and never gave it much additional thought.
Two years ago I became aware of this race and all of my feelings came to the surface. An opportunity had presented itself. So, I had no real choice but to apply for a slot. This race is so popular that one cannot simply register. Everyone (well, most people) are admitted through a lottery system. I had heard of people waiting 4 or even 6 years before getting a chance to race, so I didn’t ‘have high expectations. Once the application period opened, I submitted for a slot and pretty quickly forgot about it. I had “real” races already on my calendar and the training had begun.
As I reflect on the race, I feel layers of happiness and accomplishment. Of course, I have the usual feeling of satisfaction that comes with completing a challenging race. I am also proud of myself for attacking the desire to overcome my running limitations as well as leaning into making my cycling legs hurt without easing up. Then, there’s a whole different depth of joy and satisfaction because I did what isn’t often done. The accomplishment of a lifelong dream. I completed it with open eyes and the spirit of exploration from beginning to end. I feel like something magical has occurred.
In the end, this race was not at all about a finishing time. It was about showing myself that I am able to achieve my dreams and my goals. I am reminded how important our self-talk is and how it shapes the way we see and experience the world. Had I thought about swimming the bay, and then allowed fear to interject things like…what about sharks, isn’t it dangerous, do you really think you can do it, or it’s too cold. I doubt that I would have recognized the opportunity to do what my heart really desired. Instead, I only thought that I want to do it, and I envisioned actually swimming. Never did I consider the water temperature, weather, or other dangers. All of those things could be mitigated if I really wanted to swim.
I did it and I am happy.