Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, San Francisco, California. 31st May 1998
Unable to take my usual four week spring vacation to train in the sun in Tucson, Arizona, due to a challenging, but enjoyable work load (sounds familiar eh ?), I began to think of an excuse for a trip to the States which didn’t involve too many days off, but which included some intense exercise !
I thought of flying out for a few days to take part in a race and, having raced in Tucson the previous two years, I knew that it was possible to fly out and race a couple of days later (the fact that I’d vowed never to do it again was a distant recollection). Suddenly, I realised what beckoned, and it was an incredible race I had heard of a couple of years ago, called ‘Escape From Alcatraz’, and yes, it is exactly that. Luckily, the timing was ideal, at the end of May. So, I entered and my plan took shape: fly out to San Francisco on the Wednesday, a couple of days shopping, race Sunday and return Monday.
Unfortunately, on the Friday, I met some fellow Tri-geeks from Houston and thus my race preparation on the Friday night was Texas style, quaffing beers in a bar (well only a few!). Saturday, I awoke with a sore head. Nice one! At the race registration, we were told that due to ‘El Nino’ causing severe tide conditions, the race couldn’t start from right at Alcatraz Island, however we would start from the ferry boat (!) about a hundred yards off the island.
Race day, Sunday 31st May, up at 5 am, breakfast of energy bars and carbohydrate gels (yuk!). Take bike and kit to transition area, then a bus back to the pier to board the ferry boat. At 7:30am, with all 700 of us aboard, including some of the top professional triathletes in the world, we headed out into the Bay. The captain welcomed us aboard ‘The Hornblower’ and said that he’d dispense with the usual safety briefing as we’d all be jumping overboard in twenty minutes, anyway! After singing the [American] national anthem, led by an off-key volunteer, we jumped the estimated 4 feet overboard, three at a time, into the 56 degree (F), cool [if you were from Scotland, icy if you were from Texas] waters of the Bay. I settled into a rhythm after a few minutes, for the tough 1½ mile swim from the infamous Island to the St. Francis Yacht Club, heading all the time, as instructed, for the shore, striving to cross the 2 knot rip which sweeps you West under the Bridge and onto Hawaii! No sign of sharks, though, only fellow wetsuited athletes and a few real men in the flesh. Encouraged by the race director to do so at this point, I tried to pause (glug, cough, splutter!) halfway through the swim to take in the incredible view of my surroundings (he was obviously a proficient swimmer, though, unlike me!). I swam steadily and with the Golden Gate Bridge close by on my right, thankfully exited the water (tired) in 37 mins, and, as I stumbled along, starting to peel off my wetsuit, I realised I’d made it, I’d escaped from Alcatraz !
As I ran the short ½ mile from the swim finish to the bike transition (resplendent, wearing my tartan vest and speedos !), I had no idea that I was about halfway down the field of 700, a better result than usual for my weakest discipline. Helmet and obligatory shades on and out on the bike course next, and it was crowded, I was weaving past people in groups of 3 and 4 as I tried to surge ahead over the 18 undulating (!) miles, past the Golden Gate Bridge, out and back through the Presidio Headlands, along the shore at the Great Highway and through the Golden Gate Park. The awesome views were only a momentary distraction from the pain of the steep climbs, as were the television helicopters hovering above. I was sure I’d moved up the field, though I’d no idea at that time that I’d passed over 200 competitors! A slow bike time of around 57 mins for the 18 miles revealed how tough it had been.
Back into the transition area, trading my bike helmet for running shoes, I headed out on the 8 mile coastal trail run, not feeling too bad, I ran hard but steady up and under the Golden Gate Bridge, through the tunnel and down the coastal bluffs to Baker Beach, seeing the race leaders returning in the other direction.
At this stage, most of the competitors beside me were running at a similar pace and making up places was hard work. As I returned along the deep sand of Baker Beach and up the 400 step, leg draining, sand ladder to the cliff top, a young lady zipped by as I toiled on the last 100 or so steps, the spirit willing to take up chase but …. ! I held it together, tired but steady, for the last 2 (flat !) miles to the finish, running in with a couple of locals, pleased that I’d given it my best with a respectable 56 mins to cover the 8 miles. The crowds were amazing, enthusiastically cheering and clapping, somehow realising that my tartan attire indicating I was from Scotland.
For the record, the top pros finished in 2 hours, with the [then] World Champion Mark McCormack taking the honours. Australians taking both men’s and women’s titles. I came home in 2 hours 39 minutes, in 81st place overall (out of 660 finishers), placing well above my expectations and 20th (out of 112) in my age group.
A few (!) more beers with the Texans (they weren’t too upset that I’d beaten them all!) on the Sunday night and then heading for home on the Monday evening, satisfied that I’d done it, and of course I’ve got the tee shirt and video (yes, I’m on it for a nanosecond) to prove it. An awesome race and a fabulous weekend ! However, owing to the fact that we didn’t start exactly from the island I’ve vowed to return again one day to try and start from closer to the island.