I Escaped from Alcatraz

Hi, friends. I know it’s been a while since I posted here. Sorry. Since late April, I’ve raced three triathlons: the sprint that starts every season, Escape from Alcatraz, and Ironman 70.3 Muskoka. I’ve also gone on a few vacations where I did a few really wonderful rides, hiked a lot, saw a bunch of excellent scenery, met up with friends, and ate delicious food.

How do I get through the last 10 weeks? A little bit at a time I guess . . . but not necessarily in chronological order.

Let’s start with Escape from Alcatraz.


In February I went to San Francisco on business. (It’s another thing I haven’t posted about here. Ditto for our South American adventure a couple months earlier. Oy vey, what’s my problem?) While there I ran from my hotel to Marina Green, where the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon transition would be. I also took a lovely, 14-mile urban hike where I saw lots of excellent scenery. On each of these outings (book-ended by some really awful norovirus or E. coli or something, which is truly awful while traveling) were beautiful. The skies were clear, blue, and calm. The Bay was flat. “The Rock” looked so close as I stood directly across from it at Aquatic Park, just one mile away.

Fast forward four months.

There was a moment about 40 minutes into the swim when I was sighting well on the finish and looked around. As the Bay moved up and down I could see the Palace of Fine Arts (the only remaining building from the 1918 World’s Fair) and the Golden Gate Bridge. I couldn’t see any people, which is really unusual for a triathlon swim. When 1,500 of us all jumped off the ferry earlier in the day—I was among the first 200 or so to go—there were a lot of people, but since there were no buoys and we were sighting based on landmarks, the pack thinned, and I was alone.

What I could see was a set of 3-foot whitecaps coming at me. For the previous 10 minutes—ever since I passed the three beige piers of Fort Mason—the wind had risen, and I was getting picked up and dropped by the seas. I have a pretty high arm recovery, but a few times I punched a wave and got a very poor catch on the water. Other times, I was at the crest, and there was no water to catch. The current was pulling me in the direction of Marina Green, which was near the swim exit, but I was also slowing as I stopped more often to check my bearings and assess the seas. I retched a few times from the water I was swallowing, and I wondered about what the fuck I was doing in the middle of the Bay.

I had been training for this swim for more than eight months. I swam about half of my yards breathing only to my left, since the Alcatraz waves normally break over swimmers from the right. I practiced diving for months until I realized everyone except the pros jumps in feet-first. I bought a neoprene swim hood and used it a few times in the reservoir, expecting water temperatures in the mid-50s. I watched YouTube videos about how to sight, since there were no buoys marking the course. I swam and swam, building my strength to traverse 1.5 miles (allegedly) of rough water.

Eventually, I saw some bright yellow swim caps going in the same direction as me and a jet ski about 50 meters away. I knew I was going the right way and I probably wasn’t going to drown without being noticed by a volunteer.

(Incidentally, I hung out with Emily, one of my Massachusetts swim/tri-peeps, on the ferry from Pier 3 to Alcatraz. Her sister was also racing. We chatted on the trip to the island and basically kept each other from freaking out. It was good. After we got in the water we all went our separate ways. Emily’s sister heard someone shouting for help about 20 minutes into the swim. I am so glad I wasn’t near that. I think it would have freaked me out.)

After 52 minutes, I was done with the swim. It’s billed as 1.5 miles (2,640 yards). I swam a very straight course, but my Garmin clocked 1,230 extra yards, for a total of 2.2 miles (almost a full Ironman swim). I measured the distance in Google Earth at 2.0 miles if you swim a completely straight line. It was the toughest swim I’d ever done. Except for the Ironman, it may be the toughest tri, too. (The over-the-top hilly half-IM I did in Connecticut last year probably has it beat, but maybe not.)

I had given so much thought to the swim for a long time that I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the bike and the run. I had been training but not worrying about what it would be like. A bike ride in hilly terrain is where I excel, and I’m typically strong on the run.

Today’s bike followed the model of what I was expecting. The ride was up and down, with monster climbs and fast descents with sharp corners. If you weren’t in the right gear, bad things could happen; I saw someone who snapped his chain. I climbed well and descended as fast as I safely could. My fellow triathletes (most of whom consider cycling their strength discipline) kind of suck at bike handling. They don’t keep a straight line, and they swing wide to make a turn without looking to see if anyone is there. I didn’t get to open up as much as I could have, but I did hit 40 mph coming down from the Presidio to Crissy Field. I could have gone a little bit faster but I actually couldn’t get into my three fastest gears because my shift cable was starting to come out of the lever.

As an out-and-back, I had watched the lead pros returning during my departure. When I returned to the bike-to-run transition, the winning man was being interviewed. Overall, my bike split was a respectable 17 mph for the 18-mile course with 1500+ feet of climbing.

For the second time in the day I saw my people as I came into the bike-to-run transition. Lisa and I had come out to the Bay Area a week earlier, and my mom and in-laws joined us a couple of days before the race. We loved seeing them, and they got to experience their first triathlon. Lisa had made them and our friends Mary and Adam bright orange “Team Jeff” T-shirts. This made them very easy to spot, and I loved having fans out there. I waved at them as I left for the final leg.

The run was not so good. All of that saltwater I ingested had upset my stomach, and I could feel it sloshing around as I started to run. I got 3/4 of a mile into a slow jog before I stopped to walk for the next 1/4 mile. For the second time today I wondered what the fuck I was doing and whether I actually enjoyed triathlon, but I told myself to STFU because I’d been through worse, and yes I really do enjoy this variety of masochistic badassery. I drank some fresh water from my bottle, ate a gel, told myself that it’s okay to be the guy walking in the first mile of an 8-mile run, and decided it didn’t matter how fast I would run because it was so beautiful on the course. Ahead of were the Presidio hills, the Golden Gate with its bright orange bridge, the Marin Headlands, the bright blue of the sky, and the wine-dark sea.

I was getting back into my element and started to run. After those 3-4 minutes of walking, I would run everything except for the uphill steps to the Golden Gate Bridge and the infamous Sand Ladder. The ladder was ridiculous: 400 stairs made of logs holding sand in place. It connected the beach, where we had been running for about a mile, to the Presidio’s highlands. Since I was going slow (for me . . . I averaged 9:30/mile over the course) I spent a lot of time looking at the scenery. It was beautiful and something I’ll treasure forever. I started to feel spry again by the last two miles of the run and picked up the pace.

After an hour and twelve minutes, I passed my people in the finishing area. I got my medal and hung out in the finishing corral thinking about the race. My friend Emily finished about 5 minutes behind me, and we talked about the race in the way that only fellow participants can do: the swim with its ridiculous waves, the steep hills of the bike and run, how I got passed on the steepest hill by a guy riding a single-speed who I could hear panting for half a block, but mostly about how it was beautiful and brutal and so worth doing.

This entry was posted in 101 in 1001, Cycling, Reluctant Triathlete, Running, Swimming, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

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