As 2023 dawned way back in January, I realised I was due to have a ‘significant’ birthday in the middle of this year. It made sense to me that I mixed my passion with logic, so a triathlon with a foreign holiday seemed the perfect solution.
The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon had been on my bucket list for many years, but I always felt it was impractical to enter. This was my chance (although came at a high financial price, as my daughter wanted to join me for the event, with my wife supporting).
Competitors are drawn via a lottery, so it was very fortunate that both my daughter and I were selected. This created lots of motivation for both training and logistical planning. Escape is not a standard distance triathlon. It is generally 1.5-mile swim, 18-mile bike and 8-mile run. However, the distances are deceiving as the swim currents and ride/run gradients make the event very challenging – particularly if you have had a significant birthday! It is not recommended for people new to triathlon.
My daughter (Ellie) and I chose to follow 70.3 training plans to compensate for the probable harshness of the event and, in the cold light of day, feel this was best choice.
We arrived at San Francisco airport on 7th June and were mildly alarmed by the Ironman bags and tattoos of passengers at passport control. The pre-race briefing on the 10th only served to increase our concern, as many more competitors were Ironman athletes and Ellie and I had not trained for that full distance.
On 11th June we rose at 0300 hrs to eat sandwiches and fumble our way to set up at transition. The logistics were a little confusing as there was also a primary transition area at the swim exit and we also had to take buses to the ferry.
Fortunately, the planning worked, and we found ourselves on the San Francisco Belle steaming out of the harbour as day was breaking. The boat is a large ferry with all contents removed, so around two thousand competitors are nervously laying around for the journey out to Alcatraz. As we neared the island, our nerves were cleverly increased by a pause for the American National Anthem, a mention that it was sixty-one years to the day that three inmates ‘possibly’ escaped and that that currents were particularly strong that day, so the drop-off point was yet further from the swim exit! (I swam a direct line yet covered two miles).
At the sound of the claxon, hoards of neoprene clad people began shuffling to the exit points following the Pros. Within around ten minutes, over two thousand people were off the boat and attempting to make landfall.
Sighting was a big challenge with well over four knots of cross current and varying swell. Ellie and I were soon parted but shared a similar strategy – stick in a group. Fortunately, I was able to leave a couple of groups and advanced up the field in the right direction. Ellie was less lucky and was hailed, along with around three hundred others way past the exit point by a safety boat. The current was far too strong to swim against, so she and the rest of the large group had to land on the beach and run back. With the cross flow of the current I was able to average 1m 10 sec per 100m so I shouldn’t complain about the water!
Although transition was split, where kit was removed was a personal choice and I was soon on the bike. The first element of the ride is flat, so a good opportunity to hydrate and get calories on board. Then the climbing starts. The ride is only short but full of long, winding climbs with the same, technical descents. I was amazed to see the Pros flying along in the opposite direction and strangely motivated when I saw other amateur athletes pushing bikes up some of the climbs.
The ride was over far too quickly, and I was off out on the run. This again started with a flat section, but then begins one long climb that includes a section of pedestrian pathway that can only be walked due to gradient. Around the halfway point the course descends to the beach, which, like all parts of the event, has an amazing backdrop, but remains testing due to the surface. After a turnaround point, the course leads to the infamous Sand Ladder. This is the route off the beach and consists a series of logs, joined by cable laid in the soft sand up a steep climb. Again, this can only be walked, whether professional or not, and is eased slightly by the rope rail at the side to help pull on. Once completed, the burn in the legs subsides and the remainder is downhill and flat, all the way to the finish.
I am relatively new to triathlon, starting in 2016 and have completed around twenty events of varying distances, all in the UK until now. Alcatraz was special. The toughest, yet most rewarding. I was the best prepared I have ever been, and I felt strong throughout the day. For the first time I truly, ‘Planned to race, race to plan’. I was twentieth out of sixty in my new age group, so no podium for me, but quite respectable and, I believe in the top third overall. It was by far the best triathlon I have ever taken part in (no disrespect to UK events). Similarly, my daughter had a great time. At the end of the race, Ellie said it was fantastic, but she never wants to do it again. I also thought it was fantastic but would certainly do it again.