scenic view of waterfall in forest

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon 2021

That was so fun. Thank you so much to all the volunteers and race staff for smoothly running such an amazing event. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun racing before. Or been in so much pain for so long racing before. After all, a 2k (rowing race) in college was extremely painful but only lasted 7-9 minutes depending on the weather. I was feeling 2k pain for at least the last 45 minutes of the run. But, as with the 2ks, my teammates, my supporters, my carb fuel from the past few days (ft. Banana Oat Bread and Beet Tomato Pasta), and the finish line got me to really leave my all on the course.

Quick overview for those unfamiliar with this race: It is a triathlon (swim, bike, run) in which one jumps off a boat and swims about 2 miles from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, bikes multiple hills adding to ~1600ft elevation gain over 18 miles past Golden Gate Bridge, Ocean Beach, and through Golden Gate Park, and then runs 8 miles over 2 more hills resulting in about 550ft of elevation gain, including on gravel and dirt trails and along a beach and up 400 sand steps (known as the “Sand Ladder”).

I awoke at 2:59am, after a night of quite vivid dreams of biking and running the hills of the race. This was likely my fault, as I’d visualized it before falling asleep. I tried to go back to sleep but epically failed and got out of bed around 3:45—so early, considering the swim didn’t even start until 7:30. But there was much to do. Kevin got up with me—he definitely wins the supporter prize. I had a banana and two nearly burnt pieces of toast for breakfast, one with blueberry jam, and one with almond butter. I filled a water bottle with Tropical Buzz Tailwind and left another plain. The plan was to drink my calories on the bike. I also put in contact lenses, which was odd, as I’ve had no occasion to wear them for almost two years (I usually bike with my glasses on and swim blurred). Anyway, I did some quick knee exercises, and at 4:20 on the dot we loaded my bike and were off. We pumped some Queen in the car and got there around 4:50 to find that there were already so many people there and it was so dark! (And the officials were already telling us to hurry up since the last shuttle to the boat left at 6.)

There was a gentle westerly wind. It was clear enough that I could see the shadow of Alcatraz Island off in the distance, a supposed couple miles of choppy water away. But it was foggy enough above and enough people were wearing headlamps that I couldn’t see stars. Shortly after I arrived, my friends (and teammates!) showed up. We set up our transition areas. The officials reminded us the last shuttle left at 6. We made a quick stop at the port-a-potties. We walked through the rows and rows of bikes—over 2,000 in total. Again, the officials reminded us the last shuttle left at 6. I decided to put on my wetsuit and apply all my bodyglide so I wouldn’t have to worry about it later. Oh, and the officials once again reminded us to get going. It was 5:20. A racer next to us arrived and we heard her shout of desperation when she realized she had forgotten her wetsuit. Finally, we listened to the officials and got on a shuttle. We made it onto the boat and found seats on the floor. Everyone was wearing masks, because… covid. The boat was disappointingly dirty—my feet were black by the time I sat down, and I even found a piece of glass on the carpet we were sitting on. Someone next to us asked us to watch her stuff while she went to the bathroom, but I was unsuccessful in warding off a couple old dudes who didn’t really listen to me when I said someone was sitting there. Anyway, we were off! There was some extra time, so the boat driver took us in a circle around the island. I had some bites of Mint Chocolate Clif bar and sips of water. Someone said that the prison had hot water for the inmates so that they wouldn’t get used to cold water and escape swimming, but I’m not sure if I believed them. Someone sang the National Anthem. Finally the preamble was over. We ripped off our masks, piled outside, and before I knew it I was taking the 4-foot plunge.

I think the water was pretty warm (maybe low 60s). I popped up and spotted the two towers I was told to aim for. There was supposed to be a big current pushing us west towards Golden Gate Bridge, but I don’t think it was very strong because I ended up going pretty straight towards those towers. I did change my landmark down the shore every 5-10 minutes (or so I estimated), but I still ended up too close to shore and too far east of the swim exit. I couldn’t see very well despite the contacts. There were a lot of waves. Sometimes I didn’t quite clear them and got sips of Bay water that burned my throat, but luckily I took no large gulps. At first I was in a crowd of swimmers, but by this point I saw maybe one other swimmer. I looked around and took in the sights of Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, now in the distance. A kayaker came up to me and told me I was still too close to shore. Ah well. I did make it west eventually, and under the cutoff time. I stumbled out of the water and tripped a couple times on the hard sand, a bit disoriented. I saw Kevin videotaping me and got a boost of energy for the 0.5-mile barefoot run to the transition for the bike segment. This run would have gone well, except I dropped my goggles when I took off my cap and had to backtrack to get them (thanks, spectator!). It was worth it though—they’re good Roka goggles. I had also meant to take off the top half of my wetsuit before taking off my cap and goggles, but I messed up the order so was trying to take the wetsuit off with one hand, which isn’t very fun, while running in a semi-crowd of people. But it happened and I made it to transition. All of my teammate’s bikes were still there! I was a mixture of worried because I hoped their swims were going okay, and relieved, because I knew they were faster bikers and runners than me and had been banking on the swim to give me some lead time (yes, we are teammates but I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t also racing them). My face was a gross black film of Bay water, and I used my extra water bottle and towel to clean it. I struggled a bit getting my wetsuit off over the timing chip on my left ankle, but, as with most things, eventually I succeeded. I put on my helmet, jammed my socks onto my still-damp and dirty feet, put on my bike shoes, had a bite of Salted Chocolate Rx bar, and lifted my bike off the rack. I was so excited to get going on the bike! And also to sit down for the next hour. As I started running with my bike I realized I’d forgotten to tighten my bike shoes on. So many things to remember to do!

I relaxed on the first part of the bike and took in about half my Tailwind water bottle, which was great. Overall, the bike went way better and faster than I thought it would. I drank all the contents of my water bottle (200 calories). I thought of my college coach, who would have been saying “be fearless” this early into the race. I played tag with some guys on fancier bikes than me. Thanks to the bike shop I went to the previous day when I freaked out that my rear tire had a hole large enough that a piece of glass could get in, I didn’t get a flat. On the bumpiest worst-paved segment of downhill I whispered “relax” to myself over and over again, and in the moment was just thankful I made it down without crashing. There were a lot of random people who cheered for us, and I saw a lot of my teammates throughout the course. By the end, my legs did not feel fried, my knees did not hurt, and I was excited to get off and run. This second transition was way smoother than the first—bike on rack, helmet off, bike shoes off, trail run shoes on, race belt and bib number on, no more dilly-dallying.                  

At first, the running felt pretty good. I got a great start seeing and cheering on the first pro racer who was running into the finishing shoot as I was starting the run. Soon my legs did get that jelly-like feeling, but it went away about five minutes in. I passed some spectators with signs saying “remember, you paid to do this,” and “pain is temporary, results are online forever,” which gave me some laughs. I was doing pretty well until about mile 1.5 when I felt like I wasn’t seeing too straight. I blamed my contacts and plunged ahead. I doubted I was dehydrated or hypoglycemic since I’d just had that waterbottle on the bike. Looking back, I might have been a little dehydrated though. I ran past all the aid stations since I thought they would slow me down, and I didn’t touch the Larabar attached to my race belt. I got into a nice rhythm and a spectator commented that I looked like I had good pacing (little did they know that my heart rate was probably about 170). Anyway, the first long climb started around mile 2. I walked up the stairs and ran the rest of the hill. At the top, I found Kevin, and he reminded me not to be afraid of going fast on the downhill. Going fast downhill felt great, but it was also really hard on the legs—I was feeling the burn by then. I also started to get a cramp in my mid-abdomen and thought I had to pee. Then, somewhat suddenly by accident, I was peeing. I think technically this is illegal, but… it was an accident. I felt bad for the person behind me, but maybe or hopefully they didn’t notice. We had just gotten to the beach though, and my socks and shoes were now soaking wet, extra sandy, and heavy. Bad timing. The run on the beach was longer than I’d practiced, and with the slanted ground my left knee started to bug me, and I got worried. Luckily it felt better after turning around. Birds were our spectators on the beach. It was beautiful. I did take this time to look at the bridge, its tips still shrouded in fog, and the island I’d come from earlier in the morning, the fighting sun rays making it an odd shade of grey in the distance. I saw a couple of my teammates at this point—one now ahead of me, and one behind me that I promised myself I’d try to beat but knew it would be a challenge. Now for the dreaded sand ladder. (Except it wasn’t “dreaded” in my head because I’d done it in practice runs and thought it was doable.) Of course, it’s hard to practice what you’ll feel like at the end of a race, so it actually was quite a dreadful trek up the sandy stairs (which also weren’t really stairs but more like a very steep sand hill with some wood planks in random places). But I made it to the top and back onto gravel trail, and I made a final push for the top of this last hill. Unfortunately, I was pretty beat at this point, and my breathing got very heavy, nearly asthmatic though I’d taken my inhaler four times that morning, so I ended up stopping to take a break. It felt like a long break but it was probably more like 10 seconds. A few people passed me with words of encouragement, and they got me going again to the top. Then I sped down the downhill and down some more stairs to the last flat 2-mile dirt section that would bring me to the finish. Man, what a long two miles. But also, what a great two miles. I wasn’t flying, but I kept running despite my nearly cramping legs and definitely uncontrollable breathing, and I thought to myself “wow, I feel like a triathlete,” followed closely by “I am never doing this again,” followed closely by “actually, this is so amazing, I’m going to enjoy this pain for a few more minutes, then I’m definitely doing this again.” A lot of people passed me on the last mile as I trudged to the finish. I glanced back a few times to see if the teammate I’d seen on the beach was closing on me, but I didn’t see her. But there was the finish! The finish shoot was on uneven grass and I had to pick up my feet more to not trip, which made my legs scream, but I didn’t think about it, just kept going, and then suddenly the commentator said my name, and it was over. We did it!

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