Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Escape from Alcatraz race report

Here I am...I'm back at work after Alcatraz race weekend, overlapped (actually engulfed) by a one week visit from my family. Before and after the race, I had plenty of time to hang out and relax with them up at Sanborn-Skyline where they were staying in their truck camper. They left this morning, and it's always too soon. :-(

Saturday morning, I got up and checked all my gear. Packing for Alcatraz was not nearly as complicated as packing for Wildflower--no camping involved, and I would be eating dinner out that night. I met up with Liz E. (also doing the race) around 11-noon and we headed up to the city to pick up our race packets and go to the pre-race information meeting. We got to the city a bit after 1, checked out where our hotel was, and headed down to Crissy Field.

We picked up our race packets and got the best race swag I've gotten yet: a solid drawstring messenger bag, nice t-shirt (not dry-fit, unfortunately), a race number belt, and a new pair of goggles. Cool! Toured the expo (same old stuff) and then headed over to the Sports Basement, so I could replace my arm warmers (they'd fallen into a vortex earlier in the week and I could not find them ANYWHERE). Ran back to the hotel and checked in--is it just me, or does San Francisco have more than it's fair share of scuzzy-ass hotels? And then zipped back down for the 4pm meeting.

About 300 athletes hunkered down in the damp grass at Crissy Field. It was cold, less than 60 degrees, and foggy. I had my beanie pulled down tight over my ears, and I'd already switched out the lenses in my sunglasses to red for low light conditions. The weather was supposed to me more of the same on Sunday, and of course, I'd be out MUCH earlier. The course review was pretty comprehensive, and the info about the swim turned out to be very helpful. I found out later that they have someone swim the course the day before the race every year to determine conditions as accurately as possible. Anyway, the water temperature was 57 degrees, which, if you can believe it, is WARM for an Alcatraz swim. The current at 7am would be flowing west toward the Golden Gate at roughly 4.8 knots, about 5-6mph. It sounded like my best bet would be to sight on the middle pier at Fort Mason as long as I could, and once past it, swim straight toward the Palace of Fine Arts. I'd already driven the bike course, and the run didn't sound all that daunting (aside from the Sand Ladder) so I was feeling pretty confident.

After a light chicken and pasta dinner and Pasta Pomodoro, Liz and I turned in around 830-9pm.

The alarm went off at 2:55am. Why so early? First-timers are expected to be on the first few shuttles to the San Francisco Belle.

Anyway, I got up, pulled on my tri shorts and tri top, sweats, fleece, fluffy socks, Crocs, and beanie. Choked down a pear bar and a Clif bar and chased it with some Propel. Geeesh. Tummy not so happy with having to accept food at such an obscene hour. Scrambled to get all our gear and other stuff out the door, and managed to get down to the parking area under 101 at about 350am. Loaded down precariously with our heavy transition bags, we mounted our bikes and rode down Mason Avenue to the Marina Green. It was dark, and it was a bit eerie to ride our bikes without lights on them. We could see the transition area up ahead, awash in bright splashes of headlights and the hurried ministrations of several hundred nervous triathletes.

At the entrance to the transition area, there was a big Enterprise truck waiting with race volunteers to collect our swim-out gear. I handed them a white bag with my bib number on it, trusting that the spare running shoes, socks, powergel, and hoodie it contained would be waiting for me when I emerged from the Bay onto the Marina Beach sometime about 745am.

I then made my way to my transition area and did my best to set it up properly. I was a bit addled being up at that hour, and I'd never set up a transition in the dark before. I remembered to fill my fuel belt flasks and set up my run gear. Bike gear no problem; I'm used to that. Set out my arm warmers and a pack towel to dry off with...later it would turn out to be even harder than I thought it would be to pull arm warmers onto damp arms.

I stepped back, took a deep breath, and walked away from all my beloved tri gear--trusting that it would be well-guarded in the interim. Hardest of all: I'd decided to do the race WITHOUT my contacts, meaning that I would essentially be blind until I got to my bike and pulled on my sunglasses, which have prescription clip-ins. I found Liz and we hopped onto the nearest bus.

The bus took us down to the San Francisco Belle, a Hornblower Yacht. I can't remember which Pier it leaves from...28? Maybe 30? Anyway, we got off the bus and found that we were among the first to arrive at the boat. I immediately lined up for body marking. The smell of the ink caused my nervous stomach to churn restlessly. Soon my bib number, 665, was branded in heavy black permanent marker on my hands, biceps, and across my quads. My not-yet age, 30, was written in HUGE numbers across the back of my left calf. Grr.

That chick did a good job, too. Today is Wednesday and I'm still covered with black ink.

After that, it was time to hurry-up-and-wait. We stood around on the pier, willing the sun to come up and the breeze to die down. It was 450am. The conversation was nervous and speculative; after all, we were all early, which meant we were all first-timers.

Gradually, the pier filled up as busload after busload of triathletes arrived from the transition area. Before I knew it, it was 615 and time to board the Belle! I managed to get up front with Liz, and we stepped aboard. Signs posted inside the boat indicated the general areas we were to stage ourselves. 29 and under, first deck fore. 30-39, first deck aft. Everyone else older than that, upstairs. Not sure where the pros were.

I understand that Hornblower cruises are boozy dinner cruises. Well, you can tell! The moment we stepped on board, Liz turned to me and exclaimed "This boat smells like VOMIT!" And it did. Their was no furniture inside and we just tried to carve out a little personal space on the carpet. Lined up at the bar (which was huge, by the way) were hundreds of plastic cups and pitchers filled with ice water, a nice touch.

Once full, the boat pulled away from the pier for the half-hour slog out to the island. Suddenly, you could feel the adrenaline in the air. I looked around, and most people around me were already in their wetsuits. I personally like to wait a bit to avoid overheating. To our left, there were a couple of guys from Canada in SPEEDOS, with no wetsuits in sight. They looked surprisingly laid back about the whole thing. People were hopping up and down, stretching, doing frantic arm circles. I went ahead and put Body Glide on my neck, shoulders, wrists, ankles, elbows and knees, in preparation for the squirm into my wetsuit. At 645, I downed one last shot of powergel and chased it with a big slug of water, then pulled on my suit. I pulled on both swim caps (one for warmth and a red one to indicate my age group) and screwed my earplugs into place.

As we approached the starting point, Terry Davis (the director of Tri California) came over the boat's PA system and led a prayer. Then some girl sang the national anthem. Then, they began announcing the pros and the challenged athletes that would be in the first wave, at 7am. It was pretty cool, actually--there was a relay team of veterans from Iraq who were all amputees.

With 3 minutes to go, I grabbed some ice water and poured it into my suit through the neck. I shuddered and then it immediately began to create an insulating layer. Steph had recommended doing this to help mitigate the initial shock of jumping into the icy-cold bay.

7am, we heard the blast of a horn and the pros were off! Then the excitement really began. Because it is so hard for a boat to hold its position in the bay with the strong currents, there was only a six minute window to unload all 2000 of us off the boat. For perspective, most triathlons that size have a wave of maybe 100 athletes going every five minutes or this had to be FAST. We filed toward the exits on the starboard side in a big crush. It was very WWII, with volunteers jabbing us and shouting "You, GO! You, GO! You, GO! You, GO!"

All my fear and nervousness were gone. Adrenaline and excitement took over. I looked back at Liz, shouted, "see you after the race!" ...and leaped down into the frothy water, shrieking with joy as I did it!

The SWIM: Once in the water, I struck out hard to get away from the boat. I was in an early "wave" so there were still better than 1000 athletes jumping over the side. I didn't want to end up underneath one of them! I went about 100 yards, and then stopped to get my bearings. I could see Fort Mason, a big yellow building, a bit to the west. I began to swim in that direction. There was a bit of a headwind and the swells were a couple feet high for the first 1/4 mile or so. Swimmers were still all bunched up at this point, so I kept having to adjust to get around people or speed up when my foot got grabbed. After I'd gone about 1/3 of a mile, I flipped over on my back to have a look.

Not many people get the opportunity to do this swim; it's really the swim of a lifetime. I had a "seal's eye" view of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, and city laid out right in front of me. It was amazing, and I probably spent about 90 seconds just gazing around in awe. I knew I would have a slower swim, but I didn't care. It's all in the name of recreation, after all!

After that, I put my head down and set to work. I had to sight pretty frequently. The current didn't so much pull me off course as it turned me in the wrong direction. I kept popping my head up and finding myself veering to far to the west. I got to the point where Fort Mason was to my east, and started sighting for the golden dome of the Palace of Fine Arts.

At this point, I could feel the current picking up. The beach got closer and closer, faster and faster! Unfortunately, because I didn't have my contacts in, I couldn't see where I was supposed to get out of the water until it was too late and the current had pulled me past! A volunteer in a kayak paddled over and hollered at me to swim to my left. I turned and pulled my way in toward the beach, against the current, for about 100 yards. According to my dad, several hundred swimmers got pulled pretty far off course--it tends to be a newbie mistake at Alcatraz. I kept swimming, past wading triathletes, until I could feel the sand touch my hand. Then I popped up and ran onto the beach.

Swim Transition: Once on the beach, I ran up a ramp to a lawn just above the sand. I had my wetsuit unzipped and around my waist and my cap and goggles off pretty quick. I looked around the cheering crowd for my family, but couldn't see them. Once I was in the transition area, a race volunteer grabbed my arm and steered me down an aisle of bags, 650-699! I guess he must have seen the number written on my hand. I ran down the row right to my bag.

I was pretty disoriented and couldn't feel my hands very well. I was moving pretty slow, and decided I was okay with that. I stepped out of my wetsuit and flung off my Under Armour (added on the boat as an extra layer for the cold swim). I downed a gel, dumped baby powder on my feet to soak up the water, and managed to pull on my hoodie, socks and spare running shoes. Then it was off and running toward the bike transition, about 1/2 mile away on the Marina Green. On the way, I ran past my smiling, shouting family and friends!

Bike Transition: Once there, I pulled off my shoes and hoodie and tried to pull on my arm warmers. NOT! It took me a bit of effort to get my arms dry enough. I threw on my helmet and sunglasses. Hallelujah--I could see again! Stepped into my shoes, grabbed my bike, and ran to the mount line. By this time, my family had caught up. I jumped on my bike and accelerated down Mason Ave, past their smiling faces.

The BIKE: I would have smoked this bike course, wimpy descending and all, if I hadn't dropped my chain THREE TIMES. Grrr. I need to get a compact double crank! But I digress.

This was a beautiful, beautiful ride. That alone made it amazing, speed (or lack thereof) aside. We climbed up to the Presidio through thick fog and rode past the Legion of Honor. As I began the second decent ascent on the way out, I had a piece of good fortune. Heading back in descending the other side of the road were the first of the pros! I managed to pick out a few that I recognized. They looked amazing, hunched low over their pursuit bars, announced by the low rumble of carbon disc wheels.

After a few more descents followed by hard corners, I'd made it out to Point Lobos. I'd almost reached the Cliff House when I dropped my chain the first time. It was okay; I was headed downhill and it was off the front chainring. Pretty typical. I hopped off and managed to get it back on in no time, and had no trouble getting started since it was on a descent to the Great Highway.

After heading down the Great Highway for about a mile, the course looped into and around the western half of Golden Gate Park. By this time I was cruising pretty well--I like the flats and my knee was feeling good. Nobody was passing me anymore, and except for the rough pavement here and there in the park I was able to get down and crank pretty hard.

We popped back out onto the Great Highway and went back the way we came, up Point Lobos. As we curved back to the east, the road steepened. I shifted down so I could save a little for the steepest part of Clement...

...and dropped my chain again. I was headed uphill, and this time it had come off my rear cassette. Crap and double crap. I swore profusely, much to the apparent amusement of a nearby cop marshaling the course. I managed to dismount fast enough to avoid tipping over, and then had to walk uphill to a parking lot so I'd be in a spot flat enough to clip back in and get started again. After wrestling with the chain awhile, I finally got it back on. I mounted, clipped in, started pedaling, and promptly dropped the chain AGAIN. I hopped off, pretty mad now. This time I threaded it onto one of the cogs in the middle, and decided I would just go without a few of the easiest gears for the remaining hills.

I jumped on and began spinning madly up the rest of Point Lobos. Everyone I'd flown by in the park was now up ahead of me. Grrrrrrr! We swung a quick right back onto Clement for a nasty short steep SF hill. I was so mad I didn't even downshift, just cranked through it.

The ride back in was uneventful for me; a few noticeable hills and one BAD accident on the last sizeable descent. Evidently it involved four riders. It was so bad that there were THREE fire trucks parked around the scene, blocking it from view, as we went past. Scary.

I made it back down to Mason Avenue and cranked all the way in to transition. I passed Liz on my way in; she was already running out. I hit the dismount, and ran in to transition.

Run Transition: I took my time a bit here. My family was right by the fence, taking pictures of me, asking me if I was okay and how was I feeling, so I chatted with them a bit. I'd forgotten to leave my shoe laces loosened and untied, so that slowed me down a bit. Other than that, no problem. I ran out on legs that were feeling pretty fresh--could have gone a bit harder in the hills on the bike! As I ran out, the first of the professional women were approaching the finish. It was pretty exciting; there were news crews everywhere and a helicopter hovering over the finsh line and transition area.

Run: The run was my best event Sunday. It's 8 miles, and it starts out flat through Crissy Field, then heads under the Golden Gate Bridge, and climbs up some stairs and trails toward the Presidio. After a while on the road, it drops back down to Baker Beach, and there's about 1/2 mile out and then back in the sand. After that, it's the dreaded Sand Ladder, several hundred steep steps back up to the road. Then there are 3 miles to go--a long, gradual uphill (which was pretty easy after the Sand Ladder) and then downhill and flat back in.

I was feeling pretty fresh and solid the whole time. I ran it all except the steepest, narrowest parts of the trails and stairs and the Sand Ladder. I even had the opportunity to chat with a few out-of-towners along the way.

It was such a beautiful race, and I couldn't believe it was almost over already! I slowed down a bit under the bridge to have a lok around me. I watched a huge cargo ship pulling into the bay under the bridge, and marveled at the thought that it would soon be motoring its way right through the course I'd just swum. I wondered if it had had to wait outside the bay awhile, until everyone was finished.

As the course flattened out onto Crissy Field, I focused on picking up my cadence. I wanted a strong finish with a smile so my family could get some good pictures. It was almost like I could feel their engery pulling me in; I picked it up for the last two miles of the course.

I hit the Green, rounded the corner into the finish chute, and took one more look back out at the island. My family was right there to my left, cheering me on. I had done it--hailed as one of the toughest tris in the world, something that hundreds of triathletes would love the chance for, I had "escaped" from Alcatraz!


holly said...

What a great accounting of the race! It made me nervous to read about your getting ready. I'm glad it was a good experience for you :)

bob.needham said...

Best description of the race course that I've read. I'm doing it this year and the run course description was particularly helpful. I'll make a point to avoid people dropping their chains. :-)

horstkotte said...

Awesome description - helped me a lot today at 2009s Escape. Thanks!!