Alcatraz Finisher’s Medals
The first thing I’d like to say about this race is that it wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be. That statement comes with a lot of caveats, however. First of all, I always think things will be worse than they end up being. Secondly, I may have both over-prepared and set very low goals for myself; so, your experience (if you are lucky enough to do this race) may be quite different — depending on your expectations of the race and of yourself. This race report will not give you any particularly great tips on how to be fast on this course. But it could help you plan for a successful escape, nevertheless :-). In short, I loved the race & highly recommend trying to do it!
(I’ve posted several pictures here that I purchased through MarathonFoto. They provided “race highlight” pictures; so that was how I got the shots from the swim and so forth. The other pictures were either taken by me or my support crew…)
You definitely want to get to San Francisco at least two days before the race. I had initially made the mistake of planning to arrive the day before the race, but I changed our arrival to two days before later on, and I’m so glad I did. Traveling really wears you out, and it’s good to have at least one day to recover from the stress and energy of getting there. If you can swing it, arrive three days before – so you have more time to ride the course and get a swim in. But that can be done even if you only arrive two days before as well. We had a whole vacation planned for the week after the trip. So, we could only afford to take so many days beforehand. But getting there 2-3 days before also helps you acclimate to SF’s interesting weather. It was foggy/misty much of the first half of each day with the sun coming out in the afternoon. I was happy to have a fleece jacket to throw on whenever it chilled down.
We stayed at the Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf, and it was fine. It was a little further away from the race site than the race hotel (Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf), but only by a couple of blocks. You will have a nice little walk/bike ride to the transition area race morning no matter where you stay (from what I could tell). So another couple of blocks didn’t make a big difference. I was glad I had a headlamp for the ride to transition at 3:30 am on race morning! (You do not rack your bike the day before. You take it down with you the morning of.) Also, the Sheraton was one of the hotels that gave a special rate to Alcatraz participants, and it saved us $100/night, plus they had a nice $1/day parking package as well. Parking is expensive in SF, so be sure to account for that. Pretty much any hotel in the Fisherman’s Wharf area is good for the race and for sightseeing. We planned to do all our sightseeing after the race (to save my legs from walking too much beforehand).
I shipped my bike using TriBike Transport, and that worked out well. They shipped to Sports Basement, which is located within walking distance of the race area. You can also rent a bike at Sports Basement if you want to save money. And I think you can rent a wetsuit there as well. If you go that route, I suspect you should put your order in early to get what you want. I’m weird about my bike & wanted to feeling confident riding something I was used to. Either way – if you rent or do TriBike, it’s nice that you can just drop off the bike right after the race. I also shipped a gear bag, allowing me to get rid of my race stuff and not carry it around for the rest of our trip.
In the couple of days I had before the race, I picked up my bike, took it for a spin, and did a short swim at the Aquatic Park. I had done the Alcatraz RealVideo ride on the Computrainer and decided against riding the course, since I sort of knew it already. But I would still recommend riding it beforehand if you have the chance. If I had ridden the course, I might have done it a little more aggressively in the actual race.
Another special thing I got to do on the Saturday before the race is meet Patrick — a reader of this blog, who is also a kidney donor. It was so cool to meet him in person and talk to him and his friend David. They had ridden their bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge to meet with us near the expo. Patrick is an avid cyclist, and I envy him for being able to bike-commute to work every day across the GG Bridge! He has also done “Levi’s Ride”, which is organized by and named for pro cyclist Levi Leipheimer. I hope we can stay in touch with Patrick over the years. He’s definitely a kindred spirit! Who knows, maybe we will go back to the Bay Area again – so my husband, Craig, can do this race! His friend David had invited some other triathletes from Ireland to meet up as well, and David gave us all tips about the swim, which he has done several times.
Packet pickup started at 10 am, but we did not get there until 11 am. The line was seriously long by that point. So, if you hate waiting in line, you might want to get there extra early. Luckily, a friend who had moved to SF was also there and hung out with us in line; so catching up with him during that time made it go by faster. Another good thing – for your support crew – is that the expo is going on all around packet pickup. So, they can mill around and get a snack while waiting for you. In 2014, they had us bring our stuff for the post-swim transition bag. In it, we could put running shoes to run from the swim exit to the main Transition area, plus a small towel and a small bottle of water. If they do that again in future years, be sure not to forget this stuff when you come to packet pickup (along with your USAT card if you have one). There is a Safeway grocery store not too far away also — in case you need to pick up a bottle of water. It is good for rinsing some of that salt water out of your mouth after the swim.
At the Escape expo
Not long after the packet pickup, they had one of the “mandatory” athlete meetings in the same area. I’m glad I was there for it, but if you watch the videos on the website, you get most of the same info. One good tidbit was the current water temperature. For 2014, we lucked out & it was 58 degrees F. That made me very happy, as I had thought it would be as low as 52. My practice swim also confirmed that the water would not be as shocking as I had feared.
Two nights before the race, we ate at Tommaso’s Italian restaurant on Kearny St (in the Financial District). My sister had researched it and read that it had good reviews. It was really good & I highly recommend it. The night before the race, we ate at Boudin Sourdough Bakery & Cafe in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. They have a lot of seafood dishes, but I went with the chicken club, which was good. My husband and I also split one of the salads. There is plenty of bread for carb-loading, if you like to do that. I liked that it was close to the hotel & we could get back to the room early – so I could apply all my race number stickers and pack my transition bag. (We ate at another one of the Boudin locations the day after the race and had the clam chowder in the bread bowl. Very yummy!)
I was able to go to bed really early the night before the race, because my body was still on East Coast time. Of course, that also meant that I woke up about an hour too early, but that was okay by me. I had my breakfast (a banana and PB&J), got myself together, and headed out on my bike with my transition bag. It was chilly, and my fleece top over my Tri suit just barely kept me warm. I could have been better off with some tights or something over my legs as well. I got to transition really early and had to wait for it to open up. After I hit the port-o-potty & set up my transition area, I was pretty cold. Luckily, they already had the shuttle buses ready and waiting to take us to the pier for the ride to Alcatraz. My husband was there by then, so I kissed him goodbye and jumped on one of the buses. (There were a couple of things that I did not do in transition that I normally would do… For one thing, they did body marking at packet pickup the day before. So, I didn’t have to worry about that race morning. Also, I elected not to pump up my tires that morning. There was a long line to pump tires, and since I had pumped them up the day before at Sports Basement, I figured they were okay, given that the mist might still be on the roads when we got to the bike portion of the race. It was nice that Sports Basement had pumps out and available to use just inside the store, so no need to bring your own.)
The shuttle bus was nice, comfortable, and warm. I enjoyed talking to the other triathletes while we waited to get to the ferry. It was interesting to talk to people who had done the race multiple times and also to note how many people were there from other countries. Interestingly, there seemed to be a lot from the UK and Australia. When we arrived at the pier, there was a little wait before we could get on the ferry. But they had port-o-potties there and water – so you could stay hydrated. This was also where we turned in our before/after-race clothes bag. You had a choice: you could turn in your bag outside the ferry and expect to get it back right after the race; or you could keep it with you until the last minute and leave it on the ferry, but you might have to wait for it a little while after the race. I chose to turn mine in right away, but that meant I had to put my wetsuit on early to stay warm.
San Francisco Belle (ferry to the Swim Start)
The Swim (42:40)
As the island got closer, you could feel the tension in the air. You have plenty of time on the boat ride out – to talk to other triathletes and think about what’s coming up. They also have water for you to drink, and of course bathrooms on the boat. Some people stood outside as we neared Alcatraz, but I stayed inside. I wanted to stay warm as long as I could. They did a loop around the island before stopping at the “start”. It was neat to see it all up close after looking at it from shore for two days. They played the National Anthem, and that made me a little emotional. Finally, after months of stressing about this swim, it was about to happen!
They herded us to the open doors on the ferry, and volunteers reminded us to have our goggles on, then told us to JUMP! I did as they said, and I was sure to hold my goggles against my face as I jumped, then quickly moved away from the boat as soon as I could. The water did not take my breath away as I had feared. I took a moment to look back at the island before really getting into my swim stroke. At first, I didn’t think it was very choppy, and I was relieved. I started swimming toward the apartment towers like they tell you. It was at this point that it started to feel more like a washing machine, and the swim seemed even more crowded than in the Ironman race I had done.
You have to swim “across the river” as they say – meaning the river of current that would slowly push you to the Golden Gate Bridge to your right if you didn’t cross the “river” soon enough. You sight on the twin apartment towers first and then the trees and the three piers of Fort Mason. It seems like you are trying to swim toward them forever before you can focus on your next sighting spots – the yacht clubs and the Palace of Fine Arts. This was the point at which the choppiness started to get to me, and I knew I was swallowing a lot of that salty, brackish water. But I kept going, and slowly but surely, I got closer to the red-roofed St. Francis Yacht Club, whose beach we were to land on. I was so pleased when I could look up and see people scrambling out of the water. I was also relieved that I didn’t over-shoot it. I had thought it might take me an hour to do the swim, but when I looked at my watch on the beach, it had only taken 42 minutes!
You then run down the beach (where I happily waved to my sister & her husband on the sidelines) and you run over to a mini-transition area, where they have laid out everyone’s post-swim bags in rows. You can take off your wetsuit and stuff it in the bag with your goggles and cap, then throw on your running shoes. I chose to leave my wetsuit on and run the half mile to the real transition area that way. It wasn’t too bad and warmed me up a little. I was glad I had shoes on (some people do it barefoot). I also had a different pair of shoes in transition for the real run, because the first pair get all wet & sandy.
I took my time in T-1. I was so happy to be done with the swim and wanted to make sure everything was good to go on the bike. I also made a pit stop at the port-o-potties. I put a bike jersey on over my tri top and wore arm warmers and gloves. I knew the bike might start out a little chilly. But I was glad I could still feel my hands and feet despite the chilly swim. Since it was not against the rules, I carried my phone with me (in my race belt) on the bike and the run so that my friends and family could track me using the RaceJoy app. I checked the app really quick to make sure it was working and then headed out on the bike. I could tell that all the water I swallowed was affecting my stomach a little. I took some Tums to try to calm my stomach.
The Bike (1:24)
Let me start out by saying that I could have done the bike much faster if I had wanted to. My Garmin recorded a time of 1:24 for the bike, and I was happy with that. But if I had really been racing, it could have been much faster. On one hand, I was worried about the up-hills. And on the other hand, I was worried about the downhills. So, I planned to take everything slowly and stay out of everyone’s way. Well, the up-hills were not bad at all. Maybe I just rode much tougher hills in training or something, and riding it on the Computrainer made it seem harder. But I was pleasantly surprised either way. (For Annapolis-area folks: I still believe Chesterfield Rd to Hawkins is harder than anything on this course. Go do 18 miles of hill repeats there & you will be fine.)
On the bike
There is one 12% grade that comes at a turn around mile 12. You need to be prepared and get in your smallest gear on that turn, but otherwise, the hills are really do-able as long as you have trained for them.
The downhills were another story, though. You need to know how to descend in order to really race on those downhills. They are twisty-turny, and a couple of them have a sharp turn at the bottom. I saw a guy completely wipe out taking the downhill too fast after the second time you pass the Legion of Honor. My advice is to slow down where they tell you to do so. It’s not worth it to go too fast down those hills. But that’s coming from me – a person who doesn’t know how to descend well. I took it ridiculously slow, but that was okay with me.
Last hill of the bike
Other than the hills, there is a lot of great scenery on the ride! I wish I could have gone back and done it again just to enjoy it. The Presidio and Golden Gate Park are beautiful, and the views of the GG Bridge and the coastline are breathtaking! You can take in some nutrition on the flat part out and then as you go through the park. But the rest of the time, you are either going up or going down.
I saw my husband on the last hill of the bike, and I saw my sister and brother-in-law just before the transition area. They all knew just where to catch me thanks to RaceJoy. In T-2, I moved a little faster, feeling relieved that the swim and bike were both done. I took off the bike jersey but forgot to take off my arm warmers. So, out on the run, I just scrunched them down around my wrists. The sun was coming out, and the GG Bridge was shining in the distance. It was a beautiful day. I had no goals for the run – other than to enjoy it.
The Run (1:23)
The views of the bridge and the beach were again spectacular on the run. You have a couple sets of stairs in addition to the infamous sand ladder, and it was on the first set of stairs that I felt how tired I was. I was glad that you pretty much had to walk them – since people bunched up on them a little. As we continued the run, which has some good inclines on it, I relaxed and started talking to other people. We were all so happy and just taking it all in. The portion of the run that is on the beach drains your legs a bit, but it’s so fabulous to look around and see the view that you don’t really think about it.
Beach portion of the run
The sand ladder is definitely a place to walk, and it’s good to use the cables to pull yourself up. Some of the wooden steps are loose, so you have to be a little careful.
My husband found me on the sand ladder and seeing him took my mind off things. (For spectators: it’s possible to catch racers twice on the bike and twice on the run if you hang out in the general area of the sand ladder.)
Me on the Sand Ladder
After that point of the run, you still go up a little bit, but you really feel like it’s all downhill from there. I started to feel overjoyed even though I still had 2-3 miles to go. Running in the flat section back to the finish, the photographers can get a good shot of you with the GG Bridge in the background. So be sure to smile 🙂
Heading to the finish of the run
The finish line is just as great as they say — with a huge crowd and the grand stands. They give you a medal and take your timing chip, and then you have the post-race food and festival area. I can never eat right after a race, but it looked good. I opted to just walk around a bit and take in the accomplishment. I realized that the race itself was not so hard. It was the idea of it that had become monumental to me. And that’s what made me feel so glad to have survived… and escaped!
Near the finish line
My total time for the race was 3:53, and I was happy with that. I had estimated a time of 4 hours. For the distance, that’s a slow time – but with the difficulty of this race, I felt pretty good about it. I know that people who go back and do it multiple times probably want to improve on their finish time in each attempt. But since I only wanted to finish, I was happy. I heard that even though it’s a lottery system, people who have done the race before get some sort of advantage in the selection. I think my husband will try to get into the race again, and if he does – I will be happy to be his supporter on the sidelines.
After the race, we hung out in San Francisco another day and went on the official Alcatraz tour. I really recommend it. It was neat to see the iconic place first-hand – after escaping from there! And you learn all about the prisoners who really did try to escape. We also stopped and had clam chowder from a sourdough bowl in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.
Next, we drove our rental car to Yosemite National Park and did a lot of hiking. We hiked up to Cloud’s Rest one day (14 miles) and got a permit to hike up Half Dome the next day (16 miles). These are both pretty strenuous hikes, but very rewarding with great views and waterfalls (on the Half Dome hike). If you don’t want to do the whole Half Dome hike, you can see the falls by just doing the Mist Trail hike. Plus, there is so much more to see in Yosemite.
We stayed outside the park – at a bed and breakfast called Red Tail Ranch. Very cozy and fun. From there, we drove to Monterey, CA and spent two days there. Lots to see and do and a nice running/biking trail along the coast. We recommend eating at the Old Fisherman’s Grotto on the wharf and also –for breakfast- at Rosine’s on Alvarado. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Cannery Row, and it was perfect.
From there, we drove through Gilroy (garlic capital of the world) and Half Moon Bay (very cute town) on our way back to San Francisco to fly out.
We spent our last night in San Bruno –right by the airport. If you find yourself waiting for a flight out of SFO and want a bite to eat, we highly recommend this little hole in the wall Mexican place called Taqueria San Bruno. (This was another place my sister found.) It was so good!
Thanks to everyone who gave me encouragement leading up to this race. I had to overcome some fear, but it was really worth it! I especially thank my husband, without whom I never would have even considered doing something like this!
Until the next adventure!