Friday, June 23, 2017

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon 2017

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon 2017

We have a guest blogger today - my son Riley! Recently he and his wife Lindsey were in San Francisco for the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. Yes, seriously, the swim starts on the island of Alcatraz.  Lindsey kept us informed all day with pictures and texts. Her father posted pictures on Facebook. Between the two of them, Riley, and one from the race people, I was able to put up some pictures to go with Riley's account of the day. Here is a link to the official site if you want to read more about the triathlon

Take it away Ry...

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon  6/11/17

June 11, 2017 at 6:27 A.M. I’m sitting on a ferry named “The San Francisco Belle” with 2,000 other athletes about to push off for Alcatraz Island.  We will unload in 7 minutes for the 1.5 mile swim to shore.  The last 6 months of training is flashing through my head and I have an extreme calm about this swim, I’m ready to rock.  Announcement comes over the PA system “Due to a small craft advisory, the Coast Guard and San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) have advised against the swim.  Our support craft have been unable to get into place and provide a safe environment.  We have canceled the swim and we’ll need everyone to de-board the boat and get back on the buses to transition.” 

Back in late September, after Ironman Chattanooga, I had a discussion with my wife about possibly doing the Escape from Alcatraz Tri since it was an off Ironman year.  I asked if she would be okay with me doing that swim or if she would be worried.  She said if I’m comfortable with that swim, then she’s comfortable with it…  Well, she may have known (and she probably did but never brought it up) and may not have but at that point I was terrified of it.  You’re swimming 1.5 miles, across some of the gnarliest currents you can imagine, usually in 3-5 foot rolling swells, some wind chop and really deep, dark, scary water.  Add in the video I found of a 12 foot great white breaching the surface to smoke a sea lion right where we jump in and well, it kept me up at night for a while.

This triathlon is known around the world and draws people from everywhere.  Because of this there is a random draw/lottery.  About 6,000 people enter the lottery and they take 2,000 athletes.  We didn’t even know if I’d get in.  Well I hit it my first try.  Paid the entry fee pretty quick to hold my slot and it got real.  So real that now my “good” swim needed to be a lot better than just, good.  I reached out to a few different friends and asked about swim coaches and who they would recommend.  That landed me to the group I’m with now, Bishop Racing.  If you were to see video of my swim in December (which we have somewhere, actually) to where it is now, it doesn’t even look like the same person.  Whole new stroke that is about 20-25 seconds per 100 yards faster as well as more efficient.  To put into perspective how serious I took this swim; Last year in the 9 months leading up to Chattanooga I swam about 99k yards for a 2.4 mile swim, this year in 5 months I swam over 175k yards for a 1.5 mile swim.   

Now you have read my background you have a small taste of what I went through to get to this point and hopefully understand what it took to get here..  I went from losing sleep, to being confident with a goal of being in the top 10% overall on the swim.  This didn’t come from being over confident or cocky, this came from hours upon hours of hard work.   As I write this I still can’t believe how calm I was on that boat.  All those laps in the pool (and one COLD open water swim in lake Mich), all I had thought about was this moment and how I would handle it.  I also swam in the SF bay Saturday morning to get a feel for the water, it was warmer than Lake Michigan!  I did just under a mile at an easy pace and averaged around a 1:28 per 100 yards. Compared to years past, that’s moving for me.  This was the icing on the cake for my confidence.

With that background information lets get to the morning of the race.  I woke up around 4:30 AM to grab some breakfast and not feel rushed.  We rented a nice 1 bedroom VRBO in the inner sunset district but the walls were paper thin so I was tip toeing around trying to not wake up Linds, My father -n-law Al, and Kris.  I left the Jeep for them to take down and just grabbed an Uber to the marina district where transition was.  Uber driver asked what I was doing that time of morning so full of energy and sober.  I told him, he told me I was crazy.  Nice guy.

I get down to transition and am absolutely freezing.  The wind was whipping pretty good already and it was in the 50’s.  I had my tri kit on underneath everything, jeans, long sleeve T, hoody and gloves. I was still cold.  I got my bike and run stuff set up pretty quick.  I racked my bike the day before so I could take the Uber.  I was going to go get some air in the tires but when I looked at the line it was maybe 40 people deep…  Did the squeeze test and trusted they were still somewhat around 100 PSI and it shouldn’t matter too much for 18 miles.  Headed to the bus to get taken down to the Ferry.  On the bus ride down I sat next to a guy from Atlanta, the guy in front of me was from Dallas and next to him was somewhere in Florida.  That reminds me of transition.  The guy behind me was from Russia (they had a team of 12 I think he said?), just down from him was Norway, met French and every corner from the US.  It truly is an international, high caliber athlete race.

Anyway we get dropped off at the boat and I finally change out of my clothes into my wetsuit (after I heard the Belle was heated) and gave them my bag to bring back to transition. I was on the boat around 5:40 AM and had a ton of time to kill.  Found a spot, sat down and struck up a convo with the guy next to me.  He was from Salt Lake City and I could tell he was pretty worried about the swim.  That’s really anyone on the boat talked about.  “I hear it’s down current this year”  “I hear a Sea Lion popped up in front of a guy and squealed at him”  “I hear (insert whatever you can dream up here)”, was pretty surreal.  The part I will remember most of the people watching is the “physically disabled” (in quotes cause I don’t know what else to say, badass is more appropriate) guys coming on here and there.  Most looked to be veterans but we’re talking a guy with ONE ARM, another with prosthetic legs and any combination of those.  Talk about humbling, here we are with everything operating 100% and these Studs come on, and without saying a word say, suck it up buttercup.  Hats off to those boys, beyond inspiring.

Back to the boat; Salt lake and I have been talking about all kinds of different things when a man enters the boat at 6:27 AM.  I know it was 6:27 because I looked at my watch when he started talking and thought “here we go!”  Boy was I wrong… 

“Everyone needs to be quiet for some very important announcements that are about to be made.” 

He then runs upstairs to I would assume announce the same thing (40 years old and older were upstairs) when a voice comes over the PA. 

“The US Coast Guard and SFPD have advised us there is a small craft advisory issued for the bay.” 

There were laughs and some cheers because this is known as being the most extreme swim in Tri.  20 seconds passed and he announces the same thing.  People are much quieter this time.

40 seconds later he announces something along the lines of “our Kayaks, SUPS and support boats are unable to hold positions along the course.” 

Dead silence.

As soon as I heard that I knew it was over

His delivery was awful, huge pauses and I wish he would of just got to the point. 

Finally we all heard it

“(Insert Charley Browns teachers voice here) SWIM IS CANCELLED.” 

I can’t even put words into the feeling at that moment.  The financial cost, the training, the hours, the travel, the support behind me and everything else.  I mean the swim is basically the only reason I wanted to do this race.

I give credit to the athletes on this boat and how everyone handled it.  The entry fee is very steep and 99% of people had air travel to get here.  Over half of the people were from other parts of the world.  With all this, no one shouted at race directors, no one bitched, no one blamed anyone, they all seemed to be upset but understood it was out of our control and got off the boat orderly.

(In the 34 year history of this triathlon, the swim has never been cancelled.)

Salt Lake City was as pissed as I was and we never talked nor saw each other again because I snuck out the back door to head to the buses.  That move saved me an hour.  I was standing in line to get on the bus and there were 2 relay teams behind me (one person does swim, one does bike and one does run).  One was for Sales Force and the other from Facebook.  Sounded like each company had somewhere around 20 people participating one way or another.  The people you meet.

Hop the bus back to transition with very little conversation.  Girl next to me tried to talk a little but she could tell I wasn’t supper chatty.  She admitted she is NOT a swimmer and didn’t mind.  She guessed it right that swimming was my jam and left me alone.  They had us get off the bus and hang out by our bikes to wait further announcements.  I walked down the transition entrance with another random guy I met and a photographer put a camera in our face and said “smile!”.  Simultaneously we both said “not today” and kept walking.  Felt bad for her but she was not in a good spot to try that.

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon 2017

Got back to my bike and thankfully I had my long sleeve M22 bike jersey to throw on.  I was freezing again but all my warm clothes were in bags back at the boat.  As I was putting on my warm jersey my watch was vibrating that Lindsey was calling me.  I didn’t have my phone until this point and found out where they were.  Went out to meet them and they knew I was a tad frustrated.  Even my father-in-law, who is always laughing and making jokes was quiet and just let me be.  I finally started to cool off and we hung out by the water waiting for an announcement on the start.

The Walking Stick Blog
Course map of the bike and run combined

Everyone finally gets back from the ferry and they announce a rolling bike start by bib #.  Pro men first, pro women second, and then starting at bib 50 you go out one at a time.  I was bib 342.  HUGE advantage for me.  I had a rolling start in Racine last year, I was 2400 or so and basically had to go out last.  That means bobbing and weaving your way through the slow traffic.  The swim has a way of keeping like abilities in the same groups as they come out unlike a rolling start.  Around 8:30 I finally ran out of transition, hopped on my (rental) bike and….. dropped a chain on the first corner…  I couldn’t believe it, I looked down and it was off as my feet were pedaling.  SOMEHOW one tooth grabbed the chain and had it maybe half way on.  I feathered it around and it got back on without me ever getting off.   Never done that in my life and still don’t know how I did it.

A bit of quick back info on the bike.  I rented a road bike off the advice of a guy I met last year.  It was about ¼ of the cost of getting my own out there.  It’s a crazy hilly, technical course with awful roads.  Was pretty good advice but I had to learn how to shift a road bike again.  I sure did miss my bike but for the 1-2 minutes it would have gained me, the cost wasn’t justified to have my own.

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon 2017

The first 2 miles for the bike was straight into that 30 Knot headwind that cancelled the swim.  My heart rate was 175 by mile 2.  I did run about a mile before the bike start to warm up and be able to spike it but I was still surprised.  These 2 miles are the only flat part of the course and I was already almost red lined.  Trusted my training and figured I’d be okay keeping it at that for an hour on the bike.  At the end of that first 2 miles you’re basically at the foot of the Golden Gate and then it’s straight up for a while.  You get to the top of this hill and have an incredible view of the Pacific and the bridge.  Also getting the full brunt of the wind.  Bike was pretty uneventful, just a ton of ups and downs, lefts and rights.  Thankfully I rode the “back” (course was and out and back) the day before to drop off my bike and knew where the fast downhill was.  I say ‘fast downhill’ because only one was smooth of all of them.  For never having frost, they have some of the crappiest roads I have ever seen.  I managed 42 mph on the one good downhill with that massive crosswind.  That was fun. 

From that downhill you head up into the SF park area where there are a bunch of speed bumps but you can take them fast (kinda).  I got a little annoyed because we were now having a headwind and a dude was clearly drafting me through this whole 2 mile area.  I took each speed bump faster and faster hoping one would sneak up on him and well, who knows what I was hoping for but I don’t like cheaters.  Took a hard right into a straight cross wind, I looked back at him shook my head and took off.  Never saw him again. 

Now I was doing the same course in reverse and I tell you what, I didn’t hit 42 going up that hill, more like 2.4.  STEEP.  Amazing views all around again.  I knew the last climb and I gave it hell because it was literally all down hill and a tail wind after that.  This was probably the sketchiest part of the course.  You go down a long downhill and then take a hard left to an even steeper downhill.   I’d say it went from a 4% grade to a 10% grade and I took it at over 20 mph.  I floated a minimum of 10 feet from take off to landing and felt like I was on a mountain bike.  Honestly couldn’t believe how well I handled that (chalk that one up to my BMX days as a kid), I think I was just ready to be off my bike.  I got to the bottom of the hill and caught a guy I’d spent the whole ride back jockeying with (he was from Manhattan) and he screamed at me “HOLY SH!T I GOT AIR! I CAN’T BELIEVE I DIDN’T GO DOWN.”  Guess I wasn’t alone.  Used the tailwind for that last 2 miles and averaged around 30 back to transition.  Saw the family about a half mile out.  It always feels good to be hauling when you see your fans.  Even if it looks way less cool to them, it sure feels cool on the bike.

Bike Elevation
Heart Rate
After the race I looked at my stats and my HR average was 173 for the 1:01:ish on the bike.  Laymans terms- I gave her hell…  Big guys don’t climb well.  Averaged 17.3 mph overall which is what I used to average on a flat course.  Was hoping for 18 but I still can’t complain.

Transition was smooth.  Finished my water bottle that had 6 gels in it before I ran out because I knew the run was a doozy.

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon 2017

Run Elevation

Took the first mile on the run pretty easy to get the legs adjusted and averaged somewhere in the high 8’s.  It was flat for 2 miles and straight into the wind.  You run out to almost straight below the GG bridge and then take these log stairs up to the top with flat spots in between.  You definitely feel the bike when you hit this.  Make it up to the top and you have that same view of the bridge behind you again, unreal.  By this time the wind was blowing so freaking hard it would actually blow my right foot into my left if I were taking lazy strides.  After you make your way up it’s now time to head allllllll the way down to the ocean.  Literally, all the way to the ocean.  You go from blacktop, to gravel to straight up 6 inch fluffy beach sand.   The downhill was more challenging than the up, I thought my quads were going to buckle.  Make it down to the beach and the course is maybe .75 miles of a straight beach run.  That sucked.  You then get to the sand ladder.  Best way to explain that; picture a 250 foot straight up dune.  Now throw in 400, 4” diameter logs at irregular spots in the sand to help climb it and well, there you have it.  The sand ladder.

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon 2017
Made it up that pretty well actually and got back to gravel by the Hoka One One (shoe company) tent.  I didn’t wear socks and the sand was killing me so I quick emptied out my shoes and took off up the hill.  This was the moment when I told myself “Dude, you have way to much power left in your legs at this point in the race, time to rip it homeboy.”  I was still on the uphill at this point but was in the low 8’s.  Went back down under the bridge and onto the flat and found my stride.  Caught a good amount of people that had caught me on the last climb and left them behind.  Managed a 7:50 for mile 7 and a 7:22 for mile 8.  I think that 7:22 was a big part adrenaline because the crowd was so great the last mile and all I kept hearing was “Strong run Riley, bring it home.”  In my head I was thinking “You mean I feel strong and I actually look strong, that’s a win on the day!”  Normally when I feel like I look like Usain Bolt I actually look like an elephant walking down a sidewalk.

As I came up to the finish shoot I caught bib number 52 (plus or minus 2), who happened to be the face of Escape from Alcatraz.  This was his 29th year completing the race.  He is also the one who does the videos they send out monthly on all aspects of the course.  Ran with him for a minute to congratulate him on 29 as well as let him know they do a solid job on the videos.  Told me thanks and to get my butt moving!

Ended up finishing in about 2hrs 15 minutes which was roughly 445th out of the 2,000 and I felt in the best shape of my life.  5 minutes better would have put me in the top 150ish which the swim alone could have potentially done.  My goal was under 3 hrs overall (with swim).  Swim would of taken me 30-35, plus the .5 mile run you’re at 40 minutes.  5 minutes under 3 makes me happy.  I was originally a little miffed at the 445 placement.  Then I realized the caliber of triathletes at this race and was pretty happy with it.  There are not beginners here, there are not weekend warriors here, all these people have a solid commitment to tri and after that I accepted the results a little more.

All in all it was one of, if not the most memorable Tri’s I have done and will do even without the swim.  It was a heck of a day, I met people from all around the world and was able to ride arguably the most beautiful course in the world without a car on it.

If you actually made it this far you’re probably thinking “What did they do for you guys since the swim was cancelled?”  Great question!  They refunded our entry fee and reimbursed all of our travel!    HA, just kidding….  That’d be amazing but Not. Even. Close.  They offered us a guaranteed slot to the 2018 or 2019 race to where we can bypass the lottery.  Actually pretty good of them to do that but it’s just so darn expensive I can’t swallow it.  SO, will I do this race again to finish the swim?   Maybe, it was fun but there are other ones out there I’d like to do.

I hear you “What about the swim?”

Already signed up for a Swim Only Race from Alcatraz to SF on September 30. 

I will finish this.

Thanks for reading and maybe I’ll get a little shorter winded one of these days!


Congratulations Riley! Your proud mom and dad are excited to join you in September and cheer you on! 

( But no more shark stories. )

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