Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon

Telling people that I was going to be doing an Escape from Alcatraz triathlon usually triggered a “dude, you’ve escaped from your mind” look.    In this case, totally warranted.  This event was intense.  I hesitate to call it a race because for me it was just a slugfest from beginning to end.   I thought I was ready for it physically I guess but that’s about it.  This event proved (again) just how mentally prepared one needs to be to participate in this sport.


I showed up in San Francisco already tired from only getting 4 hrs of sleeps the night before plus the 5 and a half hour flight.  Staying off your feet and resting the day before is highly encouraged for any triathlon.  That didn’t happen.  Race registration at Marina Green was a mile and a half walk from the hotel.  The lines were huge and it took about an hour to check in, sign 4 wavers, get my bib#, body marked etc..    That was followed by having to walk another mile to the LBS to pick up my bike.  Can’t fit a bike into a cab so I rode it back to the hotel just in time for us to walk to Peer 33 and take the 4:30 PM Alcatraz walking tour that Larisa reserved months ago.
The 2-hour tour was awesome.  I highly recommend it to anyone that hasn’t done it.  Book online.  They sell out months in advance.   The ferry ride back and forth gave me a better appreciation for how the swim was going to be the next day.  The bay was very choppy but I remember reading that it’s usually much calmer in the morning.  It’s only 1.5 miles.  How bad can that be?    We had a great dinner in Fisherman’s Warf and I carbed up a bit with beer (just 1) and some pasta.
We got to bed by 11 and the usual pre-race hourly wake up, toss and turn type sleep ensued.  3-hour jet lag made the 4:30 AM wake up call less brutal and it was time to get ready.   It was a very chilly 50* outside.  I rode my bike back to Marina Green where race set up was in full swing.  Racked my bike, set up my transition area, put on my wetsuit and headed over to the waiting busses that took us to Peer 33 where we boarded the ferry that would take us out to the race start area right by the island.



The 3-story ferryboat looked like a seal orgy.  Nearly 2,000 wetsuit clad triathletes lying all over the place.  I found an empty spot and plopped down to relax and get off my feet during the VERY slow ride out to Alcatraz.   I was so tired I instantly fell asleep.  I was later woken up by someone letting me know its time to go.  Embarrassing!   When they played the national anthem at 7:30 this finally became very real.  I need to jump into the freezing San Francisco bay and swim to shore.  I wasn’t the only one coming to that realization.  The nervous energy all around me was palpable.   Overhearing how friendly and curious the local seal and sea lion population was added to the nervousness.  They’re harmless but I think seeing one mistaking me for his brother and wanting to play would have freaked me out.  Fortunately that didn’t happen.  And all the talk about sharks is just folklore.  The man-eaters hang out way past the Golden Bay Bridge in the open ocean.  The waters in the bay by Alcatraz are not salty enough for them. Good thing they didn’t know that there are 2,000 folks with sodium-enriched diets about to hit the water for an hour.
Attempting a straight shot to the swim finish from the swim start is impossible.  The current is way too strong.  The advised strategy was to swim cross current spotting way left most of the time then hang a right towards the end and let the strong current take you into the swim finish.

The starter’s gun went off and they needed to get 2,000 folks off the boat in 7 minutes through 3 doors.  They were yelling at us like drill sergeants.  “Its time to go! DO NOT hesitate at the door!  There is no warm up.  Jump and GO! Jump and GO! Get into 5thgear immediately! Go Go Go! DO NOT hesitate! Jump and GO!”  The only comforting sight was the myriad of safety boats, kayaks and jet ski’s in the water waiting to follow along side us swimmers.  You don’t get disqualified if you need to take a breather and hang on to a kayak for a few minutes.  Unfortunately that didn’t help poor Ross Ehinger, an attorney from Austin that had a heart attack during the swim and died shortly there after.    Tragic and really sad for the entire triathlete community.  My heart goes out to his family. This is the 1st death in the race’s 33 year history.


The feeling of hitting 51* water is indescribable.  Even though the wetsuit and neoprene cap did their jobs you feel every bit of the bone chilling cold water.  My hands (gloves not allowed) and forehead immediately went numb.  I started swimming instantly to generate some blood flow and knew it would get better.  The next twenty or so minutes is equally hard to describe.  Shock is the only word that comes to mind.  Not the totally bad kind.  I wasn’t scared, nervous or regretful but just in total awe of my surroundings.  4 knot ocean current going left to right out to sea, big waves crashing over my head right to left, high winds, freezing water and the sight of Alcatraz behind me and the Golden Gate Bridge to the right.  I’m not sure I would call what I was doing swimming at this point.  I was making some type of forward progress because every time I looked back Alcatraz seamed a bit further away but not enough progress.  The other problematic thing was my booties.  Since they were allowed I bought a pair in an attempt to keep my feet from freezing.  Swimming in them felt like swimming in ski boots and my feet still went numb so they didn’t help at all.  Should have got neoprene socks instead.  Oh well.   After a while I finally got a grip of myself and settled into a real rhythm. It was a bit too late though.  By then the current had taken me off course.  I made it to shore about 600 yards down the beach past the swim exit.  The only consolation was that about a dozen others were with me at the same exact point or even further down.   After the 600 yard jog in the sand on frozen feet in soaked booties I was finally done with the swim.  1:10 was the swim time, which equated to a 2:40/100 pace. Worse pace ever for me by far.  I was really disappointed but glad I made it to shore in one piece.


This is from an article about the race… “I’m really shaken up from the swim,” said veteran triathlete Derek Dalzell. “I’ve swam choppy water, I’ve swam Ironman distance, I grew up in Michigan and swam in March. I get it, it’s tough, But today was dangerous. I told my family I loved them right after the swim. It was a very real and scary thing.”

Even transition in this event was hard.  It was half a mile from the swim exit to T1 to get my bike.  Because of this distance they give you a swim transition bag so you can pack sneakers vs. running in wet, cold feet.  That helped a lot.  Wetsuit stripers helped as well.  Not sure how I was going to get that thing off by myself in the tired frozen condition I was in.


15 minutes after the swim exit I was on the bike.  The 1st two miles of the bike course were flat but  directly into a pretty strong head wind so it was hard to get to a decent pace going.  It didn’t really matter because then the hills and climbing began.  This course had 1,700 FT of elevation gain over the span of only 18 miles.  To put it in perspective, there are IRONMAN courses that have less assent spread over 112 miles.   Most hills weren’t too steep but a few were butt out of the saddle, body over the bars and grind it out in your granny gear to the top types.   The 30+ MPH down hills didn’t make up for the slow climbs. Net result was a 1:28 bike time which equates to an average of 12.3 MPH.  Slowest bike pace ever.  The only thing I was proud of on the bike portion was that I never got off to walk it up a hill like dozens of others were doing.  It was tempting though, especially on Seal Rock Drive.
T2 went a lot quicker.  4 minutes and 25 seconds to run my bike from the dismount line, find my spot, rack my bike, get into sneakers and get out to the run start.  By the way, my feet were still totally numb at this point.  The temperature didn’t rise past 55 throughout the bike course.  Damn was it cold on the fast descents.

The 8 mile run started off flat at first.  I had to take off my right sneaker 5 minutes into the run because it felt like I somehow got twigs in there and it hurt to run.  Turns out the sneaker was empty and that was just my foot defrosting and the feeling was the tingling that comes when frost bite subsides.   Half a mile later I thought I got pebbles into the left sneaker so I stopped to check again but it was the same thing so I just needed to deal with it until my feet fully defrosted in about 3 miles.   The hills on the run course were pretty bad as well.   It was mainly a very scenic trail run with about 500 FT of vertical assent including hundreds of steps in two places including San Fran’s famous sand ladder.   To make it just a little harder there was almost a mile of running on a beach and it wasn’t hard packed sand either.  It was the soft and squishy type.  Just what tired legs need.


Half way through the run I really felt bad that I told Larisa I would be done by 10:30.  I knew she would be waiting by the finish line and worried.  I finally made it there shortly after noon with a run time of 1:34 or 11:51/mile.  Guess what?  Slowest pace ever.


Final time was 4:33:27 which resulted in a placement of 255th out of 271 in my age group and 1,486th out of 1,582 finishers overall.  No purse money for me and I’ll have to stick to my day job.  I’m not beating myself up too much over the final time.  This is not my main race of the year, I finished strong and I had a great time.  Alcatraz is checked off the bucket list and IRONMAN Austria is now in my sites with a couple of warm up races between now and then.

Thanks for reading!


The 2.4 mile swim in Lake Wörthersee for
IRONMAN Austria should be a bit easier!