Monday, June 15, 2015

Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon Race Report

The Escape From Alcatraz race is pretty well known in the triathlon world and a lot of people consider it a bucket list race. I read somewhere that 6700 people enter the lottery to get one of the 2,000 slots. And there were the few people there because they qualified at an Escape To Alcatraz race. I received a rolled down slot at Kemah Triathlon this past April and was super excited to get the slot!!   The event takes place in none other than San Francisco. The swim is chilly in the bay, the bike is hilly and the run has an infamous sand ladder and lots of running on the sand. It was surprise to me, however, to hear that 79% of the athletes racing were men....where were all the ladies!?

I arrived into San Francisco early on Friday morning (2 hours behind makes an early flight even earlier), retrieved my Ruster sports bike and wheel bags (I just carried on my purse and my Ironman Texas bag otherwise) and took to the BART (their subway). I was booked at the Parc 55 hotel just off of Union Square and the Powell Street station. Bad part was that the elevator at the station was put so I carried all my stuff up three flights of stairs. But I don't regret doing this over Tri Bike Transport as I saved myself $500 checking I myself. And taking apart a bike takes like 5 minutes and putting it together is pretty much the same - it is not that difficult! Anyways, the hotel was one block from the station and lucky for me, the room was ready when I got there. Awesome hotel - great location next to prime tourist spots. However, I would not recommend anyone doing the triathlon to stay there. It was almost comical how many people that I mentioned the race to in passing near the hotel had no idea about this race. People that lived there. And let me just say that San Fran has some of the nicest people! From the ladies that sat next to me on the bus, to the guys that gave me directions, to the servers to the person that explained hoe the bus system in town worked, it was refreshing. And there was a surprising amount of active people there, running and biking around town.

The reason why I don't recommend staying where I did was that the race site was an $19 cab ride away. I needed a cab for the bike. But luckily they do run at 3am, when I ordered pick up for me and the bike. The buses doesn't operate that early.

So Friday at 5:30pm, there was an optional meeting at the Sports Basement that was optional. Since I came in town early enough, I had plenty of time before the meeting, so I did some site seeing. Being as this was my second time in San Fran, I had seen most of the sites before so did more casual walking tour. Not ideal for serious races. But I was just racing this for fun...sometimes I take myself too seriously...since I just had done Ironman Texas three weeks before. Which according to a man irt at the airport trip return home, makes me pretty hardcore. Lol. So I took the cable car from Union square area and then to the end to Fisherman's Warf. This area or closer to Marina Green is where I suggest athletes to stay. Just past Bay as it kind of turns into Marina Street, there is a very nice paved path that lots of local bikers and runners are active on and affords nice views of the ocean and Golden Gate Bridge. Sports Basement was in the Presidio area, so I basically did some window shopping, stopped by Ghirardelli's Square, got some hot chai tea, watched people swim on the beach and spent some time chilling in the park. I slowly walked the rest of the way to the meeting. Whig there was a short presentation on of race tips and a small question answer period with 5 pros. And 50 giveaways. I didn't win anything. And the information covered in this meeting was also covered almost verbatim in the mandatory athlete meeting. So no need to attend unless you feel lucky. I caught a cab (should've uber it) back to the hotel and ate at the restaurant there.

Saturday morning I got up and did a quick bike around Union Square at 6am.  Being as I was still used to central time, I had no problems this entire trip getting up that early.  It was great biking around the town when everyone else is sleeping - it is surreal.  I recommend everyone that ever travels to get up early to view the city on two feet.  Anyways, a quick run off the bike and shower later, I headed to a local diner for breakfast.  Note: food in San Francisco is fairly expensive.  I then took the bus to Marina Green to pick up my race packet.  I got there at about 11:30am and the line was crazy long.  All in all, I think I waited in line for an hour.  I stood next to a man and his wife from Australia and learned a bit about their triathlon world in Australia.  Have to do one out there some day.  On Saturday, you have the option of dropping of a swim exit bag, for the long run (.5 mile) to transition.  I didn't elect to do this.  More on that later.  I got all of my stuff squared away and took the bus (public transportation in San Fran is great) back to near the hotel.  I grabbed a sandwich from Walgreens and then chillaxed at the hotel watching movies.  I ordered food to go from a local Italian restaurant one block away and then went to bed early.  7:30pm.

Sunday morning, I got up and had a banana, two PowerBars, Herbalife 24 Hydrate and on the cab ride, Herbalife 24 Prepare.  I had pre-ordered a cab the night before for 4am as transition opened at 4:30am and the cab, a Prius, was ready for me and my bicycle promptly.  Took the quick cab ride to Marina Green and hopped in line to have air put in my tires.  If you can, bring your own as the lines were long.  I went and set up my transition area and was ready to go by 5:15am or so and hopped on the shuttle that would take us to the boat that I would later jump off of. The ride was a quick 10 - 15 minutes and then everyone went towards the boat.  There was another set of port o potties there and after a quick stop, got on the boat. 

I was on the boat from like 5:45am until I jumped off.  It was a one way trip. :) I brought on board my Blue Seventy swim socks, my Blue Seventy Helix wetsuit, a latex cap and the race cap they provided and my trusty tinted googles.  I was already wearing half of my wetsuit at this point as I am from Texas and it was a little chilly for me.  And I wore the swim socks sort of as shoes... I sat next to a girl and we chatted for a bit the entire ride.  Honestly it went by quick!  Then everyone started standing and I knew it was time to put on the rest of my wetsuit.  Before I knew it, the cannon went off and the pros dived in.  And then it was a mad rush to get off the boat.  Everyone that was under 40 was on the lower level and 40 and up were on the upper level.  You jump off of the lower level.  I opted not to wear a neoprene cap.  Obviously, the water was going to be cold, but I have never swam in before and knew I would be fine.  Looking around the boat at what everyone else was wearing, about 25% had neoprene caps, 60% had swim socks and 99% had wetsuits (yes, some people did the swim without a wetsuit!) 

Anyways, I finally saw the opening and it was my turn to jump in, feet first for non-pros, and off I go.  So everyone is like, OMG, I could never do that race because that water is so COLD.  Well, yes, it was cold.  But I had been taking cold showers for a week leading up to the race, no joke, without a wetsuit on! So I knew what it would feel like, sort of.  So I get in the water and the ONLY thing that was cold was my face. It was quite shocking.  But I was thinking more like, hmm, which way should I angle myself.  In the pre-race meeting, they stressed over and over again, swim to the left early on to get the best of the current.  So I did.  And as soon as I thought that, I was no longer thinking the water was cold, but that it was refreshing.  Which it was.  In Texas, the water is like 80+ degrees right now.  The bay was about 57.  So I got in a grove early and had very few interruptions (i.e. people bumping into me) the entire swim.  There were no buoys in the water and I actually quite enjoyed that.  It makes sighting more real and it feel more like an open water swim, if that makes any sense.  I kept left the entire swim and focused on swimming as straight as possible and did not draft at all.  They had kayaks a ways off to the right and left and I kept where I could always see them on my left, not right. And something else everyone says about that swim is that it is so wavy and hard to sight.  Maybe God smiled on us, but honestly, I didn't think it was that bad!  I swam the 1.5 mile swim in just over 38 minutes and considering I had done a 1500m swim in the ocean at a race in April in 33 minutes, I think I had a fantastic swim.  Not to mention that I exited with strong looking men and hardly any females. 

As soon as you get out of the water, on the beach there is a pre-transition transition.  You have the option of leaving a bag at the swim exit for a pair of shoes, a towel and bottle of water, checked like any other transition bag.  I opted not to leave anything for the .5 mile run as I would be fine just running in my swim socks.  That and they said that these bags would not be available for pick up until 1pm after the race.  So this run was pretty uneventful.  It is always surprising to me how slow some people run after they swim, as they get to transition.

I had a mental moment and ran past my bike, twice, trying to find it.  No matter.  Found my bike, ran to near transition, put the shoes on, (I can't run in these shoes and my flying mount is a work in progress) and off I went.  With 2000 of my tri friends. :)  There was never a moment on the entire 18 mile hilly ride where I had the road all to myself.  So you start off on a little bit of straight aways and then the fun begins. I rode my TT bike with a 11-27 cassette on my 80 carbon front and back race wheels. For people considering doing this race, I would recommend the road bike for better handling as there was very few spots where I actually got in the aero bars.  But I don't own a road bike, so..... I would also recommend not so deep of a wheel for the lighter folks as there were a few crosswinds off the ocean.  Not that bad but worth a thought.  And at least that cassette for sure.  So, I live in flat lands Texas where there are really not any hills.  The things we call hills pale in comparison to that of San Fran.  The course was out and back so every hill you went up, you would have to go down on the way back and vice versa.  I would highly recommend you to drive the course the day before to see what you have to do as there are some tight turns coming off of a hill that would be quite shocking if you were not prepared.  Being as I didn't have a rental car, I went to trusty U-Tube and watched a guy's post of him biking the entire course.  Very helpful.  Anyways, there was one hill on the course that was like never ending.  You make a turn and go up.  Then you make another turn and go up.  At this point I was already in the easiest gear as well I don't do hills often (and hey, it looked like everyone else was in lowest gear too).  You turn another slight corner and then you realize you need to go up more.  Yikes.  I imagine some people got off and walked it.  But not the people around me, which there was probably like 10 of us attacking the hill.  There was some grunting and standing and very slow cadence involved with getting up this hill.  At the end of the day, the up hills were fine.  I just hated flying down some of these hills with so many people next to me and not knowing where they are at with their bike handling skills.  All in all, the 18 miles was ridden in similar time to my normal 25 mile time.  I won't even tell you my average mph...

Pull into transition and throw on my trusty Asics noosa tri shoes and off I go.  I should have worn socks.  But I have worn those shoes over 20 times without socks for similar distance without socks no problem.  I didn't really think of how I didn't have a big toenail (thank Ironman Texas 3 weeks prior of that one) and how much sand was going to get into my shoe and how that was going to feel.  So the run starts off on a hardened sandy path and then you run for a ways and then up like 30 steps to the road.  Then down a mountain bike looking path and then to the beach.  At the beach this year was a turnaround and a water station.  There was loose sand here.  The second my shoes hit the beach, sand got everywhere.  And I stopped dead in my tracks due to the pain on my big toe, that didn't have a nail on it.  Lucky for me, there was an aid station a few hobbles away and I stopped there and asked if they had an aid station.  It was unbearable pain and I was hoping for a bandaid at least.  I was okay with loosing a couple minutes to finish this race feeling okay.  I was here for the experience and didn't have any goals but to finished and knew I would at this point, preferably running, not walking.  They searched for a first aid kit and I used a cleaning wipe to clean off the tip of my big toe which had lost several layers of skin where the nail used to be and had sand in it.  Ewww.  And took big gauze and wrapped it with tape around my entire toe.  Problem semi solved. I knew at the end of the beach run part was the sand ladder and needed to be better for that.  So I gave it a run after the wrapped toe and it was painful but bearable.  So I half walk jogged up the sand ladder (it was pretty congested here and lots of slow walking folks).  It is a sand ladder as it says.  There are steps semi built in this very steep cliff that are completely covered in sand.  They say to use the ropes and step on the steps but that didn't work that well for me.  Anyways made it up that few hundred steps and then off to the road and down the previous steps (very congested! One lane only!) and back on the harded path and around to a very welcoming, loud finish line. 

It was an awesome finish line!  Straight to the food tent and got some chicken broth and pasta and bread.  They also offered salad....seriously people?  Salad after working out a couple hours. lol!  If you have people waiting for you at the finish line, I highly suggest you have them ready with warm clothes as the breeze off the ocean can get chilly.  I went to transition to grab my wallet and bought the race jacket (very nice!!), cycling socks and coffee cup.  I figured this was a souvenir worthy race!  Then went to get myself a beer at the Sierra Nevada trailer (not free, purchased) and chilled out for a while.  Then called for a cab, waited FOREVER!!! for my cab and chilled in my hotel before seeing the rest of town that I didn't get a chance to see earlier that week.  And gone the next day!

So I have gotten asked a lot in the last week if I would do this again.  And the answer is HELL yes!  The race was awesome.  And the second time around, I would actually "race" it as I would know what to expect.  Thanks to Wattie Ink and all sponsors for their support in the sport I love. What should my next challenge be?