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Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, June 12th 2005

Good lord that swim was bad
But cycling is good
You think you've beaten me hill, oh no you haven't
How can it be this hot?

Walked down to transition for 4.50am to get set up and ready. Set my stuff up as per the usual routine, two pairs of shoes, one helmet and a race number all set next to the bike on my England towel (apart from the helmet that goes on the tri bars). So all set up by 5.10am and plenty of time to wander around to take in the mood in transition.

By 6.15 (or thereabouts) there was nothing else to do but catch the coach down to Pier 4 and wait to board the San Francisco Bell. There were a few Brits on the same coach so we all kept each other amused for the couple of hours we sat around waiting, but it didn’t seem long before we’re all standing waiting to jump off the boat.

Big Bopper seemed to have it all under control, Beth was worried about the bike and run but not phased about the swim at all and I was wondering why I was standing there about to jump out of a perfectly good luxury paddle steamer into the Bay waters. I’d never swam in the sea before and standing there felt like something of a mistake. I mean, who would swim from Alcatraz back to the mainland as a first dip in the sea? Other than me obviously. I wasn’t nervous as such, just wondering why I hadn’t thought about swimming in the sea before the day as a bit of prep for the race, it kind of slipped my mind somehow.

As I edged closer to the door (and the launch pad) the carpet got more and more soggy which became a good enough reason to jump off the boat. 3-2-1 GO and in I jumped. I went quite a way under the water as I didn’t really have a plan past the jump bit, once I surfaced I looked for the ‘twin towers’ as my first sighting point. Once located I set off after them and everything seemed fine. It was a little choppy but nothing I haven’t experienced in a lake before. The race briefing said to swim at the towers for 12 minutes then change direction and aim to the right of it and sight an old dome roofed building (the dome was orange so fairly easy to spot).

You change sighting point because after 12 minutes you should be through the first current/rip tide (not really sure what to call it). They were right as well, after about 15 minutes the water got really rough. I couldn’t sight as the waves were so high. I very quickly started to feel sick so I took a rest and breast stroked for a while. I noticed I was a long way left of the main line of swimmers so I decided to swim a bit more to the right to get back with them. As much as I tried to front crawl the rough water I kept getting sick so I stuck to breast stroke until it settled a bit. After a while it did but I’d spent so much time concentrating on breathing and not drinking any of the water I’d gone off course. By bit I mean miles off to the right. Suddenly I realised there were no other swimmers around me and I had three canoes tracking me.

I plodded on aiming at the dome when I suddenly hit one of the canoes. The rower had positioned himself down tide of me to prevent me going any further off course. I stopped and he warned me I was set to come ashore in Crissy Fields which is about half a mile down the shore from the marina (the true swim exit point). He said to swim towards the column to correct my course. I set off after that and it was very hard work, the last 500m or so never seemed to end. The canoe tracked me all the way and asked me if I wanted to be removed or repositioned and I asked if it was possible to beach at the correct point if I carried on. He said it was so I continued and eventually beached at the marina feeling really knackered. I was very close to chucking in the towel and DNF’ing. The marshalling was excellent. There must have been 100 marshalls in the water with us during the swim, it was really well taken care of and I didn’t feel at risk at any point.

Anyway, out the water and wet suit off. We had the option here to put on a spare pair of trainers for the half mile run up to T1 but as I didn’t have any spare I had to run it bare foot. To be honest, I was so concerned about the fowl taste in my mouth and getting back to my energy drink to wash it out the barefoot run didn’t bother me.

Into T1 and what felt like a very casual change into bike kit. I set off on the bike and although I felt in a bad mood about the swim my bike legs soon got going, there’s about a mile of flat out of T1 so enough time to get settled before the climbs. The bike course was busy but other than that quite uneventful. It is hilly but not on a par with Kent’s finest so no problems for the visiting Brits. I seemed to loose a few places going up the hills but make them and loads more places up going down them. Maybe I pace myself better on hills?

What really shocked me, and I’m still shocked about it, is about 1.5 miles into the bike course the pro’s went past on their way back to T2. I usually get on to the run before the pro’s finish but I’d barely got onto the bike and they’re about to set off for the run. They were going so fast I can’t describe it. Truly amazing to see and something I’ll always remember, totally gob smacked.

After what felt like a pretty good bike ride but not pushing it that much I was back at T2, changed shoes and off I went for a run. The first 2 miles of the run are totally flat (the same bit used at the start of the bike) and it should have been a section to settle the legs and get going but it was really hot. Heat like I’ve never run in before. It was coming up through my shoes and draining me of energy, I knew it was going to be a hard run so I settled into a slower pace than usual. At the end of the flat section is the first climb up the hillside to the Golden Gate Bridge, up a winding series of wooden steps. It was narrow and two way traffic so there was little I could do but follow everyone else at their pace. At the top it opened up and I got back to it and recovered from the climb, then under the bridge, through the pipe and out onto more narrow winding trails. This bought you out onto a road (again a bit of the bike course and a chance to see people are still going out on the bike) and a down hill section that takes you on to the soft dry sand of Baker Beach.

A slow and very difficult plod to a turn point then it’s the journey back to the finish. Along Baker Beach again and up the Sand Ladder. I actually didn’t think it was that mad, I didn’t have the strength to run it so just walked it but I’m not sure I’d have made up much time by running it, it’s one of those steep sections where walking is probably just as good unless you’re feeling really strong. At the top of the ladder it’s back to the road, back to the trails, down the steps and back to the flat back to the finish.

Those last 2 miles were seriously hard work. I had plenty more in the tank (which is good news for Austria!) but the heat made it difficult. I pushed on a bit to get some clear space for my finish line photo and received so many “7-12 Good Job” it made it difficult to back off. So I carried on pushing and finished totally knackered.

It’s a really good race, with the different distances the three sections are pretty much equal in time/effort which is rare in triathlon. It must be one of the hardest short course races around but the scenery of San Francisco is totally stunning. The run up to the Golden Gate, the Pacific waves breaking on Baker Beach, the views of the city as you run down the wooden steps all take your breath away. We were told to have a break during the swim to just float there and take a look around. He said there is no other view in the world to top the sea level views of San Francisco, Alcatraz, The Golden Gate and the whole of the Bay area. I didn’t intend on stopping but while breast stroking across the rough I did have a look around and I’m so pleased I did. I feel totally privileged to have done the race. Fan-bloody-tastic.

Swim: 1.5 mile T1 Bike: 18 mile T2 Run: 8 mile Total
50:03 6:24 1:03:21 1:23 1:11:47 3:12:58
Weather: Hot! 119th/265 finishers in age group.
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