Sunday, July 5, 2009

Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon

I have always been intrigued with the Escape from Alcatraz (EFA) triathlon. The strong currents passing Alcatraz Island make a swim to the mainland unthinkable. I heard many years ago about this extreme event, and envisioned attempting it only in my dreams. Last week I listened, enthralled and full of questions, as Jim Graham, a fellow member of the triathlete club (, excitedly shared with me his recent “up front and personal” conquest of the EFA race.

The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon includes a 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The race continues with an eighteen-mile bike ride out the Great Highway, through the Golden Gate Park, and concludes with an eight mile run through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Last month, in addition to Jim, club members Tim Wolf, Jeff Litchfield, and Carlo Carluccio participated in the Escape from Alcatraz (EFA) Triathlon (

Jim Graham gave permission for me to publish in my blog his narrative of the race. Jim’s account of the race is also found at the Athletic Alliance web site (, which Jim, Tim and I am members. I encourage all Outdoor Enthusiast Blog readers to send ECA questions and comments to this blog. I will forward them to Jim for his response.

As described by Jim Graham

Tim Wolf, Carlo Carluccio, Jeff Litchfield and I traveled to San Francisco to do the “Escape from Alcatraz” Triathlon on Sunday June 14th. Carlo, Tim and I got into the race via the lottery, having put our names in online in December. Jeff qualified racing in New York last fall.

I was impressed with the EFA race on so many different levels: venue, organization, and difficulty, and I felt compelled to do a detailed write up. I have this great urge to go back and do it again next year, so I figure I will plant the seed now for people to think about joining me.

Jeff and I arrived in San Francisco on Thursday June 11th - a few days early to do a little reconnaissance. Our 1st stop after we left the airport at noontime was China Town, for a nice lunch.

After lunch, we drove the bike course in the car to check it out. It was a bit difficult to follow the course with the map we had as it lacked a bit of detail, but we managed. Our first impression was, “wow, this course is hilly!” We were staying at Jeff’s cousins’ (Jon Porter – brother of Athletic Alliance Member Jason Porter) house in Mill Valley on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Each day we had a beautiful ride back and forth over the bridge.

On Friday, the plan was to pick up Tim at the airport, then swim in the bay and run part of the run course. We also found out we could pick our bikes up as well. We had shipped our bikes using “Tri Bike Transport”. The out and back service cost about $250 round trip and was definitely worth it aside from the fact that you are without your bike for 10+ days on either end of the trip.

When we arrived at Aquatic Park for our swim, which is a couple of miles east of the transition area, there were a few dozen EFA participants already there doing practice swims. We put on our wetsuits and dove right in. Much to my surprise the water temperature was not that bad and there was only a little bit of rolling chop. This was a sheltered cove, but it gave us a taste of what we were up against.

Jon recommended we get a feel for the terrain and run the middle 4 miles of the run course, the “sand ladder”. We dried off, changed into our running gear, and headed over to the “Warming Hut”, which is right under the Golden Gate Bridge. We were starting our run about 2 miles away from transition, all of which is flat and straight. From underneath the bridge, you begin to climb, first on steps, which then changes to a narrow walkway, which then changes to a dirt single track trail. I estimated there to be about 250’ of elevation gain over a mile. Once at the top you make a fast trail decent down onto Baker Beach where you run on the loose sand for about 3/4 of a mile before climbing the Sand Ladder back up to the top to reverse course back the way you came. We were running the course alone, except for a few people hiking and some people fishing along the beach. Most of this section of the course was tight, with little possibility for passing people.

We picked up our bikes at the “Sports Basement”, a gigantic outlet selling all types of sporting goods that included an entire Triathlon section! Jeff could not control himself, purchased a new short sleeve wet suit, while I for the first time in a while was able to exhibit a sliver of self-control, and kept my wallet in my pocket.

Saturday we went to the Muir Woods to check out the giant Redwood trees and had lunch at Joes Tacos (Great pre-race meal). In the afternoon, we went for packet pickup and a mandatory athlete meeting where they went over how to sight on the swim and several other details about race morning. Tim had the foresight to get a hotel room four blocks from the transition area for Saturday night. This way we would not have to drive into the city early Sunday morning and could get some extra time staring at the ceiling waiting for the alarm to ring!

Sunday – EFA Race Day!

The alarm went off at 4:30am. Pre-race jitters, along with fire trucks, late night party goers etc, kept me awake for most of the night. Since we could not get a late AM checkout, we had to put all of our bags in the rental car to store them because we were heading back to Jon’s house after the race. We rode our bikes down to transition with our transition bags. We had to drop off our T1-A bags that includes shoes and water bottle needed after exiting the water. It is about 3/4 of a mile run from the water to the bike transition.

You then rack your bike and set up your bike transition area. There were coach buses waiting to take you from transition down to Pier 3 where you boarded the boat that take you to Alcatraz Island. You get body marked and wait in the usual “porta-potty” lines before getting on the boat that was set to depart at 7am sharp. I was wondering how the boat would look with 2000 Triathletes lying around, and it was impressive.

There are three floors on the boat, and the second floor we were on was a large ballroom that was empty of all tables and chairs and triathletes were sprawled and napping all over the floor.

Somehow, despite the crowd, Tim, Jeff, Carlo Rich Eichorn from Hopkinton, and I managed to come together and hang out for the 60 minutes it took to get out to Alcatraz Island and get positioned from the swim exit deck.

As the boat slowly made its way out I was surprised at how calm the water looked, which as it turns out did not reflect what we were about to jump into. People were supposed to depart the boat based on their swim wave. I started heading for the door as soon as they were finished with the National Anthem, and I was surprised to see all different color caps on the way down the stairs. It occurred to me that nobody really cared about their wave time and was heading for the door. Chip timing and going over a timing mat before you jumped in took care of timing issues. I approached the doorway where everyone was leaping off the boat in chaos, and before I knew what hit me, I was leaping off the boat and hitting the water. I remembered to hold my goggles and scissor kick as I entered the water so I did not go very deep. My next thought was to get out of the way so nobody landed on my head.

The first few minutes of the swim seemed to be smooth water and I felt good, although I had a tough time seeing the radio tower we were supposed to be sighting. All of a sudden, the water became very choppy with very large swells. The water temperature was the least of my problems, as I was concerned with gulping seawater, sighting my line, and staying calm. I kept being caught in the wave’s rhythm and getting hit in the face every fifth breath making it difficult to get a fix on my line. At one point I swam over the top of a large “something” that my hand hit that really scared the crap out of me. It was tough to swim a straight line at the radio tower because you were being knocked around by the swells and having to dodge other swimmers.

I ended up overshooting the perfect line by about 50 yards and forced to swim the final 50 yards perpendicular to the beach against the tide, and that forced me to have to work hard.

As I exited the water, I was psyched that I had made it through the swim. A glance at my watch had my time at 44 minutes, which under the circumstances, I was happy. I quickly found my transition bag in T1A, stripped off my wetsuit, put my shoes on, grabbed my bottle of Heed and started the 3/4 mile run to T1. I was VERY glad I had that bottle of HEED in my bag. I really needed to wash the ocean water out of my mouth and dilute the pint of salt water I had swallowed.

I managed to find my bike and made my way out of transition and onto the course.

The first couple of miles on the bike are straight and flat, but there was a hardy head wind. It was about this time that you hit the first of what are many climbs. We had ridden the bike course in the car a couple of times, so I knew what to expect. Actually riding it on the bike was a rude awakening! I tried to temper the climbs and not blow up while trying to be aggressive on the descents to try to make up a bit. Between the number of people on the course, the nasty pavement and tight turns, you were always braking or adjusting and not able to get in a good rhythm. The course did have some great views if you dared or were able to pick you head up to look at them. As I descended the final hill and got onto the final flat 2 mile return to run transition, helped by a significant tailwind, I finally felt like I was getting into a rhythm, too little too late!

I entered transition knowing all I had left was an 8 mile run and I would be finished with this beast. On the first 2 miles of the run, which are flat and along the ocean, I saw all of the pros running by. Andy Potts had a big grin on his face as if he was out for a leisurely jog, while some of the other pros were four or 5 minutes back looked like they were turning themselves inside/out to get to the finish. It is humbling knowing they are beating you by more than 60 minutes! As I approached the 2-mile mark, the course changes from flat dirt path to stair climbs and uphill single track. The stair climb was 4 feet wide with 2-way traffic, and it was difficult to pass. As you crested the hill, you were directed from the single track out onto a paved road, which also had race bikers on their return trip. The paved road section was about 1/2 mile downhill before you were directed onto a trail that led down to “Baker Beach”. You entered Baker Beach and took a left heading towards the 1/2 waypoint of the run. Everyone had made their way down onto the hard packed sand at the water’s edge rather than run in the loose sand, which made it very difficult.

After the turn around, you made your way back along the beach 1/2 mile towards the dreaded “Sand Ladder”. The Sand Ladder consists of about 350 ladder type steps in the sand that ascend up the side of a large hill that brings you back up to the road you descended from. As you approached the ladder, it looked like a “death march” as two single file lines of racers made their way up, one line on the left and the other on the right. You could hear loud music at the top where they had a DJ blasting tunes. They had timing mats at the bottom and top of the ladder so you could get your ladder split. My ladder split was 3:56, OUCH! There was a 1/2 mile of single track climbing as you were repeating the route of this out and back run. As you crested the hill, you began a wild downhill trail run that retraced all of the trails, paths and steps you climbed during the accent. It was tough running downhill on tired legs while trying to pass people and avoid any uphill runners making passes. Once down at the bottom, all that was left was 2 miles of straight and flat. Good news - you’re almost done. Bad news- its still 2 miles!

Down the finish chute, I gave it every last bit I had. I crossed the finish line and I wobbled over to the fence and leaned on it to hold myself up because I was ready to black out. I laid on the ground rather than pass out. I was completely wrecked and lifeless. Tim came over and gave me a bottle of water, and then Jeff came over to tell me to get my lazy ass off the ground! What great buddies!

It took 36 ounces of liquid to quench my thirst over the next 15minutes, so I guess I was a bit dehydrated.

After the boys got their massages, we all grabbed our bikes from transition and brought them over to the Tri-Bike Transport tent to drop them off for their shipment home.

At that point, we decide to find some place to eat in this beautiful Marina Green area. We all agreed with Tim that a HUGE burger was a perfect post race meal, so we set off in search of a burger joint and stumbled upon “Bistro Burger” that served huge gourmet burgers.

We managed to be seated at a beautiful outside sidewalk table under sunny blue skies! Menu: Huge char broiled burgers topped with bacon and avocado with a huge basket of sweet potato fries and an ice coffee.

Carlo headed home Monday morning, and Jeff, Tim & I rode the Trolley Cars around San Francisco taking in the sights.

After getting my ass kicked by a racecourse, it usually takes me awhile to want to go back and do it again. I am ready to sign up for next year’s EFA right now! As this is an expensive race/trip, I will begin digging the change out of my seat cushions saving up for next year’s race. Who is coming with me?

For a complete race recap, go to Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon
Why a triathlon club?

A major benefit of belonging to a triathlon club is the camaraderie of fellow athletes with common interests. The club is open to all athletes, with most of its current membership from Manchester, NH and surrounding towns. Naults Cyclery ( is a major sponsor. primary goal is to promote the sport of triathlon, duathlon, Xterra, mountain biking and adventure racing. The membership consists of athletes of all ages and abilities who run, bike and swim for fitness, fun and competition. The club sponsors swim clinics, group training runs, swims and biking.

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