Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Escape from Alcatraz Race Report

by Chris Schubert

Race report from the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon:

On 3/3/2013 Taylor Haley and myself completed the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. We knew it was going to be a challenge when we registered. Normally this is a June race but it got moved to the 1st weekend in March because of the "America's Cup" yacht racing. It ended up being much more than just a challenge for me.


There's no way to describe the swim except that it was brutal. 2000 neoprened humans packed onto a ferry 1 hour before the swim to be transported to the race start. All conversation on the boat dealt with weather and water conditions. None of the conversation was particularly calming or reassuring. Water temp was 50 degrees with a 6 foot swell, a 4 knot current with eddys, and whitecaps. In spite of these conditions we were repeatedly told over loudspeakers to be mentally strong, jump right in and get away from the boat so as not to get jumped on. The boat ride was not a round trip and everyone had to jump.

So we did. Cold. A knife between the eyes. Automatic exhale when hitting the water, then a frantic kick to the top to get air and bearings.

I was never able to get into a rhythm. I remember distinctly 3 times turning my head to breath and meeting a wave of water instead. Salt water in mouth and nose and stinging my eyes. Panic. I'm normally a strong swimmer, but when I turned my head to breathe air and aspirated salt water instead, I was sure I would drown. I rolled onto my back each time, blew out my mouth and nose, emptied my goggles and swam backstroke while trying to calm down. I kept telling myself it is impossible to drown in a wetsuit.

I felt I had a horrible swim with all the pauses and backstroking. Afterwards I found out that out of 31 people in my age group I was the 2nd fastest. 6 people in my age group didn't finish the swim and were pulled from the water. 2 others finished the swim but didn't continue on the bike. Some people were in the water 2H before getting pulled. One person died. More on this later.

I was cocky at the swim out and bypassed the area where people were being stripped of their wetsuits. When I got to my transition bag (we had 3 transitions because we had to run from swim out 3/4 mile to bikes) I found I was so cold my hands couldn't grasp my booties and wet suit hard enough to pull them off. My legs were numb from my knees down and I couldn't tell where my feet were without looking. A compassionate volunteer helped me strip the suit and get it into a bag. I averaged over 1:27/100 on the swim and normally I can average 1:20... but I was happy with it.


Extreme hills just as expected in San Francisco. I had arm warmers on with a plan to take them off part way through. They never came off. Air temp was 51 with a 10-15 mph wind. Chill factor in the 40's. In spite of that I could still appreciate the beauty of the area. At one point we were looking DOWN of the Golden Gate Bridge. Very cool.

Another part of the ride was on a beach road with the surf crashing feet away and sea mist over the road. My favorite part of the ride was through Golden Gate park with cedars and evergreens forming a tunnel. I did decide that no matter how hard you train on an indoor trainer, it's not the same as actually doing the hills.

There was much broken pavement (which Taylor and I knew about from driving and biking the course the day before) and at one point, going downhill at 37 mph, I saw broken pavement coming at me. I couldn't avoid it because of bikes hemming me in. I had a flashback to an accident I had in Switzerland in which I suffered a cardiac contusion and a 3rd degree A/C separation. My headset was jiggling wildly in my hands as I was braking and I was sure I was losing control and going down. I thought: "this is really going to hurt, just like Switzerland". I stayed up. I averaged 15.1 mph and normally I average 22 mph... but I was happy with it.


As advertised, a plethora of surfaces. Wide crushed limestone along the bay, steep asphalt up to and under the Golden Gate, narrow rutted single track with people running both ways, soft beach sand and the infamous "sand ladder". The sand ladder is 400 steps up from a beach. Basically a big dune with 400 beams set into it and cables on either side to pull yourself on. I had done intervals and brick workouts on the stepper at the Y to get ready for this. Waste of time. I ran the first 3 steps and walked the rest of the way as did EVERYONE I saw.

There were reportedly 10,000 people on the course cheering on 2000 athletes. I believe it.. seemed like all along the course people were yelling and screaming. I averaged 10:52/mile and normally I can average 8:00/mile... but I was happy with it. Do you sense a theme?


A beautiful and challenging course. The most unique triathlon I've ever done (been doing them for 30 years now). Glad to say I overcame my fears and finished it. I have a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Normally I'm very focused on time. I finished this race alive and I was happy with it.

I'll never do it again. I do triathlons because I desire goals and challenges. They give me a sense of fullfillment and accomplishment.  I enjoy the competition during the race and the comraderie after. I would love to be able to do triathlons for some time to come. BUT, this race crossed a line for me. Instead of a challenge, I was in a fight for my life.

All of us should consider why we're doing triathlons and realize that there is inherent risk. At what point does a race become so risky or extreme that it's time to step back and say: "This isn't worth it. I have family and friends that love me and other things I wish to accomplish in my life. I won't do this."? That point will be different for all of us. With regards to triathlons being life threatening, I have included an article from Slow Twitch (below) that describes the tragedy that happened during the race. I found it thought provoking. Rubber side down.

Escape From Alcatraz by Richard Iazzetta

The article can also be viewed here.

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