Triathlon is generally considered to have begun in San Diego’s Mission Bay in 1974, just 38 years ago. To honor this first event, ITU held a leg of its World Triathlon Series in Mission Bay just a month ago. Like every large sporting event held in the great state of California, it was a resounding success. I hope that ITU will return to San Diego in the future as it would be an incredible venue to race at.
Just seven years after the sport began, the??inaugural running of the Escape from Alcatraz event was held. I suspect the course has changed over the years, but as it stands now, it is a 1.5 mile swim, 18 mile bike and 8 mile run through San Francisco’s Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and even under the Golden Gate Bridge. On Sunday I was fortunate enough to be apart of this historical race in its 32nd edition.
I woke at 4:00 am at my girl friend’s parent’s home in Oakland. A quick cup of coffee and a little food and I was out the door. I hoped that the toll booths would be closed, seeing how it was basically the middle of the night, but no such luck. Those bastards ended up taking $16 from me over the course of about 36 hours. I got to transition a bit after 5:00 and was pleasantly surprised to find a special parking lot for elite athletes. I could get used to this special treatment.
After setting up transition, I got in a quick run before I had to board the first round of public transportation to the race start. There were several shuttles (buses) taking all the athletes (pros and age groupers) to one of the piers on Embarcadero. There we boarded a ferry ship called the San Francisco Belle which departed “promptly” at 6:30. We slowly made our way into the Bay and towards the Rock. I was pretty antsy this whole time, of course, anticipating this very unique swim. I put on my wetsuit maybe a bit too early, and I proceeded to dance around trying to hold it in. “Can we go out on the deck now so I can pee??”??Just before the race was to start at 7:30 the pros made our way outside and climbed over the rail of the boat. I was relieved in more ways than one. (zing!)
I had been following around Henry Hagenbuch, friend and former TTS athlete, all weekend as he is a San Franciscan native and has done this race a few time before. I lined up right next to him and we discussed what to aim for once we got in the water. First, the towers above the Aquatic Park, then the trees above Fort Mason, the “barracks” (as Henry called them), and finally the gold dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. There is always a current in the Bay, sometimes more swift than others, that takes you in the direction we are swimming. This is great, but if you “overshoot” the swim exit, you may have to swim against the current. If you overshoot bad enough, you could be on a one-way ticket under the Golden Gate and out to the Pacific.
15th in 29:58 (3:09 behind the fastest)
As the announcer on the boat began to call out the race start in 10-9-8… my nerves were starting to get the best of me so I told myself, “Just have fun!” There were no ITU points on the line; this was a race that I just decided to jump in for fun. I felt much better and much more relaxed. 3-2-1 and the boat’s horn sounded. I dove in and took a strong 10 strokes or so before I worried about which direction I was headed in. First thoughts: 1) water was not nearly as cold as I expected; 2) much less physical than a typical ITU race start in terms of getting punched, kicked, pulled, etc.; ??and 3) why is everyone going so far right? It seemed like I was going in the wrong direction, but every time I lifted my head out of the water to sight it seemed like I was going in the right direction. I made a game-time decision and decided to keep on my path thinking that as long as the pack is to my right I can’t overshoot the swim exit. Eventually the pack would break up and I found myself swimming on Eric Clarkson’s feet (of course I had no idea who it was while I was in the water… I was just happy to see a white cap of another male pro).
Usually I don’t have much to say about my transitions. Just in and out, put my helmet on, grab my bike. T1 is very unique at Escape from Alcatraz, however. After exiting the swim, you have a choice of stripping off your wetsuit and putting on shoes or heading straight onto the half mile run on asphalt to get to the bike racks. I didn’t want to risk losing time looking for a bag with shoes in them so I opted to go barefoot, which was a painful decision.
9th in 49:12 (3:30 behind the fastest)
The bike course is flat for about a mile and a half, hilly 15 miles, and flat again for the final mile and a half. I held my position until the first climb where I passed a handful of guys (and a couple ladies that out swam me). Up the next climb, I passed the rest of the men that I could see. For the next 10 miles or so I couldn’t see anyone ahead. At this point I really had no idea what place I was in either — so different from ITU racing. I time trialed the best I could until I saw a couple guys ahead. They ended up being Canadian Andrew McCartney and American John Dahlz. I got by McCartney with about a mile to go and came into T2 just behind Dahlz. I heard a guy on the side of the course yell out our postions, so I knew I was 11th coming out of T2.
3rd in 45:25 (1:00 behind the fastest)
Out of T2 I quickly went around John Dahlz and focused on the next guy ahead. At the 1 mile mark I was about 25 seconds behind Barrett Brandon. I caught him just before we headed up a fairly narrow staircase that takes us up toward the bottom of the Golden Gate. Barrett asked if there were any guys behind me and I asked him if top 10 is “in the money.” He confirmed, and I took off up the trail. Again, I was racing without knowing where the rest of the field was. Since the run is so hilly and technical, I didn’t have ??a chance to scope out the entire course the day before the race so I was a little hesitant to push too hard without knowing what was to come. We came down a long, steep road and then made our way onto the beach.
Before getting to the turnaround at the halfway point, the course goes through some very loose sand. I opted not to push too hard on this section as I felt any extra energy I used to run faster was being absorbed by the sand. This section did allow for me to see how far ahead the next groups were, giving me something to shoot for. A group of three including Canadians Andrew Russell and Jon Bird and American Dustin McClarty were a couple minutes ahead. About a minute behind them was 8th place Brian Fleischmann. After the turnaround we were able to run down by the water where the footing was much more firm. I tried to get my turnover going and was able to make up some room on Brian.
After the beach section was the infamous Sand Ladder, a couple hundred meter section of sand and wood planks up a cliff face,??basically. There is a timing mat at the bottom and the top to see who has the fastest time on this section. Before the race, I thought I had a chance at winning this little bonus, but after about 15 seconds up the hill I felt like I was barely moving. After looking at the results, I was surprised to see my time of 1:54 was 3rd among the pros and just 6 seconds behind the fastest! Something to remember for the future.
I took a big chunk out of Brian’s gap on me and was able to pass him on some undulating single track. Once I got down the section of wooden stairs, I tried to get in a real quick rhythm. After coming around a long left bend, I saw Dustin McClarty up ahead. I was getting lots of encouragement from age groupers going in the opposite direction, yelling to ??me that I could get him. Each stride I closed down the gap a little bit more, but I was starting to run out of real estate. I was able to catch up to him with less than a quarter of a mile to go. At this point there was a pretty big crowd cheering us on. I threw in a hard surge and he didn’t go with me. I opened up a small gap and was able to wave to the crowd in the stands as I crossed the finish line.
7th in 2:09:42 (6:25 behind 1st)
After I finished, I saw the winner and now 5x champion of Escape from Alcatraz Andy Potts (2008 Olympian),??Australian??Courtney Atkinson (2008 and 2012 Olympian) and Bevan Docherty (2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympian and Olympic silver and bronze medalist). I was in great company. These guys are celebrities to me, and now I’m racing against them. They did kick my butt, but just to be on the same results page in my first year as a professional is quite an accomplishment.
Backing up my performance at Dallas with this result has given me a lot of confidence in my ability and the training I have been doing. I still need to make swimming my primary focus, but I like where my bike and run are at right now. I absolutely loved this course and I think it suits me really well. I will definitely be coming back with a goal of winning here someday.
A special thank you to my girlfriend’s parents Chris and Peg for letting me stay with them over the weekend. It would have been nice to stay at a hotel in San Francisco near the race venue, but staying with good company in Oakland was much better. Plus the price was right :). Also want to thank Barb Lindquist for giving me some pointers on a course that she once won on. Finally, thanks to USA Triathlon and my coach Ian Murray for all your support.