For my season debut I chose to return to San Francisco for the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. Last year I finished 7th in one of my best races of my career, so I was eager to improve on that. This year’s event presented a new challenge, with a March race date instead of the usual June date, water temperature was 51F degrees and air temperatures were in the low 50’s. I knew the race was going to be cold well in advance, and prepared for it accordingly, buying a neoprene swim cap a few weeks out and planning to wear it in between a silicone cap (underneath) and the laytex race cap (outside). However, there was considerably more wind than last year, which added yet another level of complexity to the swim.
In last year’s race report, I wrote about the unique pre-race routine this event offers, and it was much the same this year, which was both comforting and means I can spare you the same, boring details. 🙂
14th in 29:19 (1:58 behind the fastest)
Different from last year’s event was there was no countdown from “10-9-8…” before the horn went off. The start had been delayed a few minutes because a cruise ship unexpectedly came into the bay a few hours before scheduled and went right across the swim course, so maybe they were in a rush to get things going? Anyway, the start horn caught me off guard and I hit the water a good body length behind 80% of the pros. (This newspaper got a good picture of the pro start, showing the mixed reaction times.)
The water was cold, but in a race setting, I didn’t really notice it too much. The bigger issue with this swim was the chop! The winds coming from the west made the water very rough and it was probably the most physical swim I have ever done. I focused on keeping a fast tempo and trying to find some sort of rhythm with the waves. I was able to see the lead boat with a big, bright pink buoy hanging off the back of it the whole way so I did not have to resort to sighting landmarks like last year. The image above shows my “breadcrumb trail” from the swim — looks like I swam a pretty straight line. Check out this video a support kayaker took showing the chop.
This swim gets really spread out, so it is hard to tell where you are placed in the race. When I came out of the water there were a few other pros around (a couple of them women). Looking at the results now, I think swimming just ten seconds faster, putting me up with Jesse Thomas, would have made a huge difference. Jesse is a very solid rider (and even better on the run), and getting out on the bike next to him would have been great for pacing. At 4:00 into the video below you can see Jesse exiting the water, and then I come out with a group of a few other athletes about 10 seconds back.
After exiting the water, I kept my wetsuit zipped up as I ran the half mile or so that it takes to get to T1. This got me nice and warm by the time I grabbed my bike and I was comfortable jumping on the bike without putting any gloves or clothing on.
7th in 49:14 (2:02 behind the fastest)
Once out on the bike I started passing people right away. I passed Sara McLarty and Sarah Groff on the first climb, and soon worked my way up the male pro field. By the time I got to the Legion of Honor I had passed Matty Reed and shortly after I moved passed James Seear. Heading down the Great Highway and into Golden Gate Park I could see Kyle Leto up ahead. Over the next few miles I was able to bring him in a bit and finally make the pass near the Cliff House. At this point I couldn’t see anyone else ahead, and I knew I had passed a number of guys, so I figured I was in a pretty good position. I rode smoothly up most of the climbs, limiting my efforts out of the saddle, and just tried to stay in a good aero position. Towards the end of the ride I caught up to Paul Matthews and was able to move by him in T2.
My time was virtually identical to last year’s split, which is a little??disappointing??because I know I am riding a lot better in practice. After looking at the ride on Strava, it looks like I was slower on every segment on the way out, and slower on many of the hills throughout the ride. This makes sense considering the headwind from the west and my apprehension to really go for it up the climbs. The easiest way to ride faster is to swim faster, putting me up closer to the faster guys. Until I can do that, however, I need to be able to push myself better on my own and make sure I am getting the most out of my bike leg.
EDIT:??There is a lot of talk regarding which type of bike to ride for this race. Last year I was on a road bike, this year I was on a TT. Similar times, but I was further up in the field this year (assuming this is because of tougher conditions). I think for any pro, a TT bike is??most likely going to be faster, assuming you can handle your bike through rough roads and on some sharp corners. Braking is very important on this course (think 90 degree turns out of a half mile descent), so whatever bike you do choose needs to be able to stop well (Pick your wheer setup accordingly as well. My ENVE SES wheels have a fantastic braking surface). Most of the climbs are very sharp and don’t vary much, so there isn’t a need to be constantly shifting when you are out of aero position. For age groupers, I think your decision should be based on what kind of swimmer are you? If you are a slower swimmer, you are going to be on a very crowded course and will likely not have many opportunities to get into an aero position. However, if you are a stronger swimmer (let’s say 36:00 on this course, putting you in the top ~150 of the whole field), I think you can get a real benefit out of a TT bike.
5th in 45:57 (1:04 behind the fastest)
Heading out on the run the headwind was brutal. My first couple miles on Crissy Fields were very slow considering how flat they are. There was a lanky figure about a minute ahead that I was chasing, but couldn’t tell who it was. I pushed the hills the best I could and tried to really roll down the steep descents. Once I got to the out-and-back on the beach I was finally able to get an idea of what place I was in. I counted that I was in 7th place, which was pretty good! Just ahead of me was John Dahlz, and ahead of him was Pete Jacobs — the lanky dude I had been chasing. Pete Jacobs is known for rolling fast marathon splits at the end of Ironman races (plus his 2012 World Title…) so I knew if I kept chasing him I would be in good shape. I got by John Dahlz before the infamous sand ladder, where I just ran an even tempo and didn’t go for the best split.
At this point I was pretty pumped knowing that I was chasing a guy like Pete Jacobs. I didn’t end up catching him, but in the chase I did pull in Spanish athlete Francesc Godoy. It was actually pretty cool… a couple miles to go, the age groupers heading the other direction and spectators were saying, “Good job. Nice pace.” That turned into, “He’s right up there.” And, “You’re catching him!” The cheers got louder and more positive with each step I took. Finally I rolled out onto Marina Blvd, saw him maybe 30m ahead, and I started growling! It was 600m to go, and what else do you do at 600m to go in a race but growl? (watch this video of Gabe Jennings and the growl) He kept looking back, which is like a shark smelling blood to a runner. Finally, just before we got onto the grass for the finishing stretch, I got around Francesc to finish in 5th place.
5th in 2:09:32 (5:05 behind the fastest)
In the finish chute I looked around and saw Javier Gomez, Graham O’Grady, Jesse Thomas, Pete Jacobs… and that’s it! Holy moley! I had just competed in the deepest triathlon of my career, and came out just behind some serious studs. After the race I was pretty quickly overcome with congratulations, beginning with my girlfriend Mo’s parents Peg and Chris who came to watch me race, and then from friends and family via texts, Twitter, phone calls and email. Racing well is fun and so rewarding when it comes after you’ve been working really hard. This race was a good affirmation that I am headed down the right path with The Triathlon Squad and Coach Paulo Sousa and will also serve as a great motivator as I go back to work to knock off those last five minutes separating me from the top of the sport.
Back to Powadise (Poway, CA) and back to work. I will be racing the SUPERSEAL race in Coronado on March 16, which will be fun to get in a local race. I hear this is a great event and I am looking forward to a fast course. If you are in the area, come down to race or to just watch and enjoy Coronado Island.
After piling onto a boat with 2,000 others and jumping into those frigid waters, a kindred bond develops that transcends the professional and age group ranks. It is part of the reason I fell in love with this event last year and why I will likely return every year I have the chance. Sadly, this fraternity of Alcatraz “convicts” lost one of its own on Sunday. Condolences to the family that had to say goodbye to a father and husband before he boarded the San Francisco Belle, and never got the chance to congratulate him on his “escape.” I can’t even imagine.