By Will Murray
The 2016 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon is in the books. And you might want to consider signing up for next year. When triathletes think about Alcatraz, they immediately think about the swim, and rightly so. So let’s start there.
The swim is about 1.5 miles in temperatures ranging from 58 to 61 degrees. Due to favorable tidal currents, the swim can be blindingly fast, but this year it wasn’t.
At 7:30 AM, 1800 athletes leaped the six feet from the deck of vessel Hornblower, hovering near Alcatraz Island to the northeast of San Francisco, into the swirling water, all abandoning the vessel within six minutes. Meanwhile, west winds whistling through the Golden Gate at 12-18 miles per hour whipped up seas to three feet topped by hissing whitecaps. Swimmers earned excellent views of San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge from the lofty peaks of the whitecaps, only to be smothered in darkness in the troughs of the waves, making sighting an intermittent opportunity. After the race, Chloe Nabity from Auburn, AL wondered what the elevation gain was on the swim. Bella Banbury (Alameda, CA) said, “The swim was so rough. I loved every minute of it!”
A 1.2-knot current (equivalent roughly to 2:20 minutes per 100 yards in swimmer’s lingo), swept the swimmers toward the Golden Gate. Swimmers who listened to the pre-race briefing and watched the many useful, short videos on the Escape web site knew to swim directly south and let the current take them to the swim finish at St. Francis Yacht harbor. Swim due south with a west-flowing current and you end up tracking a straight line southwest to the finish. Anything else and you are swept off course.
A pack of the best swimmers from the pro field somehow selected the wrong line and ended up five to seven minutes off the swim pace set by first-out-of-the-water and overall-winner Joe Maloy.
After battling the waves and sneaking (or getting rolled) through the shore break, athletes tackled the half-mile run to transition, giving them a chance to warm up a little before tackling the bike. Boulder pro Cam Dye, who finished the race second to Maloy, had the best T1 time at 3:29. Many athletes peel the suit at the water’s edge, while others run across the smooth asphalt to transition in their neoprene.
The bike course features four miles of flats and 14 miles of hills. It’s a course that Charles Dickens would appreciate: being an out and back route, every short, sharp downhill later becomes a short, sharp uphill—the best of times and the worst of times. Female pro winner Holly Lawrence clocked a scorching 51:21 bike split, battling the wind on the outbound segment, riding the tailwind on the return and logging 2140 feet of elevation gain and loss in the process.
The bike course is stunningly scenic, if you can divert your eyes here and there between the technical descents and the sharp climbs, going along San Francisco Bay, past the Golden Gate Bridge, along Baker’s Beach, then past the Cliff House and into (and out of) Golden Gate Park.
Given the hilly, technical bike course, should you use a tri bike or your road bike? About 80% of athletes used tri bikes, but some were heard to say on the climbs, “I should have brought my road bike.”
The last two miles of the bike course are flat, straight and downwind, giving athletes a chance to sort out the plans for T2 and get ready for the run.
The run course is déjà vu all over again: eight miles of back to Crissy Field along the Bay, then up a long set of stairs to the Golden Gate Bridge, and down the steep hill to Baker’s Beach. The trudge across the soft sand away from the water’s edge is anything but a Baywatch moment, except for the slow-motion effects. Once athletes get close to the water, where the sand is more solid, the pace picks up for the quarter mile to the turnaround, then back toward the greatly feared sand ladder. The sand ladder is a set of wooden beams laid in a track straight up a 200-foot-tall sand dune. Fortunately, there are vertical posts with cables on both sides of the track, and almost all the athletes haul themselves up the sand ladder by pulling on the cables with their arms as well as chugging up the sand with their legs. Timing mats at the bottom and top of the sand ladder capture that part of the race. Sixth place male pro Mauricio Mendez Cruz from Mexico (who still holds the course record for 14 and under from 2009) scorched the sand ladder competition with a 1:50 burst.
Once off the sand ladder and on to solid footing, athletes face another half-mile of climbing along the coastal trail, then a short series of stair steps through World War II artillery batteries, then back down the steep stairs to the flat, downwind two-mile finish. Second-place female pro Katie Zaferies clocked the best female run split at 49:27, finishing hand in hand with Tommy, her husband and 12-place male pro.
To say that this is an iconic triathlon is a weak description. Escape from Alcatraz is a top-of-the- bucket-list race. In 2016, triathletes from all 50 states and 54 other countries participated. Twenty-two percent of the athletes were female, up from 18% last year and 12% since 2008.
Slowtwitch offers a nice photo gallery giving you a good sense of the iconic parts of the course.
The swim was cold, dark and rough. The bike course hilly, technical and windy. The run course plagued by stair steps and beach sand and long climbs and descents. In the end, you will have escaped. What are you waiting for?