This is the unlikely story of my favorite race of all time.
Most every summer I attend Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in California. The first few years I attended the conference it took place in San Jose, then it later switched to San Francisco. Both fine choices.
In 2003 I was at the peak of my triathlon prowess. That summer I did a triathlon or ran a road race almost every weekend. Earlier in the spring I was planning which races I wanted to do, and on a whim I decided to search for races in San Francisco on the weekends before and after the conference. I lucked out. The Alcatraz “Escape from the Rock” Triathlon was taking place in San Francisco the day before WWDC started.
There was only one problem. Triathlons have become so popular that big races nearly always fill up months ahead of time. With just a few weeks to go until the race I was sure it would be full. I emailed the race organizers and I was delighted to hear back from them that there were 2 spots available. I promptly snapped one up. The race entry fee was rather large, but I figured that if this actually worked out it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I didn’t really want to deal with taking my own bike on the plane so I rented a bike from Bay City Bike. The organizers required all equipment to be set up the day before the race, so I arranged to fly out to San Francisco a day early. My flight arrived on time. I took a taxi to my hotel, unpacked, then took a bus to Bay City Bike. They had my reservation and I picked up the bike. It was a low end Giant road bike, which is not super great, but it was more than adequate for my needs.
I rode the bike with my backpack full of race gear to the transition area at an old warehouse near Crissy Field. I picked up my registration packet for the race and I set up the bike and all my other gear. Now it was time to return to my hotel. Except I no longer had the bike. And I didn’t see any taxis or buses. So I walked about 3 miles back to the bike shop (the only place I knew for sure where I could find a bus) then took the bus back downtown to my hotel. Given that this was the worse thing that had happened so far, and everything else had gone off without a hitch, I wasn’t too upset about it. I mean, think of all the things that could have gone wrong (delayed flight, missing hotel reservations, missing bike, missing registration, bad weather, etc.).
I woke up very early the next morning. I gathered my running shoes, my wetsuit & goggles, and headed to the race start. I had no problems finding a taxi, as the city was dead at this time of the morning. Perhaps I was a little too early. I saw very few people near the race staging area, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I had worked so hard just to get to this point I wasn’t going to let it slip away. I set up my gear in the first transition area. It was time.
All the race participants gathered onto a boat and headed to Alcatraz island. The organizers went over the race instructions on the way out there. The boat pulled up close to the east side of the island, they opened up the doors, and everybody started jumping into the water. I was one of the last people remaining on the boat and I was nervous as hell when it was my turn.
Then I jumped.
The mid-June 58˚ water of the San Francisco bay hit me like a blast of winter wind. I was wearing a wetsuit, but it still took a minute or so for the water in the wetsuit to heat up to a bearable temperature. My face on the other hand didn’t have the luxury of a neoprene covering. It was cold, and it would remain cold for the next 35 minutes.
As I treaded water, trying to catch my breath, I noticed that several people had started swimming already, even though the race hadn’t started yet. I was quite some distance back from the imaginary starting line anyway, so I started swimming as well. The boat horn blew to signal the start of the race just as I reached the line and I kept right on going.
Now, swimming in the San Francisco bay is notoriously difficult–it’s part of the mystique of Alcatraz. I was beginning to understand why. In addition to the frigid water, the waves were pretty rough. No amount of swimming laps in a pool, nor even short open water swims in muddy midwestern lakes, prepared me for the constant ups and downs of the ocean-like bay water. I had never swam in saltwater before and this also caused me some difficulties. In the normal course of swimming I sometimes get water in my mount and I inadvertently swallow some of it. Well, the salt water was causing me to gag and I had to stop for a few seconds a handful of times to prevent myself from puking.
Finally, the current is incredibly strong. We couldn’t just swim straight towards our destination or we would end up out in the Pacific ocean. We had to aim significantly to the east of our destination and the current would correct our course. When I was just a few hundred meters out I realized I had overshot the small entrance to municipal harbor and I started swimming vigorously against the current. By the time I reached the entrance I was still 20 meters or so down current of where I needed to be. That’s when the current slammed me (and everyone around me) into the pier. The force of hitting the pier wasn’t so bad, but it was covered with barnacles. As I pushed off of the pier to get back where I needed to be these tiny sharp crustacea sliced my bare fingers and toes in several places, leaving me bleeding as I exited the water and I ran up onto the shore.
All things considered it was actually a pretty decent swim. I did the 1.5-ish miles in 35 minutes, which put me roughly in the middle of the pack. I don’t think I could have expected any better.
Normally triathlons are arranged in swim-bike-run order, but this race was a little different. In order for the locations to work out correctly there was a 2.5 mile run between the swim and the bike, then another 7.5 mile run after the bike. So it was swim-run-bike-run.
After exiting the water I ran to the transition area put on my shoes and tried to wipe off as much blood as possible from my fingers. I didn’t want it on my triathlon suit, so I wiped it on my race number. Fortunately, the cuts were tiny and the bleeding stopped within a few minutes.
I did the first 2.5 mile run at a pretty easy pace and maintained my position in the middle of the pack. Normally in triathlons the run is where I excel, but there was a lot of racing left to do.
I reached the transition area at the warehouse, grabbed my bike, and I was off. Immediately there was a large steep hill (this is San Francisco). The road went uphill for a mile, then downhill for a mile, then there was a turnaround, then uphill for a mile, then downhill for a mile, turnaround, repeat, repeat.
The bike ride was hilly. I had never trained on hills. There are no hills in central Illinois. But a funny thing happened during the race–a rather unexpected thing. I started passing people. And not just a few people, but I started passing a lot of people. Every uphill section I passed dozens of people. Every downhill section I passed a few more. After the hilly 12 mile bike ride there really weren’t that many people left ahead of me. Apparently I can bike well on hills.
The second run was an out-and-back. It was longer (7.5 miles) and harder (hills, trails, sand, etc). It started up a trail that went right under the Golden Gate bridge. I mean right under. I could jumped up and touched the bottom of the bridge. The trail wound up, down, and around, and ended at Baker beach. It was at the end of the beach that I saw the race leader headed back the opposite direction. Hmm. How far is it to the turn around? How many people are ahead of me?
After a stroll through the sand the course wound through a neighborhood then up a hill to the Legion of Honor. Going up this hill another runner passed me. Again, the run is where I usually excelled, so it was rare that other people passed me while running in a triathlon. I wasn’t going let this slide. I reached the turnaround top of the hill after counting 24 people ahead of me.
On the downhill I caught back up with the runner who had passed me earlier and did likewise to him. Then after running back across Baker beach I reached the notorious sand ladder. The sand ladder is basically a set of stairs made out of wood and sand. It climbs the steep hill from Baker beach up to the trail that goes right under the Golden Gate bridge. There was no chance of running up this thing, so I just did the best I could to keep walking at a brisk pace until I got to the top. From there on it was all down hill.
The windy trail made its way back under the bridge then back down to sea level. I caught one other runner at the bottom of this hill as we both made a mad dash for the finish line.
I ended up finishing in 2:38:19, good enough for 23nd place overall (out of 440 finishers) and 2nd place in my age group. Not only was the race a whole lot of fun, it was my best triathlon performance ever, and one of my best performances ever in any kind of race.
I am still amazed to this day that all the necessary pieces came together to allow me to take part in this amazing event. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Until the next once in a lifetime opportunity comes along, I’m satisfied to have escaped from Alcatraz.