| Escape from Alcatraz
In the past, we released a weekly article with a bird's eye view of the race to help you better prepare for the big day. This is advice that only our experienced escapees can share with fellow GGTCers, and passed down generation to generation. The series has some useful and interesting information for first time escapees, potential escapees/volunteers, club members doing other races, etc. Here is the summary of the awesome responses. If you are not racing and are interested in helping out, volunteers are needed to help with all aspects of the race including aid stations, transition area, bike course, run course, start/finish, timing, parking, etc. We also need volunteers for pre-race day activities such as registration and athlete goodie bag stuffing.
Water will be 59-62 F on race day, and even if you have not been swimming in cold water before, a full wetsuit and a neoprene hood will more than make it tolerable. Cold, but tolerable. It will help if you’ve had a chance to acclimate some to the water before race day. So get out there and go on some open water swims in Aquatic Park with GGTC, Swim Art, or Pedro Ordenes.
The water feels cold for a few minutes, especially the face, hands, and feet, but your body adapts in a few minutes and that initial shock wears off so you are able to swim comfortably. Silicon earplugs will also help keep you feeling warm by blocking the cold water from inside your ear, and may keep you from feeling dizzy when you get out (if that’s something you’re prone to). Be sure to try the earplugs out before race day!
If you’re worried about the water temperature, a thermal cap is a must-have, and does as much (if not more) to keep you warm than your wetsuit. Buy one and wear your wave-coded latex cap over it. Latex and silicone swim caps have virtually no insulating properties.
The race is planned for slack tide, turning to an ebb, so that the water will be moving east to west out of the bay. This will help push you toward your swim exit at Yacht Harbor which is west of the jump. Check the internet for tide and current tables to get a picture of what will be going on the day and time of the race. But, note that waves and other conditions cannot be fully predicted by the tides, wind, or other items. Days with identical tidal profiles (and even weather conditions) can have flat water – or two- to three-foot whitecaps that kick the crap out of you! Watch the GGTC email list for pre-race test swim results, too - the tides and conditions will be reported and will give you an idea what to expect on race day.
Wear your wetsuit (up to the waist) on the bus (body glide yourself on shore and leave it behind), hold your swim caps, goggles and earplugs in a bag, and wear throw-away socks or flip-flops on your feet. You won't have to change on the boat, and you won't have to pick up your stuff later. Body glide can be borrowed if extra is required while waiting. Bring a bottle of WATER with you to drink from on the boat. It will be hot inside the boat, and you should be hydrating anyway. It you lose the bottle, no big deal.
Get in the boat line EARLY to get on the boat early and relax. On the boat trip to Alcatraz, look back to get your bearings and what landmarks you are going to sight on.
When you put on your goggles, put them under your colored swim cap. They are harder to knock off if someone accidentally swims over you or bumps you. Place your hand gently over your goggles when jumping in to hold them onto your face.
When you jump off the boat it is going to be COLD and quite a shock. It is every time. Just realize that the initial sensation will go away soon. After you jump, IMMEDIATELY move away from the boat so the next person doesn’t jump on top of you.
When you first jump in you feel the adrenaline rush, but stay calm. Get into your relaxed swim stroke, breathe, relax, get into your stroke, relax, breathe (see the mantra?). There is an initial "holy $!!#$!##" for the first timer (and even second timer) and then a rush of fear, disorientation and more fear. However, you’ll be fine! Just relax, swim your stroke, and stay on course. If you stay focused on your stroke, breathe, relax, focus on navigation the other negative thoughts will disappear. The harder you try, the slower you go. So RELAX!
Once you get out there, take a minute to enjoy the scenery from out in the middle of the bay. Very few people get to enjoy this unique view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s exhilarating!
TIP: Never have oatmeal for breakfast!!! Oatmeal + saltwater = Metamucil.
If the water is choppy, you’ll probably need a higher arm recovery to clear the waves. If you have the ability to breathe on both sides, choose the side that keeps the waves from slamming into your face. Otherwise, you may need to use an exaggerated roll. In any case, try to time your breathing between the waves.
You CANNOT swim a straight line to the swim exit, especially if you are a slower swimmer. Because the tide will be turning into an ebb, you will need to compensate by navigating slightly EAST (i.e., left) of the Yacht Club. How much you’ll have to do this will depend on conditions on race day. Stay in the middle of the pack with swimmers on both sides and you'll be just fine.
Expect the field to spread out a lot more than other triathlons, as people fan out in different directions. It can be difficult to find someone to draft behind. Have a plan for landmarks to sight. The “shortest distance between two points is not a straight line” in this event. The swim course rewards those who are patient.
Sighting Tips: Start by heading straight for San Francisco. Sight to Fontana Towers, the two big towers over Aquatic Park. Once you can see both towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, head toward Fort Mason (the yellow buildings). Once you can see the Palace of Fine Arts (the big brown dome), head straight toward it. This will bring you directly to the Yacht Club. The slower you are, the more you should cheat EAST (left). Don’t worry, the current will help bring you to the right spot. You DON’T want to be fighting that current to get back to the beach at the Yacht Club, however!
Slower swimmers - Yes, you want most of the people on your right side while swimming, but you STILL will want people to your left, because there will be a few who don't have a clue where they are going, are overly conservative, or just can't swim straight. You are smart to keep 1/2 or 2/3 of the swimmers to your right for the first 1/2 of the swim to get you across the channel, as some of them will definitely overshoot the exit and be in real trouble.
If you cross the channel extra fast, stay a minimum of 200 yards off shore, preferably 250 to stay in the faster moving waters and avoid any minor eddies that may be spinning around.
Once you are about 150-100 yards from the swim exit, swim perpendicular to the coast and the combination of tides and your swimming will take you right in. This may NOT be possible with other swimmers angling in, but the point is to stay away from the coast until you have to.
The swim exit beach/stairs are about 50 feet wide. DO NOT come in on the very left (east) end, as there are boulders, and you can easily slip and hit your knee.
If you do miss the exit, you can always get out on the rocks, or even on Crissy Field, and run back to the mini-transition area. Don’t worry – you won’t be the first person who’s had to do that!
Tell your spouse or significant other not to worry: No one has ever been lost during the swim. The pilot coverage is fantastic, and they WILL be there to help out if needed. Note: If a kayak or boat tells you to move or to get on board, DO IT. It’s for your safety. This is perhaps the only triathlon in the world where you will not be disqualified for receiving assistance by being relocated in the water.
TIPS ON THE BIKE COURSE
DESCRIPTION OF THE BIKE COURSE, MILE BY MILE
- Course is technical - lots of ups and downs, meaning good shifting skills will help you a lot
- Tight corners are really unsafe at high speeds - better to be safe and slow down a bit around the corners than to risk taking a spill and ending your race.
- Yes there are a couple of areas of the course where you can use your aerobars; don't bother taking them off for such a short race, 'cause it ain't going to make a difference!
- Preview the course even if you do it in a car the day before the race.
- Spin at a higher cadence than normal on the first leg of the bike through the flats of Chrissy Field. Your legs will warm up faster and you'll be ready to climb when you hit the first hill.
- Ride the course A LOT beforehand. Be careful -- it's HAIRY! GO FAST -- it's short.
- Don't hammer the uphills, keep a smooth and steady pace - there are many hills and you need to keep something in the tank for the last set of hills (and the run course).
- Try to spin in your easier gears keeping cadence around 90. Save your legs for the run.
- Ride the course sometime before the race. Don't go all out on the hills. Save strength to go fast on the flats. The climb from Baker Beach to the Legion of Honor isn't the steepest hill, but it's long, and I think it's the hardest climb on the course. Watch for potholes at the bottom of the Cliff House hill on the Great Hwy.
- Pack one water bottle on your bike and skip the aid stations where people tend to bunch up.
- Keep spinning high cadence... your legs will thank you on the sand ladder. Watch out for the sharp turn at the end of Seal Rock.
- Watch the turns by the Cliff House. They are canted away from the direction of the turn, making you feel unstable on the turn.
- Nobody knows the Alcatraz bike course like Phil Casanta. One of the best things I did for this race was take his bike clinic. Aside from riding the course, he breaks the course down, section by section, to include strategies for attacking each part of the course.
- Beg/borrow/buy and ride a road bike; why carry the weight of your MTB up those hills.
- Have your bike inspected pre-race by a COMPETENT mechanic.
- Unlike Wildflower, this is not a course that you build as you go. To do well, you must attack the early climbs and allow yourself to recover on the descends. Most importantly, however is to keep your head up and anticipate any hazards as this is a potentially dangerous ride.
The beautiful Alcatraz bike leg is an exciting eighteen miles of climbs, high-speed curving descents, hairpin and 45 degree turns, sand, potholes and metal posts. Riding the course prior to racing will increase your safety and decrease your time. T1 (or 1-and-a-half) is at Marina Green. The bike exit is at the Western end, by Scott and Marina. (You must walk your bike in the transition area.)
- Mile 0: Make a right on Marina. You'll want to be in aero on this flat straightaway into a headwind. It continues through the entrance to Crissy Field (turns into Mason St) and stays straight until
- Mile 1, an S turn (careful if in aero) and then it's straight and flat again until
- Mile 1.5 as you veer left on Mason and then right on Crissy Field Ave. This short climb plateaus as you make a right on Lincoln, and then you climb again, until it plateaus again briefly at
- Mile 2 as you go through the tunnel. Then you climb another quarter mile, and it flattens out for a quarter mile and then at
- Mile 2.5 enjoy an exhilarating rest as you descend Lincoln (paralleling Baker Beach to your right). Be careful of fellow riders, ill-placed cones, and guard rails as you go like hell around the two turns. Go aero and be in a big gear as the road straightens (stay outta the crappy pavement on the right of the road). The downhill then flattens out, curves, and you will downshift to ascend the small rise that brings you to
- Mile 3.5 at the intersection of 25th and El Camino del Mar into Seacliff. Look for local fan Robin Williams. This is flat until it curves left, and then it will increase in steepness as you reach
- Mile 4 at the intersection of Lake and you continuing climbing up and up to
- Mile 4.5 at the Legion of Honor and then enjoy a thrilling downhill (you can reach 35 mph easily without pedaling) until you must make a 45 degree turn by banging a HARD right at
- Mile 5 going up Clement St -- you may want to have already shifted into a lower gear BEFORE making this turn. (This turn will have a horrified volunteer screaming at you to slow down. Be nice, they can DQ you) Work this climb because you have another long exciting rest ahead of you at
- Mile 5.18 as Clement flattens and descends, turning into Seal Rock, then drops very steeply into a HAIRPIN TURN as you make a left on El Camino del Mar and then a right on Point Lobos. You are pulling Gs as you fly by the Cliff House and may choose to be in the left lane to avoid tourist traffic and buses. The downhill will spit you out onto the Great Highway (stay left, the road's crappy on the right) and your momentum may end at
- Mile 6.5 at the intersection of Balboa or Fulton. WATCH FOR SAND as you go aero on this flat (if you hit it, keep the wheel straight and power through it). Enjoy the Ocean Beach wind as it pushes you sideways as you finish this straightaway and go left through the light onto Lincoln at
- Mile 7 and then make a quick left into the park onto Martin Luther King Jr Drive. You will now climb the slight incline until the flat at
- Mile 7.5 at the intersection of 41st Avenue and will then take your next left at
- Mile 8, climbing onto Middle Drive West (there's no sign - it's the entrance to Polo Field Parking) and you will then continue to bear left at the intersection (sign says No Through Traffic) and the road will flatten out and you will be going fast but LOOK OUT
- Mile 8.5 has TWO sets of posts you may have to bike right through (beware the sand on the right - if you think this is bad you should try it at 5am going to swim practice in the dark) and then you will go left at
- Mile 9 onto Crossover Drive for a tiny roller (HALFWAY THERE!) and then go left at
- Mile 9.2 and take JFK Drive ALL THE WAY down past
- Mile 10 Spreckels Lake at 36th Ave and down some more past the Bison Paddock and down to
- Mile 11 where you pass the Windmill and go right on the Great Highway and begin to come back exactly the way you came, following the flat for a half mile until you begin an exciting climb up past the Cliff House (traffic worries make you go fast) and painfully up some more until you get to
- Mile 12 where you make that quick left on El Camino del Mar. This is a short flat - you will want to shortly be in a very low gear because you will now encounter your steepest hill as you go right on Seal Rock (and stand) until it flattens out again in just a quarter mile and prepare for another exciting rest as you fly down Clement, braking to make a HARD 45 degree left past the screaming volunteers at
- Mile 13 as you climb up 34th Ave to the Legion of Honor. The view is nice from the top but you'll want to now navigate the scorching downhill that brings you back to Seacliff. You will want to run all the stop signs at high speed, but do be careful (do not look for Robin Williams) and remember the misfortune our friend David Alyea suffered there. You will also want to be careful of the FAIRLY LARGE HOLE in the middle of the road just before you very quickly reach
- Mile 14 (at the intersection of McClaren). You will speedily snake through the rest of Seacliff and will have a strong momentum going to begin to take you back up THE LAST UPHILL up past the sand ladder and up to
- Mile 15.4 at the top of Baker Beach. Enjoy another long rest as you rip down, through the tunnel, and whip around the right bend until you bang a sharp left back down Crissy Field Avenue (this is one-way the other way but they open it up for the course - if training, take the next left after that). You are now on
- Mile 16.5 with the wind behind you (as I remember it I was hitting 30mph here) as you fly straight back on the flat to
- Mile 18 where more volunteers will yell at you to slow down.
Run Tips And Description
RUN COURSE DESCRIPTION
- There's no shame in walking the sand ladder - even the pros do it at some point.
- The run course is an out and back so remember all the hills you climbed will be downhills on the way back - and vice versus!
- Practice hills and stairs before the race or the course will crush you. It would be a mistake to only train on flats before Alcatraz
- Get used to running in sand for the Baker Beach portion
- Expect some head/tail winds on race day.
- Practice running on the beach and the sand ladder.
- Take it easy on the sand ladder, save some energy for a strong finish.
- Shorten your stride down to conserve energy.
- On the beach, run down by the packed sand, much easier there... run all the way down to opposite the sand ladder instead of cutting across, it seems like a longer way to run but I've seen people lose minutes off their time struggling in the loose sand.
- I always look forward to the sand ladder as an opportunity to slow down and use different muscles after running on the beach. Run the bottom and top of the sand ladder. Walk the middle part where the sand is deeper and it's just as fast as running.
- It's difficult to pass on the narrow trails in the Presidio, so relax and make up time elsewhere.
- Always start off slower than you think you will run after you've transitioned from the bike. This will keep your heart rate low, allow your body to get used to running. You can pick it up later in the race. Get into your groove and have fun. Personally, I walk the uphills. I can't really run them any faster and find it saves me some energy. Drink and eat!!
- Do not run the sand ladder - get into a rhythm and keep climbing. And the flat across Marina Green feels longer than you expect, so just enjoy it as you will be done soon!
- Go to M2's sandladder workout pre-Alcatraz.
- Get out there and run it! The sand ladder hurts in training and will hurt even more on race day.
- Put your hands on your quads and pace yourself up the sandladder, else use the hand rails and pull - anyway to get you up that thing?!
- Heading out of transition, you'll proceed in the same direction as the beginning of the bike. By now some of the more curious San Franciscans have dragged themselves from bed and made their way down to the finish area, so you should have a crowd to cheer you along. If the weather is sunny and the air is warming up, you'll probably have a headwind and some recreational joggers, families, dogs, small children, strollers, and small, flightless waterfowl to contend with on the path that winds along the bay next to Crissy Field. If these obstacles are paying attention, they'll hopefully get out of your way, but if not, let them know you're coming with some shouts of "on your left!" as you pick your way through the masses. Note: shouting has absolutely no affect on dogs and small children, who would prefer to dart into your path much like squirrels.
- The run passes the length of Baker Beach and back again, after a turnaround marked at the far end of the beach by various sponsor banners flapping in the wind. Make a mental note to economically thank these generous supporters, for they have brought you such exhilaration and the intense feelings of strength and grace that you are now experiencing. Try to choke down some electrolyte beverage or water as you pass the aid station at the turnaround.
- When you arrive back at the end of the beach where you entered but a few short minutes before, you are now confronted with the iron test of man and womanhood, the test you have read about and perhaps practiced in the weeks before, the evil and insidious and utterly loathed purveyors of pain....
- The Sand Steps. Yes, it's all true what you've heard. They steal small children in the night, they are ugly and deviant and particularly vile. They alone are responsible for the collapse of about 34 dot coms. But you are Strong and Within Your Target Heartrate, and you aren't going to take it anymore. So get up there and climb, like you've never climbed before! Grab a fistful of rope and haul yourself up any way you can! If someone's in your way, push them to the side! I mean encourage them and keep going! Try your best to plant your feet on the solid wooden planks that serve as the foundation for the stairs, and if you can see no wooden planks, step in the footsteps of those who have gone before you, for they have compacted the sand and now you don't have to.
- The dreaded sand steps are long and arduous but, despite what your lungs and quads are telling you, you will make it to the top. Once you do, pat yourself on the back, for they are one of the most difficult sections of racing in all of triathlon. Now you are burning for home, the sun is shining, and the pain is nearly over. The uphill continues after the sand steps, but not for long and soon you are coming back down the Coastal Trail the same way you went out. With tired legs and a mental focus bordering on mush, it is particularly important to concentrate on your footing as you descend - you've come too far to let a mental lapse result in a fall or an injury.
- Let your stride length increase as you come down the trail, and remember to breathe to flush out that carbon dioxide. Stairs can be tricky coming downhill on tuckered legs. Remember to duck your head going through the aforementioned tunnel, and smile to the thronging Golden Gate tourists who have no idea what the heck you are doing running around out there, despite the hovering helicopter and race numbers.
- Rounding the final bend, the finish line is now in sight, so open up the engines and power through the timing mats! Hopefully modern technology doesn't fail you and the beep of your ChampionChip welcomes you home. Congratulations, you're now an official Escapee. Go find Robin Williams and throw your arms around him; I hear he particularly enjoys that.
Tips from Experienced GGTC Racers
Transitions are a big deal for this race because there is an extra one with the mini run between swim and bike. It's only a 5 minute run, so not that bad. What you put in your transition bag is up to you.
Tips on Identifying your T1 bag, as they are laid out on the ground by number (and there are over 1,400 of them!)
- Some wear an older pair of running shoes, others go barefoot. I wouldn't wear your main running shoes because they will get all wet and sandy from the swim exit and still be that way later when you head out on the main run course.
- Glue the insole of your shoes down.
- Untie your shoelaces ahead of time if you do decide to slip on shoes. Your fingers will be numb and you won't be able to do it there.
- For the funky T1/swim finish, put Vaseline in the back of your shoes and your cold feet slide in quickly.
- I wouldn't worry about wearing socks. Your feet will be frozen, so you won't notice the difference.
- For the swim/bike transition I wear Tevas. They're quick to get on, don't slip, and provide just enough to make it to the bike
- Take your wetsuit off right after you get out of the water-- otherwise it may be hard to get off.
- It's harder to run in your wetsuit than you think. Better to remove it in the swim transition and run free.
- Don't try to sprint to the swim transition area after you get out of the water - it's slippery and your feet are frozen, making it easy to take a spill or trip over someone else. Take a second and maintain control. You won't be losing the race here.
Tips on Logistics
- Decorate your transition bag for T1. Last year, I put red dots all over my bag and it was sooo easy to find in the piles of bags.
- Mark your swim bag with a bright colored ribbon so you can easily pick it out of the bunch.
- If you forget your number, show the back of your hand to the volunteer - your number is on it facing him/her. I've seen people in their hypothermic state read their number upside down and get it completely wrong.
- When you pick up your race packet Saturday, Go to the swim finish area and follow the run in from the swim (T1) and run out after the bike in T3 as it is a bit confusing the first time.
- Warm-up well before you board the boat because you will not be able to before the race. BYO TP -- the heads may run out!
- Pay close attention to the instructions for what you should bring on the boat, versus what to leave in transition. Don't bring your running shoes to the boat as they will NOT be available to you when you need them after the bike.
- This race is really beautiful. Don't be so stressed out that you don't take the time to look around (particularly on the swim) and enjoy your surroundings.
- Enjoy every moment and never loose sight of the finish. On the way back look out to Alcatraz and say, yeah! I swam from Alcatraz!
- Have fun!
- Don't worry about the swim. Have fun and enjoy the experience.
- Have fun with the race, it is a fantastic course and you have an opportunity to see the city from a different perspective, out in the middle of the bay!
- Relax! Have fun!!
- Have fun and keep smiling! It is an interesting and challenging course; different than any other race you will ever compete in!
- Enjoy the experience, try to make it fun- one year I took a waterproof disposable camera and took pictures the whole way, even on the swim.
- MAKE SURE TO LOOK AROUND YOU MIDWAY THROUGH THE SWIM. This will be the most breathtaking view/experience of your life. Neck deep in shark infested waters, Alcatraz behind you, GG Bridge to your right and city with sun and lights in front (with a huge crowd) awaiting you!!!! Simply AMAZING!
- Go out there and have fun. It's a great day and a great race no matter what happens.