Escape from Alcatraz: Let the Pros Race

Sunday, I raced Escape from Alcatraz and I was the 14th woman overall, counting the pros. At first, I was like ‘hmm, wow, that’s pretty good, better than I expected.’ And then I found out the race organizers have started capping the number of pros. Instead of the 12 or 15 women there usually are, there were only 9.

This is dumb.

I get that there are a limited number of spots on the boat. If there was ever a race that might have to have a cap, then this would be it. But, come on, this is still triathlon. It’s not that popular. In the past, when the number of pros at Alcatraz wasn’t limited, the MOST there’d ever be was 20-25 men and 15-20 women. That’s about 20-25 more people than they allowed in this year. There was plenty of room for 25 more people. And I don’t think you can argue that there isn’t enough room and then invite a bunch of legendary former winners to race in the “celebrity” division. (Or CEOs to compete in the corporate challenge or college kids to do the Muscle Milk-sponsored collegiate challenge—which is what The Kids and I did, btw.)

The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough room or that too many pros would get in the way or weaken the race or something—I mean it’s Alcatraz, there is no gap between the pro race and age group race anyway; the pushy age group men got more in the way when they jumped off the boat literally with the pro field. The problem, instead, seems to be this trend right now across the sport to misunderstand and undervalue why you have a pro field.

The value of pros in your race is not in any one big name; it’s in the margins. Again, this is triathlon. It is a participatory sport. No one is going to do a race simply because Mirinda Carfrae is doing it. They’re going to do it because they hear a lot about it, because their friends are doing it, because it’s in the news and they’ve been told it’s legendary, because they see other people doing. In that sense, every single extra pro is an extra story and reason for the media to cover it. Ashleigh Gentle won on Sunday and there was a story before the race in her local paper back in Australia about her triathlon career (that I saw on Twitter). It mentioned her doing Alcatraz next and what a big race it was. Someone in her town reads that, hears about it, starts to think ‘hey, I’ve never been to San Francisco, that sounds epic,’ and the seed is planted.

No one has ever done Alcatraz because I did it. No one cares about me doing it. But I raced it in the pro field twice and did ok. And, as the most local of the pros, I did a couple TV spots for the race then, which tons of my friends and acquaintances and triathlon people saw, which made them more likely to watch and care on race day, which keeps the crowds big, which helps continue to keep the prestige of the race high and guarantee that it’ll be all over the news. I love the race and I’ve taught clinics to help people prepare for it. I’ve convinced probably a dozen people to do it. Hell, I convinced seven of The Kids to race it this weekend. So, was I worth letting in? Did Alcatraz make back the $200 I won once and the free entry fee they gave me? Yeah, definitely. But would that ever have factored into any analysis of the ROI of the pro field? Probably not.

If you want to invite certain elite pros, big names, pay them appearance fees or give them swag to get them to come, sure, do that. But there is absolutely no reason not to let the other pros race too. They can only be a benefit. They can only make the race more competitive and a bigger deal.

At the awards ceremony, the announcer mentioned that they hadn’t originally intended to invite Eric Lagerstrom. They originally invited his girlfriend/partner/whatever and she asked if he could come too. And then he won the whole thing, in one of the more exciting finishes ever. That’s why you let whoever wants to race race.

EFA 2015My race:

I swam really well. I just put my head down, couldn’t see anything really, and kept swimming as hard as I could so I could beat Corey to the shore. I ended up way to the right, to the point that a boat tracked me down and yelled at me to get back over. But I was pretty convinced that the reason I was all by myself to the right was basically because I was winning.

Then I could not get my wetsuit into the tiny bag they gave us. The bag just kept slipping out of my cold hands. So, by the time I finally got part of the wetsuit in and figured that was good enough, I just took off running hard on the half-mile transition run. And then I was like ‘oh, shit, hmm, I wonder if I can hold this.’

I biked very mediocrely. It was ok for a little bit, then I felt like it was hard, but it was actually pretty slow and I got down on myself for about 15-20 minutes. Then Hailey caught me, which was good motivation and I think we pushed each other mentally for the last long climb and descent.

By the time I started running there was a girl right next to me and one up ahead and Hailey somewhere hot on my heels. So I took off. Hard. This is a new thing I’m trying: running hard from the beginning. It seemed like it was working pretty well and I moved up along Crissy Field and the long climb and then the descent down to the beach. At the beach was the first time I saw other women up ahead and it seemed like I was doing pretty well overall, but there’s no way to tell because you don’t know when anyone jumped off the boat. I just kept pretending that someone was right behind me, which when we got back down to Crissy Field was actually true. By then I was having a hard time holding on, but I was not going to lose it then. I managed to make it to the finish before lying down or throwing up. So, success!

Escape from Alcatraz: Race Report

Short version: It wasn’t the fastest I’ve ever gone on this course (though it was almost the fastest I’ve gone), but with swim conditions varying so much it’s sort of hard to compare times year-to-year. It was the best I’ve ever raced here, like actually raced against the people around me all the way through the finish line. Unfortunately, or fortunately for the sport I suppose, it was 100% definitely way super more competitive this year in the women’s age group ranks than the last few years. Maybe everyone got faster while I was taking my two-year hiatus? Ah well. I was aiming for top 5 amateur. I ended up 7th — but I was close! And, close totally sorta kinda counts.

Long version: Sitting on the boat waiting for the start is weird. Someone once told me they have to replace the carpet after the race because so many people pee in their wetsuits. I’d believe it. Everyone stands up and starts getting ready to go way way before it’s actually time to go, so I was sort of not paying attention as it got closer to start time. I was talking and looking around and jumping up and down and oh shit, was that the start gun. Your timing chip doesn’t start until you walk over the mat through one of the doors onto the deck, but how long it takes you to get in the water after you cross the mat depends on the bottleneck at the door, how many people are dicking around on the deck, how long before you can jump, etc — which I only realized as I was crossing the mat. Ahh, go, go, go, my time has started! I’m totally just going to blame the 18″ I lost my age group by on that. Definitely.

The boat used for proms and triathlons.
The boat used for proms and triathlons.


I wish I could tell you what I did during the swim, but I don’t really know. I was pretty nervous since I haven’t swum in the Bay more than three times in the last two years and I haven’t been really out in the Bay — like out of Aquatic Park or past the beach — since the last time I did this race in 2011. So, I wasn’t sure what would happen. I just sort of swam hard and through people for awhile. Then, I looked up and all the people were to my right and I was taking too conservative a line in the current, so I swam back through them sort  ofto the other side. Except there aren’t really sides or buoys obviously or any real sense of if you’re doing this right or not, so mostly I just kept swimming and figured it’d get me there eventually. It got choppy in the middle, so I’m not even sure what I was doing then. I just kept throwing my arms up and over and sometimes I’d hit water and sometimes I’d just hit air. I did some breaststroke and dry-heaved quite a bit and hyperventilated when I couldn’t catch my breath because of the waves. (And this was the water “calm” because the fog was keeping the wind down.) For awhile I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me or around me and I could see the yacht club that’s the finish and I absolutely convinced myself that the reason there wasn’t anyone ahead of me was because I was totally in the front of all the swimmers. I was genuinely shocked when I was slightly too far to the right and turned to come into the beach and there were hundreds of people to my left ahead of and next to me. A little healthy delusion can be helpful in triathlon.

36′ for the swim was fine, if possibly a couple minutes slow. I wasn’t thrilled and I wasn’t upset about it. It seemed like a totally solid ok swim that I came out of not too fucked up and probably the best I could hope for. And, then, I ran the half-mile to T1 as hard as I could, passing a few girls — who I was still shocked were ahead of me, because I was so convinced I had swum the very fastest.

I rode my road bike yesterday for a number of reasons, but the added benefit was that I had power again for a race. That meant I could just focus on keeping the numbers up on flat sections, pushing hard on hills, and staying as aero (and not being stupid) as possible on descents. It mostly worked. I passed some girls. One passed me. I kept going back and forth with groups of guys because they’d hammer every hill and then sit up on every flat and descent, which caused a lot of me running into the back of them. I was slightly terrified and braking stupidly on some of the downhill turns, but better than I’ve been lately and I didn’t let it get in my head too (too) much. I got momentarily discouraged at the halfway because it took me a long time to get to halfway. So, I just tried to go harder on the way back and it sort of worked. 59′ is actually right in the range of what I’ve biked in the past here, so I was thrilled. THRILLED. Maybe my biking is coming back a little bit? Still slower than the fastest splits, but closer.

From Tahra.
From Tahra.


It’s hard to say which part of the race I was most nervous about. I was pretty sure the swim could go horribly, horribly wrong. I was crazy stressed about either crashing on the bike or sucking. But, the run is actually where I’ve usually had the most trouble in this race. Because it’s just so goddamn hard and if you want to be competitive you have to keep it together and run fast through the sand and up the stairs and down the hills. It’s not easy.

When I started the run I thought I was in 5th(ish) and I couldn’t see any girls in front of me. So, I just focused on high turnover for the first two flat miles and waving at friends out on the course. I was hauling, but I wasn’t stressed. Then, as we got to the stairs up to the bridge, there were two girls right ahead of me. And, halfway up the stairs, the girl who would go on to take second in the amateur race passed me. I went with her a little bit and all of a sudden there were four or five women within a minute or two of each other and it was a race. And, I needed to race. I needed to go hard before we got down to the beach and I would suck running in the sand. So, I went hard, like really really hard down the hill. I passed two women and was closing on the third. We got to the sand ladder and one of them passed me back. (I’m really bad at running in sand, ok.) And, I knew that other girl was still right ahead of me. So, at the top of the ladder, I started to run as hard as I could, the kind of hard where you’re not sure you’ll make it to the finish and you can’t quite navigate the singletrack because shit is blurry. The girl in front of me had somehow gapped me and I couldn’t see her anymore, but because your time starts when you cross the mat I didn’t know if the girls in front of me were really behind me or if a girl behind me was really ahead of me. I was running scared and I run fast when I’m scared.

This was the real difference in this race for me. Any of the previous times I’ve done this race or its sister race I fall apart that last two miles flat back to the finish. Even the times I kept it together and ran hard it was a tempo hard, a 7:15 pace. Your legs are shot from all the uphill and downhill and I usually stop caring about whether or not someone passes me. It becomes hard to keep caring that last two miles. Not this time. I just kept imagining someone right behind me, someone who I couldn’t see because maybe they started after me, and I just kept thinking you have to run as fast as you can. I think I was doing 6:30s or just under. I wasn’t looking at my watch much though. I ran 57′ flat — four minutes faster than I’ve ever run here — and I threw up a little bit. And, I ended up beating one of the girls ahead of me by about 40″ because she had started before me and I ended up losing to someone behind me by 18″. So. Race hard. All the way through the finish line.

(Also, it’d be nice if like all the people racing against each other for the age group spots could actually, you know, race head-to-head against each other. And, it wouldn’t be that hard to do, since there are supposed to be corrals on the boat. Because, yeah, I was sort of bummed to be a few minutes out of the win and not really have any idea what was happening on course. BUT, I’d have been really annoyed if I was the girl who was second overall amateur. Supposedly she lost by one second. Only, you know, who really knows when there’s lots of little things that add up along the way and when people jump off at different times and their chips get read electronically slightly differently as they cross the mats. One time, when I raced this as an elite, I outsprinted a girl at the finish. I was a step ahead of her and we all knew I had won because we started at the same time since all the elites start at the same time. But, the electronic chip said she won. And, we had to correct it. So, yeah, if I was the girl who came in second yesterday by one second and there was no way to really know if that was true or not, I’d be sort of pissed.)

The Week in Numbers

How many naps I’ve taken this week? 3
How many hours I’ve trained so far this week? 2.75
How many hours I’ve sat on the couch and stared at the TV without actually watching whatever was on? 12
How many times I sat on the couch and watched Fast and Furious 6 in the middle of the day? 1
How many times I’ve thought about cleaning the bathroom? 17
How many times I’ve actually cleaned the bathroom? 0
How many times I’ve rearranged my training schedule to accommodate my messed-up-ed-ness? 7
How many windows I’ve opened on my computer to make USC plans and get totally pumped? 23
How many stickers USC sent me to put on my laptop and get totally pumped? 8
How much the plane ticket to Canada is going to cost? $375
How much money I have for the plane ticket to Canada? Less than $375
How long I’m hoping the Memorial Day 10K is going to take me? 39:50
How long the Memorial Day 10K will actually probably take me? Way longer than 40′
How many days until Alcatraz? 10
How ready am I for Alcatraz? So ready!
How ready am I really? Eh, kinda ready.

Friday Fun Facts

A random assortment of things that didn’t merit a whole post:

1. This week is a rest/recovery week. I do not do things in rest/recovery weeks. So, this morning, I fully intended to NOT bike commute to my ART appointment. But, after rolling down to the freeway bus stop, I missed the bus by 10″ and then had to bike the 7 miles in jeans, flip-flops and a fleece jacket. I’m pretty sure this was less restful than if I had just biked in bike clothes from the beginning.

2. Part of the reason this is a rest/recovery week is because I’m racing the Tiburon Half Marathon on Sunday. Lots of my high school kids are volunteering and they keep asking me if I’m going to win. No. No, I’m not. I would like to do the race in 1:26 (I mean hell, I’d like to do it in 1:20), but I’m not even 100% sure I’m in sub-1:30 shape. We’ll see.

3. Part of the reason I had an ART appointment is because I am MESSED UP. My body sort of gave out on me over the whole shitty two weeks and it’s just starting to come back around. I also had a deep tissue massage last week for this reason. I’m generally pretty stoic about pain that I know is coming/controlled — ie. evidently, if I know it’s only temporary, like ART, and isn’t a signal that I’m causing permanent damage, then I’m pretty ok with things hurting; the problem is that in races I’m doing it to myself and I start worrying about the pain being a sign I’m going to lose part of my small intestine or whatever. That being said, these two appointments have been far, far more painful than usual. Because I am so messed up.

4. Ideally, part of the reason I’m so messed up and needed the rest/recovery is because I’ve been training. Since October ended yesterday I looked at all my training for the month — I’ve been doing a shit job looking at it on a regular basis — and it turns out that I actually have been training just about right.

I did 42:55 in October (counting the actual training, NOT all the other time — a 4 hour ride is a 4 hour ride, not a 4:45 ride because you had to stop and refill water bottles three times and chat with friends), which is pretty much a standard base amount of training for me when I am training. And, more impressively, since this happened without me really paying a ton of attention, I upped my run volume by about 50% to 144 miles — pretty much the most I ever run and the most I’ve run since February — while at the same time dropping my swim volume to 25% of what it was last month. I basically couldn’t have planned to do that more right if I actually stuck to my training plan.

5. I also got word this morning that I got into Escape from Alcatraz for June. This is all part of my master plan: race Escape on June 1, the Dipsea on June 8, and then IM CDA on June 29. Things are starting to come together. And, even though I already said this on the Twitter, this was our conversation this morning:

Me: Hey, I got into Escape from Alcatraz!
Steve: See, and you think you get rejected from everything.
Me: It’s a lottery. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count.

Why I Didn’t Race Escape from Alcatraz

Since I have done Escape from Alcatraz (and the dueling San Francisco Triathlon at Alcatraz) every year since we moved to Marin, except last year when I had a conflicting race, why didn’t I do it this year?  [Which, by the way, only one of the two races had a volunteer make me fresh hot waffles in the pro tent. I’m just throwing that out there.]

So why not do Escape this morning? Probably because they’re trying to “ban” gels and that’s just the stupidest shit I’ve heard in triathlon this month.

No, really, because when they announced they were moving the race from the first weekend of June to the first weekend of March, I laughed and laughed, said ‘oh, fuck no,’ and then laughed and laughed. It reminded me of my sister coming out to visit and insisting that she was going to go surfing. I know it’s California, but shit, guys, it gets cold enough here that you don’t want to jump in the Bay in the winter. (I also cursed the stupid America’s Cup for causing everything to be canceled or moved!)

Chances are the first weekend of March it’s cold and foggy and probably rainy and cold, did I mention rainy? Sure, the difference in water temperature from June to March is about 56 to 51 degree, but that five degrees is an important five. There was no way in hell I was going to do the race on March 3.

Then, this past week was crazy warm and Friday was almost 80 degrees. I got all nostalgic — I do love the race because it’s just so stupid terrible. I even checked the website to see if I could still register. I thought about reaching out to the couple people who might be able to get me in last minute. I regretted not having my pro license this year, so I could just register last minute. But, logically, it didn’t make a ton of sense that if I thought I couldn’t make it through a 40-minute running race, I’d be able to deal with one of the toughest triathlons out there.

Here’s a picture of me running at Alcatraz that makes me long for the lovely race:


Instead, I biked over the bridge and watched the race this morning. It was awesome — Javier Gomez is dreamy and ooh is that Sarah Groff and hey, I know that girl and that girl! — and weird. I haven’t watched a triathlon that I wasn’t racing in in years, possibly ever. I only started racing triathlon my junior year at Cal and I pretty much only went to races I raced. This morning, I started to feel like I was missing out and had been stupid to worry about the cold. I even could point to exactly where I would have been in the race as I stood there watching them run — oh, this space between girls, this would have been me.

But, then I heard about Emily’s experience. Emily is a much, much better swimmer than I am. And, she lives near here, so she practiced and knew what she was getting into. And, yet, she got hypothermia, fell over trying to run to T1, and then had to be picked up by an ambulance during the bike. It was just too cold.

And, then I heard the worse news: a 46-year-old man died during the Alcatraz swim this morning.

Yes, I know triathlon deaths have been on the rise as the number of people participating has increased. And, yes, I know the proportion of deaths hasn’t increased. And, yes, most of the deaths happen during the swim, when so much can go wrong. And, yes, this may have just been a terrible accident. So, there may have been no particular reason this tragedy happened today.

But. BUT. Do we have to make things harder, more extreme, crazier, even at the same time that everything is encouraging people without the experience or skills to get into the sport? I don’t fully support the blind push to get people into marathons and triathlons and Tough Mudders and whatever without just doing something smaller first. But, there’s no financial incentive to say no. There was no incentive to logically reason that March 3 might not be a great day for a triathlon in the San Francisco Bay.

I still really want to do Alcatraz next year. It’s the only thing I’m sure I want to do next year (though we can perhaps sometime discuss my recurring nightmares about qualifying for Kona before I turn 30). But, I’m not sorry I didn’t do it today.