Triathlon at Alcatraz (Tri-California) Sun. Aug 21, 2016
There are 2 triathlons that include a swim from a boat off Alcatraz Island. One is called “Escape from Alcatraz” and you register via lottery. This race typically happens in early June and can overlap with Wasa Lake Triathlon. The other event is called the Triathlon at Alcatraz. It is put on by Tri-California and runs in late August. This race report is about the later Alcatraz event.
Tri California put on an incredibly well organized event from start to finish.
- Online registration was easy
- They sent out regular update emails with useful information
- They partnered with a hotel close to the race venue (Holiday Inn –Fisherman’s Wharf)
- They sent out bike rental info. (Sports Basement, Presidio)
- The athlete orientation was incredibly helpful explaining all race logistics
- Bussing from transition to the pier was on clean coach busses
- The Hornblower boat used during the event was beautiful, had plenty of room for athletes and plenty of washrooms.
Sunday, Aug 21, was the day of the event. It was a very early morning. Athletes take a bus from transition to the pier and are assigned a bus time based on when they registered for the race. The earlier you registered, the later your bus assignment. Although I signed up early for this race, my teammate had not. So, we were on the 2nd bus at 4:30am. We got up at 3am, ate breakfast in our room, donned our backpacks loaded with race gear and rode our rental bikes to transition. It was about a 15-minute ride, hilly, but no one was out except for a few fellow racers.
We set up our transition area, and got on the bus (a clean coach bus with a bathroom). I mention the bathroom because there weren’t any porta potties in transition. The race director told us this was intentional because they didn’t want athletes lingering in transition on race morning. They needed to shuttle all 700+ athletes to the boat as quickly as possible between 4:15 and 6:20am.
The bus took us to Pier 3. We got body marked, dropped all our extra stuff in labeled bags into a drop bin and then boarded the boat with just our wetsuits, cap, goggles and anything else we were consuming or leaving on the boat. The boat was quite large and had multiple levels and many bathrooms. We were sorted by cap colors to different floors but everyone would end up jumping off the bottom level of the boat.
As we learned in the athlete orientation the day before, there are some San Francisco Bay logistics that come into play in order for swimmers to cross it safely. Understanding the ebb and flow tide is important as is being respectful of the significant currents.
To give you some details:
The Bay is ebbing (emptying, flowing west to the Golden Gate Bridge) every 6 hours and flooding (filling up, flowing east towards Oakland) every 6 hours with water levels changing up to 8 ft. Four and a half million gallons of water per second through the narrow one-mile Golden Gate! This creates tremendous currents which can exceed 6 knots. ~ Gary Emich ~ co-author of the book Lessons From Alcatraz and speaker at the athlete orientation the day before the race
Our swim across the bay took place when the tide was ebbing (flowing out to the Golden Gate Bridge). As Gary mentioned in our pre-race chat:
You are forming a partnership with Mother Ocean. You sight and swim south as she pushes you west. If you both do your job then you end up on the sandy beach of Marina Green. If you don’t, you will be on your way under the bridge headed for Hawaii.
It seemed counterintuitive to be swimming towards a target nowhere near the finish, but he had us convinced that it was the right thing to do. And it was.
At 6:20am, as planned, the boat loaded with approximately 700 racers left Pier 3 and headed towards Alcatraz island. The race was scheduled to start at 7am but was delayed to allow for a large cargo ship to pass by. We all agreed that this seemed like a very good reason to delay the start of the race. After a few quick words about the water conditions, the singing of the national anthem, and a prayer, the race began.
Cargo ship is on the left. Jet skis and kayakers in holding pattern
One by one we all stepped to the edge of the open doors (men forward, women aft) and jumped into the bay. I’ve been told it was about a 4 foot jump but it looked, and felt like at least 8 feet to me! The water was 62F which wasn’t too bad. Almost everyone wore a wetsuit and many had on neoprene caps. I double capped and wore my neoprene booties. I didn’t think the water felt too cold. My teammate and I sighted as instructed and were able to stay together during the swim. There were some large swells coming from the west but we quickly figured out that as long as we breathed to the opposite side, we limited the amount of salt water we would swallow. This is why it’s good to be able to breathe to both sides. It’s not uncommon to have race conditions like big waves or blinding sun forcing you to adopt a different breathing pattern. 41 minutes later we had completed our swim across the bay.
There was a short run to transition. The bike was hilly as expected but a very scenic ride. A good portion of the ride was on the Great Highway that runs parallel to the ocean. It was beautiful. Because the course was an out and back, I kept telling myself, “what goes up will come down”. Yes, there were some big uphills but there were plenty of big descents to enjoy as well. All in all, it was a challenging, but very manageable ride.
On to the final leg of the race – the run. I hadn’t really looked at the run course ahead of time. At the pre-race meeting there was some discussion about some stairs, and more stairs but my thoughts were preoccupied with all the information about the swim. Also, the course handout we got at the pre-race meeting did not mention anything about stairs. Well, let me tell you – there were stairs – many many stairs. Lots of stairs heading down to the water and the lots of stairs heading all the way back up. But, this portion of the run course was trail and absolutely spectacular. All I kept thinking about was how lucky I was to be able to run on such a breathtaking course. This 10k run went by fast despite the challenging terrain. Aside from jumping off the Hornblower boat into the SF Bay and seeing Alcatraz Island nearby, this stair filled trail portion of the run is my most memorable portion of the race.
To summarize, this bucket list event was everything I hoped for and more. I would love to go back, race it again and bring along a group of athletes who are open to adventure, enjoy open water swimming in challenging conditions and are ready to experience what I feel is one of the most unique races in North America. Who’s in?
This was a rewarding finish line to cross!