My Escape from Alcatraz – The Swim

Posted on June 13, 2012. Filed under: coach pedro, escape, escape 2012, escape from alcatraz, escape from alcatraz 2012, leanda cave, leanda cave alcatraz, leanda cave alcatraz 2012, race report, race review, run, san francisco, san francisco belle, swim, triathlon, water world swim, wetsuit |



OK, so let’s be clear from the start. Escaping Alcatraz ain’t like no Center Parcs. There was a darned good reason that they didn’t put a maximum security Federal penitentiary in a sub-tropical swimming paradise. No, in triathlon terms, at less than Iron distance this is as tough a race as they come. Everything about it is tough from the start time right through to the unpredictability of the weather. Two days on my body still feels battered and worn.

The pinnacle of the Escape, though, is the swim. Normally in triathlon the swim is the dullest part of the race but in the Escape everyone wants to ask questions about it – how cold was the water, did you see sharks, can you feel the currents? Well, this is the story of the swim.

My day started just after 330am when my alarm went off but I needn’t have set it as I saw every hour of the night anyway. I got up showered and started my ritual of lube and sunscreen. Every moving part gets lubed and every exposed part gets sun protection. Then on with the Tri suit and off to the kitchen to make a huge bowl of porridge. As it would be a full 4 hours from waking up until jumping off the boat I needed to make sure the tank was full. In addition a blueberry crisp Clif bar got shoved in the Tri suit pocket for good measure. Quick brush of the teeth, last application of sunscreen to the baldy napper and it was time to go.

Now, a 4am San Francisco may have seen a landlocked Pirate before but as I carried the bike down the stoop of the apartment it was probably the first sighting of one in the yella and black of the Pirate Ship of Fools. Oh yes, I was in full Pirate kit and I was off to hit the hills on the way to T1. It was a lovely ride through absolutely dead streets from Haight Ashbury, down through the Presidio to Marina Green. Race HQ was already fully alive when I got there and since no-one had thought to mention to me to take a head torch I racked my bike in the pitch darkness, laid out my transition area as best I could by feel and proceeded to the bus queue. The organisation was flawless and 15minutes later I was ready for the next step.


Arriving at Pier 3 the sun was just peaking over the horizon behind the Bay Bridge with a dusty orange colour that was starting to illuminate an indigo sky. The San Francisco Belle was lit up in all her glory and the only thing that spoiled a perfect view was the dozens of portaloos (or porta-potties as our American cousins call them). As I queued for the potty (tee hee – don’t know why I find that so funny really) the one fellow Pirate that I new to be racing came over and we chatted briefly. I raced with M.andel in Regensburg and we were very similar on swim and bike times so it was good to compare notes since he had cycled on the course and I had swum in the Bay. When we got the instruction to board at 6am we were split to go into our age group holding pens – him downstairs and me upstairs with the old duffers.


Many thanks to the lovely Leanda Cave, very deserving and emphatic winner of the ladies race, for her kind permission to use the picture of the Belle. Watch out for Leanda in Kona this year!

In the vast room on the Belle that was our holding pen I lay down and actually managed to snooze a little. It gave me a second to contemplate the Race Director’s briefing…….

“For the ‘One Way’ boat cruise out to the start of the race, you will bring/wear the items in which you will swim. Don’t put your wetsuit on too early as this will have you potentially overheated.

Last year’s exodus off the California Belle took too much time; athletes were still hesitantly jumping 10 minutes after the start of the race. This is not a time to be mentally weak, BE READY TO JUMP!!

This year the start will last approximately six to seven minutes for all 2000 participants to jump from the start boat and begin the race. When you jump from the boat into the water, it is a shock to your system. Be prepared for the cold water.

Yes there is marine life in San Francisco Bay including sharks, seals, and sea lions. The half-dozen different types of sharks San Francisco has within the Bay itself are small, three to four feet in length, and hang out well below the surface of the water.”

So, as the Belle pulled away from the wharf you could feel the anticipation rising. Over the tannoy we were reminded that we had multiple champions on board, we had 6 minutes to disembark the boat and that it was not a time to be mentally weak. The people around me talked about their sighting points, their wax earplugs, the jump. Eventually with about 15 minutes to go people started pulling their wetsuits up from their waists and starting their final preparations. The international brotherhood of triathlon overcame language barriers as we assisted each other with zips and velcro. Being on the top deck with the middle aged I managed to witness the indignities of old blokes preparing for a race. One jowly, paunchy, silver fox who was clearly not going to be worrying Andy Potts for the podium poured a litre of ice cold water into his wetsuit to get him “ready for the cold” and I saw another slapping himself and shadow boxing to “psyche myself up for the race” as he told his bemused shipmate. It was like Cocoon on speed up there.

With a couple of minutes to go the US national anthem was played and the boat went quiet, with only the engine noises of the captain positioning us for the start breaking the silence. I was out on deck at this point after a final unzip of the suit, pee and then suit back up. As everyone moved to the port side the boat noticeably listed about 5 degrees and my stomach lurched. Goggles on head, cap on with sweat trickling down my cheeks and the back of my neck as the hot early morning sun fell on the upper decks of the Belle. With a minute to go the director took over the tannoy. He started counting down from thirty seconds. “……..twelve, eleven, ten, we have clearance from the US Coastguard, seven……….”. And on one the massive horn of the California Belle sounded and must have been heard around the whole Bay Area.

Everyone on the top deck started shifting forwards and as we hit a bottle neck at the top of the stairs a discarded tub of Vaseline became the focus of attention as everyone nervously re-lubed their necks. I looked out at the vast expanse of water, alongside the Belle and there were coloured swimming caps everywhere. The currents had instantly split the field and there were swimmers spread all across the Bay. As we got to the bottom of the stairs the volunteers high 5’d everyone with a “good luck” or “race strong”. As soon as we went onto the lower deck there wasn’t even a second to take it all in. There, 3 metres in front of me were the doors and I was going soon. “1-2-3 Jump, 1-2-3 Jump” beat the pace as we ran forwards 9 at a time and then the lady in front of me hesitated so I took the position on her left. I Iooked down, tried to find a safe space to drop and went for it.

There was a split second of calm as my head went under the water and I knew I had kept my goggles on and then, as I surfaced, I remembered Coach Pedro’s advice – ” keep your head down and swim as hard as you can for the first 10 minutes”. As I surfaced I took one look for the Fontana Towers, put my head down and went for it. I’m not sure really how much time had passed but after a bit I decided to have a look. I rolled on my back and looked back at the Rock, I had hardly moved at all, the Belle was right alongside me and I couldn’t see any other caps. This wasn’t like Ironman where you were crystal clear of the route as you had people on top of you, under you and escorting you on either side. This was lonely.

I got my head down again and at this point the Bay seemed to get choppy. I would take a bearing every 10 strokes or so and then very occasionally another swimmer would rocket right across my path and I would see them through the cloudy, green, murk of the water. I know I swim as straight as a die so they must be way of course. I started to feel pretty grim around now, not because I had swallowed any sea water but, incredibly, I was suffering sea sickness. Every time I rolled to breath my brain slopped inside my head, almost tipping me over and my stomach heaved. The only solution was to stop breathing and that was a pretty short term strategy. The chop in the Bay eased and I could concentrate on the swim again.

Sighting progressed perfectly, Sutro Tower, Fort Mason, the dome, the red roof but it felt much harder work than the test swim on Friday. I could feel my neck starting to tear on the collar of my wetsuit and my arms and shoulders were starting to fill with lactate. My final sighting point was to make sure I went between the two yellow buoys on the approach to the Yacht Club. Sight, perfect, swim, sight, perfect, swim, sight, shit, I’m passed the beach. Three new buoys has been put in since Friday and I had taken far too aggressive a line and I was already past the swim exit. I could, at this point, have landed on the next beach and run back or call for support to be dragged back in. But that’s not the point of the race is it?

I got my head down and fought the famous Bay current. You can’t really feel the current while you are swimming with your head down but as soon as you look up its obvious you are going backwards. For what must have been 10 or 15 minutes I absolutely battled the current and then about 25metres from shore I burst into calm water and started to make really positive progress. With only a couple of metres to go I could wade out. I was done in, I pulled my cap and goggles off and reached for my wetsuit zip. Just in front of me a wheelchair athlete was being helped in to his chair. Now that’s a tough day out!

The run up the shore was congested as a lot of swimmers must have beached simultaneously. The short jog to T0.5 was uneventful and then the wonderful Escape volunteers stepped in to sort us out. Dizzy, cold and a little sea sick the volunteers took control by stripping our wetsuits emptying our transition bag on the ground and talking very slowly to us as they re packed the bag.

The really scary part was out of the way. I just had to face the hills now………

Thank you for reading and if you can please spare a little for the Make a Wish Foundation. It will mean a huge amount to me, to the Foundation, and to the little boy or girl whose wish we will grant.

If a picture says more than a thousand words here is some footage of this year’s start.



The Alcatraz Test Swim

Escape Complete

My Escape From Alcatraz – The Swim

My Escape From Alcatraz – The Bike

My Escape From Alcatraz – Some Pictures

My Escape From Alcatraz – The Run

Final Thoughts on Escape


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One Response to “My Escape from Alcatraz – The Swim”

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Have you ever tried to escape centre parcs !!!


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