My Escape from Alcatraz – The Run

Posted on June 20, 2012. Filed under: bike, cycle, escape, escape 2012, escape from alcatraz, escape from alcatraz 2012, MAF, make a wish, make a wish foundation, make a wish foundation sponsorship, race report, race review, Rory, run, san francisco, sponsorship, triathlon, virgin london marathon, virgin london marathon 2012, vlm, vlm 2012 |

So, we have done the iconic swim, the scenic bike leg, I have shown you some gorgeous pictures of San Francisco and now everything is going to turn nasty.  Mud, sunburn, lycra photography and a killer obstacle course will assault you head on if you choose to read further.  OK?  Your choice, you were warned!

As I squeezed my bike into a tiny space in T2 I probably took a bit longer than I normally would as some oik had racked his bike in the tiny little corner of San Francisco I could temporarily call my own.  Pam and Roar had found a space at the fence and gave me a big cheer.  As I sat down to get my trainers on I suppressed one last snigger as an American lady demanded very loudly of a volunteer “where is the nearest portapotty??”.   Portaloo may sound very British but at least it sounds grown up.

Skipping the queue for the portapotty (teee hee) I shrekked out onto the run course for the last 8 miles of my Escape attempt.  All bounce had gone out of my legs and I was plodding in my usual indelicate Shrek style but with the added impediment of feeling like I was wearing concrete trainers.  The run course, from recollection, was along the coast and therefore, obviously, all at sea level.  Stupid boy.


The thing about the Escape was that we got an email every week educating us on bits of the course and things we needed to do and in my skim read I seemed to completely miss the important things about the race.  One of the key things being that unlike a civilised run such as the London Marathon this was an assault course that probably qualifies me to get in to the Marines now that I have completed it.  In addition, the challenge of gravity was even tougher as I was probably carrying a stone or so more than my racing weight.  This was especially ironic given that my preparation for London was scunnered when wee Roar gave me the projectile vom and the trots.  Seems I had got my appetite back quite effectively.

Anyway, the briefing that I had “skimmed” covered pretty much everything…….

“The road surfaces will be asphalt, chip trail, sand, sand steps, and grass so please pay attention to your pace and the runners around you as some of the course is narrow with athletes running in two directions.

The stairs up to the GG Bridge are narrow and this is not the place to pass people. You will also run through an old Civil War era tunnel so duck and once again keep an eye out for other runners coming from the opposite direction.

The Land’s End trail is rolling and beautiful; stay focused, but take the time to enjoy the scenery.

As you wind around the trail and the historic remains of the retired US Army Base Presidio, the trail has you passing the aid station at Mile 3 at the highest point of elevation on the run course (300ft). At this point you transition to the bike lane of the road that offers a short, winding and fast downhill and a nice smooth surface change.

When you hit the beach you will naturally feel bogged down as the energy return is minimal when running on the sand. The Equinox Sand Ladder is an approximately 400-step staircase made of sand and wooden beams and is located near mile five of the run course. Use those wooden beams of the steps to push off as you climb and touch every one with your own rhythm. Use the cables and the wooden posts of the Equinox Sand Ladder railing for your advantage as there is no shame in getting some help. Take it slow to avoid burn-out. If you are not careful you can waste a great deal of energy on this portion, even the Professionals will walk up the Equinox Sand Ladder while using the cables to pull themselves up the steps. Once you reach the top of the Equinox Sand Ladder, it is not “all downhill” to the finish line, you still have about five to ten minutes of climbing until you hit the aid station at Mile 5.

Stay totally focused on form and breathing. Repeat a positive mantra if needed to get you to the Marina Green finish line. This will be a finish-line feeling unlike any other in the sport!

As you cross the finish line, enjoy the moment, absorb the passion around you, feel it, embrace it, pass it on, life is good.”

A lovely last line of an email to receive but, at this point, enjoying the finish line was 8 miles ahead of me.  As I headed on to the run course I felt like I had been basted in dripping and someone was holding a magnifying glass over me to fry me with the sun.  While I was out on the run course the mercury hit 30C, a totally unseasonal high for San Fran leaving me with momentoes of the race that will probably stay with me for a very long time.

Anyway, the first mile or so was on old fashioned tarmac and I was pretty comfortable if a little leaden under foot.  And then the “It’s a Knockout” assault course started.  The next two and a half miles or so, through Chrissy Field, were on what I could best describe as grit.  Every step felt like I was wheel spinning and by the time I had gone through the aid station at mile 2 my calves were taught and burning and I swallowed my pride for my first walk.  Don’t get me wrong I am not talking about a seaside stroll but rather a purposeful, manly stride out.  After my first walk I started jogging again and got a loud “aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrr Pirate” and then ran with the lady and talked Pirates for the next mile or so.  It was only at this point that it dawned on me this wasn’t your standard run.

I knew it wasn’t time for the Sand Ladder  and was taken aback as I turned the corner and looked straight up towards the Golden Gate Bridge.  This was proper knackering, walking up, hands on knees in a queue.  It was literally two lanes of traffic with no overtaking in any direction.  After the initial rise there was a sharp left hand and then right hand turn.  At this point I saw two people almost go over the edge as they overcooked their speed on the downhill.  As we reached the top of the hill there was a large crowd and at this stage a lot of the really fast guys were on their way back in.  The cheering for the homebound guys was “thats your last hill done” and having seen a lot of the run course from the bike I knew I was going to be buried in my own hurt locker for the next hour.

As I picked up my pace to a granny jog one of the fast boys coming in the opposite direction tried to overtake and just about took me out.  If my arms weren’t still numb after the swim it might actually have hurt me.   After picking all my bits and pieces out of the grit and waiting a second for my brain to stop shaking like a jelly in my head I started jogging on again only to be rudely interrupted by the tunnel.  If there was a health and safety guy with a clip board on the entry I am sure he would have insisted we take our shades off so that we could see properly in the tunnel but being tough guys there was just a wee bit of yellow tape stuck to the roof.  I may be a short arse but even I had to bend right over at the far end of the tunnel to avoid any further decapitation.  As we climbed out of the tunnel we went right underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at it’s lowest point where, again, there was a large cheering crowd leaning over the Bridge pushing us on.

After I ran up and then down some more stairs at the ruins of the Baker Battery I was in the final slog to the three mile aid station at the highest point on the run course.  Good times.  Straight after the aid station we gave away all the height we had just attained as we hurtled down towards Baker Beach.  Bad times.  Grabbing a Cytomax at the aid station I tried to relax as much as possible into the downhill.  It started gently running alongside the bike course still, at best, two people wide and then just after we saw the gasping wrecks reaching the top of the Sand Ladder we started to plummet really rapidly onto the beach.

Simply skimming the race director’s instructions may have been time efficient but didn’t serve me well.  In my head we were only on the beach for a couple of short steps but as I descended I could see the aid station and a long two way trail of runners through the mist on the beach.  This was my lowest point of the race as every step was murder and I could feel my shoes fill with sand.  As we got closer to the aid station it was clear that this wasn’t even the turnaround point and the red windbreak and cone on the most miserable, cold, isolated corner of the beach was our half way point.  The surf on Baker Beach was immense and the temptation to run in the wetter sand was tempered by the waves crashing down on our right as we made our way back along the beach.  Sodden trainers at the four mile point would just have opened up the way for a whole day of painful feet,  The vapour from the waves provided temporary relief on my shoulders and face which were now starting to smoulder and give off an aroma like over BBQ’d sausages!

At the end of the beach the true horror of the Sand Ladder unfolded in front of me.  Was it the distance between steps?  The state of the wire cables?  The temperature?  The altitude?  Nope. No.  No. No.  In a triathlon of nasty surprises (if, like me, you haven’t read the instructions) they kept the biggest one for right before the Sand Ladder.  I have re-read the race instructions thoroughly and I can confirm that nowhere did it warn you that Baker Beach is a nudie beach.  Oh yes, in that little corner of the beach, in the shadow off the Golden Gate Bridge the good people of San Francisco let it all hang out on a Sunday morning – international triathlon taking place or not.  Old men, old ladies, stretching, bending over and doing whatever stuff the nudists do when they do stuff on the nudie beaches.   I tried to avert my eyes but, out of a morbid curiosity, I took a peek and it certainly put the horrors of the Sand Ladder into perspective!

So there I found myself.  At the bottom of a sand dune 400 steps high (with two pigging photographers camped out on it), with just the Pacific behind me, cliffs on my right and a dozen old fellas doing some exotic yoga moves on my right.  The only way was up.  To be honest I don’t think the Sand Ladder was as bad as I imagined it to be.  I walked up it as instructed (as if I had a choice??!).  It has been said before, in my opinion unfairly, that I have stumpy legs so maybe it was my problem that the steps seemed a long way apart.  We were advised not to take 2 steps at a time.  If I could I would be chuffed to bits.  The first photographer caught us mid way up the steps and the last one captured the relief at the top by requesting daft poses. This photo, by the way, is not a daft pose and I still haven’t seen his work!

As promised in the race briefing the next mile or so after the sand ladder was back up hill to the aid station and by this time the people that were outward bound were in really bad nick and I was starting to pass a lot of people.  As the heat increased nearer to midday you could literally feel the last drops of liquid being squeezed out of you like tipping a cup of water in the Badwater Basin (and we will come back to that at some point in a future blog).  Every couple of minutes I got a shout of “thats a great uniform buddy” from one of our US cousins which made me feel a bit like a cheerleader but at this point I could see the salt drying on my pirate suit as the last minerals exited my body.

The downhills were now starting to hurt as much as the uphills as the pounding on my knees from the incessant gradient shocked with every step.  At the bend on the downhill steps where we had almost lost a couple of Escapees on the way up, a guy hurtled past me and only managed to pull up right on the bend.  Despite his exhaustion he took the remaining steps a little more gingerly.   On the final steep staircase I heard shouting from behind “oooouuuuuutttttttt myyyyyyywaaaaayyyyyyyyy”, followed by “1, 2, 1, 2” and a lot of groaning.  With the noise I expected an exocet to come past me but instead a girl came past with a retort of “I effing hate running”.  We exchanged a few niceties and then kept broadly the same walk/run pace.  She was clearly in a bit of trouble with dehydration but was clearly going to finish at some stage.  As we got to 2 miles to go at the end of Chrissy Field I said, “c’mon I’ll pace you in” and we started to jog together.  I stayed right on her shoulder, encouraging as we ran back into the bigger crowds.  With about a mile to go we passed some Brits and I got a loud “aaaaarrrrrrr Pirate” and I thought there is no way I am going to try and explain that to a dehydrated American at this stage of the race.  I kept saying “I can see the end of the road”, “I can see the finishing chute”, “I can see the finish line”, “we are nearly done”.  She (because I don’t know her name, I only know she is from Anchorage) thanked me for running with her and I talked about Ironman and how everyone looks out for each other and help each other through the dark bits.  As we turned into the finishing chute she stopped dead.  I ran back and perhaps a little indelicately yelled “DID I SAY YOU COULD STOP THERE??”.  At which point she blinked, perhaps taken back a little at the yelling man in yellow and black, and started running again.  I left her 50m from the end so that we could get our own finishers photos and she keeled over as she crossed the line.


I said it straight after and I will say it again.  The Escape was my hardest won bling.  Ironman was a whole different battle but I was fitter and more mentally prepared for the race.  The swim, the hills and the heat meant that I was locked in my own hurt locker for large chunks of the event.  I was covered in the salt of my own sweat, it wasn’t apparent on the finish line but alabaster boy was burned to a crisp and I was filthy from the grit and dust from the trail.  It took two showers to get the mud off my legs, each shower hurt my sunburn and my wetsuit burn around my neck and two days later I was still walking around San Fran with my age sharpied on my left calf.  But like London before I loved every second of it and I would go back and do it again like a shot.

Remember though, it’s not all about the bling, and I really need your support to make a difference this summer.  You can follow the “sponsor me” link to read more and in the next couple of days I will unveil the next challenges.
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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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3 Responses to “My Escape from Alcatraz – The Run”

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Not wanting to let you down…HUGE RESPECT buddy, I’ve no idea how you do it…you clearly have screw or two loose, because you want to do it all again. Have enjoyed reading these blog posts, as I recover from my MoM BHR hip resurfacing…nae running or escapes for me!


Get well soon mate. I’m sure we can squeeze in a marathon before the year is out! Who needs hips anyway!??


Hey, thanks for the recent visit to my blog and liking my post. Alcatraz was a blast wasn’t it?! Can’t wait to do it again!


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