Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon Course Preview

Triathlete about to jump off a boat for the beginning of a race
May 27, 2017

Will Murray



Why You Should Do It
Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon is an iconic race on the bucket list of triathletes worldwide.  In 2016, the 2000 athletes represented all 50 states and 54 other countries.  Escape consistently gets mentioned in top 10 lists of must-do triathlons.  In 2016, there was a long line after the race at the tent offering to engrave your finisher medal with your name.  Evidently, many athletes were not just going to dump their finisher medal in the big box with all the rest of their medals.  It’s a classic race. 

The Race
It’s a singular course, with a 1.5-mile swim, an 18-mile bike and an 8-mile run.  The bike and run are both very hilly, and so can be the swim depending on winds and tidal currents.  Be aware that from the swim exit back to transition is a half-mile run.  Brief but very informative videos abound.  If you view the videos now, you will have a good idea of what you are signing up for. 

The Swim
The swim is about 1.5 miles in temperatures ranging from 58 to 61 degrees.  If race day brings favorable tidal currents, the swim can be blindingly fast or a little less so.  The water can be calm and glassy, or give you craggy, three-foot waves with whitecaps hissing off the tops.  This is one of the most weather-dependent swim courses anywhere. If the morning weather gives you dense fog, you will probably have calm air and thus flat water.  

If the morning weather is clear, you will probably have wind.  When the tide goes out and the wind comes in, moving in opposite directions, the waves will stack up. There can be strong tidal currents during your swim. When the tide goes out (ebbs) in San Francisco Bay, five million gallons of water per second exit through the Golden Gate.  In the 2016 race, the ebb tide produced a 1.2-knot current to the west (equivalent roughly to 2:20 minutes per 100 yards in swimmer’s lingo), sweeping  the swimmers toward the Golden Gate.  This means that you had to swim directly to the south, across the current, to end up at the swim exit at the St. Francis Yacht Harbor 1.5 miles to the southwest of the swim entrance. Remember the short videos on the web site: they will tell you exactly how to race this race.  Watch the videos.  I’ll repeat this later.  Also, during the athlete briefing and on the boat to the swim start, you will hear exactly what features on the San Francisco landscape to swim toward.  Swim toward what they tell you to swim toward.  Because of these currents, you cannot arrive at the St. Francis Yacht Harbor by swimming directly toward the St. Francis Yacht Harbor. Swimmers who follow directions can have a faster swim.  In 2016, a pack of the best swimmers from the pro field somehow selected the wrong line and ended up five to seven minutes off the swim pace. The logistics of the swim are a bit complicated.  On race morning, go to transition, set up your gear, then board a bus from Marina Green to Fisherman’s Wharf.  Disembark the bus, walk 200 yards to the ship Hornblower with the other 2000 athletes.  Bring only what you will swim with, as there is no bag drop on the boat.  The good ship Hornblower, tastefully decorated like a New Orleans river boat, will have no furniture; only a massive, carpeted deck.  Younger age groups get to sit, stand or lie on the first deck; older age groups climb one flight of stairs to the second deck.  Bodies will be strewn everywhere. The ship motors out to the southeast corner of Alcatraz Island.  Athletes actually never set foot on the island (unless they take the National Park Service tour some other time, which is well worth doing and will make you never, ever want to be sentenced to a maximum security federal prison).  During the ride the announcer will tell you dozens of times to “Swim across the river,” meaning swim to the south to get to the swim finish.  The announcer will tell you dozens of times which prominent buildings to swim toward.  Do what he says.  I also will tell you this dozens of times. At last, it’s time to swim.  2000 athletes abandon the ship in six minutes, with the pros jumping ship first.  Jump the six free from the deck into the water and swim away right now, as there are a hundreds of athletes jumping in right behind you, just like the penguins pouring off the Antarctic ice floes in Animal Planet videos. The ship leaves the pier at 7:00 AM.  The ship arrives at the swim start at 7:20.  The first athletes dive in at 7:30.  By 7:36, everyone is in the water. You are on your way. Swim to the landmarks they tell you to. 

The Bike
The bike course features four miles of flats and 14 miles of hills.  It’s a course that Charles Dickens would appreciate: the best of climbs and the worst of climbs. Because it is an out-and-back route, every short, sharp downhill you descend later becomes a short, sharp uphill.  In 2016, female pro winner Holly Lawrence clocked a scorching 51:21 bike split, battling the wind on the outbound segment, riding the tailwind on the return and logging 2140 feet of elevation gain and loss in the process. The bike course is stunningly scenic, if you can divert your eyes here and there between the technical descents and the sharp climbs, going along San Francisco Bay, past the Golden Gate Bridge, along Baker’s Beach on the mighty Pacific Ocean, then past the Cliff House and into (and out of) Golden Gate Park. Given the hilly, technical bike course, should you use a tri bike or your road bike?  About 80% of athletes used tri bikes, but some were heard to say on the climbs, “I should have brought my road bike.”  Some of the climbs exceed 10%, but they are all short. The last two miles of the bike course are flat, straight and downwind, giving athletes a chance to sort out the plans for T2 and get ready for the run. 

The Run
The run course is déjà vu all over again: eight miles of back to Crissy Field along the Bay, then up a long set of stairs to the Golden Gate Bridge, and down the steep hill to Baker’s Beach, paralleling the way you just rode your bike.  The trudge across the soft sand of Baker’s beach is anything but a Baywatch moment, except for the slow-motion effects.  Once you get close to the water, where the sand is more solid, the pace picks up for the quarter mile down the beach to the turnaround, then back toward the greatly feared sand ladder.  The sand ladder is a set of wooden beams laid across a track straight up a 200-foot-tall sand dune.  Fortunately, there are stanchions with cables on both sides of the track, and almost all the athletes haul themselves up the sand ladder by pulling on the cables with their arms as well as chugging up the sand with their legs.  Timing mats at the bottom and top of the sand ladder capture that part of the race.  In 2016, sixth-place male pro Mauricio Mendez Cruz from Mexico (who still holds the course record for 14 and under from 2009) scorched the sand ladder competition with a 1:50 burst. Once off the sand ladder and on to solid footing, athletes face another half-mile of climbing along the coastal trail, then a short series of stair steps through World War II artillery batteries, then back down the steep stairs to the flat, downwind two-mile finish.  In 2016, second-place female pro Katie Zaferies clocked the best female run split at 49:27, finishing hand in hand with Tommy, her husband and 12th-place male pro. To say that this is an iconic triathlon is a weak description.  Escape from Alcatraz is a top-of-the- bucket-list race.  In 2016, 22% of the athletes were female, up from 18% last year and 12% since 2008.   Slowtwitch offers a nice photo gallery giving you a good sense of the iconic parts of the course.

The swim can be cold, dark and rough.  The bike course is hilly, technical and windy.  The run course is plagued by stair steps and beach sand and long climbs and descents.  In the end, you will have escaped.  What are you waiting for?

Will Murray knows a few things about racing tough courses.  He is the D3 expert on mental skills training for triathletes.  He notes, " I often hear triathletes saying that the sport is at least 50% mental and 50% physical, but I’ve come to notice that they spend very little (if any) time doing mental training. Fortunately, it’s easy and fast to train-up your mind to help you achieve your triathlon goals. I’ve been lucky enough to bring these mental conditioning techniques to first-time athletes and Olympians, kids and seniors, triathletes who want to finish the race and those who are gunning to win."

Mental Skills Performance Coach Will Murray often hears triathletes saying that the sport is at least 50% mental and 50% physical, but he has come to notice that athletes spend very little (if any) time doing mental training. Fortunately, it’s easy and fast to train-up your mind to help you achieve your triathlon goals. He’s been lucky enough to bring mental conditioning techniques to first-time athletes and Olympians, kids and seniors, triathletes who want to finish the race, and those who are gunning to win.

Will is a USAT Certified Coach, holds a practitioner’s certificate and more than 100 hours of advanced training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a certified administrator of the Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories Protocol. Will is co-author, with Craig Howie, of The Four Pillars of Triathlon:  Vital Mental Skills for Endurance Athletes and Uncle: The Definitive Guide for Becoming the World’s Best Aunt or Uncle.

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