Escaped from Alcatraz

Escaped from Alcatraz


 
If loving triathlon is a crime, I plead guilty. So lock me up in Alcatraz and see if I can escape.

Oh wait, that already happened!

On June 7, 2015, I was one of nearly 2,000 triathlon-loving convicts sitting on the floors of the San Francisco Belle, on a one-way trip through the unwelcoming waters of the San Francisco Bay. Next stop: Alcatraz. We would not be dashing into the ocean from the beach, or swimming in and calmly treading water before the starting gun went off. Fittingly for this race – one like no other in triathlon – we would be jumping from a boat and beginning the swim immediately.

The infamous first leap is what I was dreading most in the months leading up to Escape from Alcatraz. Everyone jumps within seven minutes. How crowded will the water be? Will I get pushed? Hit? Swum over? Yes, as it happened, all of those things.

Escape from Alcatraz is known for its rough swim, hilly and technical ride, and hilly run featuring multiple stairs, running on the beach and up a 400-step sand-ladder. Truly an unforgettable race, from the first step on the boat to crossing the finish.

The Boat

“You have three minutes to board the boat. The boat leaves the pier in three minutes. You don’t want to miss the boat!”

The humor was not lost on us. A dark line of semi-sleepy, semi-nervous folks in wetsuits, we walked slowly (solemnly?) from the shuttle bus that just dropped us off at Pier 3, towards the unmistakable beeping sound of a timing mat. Only later did it occur to me that this was done to count the number of people getting on board. Two-thirds of us, it turned out, were men.

That men greatly outnumbered women became clear immediately upon entry, when we bumped into a long line curving its way to the men’s restrooms… and no line whatsoever to the women’s. A race-day miracle! As is my habit, I decided to go – even though I didn’t need to quite yet. You never know with these things, plus: I did get some smart advice from a gal in there. As we chatted about the water temperature and how it would feel upon jumping, she said: Oh, it’s cold. But if you pee in your wetsuit right before you jump, it won’t feel that bad.

Really? Pee while standing on the deck of a boat, before I’m in the water? Welcome to triathlon: a sport where you pee just about anywhere.

Anyway, the pee business taken care of, my next task was to find a space to sit. There were two levels (floors?) on the boat; anyone 40 years old and younger was on the first level. The interior was stripped of seats or any furniture besides the plush Persian-style carpet. By the time I boarded (three minutes to go, remember?), all of the wall space was taken up, as was most of the floor. After walking over protruding legs, arms and, occasionally, a horizontal body trying to nap, I finally found a spot. Not enough space to stretch my legs, so for a while I kept my knees up to my chin, closed my eyes and tried to ignore the noise.

This, of course, was impossible. Imagine a thousand people lined up like sardines in an enclosed space with remarkable acoustics, all talking at the same time. I gave up my short attempts at meditating and started eavesdropping the conversations around me. Most were about swimming, biking, running, or all of the above. What did you expect?

One conversation was particularly memorable, though. To my right sat a tall, tan, lean woman with long dark hair. Imagine a modern-day Goddess Nike clad in a black-and-gold wetsuit; that was her. The man next to her was tall, blond and very athletic-looking, also. He asked in a distinctively German accent:

So, what is your strongest discipline?
[FYI, guys: if you ever find yourself on a boat with a bunch of triathletes at the start of a race, this is not a bad opening line. Extra points for using the word “strongest” and not “favorite,” too.]

Swimming.

Oh, mine too! So you swam in college? Or high school?

I swam for Greece.

[So. She literally was Greek.]

That’s great, did you go to Athens?

[As in, the 2004 Olympics.]

Yes, I did.

Me, as well. I swam for Germany.

At which point I had to bury my face back in my knees, because a hysterical whelp would’ve otherwise escaped my lips.

I was on a freaking boat, about to jump and swim a mile and a half in the angry cold ocean, and next to me was the freaking Olympics.

It’s fine. Everything will be fine.

The minutes must have been ticking more quickly than I realized, because in a few more blinks the loud voice in the speakers informed us that we were about to listen to the national anthem. We all stood up.

Listening to the national anthem is one of my favorite parts of racing. There’s something stately, majestic even, about a large, noisy crowd that almost immediately hushes down, knowing that we’re a “home of the brave” away from beginning yet another challenge, journey, or whatever it is each of us came to pursue. Now multiply this feeling by a thousand, and you might get an idea of what it was like on the San Francisco Belle. Hundreds of us, huddled together, swimcaps on, goggles on, swaying gently back and forth with the rhythm of the boat — at the point of no return.

Then the pros walked by to the loudest cheers the crowd could master, and the gun went off.

The Swim

My little spot next to the Olympians turned out to be a mere three steps from the door we all walked out of to jump, so within seconds of the gun, I was staring at the water. I jumped without thinking. The part I had dreaded the most turned out to be easiest.


[video source]

I started swimming immediately, sighting to my left as instructed, in order to fight the current that was pulling us to the right. I didn’t feel any currents. All I felt were waves, bodies and limbs. I must have been one of the first jumpers, because in the next (who knows how many minutes), I got kicked, hit, swum over, kicked and hit again, and again. It truly felt like everyone else was moving, but me. I kept pulling, kicking, sighting, pulling again, sighting – all while feeling like I was not gaining a single yard.

The lack of buoys didn’t help, either. Unlike every single OWS I’ve done, the Escape route is not marked by buoys – or kayaks, for that matter. I knew there were kayaks somewhere out there, watching out for us, but the waves and the people made it pretty much impossible to see them. The crowd spread out so much that I questioned my swim direction constantly. Am I going the right way? Will I end up under the bridge by mistake?

When will this end?

When finally, finally, I saw people standing up and walking to shore, I looked at my watch and was floored: the swim had taken me less than 40 minutes. A good three minutes less to swim 1.5 miles than I had needed just a week before, to swim 1.2 miles at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii.

A few rushed steps to get out of the beach and cross the swim-out mat, and I was on my way to T1.

Swim time: 40:50
(1:33/ 100yds; Pace: 27 AG, 1003 overall)

Transition 1

Like most anything Escape, the swim-to-bike transition is interesting. It features a brisk 0.6-mile run along the Marina Green to T1, so the organizers give participants the option to leave a small bag with a pair of running shoes (and a towel, if you’d like) for the short run.
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Which I took advantage of, against my gut feeling and Coach D’s advice. (The Santa Cruz Triathlon and Tri Santa Cruz both have nearly a 0.5-mile run from the ocean to T1, and running that barefoot is perfectly fine.) I lost a good two minutes taking off my booties, drying my feet and putting on the stupid shoes. Rookie mistake. If I’m lucky to do this race again, I know better.

T1 time: 8:51

The Bike

Here’s the bike course in a nutshell: two miles flat, 14 miles hill repeats, two miles flat. The end.

Really. This was hilliest, most technical course I’ve ridden so far. I think the views were pretty? I was too busy watching the road and slamming on the brakes on the downhills, or pushing like mad to go uphill. As a result, I remember these little things about the bike:

1. Running out of T1, right before the Mount line, we saw Andy Potts and Eric Lagerstrom run towards the finish in a mad sprint. Eric Lagerstrom ended up winning by two seconds, which I watched later on video. Epic.

2. There are lots of out-and-back sections, so I saw Mirinda Carfrae fly by on her bike not once, but twice. Yeah!

3. As I was taking a sharp right turn before climbing yet another hill, I saw an ambulance, a fire engine and a stretcher with an athlete on it, wearing a neck brace. Yikes.

4. Potholes. Everywhere. Fix your roads, please, San Francisco?

5. It was very foggy.

I couldn’t help comparing the 56-mile ride of Ironman 70.3 Hawaii to this one. In Hawaii, I averaged 19.2 mph. At Escape, my average speed ended up 16.2 mph.

I did enjoy the ride, somewhat, but definitely enjoyed the sight of the Dismount line much, much better.

Time: 1:06:31
Age group: 11, Overall: 790

T2

I remember absolutely nothing about T2. It took a bit of running on grass to get to my rack space, and like Coach D said… well, my transitions could use some work.

Time: 2:12

The Run

Now, this was fun! Hills, stairs, beach, a 400-step sand ladder: not your typical 8-miler. I loved it! For what it’s worth, this run changed Escape from Alcatraz from “once is enough” bucket list status to “must do again” for me.

There was never a boring moment. And we got to see the pros race again, twice!

The course started flat for two miles, which was great because I got to get my running legs back.

Hello, running legs! I missed you in Hawaii?!?? Where’d you been?

I settled into an 8-minute mile pretty quickly and it felt great.

Then, of course, we hit our first set of stairs, so that slowed us down. It got quite crowded, everyone was walking… time for a little break. My strategy was to try and run strong on the uphills, but really work the downhills; walk the stairs and definitely walk the sand ladder.

Speaking of sand… Right around Mile 3, that’s what we got! We literally ran down to the beach, then on the beach for a mile, and then we came to the Sand Ladder.

The Sand Ladder was something else. As in, literally, it had its own timing mats and everything, so all racers got their Sand Ladder time of the day. Mine was 3:37.

Three minutes and 37 seconds of trying to step as closely as possible to the wooden logs that supposedly make up the ladder — but, for the most part, my feet sinking ankle-deep in sand. Fire in the quads, fire in the butt, fire in the calf muscles, everywhere fire.

That climb was so slow, in fact, that my Garmin auto-paused. I guess it decided that the Sand Ladder ain’t even worth its time!

[Watch this video from a few years ago to get an idea of what it was like. source]

When we finally dragged ourselves up and hit the road (to continue climbing, mind you, but at least it was on solid ground this time), I was ready to run — but the space was crowded again and we pretty much walked/ shuffled for a bit.

After that we got the best downhill road ever and about two flat miles to the finish, which I managed to take in 7:30 and 7:20, respectively. I even had the energy to high-five the race announcer. I Escaped!

Run time: 1:03:34
AG place: 8; Overall: 551

Finish time: 3:01:57

(Like I said, must be back; those two minutes need to disappear and I would probably achieve that by not putting on shoes to run to T1.)
AG place: 12
Overall: 629

escape medal

Run like a Honu at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii

Run like a Honu at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii

May the winds be always at your back.

Perhaps the bright-eyed, smiling volunteer at packet pickup was Irish. The Big Island is a haven for tourists, after all. Or maybe she borrowed this Irish blessing because it was… well, appropriate.

Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, or Honu, as it is colloquially known, has the most famous bike course on the 70.3 circuit. It’s the second half of the World Championship bike course. The hilly part. The windy part. (Though arguably, the first half of the World Championship bike course is just as windy; but I digress.) It also, apparently, has one of the most difficult run courses at the 70.3 distance. I learned this just days before the race. Ignorance is bliss.

I signed up for Honu months ago, with minimal knowledge – but some suspicion – of the power of the elements there. I knew it would be hot and humid; that’s as much part of Hawaii as the hills are par for the course in San Francisco.

I knew I would have a memorable race – I just didn’t suspect how memorable it would turn out to be. Here is how my Ironman 70.3 Hawaii went down. It’s a long story, so grab a cold one!

Adventures in Hawaii

Contrary to what I first thought, Ironman 70.3 Hawaii does not take place in Kailua-Kona. That’s where you go to do the big dance. For the half-Iron race, athletes converge about 30 miles north, in Waimea. The base hotel for the race is the Fairmont Orchid Hawaii, hosting the Expo, T2, and race finish.

It’s a fabulous property to stay at, if you’re OK with spending $500 or more per night on a hotel room. Everyone else: consider staying at the Fairways, a complex of town homes typically rented by owners at less than half the price, just a third of a mile down the road.

The Fairways Hawaii

That proximity came in handy when we managed to miss our flight to Hawaii and arrived a day later than planned. (I will spare you the details, other than confessing that I took us to the wrong airport. Now I know to always check our departure time and location before leaving.)

So instead of leisurely picking up my race packet on Thursday and checking in my bike and doing a practice swim the next day, I had to do everything on Friday — the day before the race. A bit stressful. Or a lot.

Athlete check-in was a breeze and picking up my bike from TriBike Transport: nearly so. Both tires on my bike — which I found completely deflated for some reason — exploded the second I put air in them. Why this happened, I don’t know. The folks at TBT told me the tires (brand new race ones purchased and installed before I dropped off my bike at Sports Basement, to be picked up and shipped to Hawaii) were too loose for my wheels. So when I inflated my tubes — though I had done this without a problem before bike drop off — they got pinched and BAM! Explosion. Why that didn’t initially happen before I shipped the bike, I’ll never know. Long story short, two new tubes and tires later I was good to go. That’s one way to get all the bad luck and tube explosions out of the way before the race, I suppose.

On my brand new tires, I rode the 7-ish miles from the Fairmont Orchid to Hapuna Beach State Park to rack my bike in T1 and take a little practice swim at the beach.

Honu Bike T1

Honu was a non-professional race this year, but the organizers found a clever way to bring all the legendary pros to the race — at least in spirit — all while helping the 2,000+ athletes remember where they parked. (In my case, Belinda Granger’s rack!)

Honu Bike Racks

I jumped into the ocean for a quick 20-minute swim before heading back. The water was quite choppy, but I had heard that it isn’t like that early in the morning, so I shrugged it off. Choppy or not, it was warm, blue and fabulous!

hapuna beach state park

And that concluded my pre-race preparations. Race day was upon us and I was as ready as I’d ever be. (I hoped.)

Race!

If there is any advantage to racing in Hawaii (besides the place being not too shabby to look at), it’s that those of us in North America, at least, benefit from the time difference. Transition opened at 5 a.m. and I was planning to be up by 4 am so I can make a 4:30 shuttle to the beach. At 3:30 (technically 6:30 for us), I woke up fresh as a cucumber. Brewed a big pot of coffee, gulped down two mugs with two Honey Stinger waffles, squeezed into my race kit, grabbed the Bike Gear bag with my bike nutrition and bottles and was off to the shuttle. By the time we made it to transition, it was already light out. A race first!

Honu pre-race transition

I readied my bike stuff, filled my bottles and added my usual three tabs of Nuun in each, visited the porta pots and had time to spare for a little warm-up swim. A smooth start to the morning, and pancake-flat waters, to boot!

Honu warmup

The Swim

My understanding is that Honu used to be a mass beach start, which basically means 2000 people running into the water, from the beach, to start the swim. That must’ve been a sight! This year, however (and possibly in 2014? I didn’t do a great job researching this, did I??) we had a wave start. My wave was women 39 and under, and we started after all the men. There must have been roughly 200 of us (judging from the finisher results), but because the waves were only four minutes apart, the swim was still pretty crowded. Especially once the 39 and older women caught up to us, I felt some pretty aggressive strokes on the side of my head and a few people pretty much swam over me. Nothing out of the ordinary for an Ironman (70.3) swim!

The water at Hapuna Beach is brilliant, though. So blue and crystal clear, you could see the bottom of the ocean at any point during the swim. This somehow made me feel very safe and at home. I almost had to remind myself to keep pushing the water – this wasn’t a leisurely snorkeling trip, after all!

Unaided by a wetsuit, I exited the water a few minutes slower than my previous half-Ironman races – but still quite happy with my day so far!

honu swim out

Swim Time: 43:15
Pace: 2:14/ 100 yds
Division (age group) rank: 38
Gender: 208
Overall: 838

The Bike

Transition was quick and logistically easy. Onto the bike and, like the volunteer lady said: May the winds be at our backs!

I couldn’t wait to experience the famed bike course, but I was also a little terrified of what awaited us. Will the winds be horrible? The hills?

I started pedaling. The weather was great: not too hot yet, and not windy! The road was incredible. Silky-smooth surface with not a bump anywhere. Long, long stretches of straight black asphalt that curved gently up and down as we conquered roller after roller, lined by yellow shrubbery and lava on one side (that would turn greener and greener as we approached Hawi) and the brilliant, beautiful ocean blue on the other. Mile after mile, still no wind! Gentle turns here and there, but mostly a very simple, push-the-pedals and let your mind wander kind of ride.

Honu Bike 1

Right as we rode past a “Hawi: 7 miles” sign, a guy riding near me said, “Here we go, the hill. This is the tough part.” I kept pedaling, waiting for the tough part… but it didn’t come. Maybe the big climb is after this mile? I thought, pedaling. Maybe after two miles? Then I got so busy looking at the riders who were on their way back, on the famed Hawi descend, that I forgot that I was currently doing the famed Hawi climb!

Either I was drugged up on endorphins from the first 20 miles of this ride, or the wind never really came. I did wait for it, but before I felt even the slightest push of a crosswind or pressure from a headwind, the Hawi turnaround came.

I can’t believe I’m here! The Hawi turnaround! With that happy thought, I pushed the bike into the hardest gear and slammed on the pedals. And it was amazing! The most incredible downhill ride of my life. My Garmin tracks bike intervals each five miles and during this descend, it beeped a 9:56 five-mile split. If I was having this much fun at an average 30.2 mph, I can only imagine the thrill of riding 50-60 mph (which is probably what the pros average on that segment)!

After reliving the road’s ups and downs on the way back (same hills, but backwards!), I rolled my bike into transition and a woman who came in at the same time observed, quite accurately: “Now time to do a li’l run.” Yes. It was time for a run and I was feeling like a million bucks! Let’s do this!

Bike time: 2:54:45
Speed: 19.23 mph
Division place: 12
Gender: 68
Overall: 491

The Run

It is amazing how things can go from rockin’ in one minute to bombin’ the next in endurance events. And I bombed so, so remarkably.

The Honu half marathon apparently is known for being crazy difficult. Who knew?! Not me!! I had looked at the elevation chart before the race and it wasn’t so bad. Not flat by any means, but not horribly hilly:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 9.36.32 PM

Right? Except, the majority of this run is on a golf course with a billion gazillion little hills. You are constantly switching from grass to concrete paths, again and again.

Honu Run

The one larger segment, a little over three miles between mile 8.5 and 11.5, that is on a flat road is very appropriately named on Strava Lucifer’s back yard.

That is exactly what this run started feeling like, and I had just to see the first mile marker. The sun was directly overhead us in the cloudless sky, pounding hard. You could cut the heat with a knife. How did I not feel this on the bike? (Oh yeah, on the bike, you make wind…)

I had directions from Coach D to try and run the first few miles at a 8:30 pace, and then, when I find my legs, descend. The only thing descending, however, was my motivation. What the freaking heck happened to my freaking legs? – But with badder words. – Why so heavy? Why getting heavier?

Honu Run 2

I started gulping down coke at every single station, but it hardly helped. By mile 9, actually, I realized my stomach might’ve overloaded on sugar, so I stopped. Ice was being dumped in my bra, back and, eventually, pants, at every aid station, as well. (Ice down your pants is very cold, to the point of painful. Only try in extreme circumstances.)

The aid stations were about a mile apart and my goal became to run to the next aid station, then walk while I drink. After about seven miles, I abandoned that goal for a new one: survive to the next aid station, walk whenever. I was doing roughly 5-1 intervals (run/ shuffle for five minutes, walk for one). A stitch in my right side appeared. My entire left leg started cramping and tightening up at the same time. My shoes were so soaked they were making froggy noises with each step.

Each step, torture. A scorcher torture! I kept telling myself that the course is finite and I’ve made it this far. Quitting was not an option. During the first or second mile, a lady passed me and we briefly chatted about the course. “I’m running a full two minutes per mile under what I should be running,” I said. “Don’t worry, she responded, so is everyone else.” After a while, she moved on.

Then I ran for a bit with another a lady, from Atlanta. She let me borrow her mantra (and at that point, I was taking anything that might help): “Take the pain within and turn it into joy.” Thank you, nice lady! She, too, moved on after a few miles.

I didn’t care how many people passed me — as long as I didn’t pass out before crossing that finish line. It finally came – I heard it before I saw it – and I dug for whatever was left in my head and my legs… to manage a 10-minute last mile.

My mile splits are still painful for me to look at:

Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 1.42.39 PM

This is the second slowest half marathon I’ve run in my life, and without a doubt the hardest one. So you can imagine the relief I felt when I was finally done. The finish line really did look out of this world beautiful to me (and now that I see it on the photos, it really was quite spectacular):

Honu finish line

Run time: 02:19:35
Pace: 10:39/mi

Total time: 6:06:36
Age group: 21 (out of 107)
Gender: 97 (out of 823)
Overall: 529 (out of 2,084)

It was finally vacation time!

Hawaii after Honu

A Mother’s Day Giveaway: The 13er and $50 Skirt Sports Gift Certificate

A Mother’s Day Giveaway: The 13er and $50 Skirt Sports Gift Certificate

First things first: I’m calling this a Mother’s Day giveaway because I will select and notify the winner shortly after Mother’s Day — but it isn’t in any way limited to moms. All ladies are welcome! (And so are the dudes, in fact: by all means, read on!)

“Oh, it’s only a half”

I often say that the half marathon is my favorite distance to race. It’s just long enough to pose a challenge and require training, but not long enough to destroy my legs and ground me for weeks.

Heck, you could do 13.1 miles for your long run and still feel the satisfaction of having covered an admirable distance — even if no one gave you a finishers medal for it.

Except for one detail: I feel like calling it a “half” kind of diminishes the accomplishment. Oh, it’s only a half. How many times has someone asked you if you’re training for a marathon and you’ve said that? (I feel particularly irked at myself for saying those words when people ask me if I’ve done an Ironman. “No, I’ve only done a few halves.” We race for 70.3 miles and then we end up saying we’ve only done a half — simply because a race exists that is twice as long? Why isn’t the 5K called a half-10K?)

As the ladies at Skirts Sports say (and I wholeheartedly agree):

13.1 ain’t half; it’s a whole damn race and a milestone we’re going to celebrate.

In this particular case, I’d like to celebrate Mother’s Day by giving one lucky reader a free entry for the Skirt Sports Virtual 13.1er (remember, we’re not calling it a “half”!), which comes with a $50 gift certificate!

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Race details:

Distance: 13.1 miles
Place: Virtual or in Colorado
Date: the Colorado event will take place on June 14, 2015, but you can run the virtual any day June 13-16.

Run with friends, solo, or as part of another half marathon (er, 13er!) in which you’ve already entered to participate that weekend!

Registration (worth $85) gets you:

  • a 13er Finisher skirt
  • a $50 gift certificate to Skirtsports.com
  • a race bib
  • samples from race sponsors

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The giveaway

Easy-peasy ways to enter, via widget below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The winner will be notified on my Facebook page and by email, so keep an eye out!

And whether you win or not, consider giving an entry to this race to your Mom, friend, significant other – or, why not, to yourself! (At the $125 registration level, you will receive a $125 gift certificate, making this race practically free; and at the $250 level, your gift certificate will be for $275.)

Not only isn’t that half of anything, it ain’t half bad either!