When you think of a triathlon that has an equally epic and challenging swim, the first one that springs to mind will be Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. A California race that has a 1.5-mile swim back from Alcatraz island in the San Francisco Bay, back to shore.
I was going to be taking on this race with a 1.5-mile swim, a hilly 18-mile bike and a mixed terrain 8 mile run, but the thing most people fear the most, is the swim, purely because it is quite the challenge! I was both nervous and excited about the swim more than anything, excited by the challenge but nervous because I was unsure whether I’d do it in cut off time of 60 minutes.
The swim would start with triathletes taking the San Francisco Belle boat to Alcatraz island, jumping off or doing ‘the jump’ as it is known, and swimming back to shore through the current and temperamental conditions. Luckily for me I had already done some sea swimming when I did a long course weekend, where I swam in Blackpool for 2.4 miles during a very choppy swim.
The Escape from Alcatraz race is in its 41st year of operation, run by race director Bill Burke, someone I came to meet during my event experience. Due to my epilepsy I like to contact race directors to make sure they are aware of my condition and ensure it is safe for me to take part. We discussed it together and decided I would have a kayak watch over me during the swim to make sure I was safe, something nobody has done for me before, and was definitely something I would like to encourage going forward for my more challenging races.
I arrived in San Francisco a few days early to get some training in, to beat the jet lag in time for the race and be close by for the pre-event buzz. I was unsure how cold the water would be so pre-race I went for a swim in the bay. Instead of gradually getting in, I did a race entry run and jump into the water, as I’d be jumping off the boat into the water I wouldn’t get the chance to do a gradual entry. I was absolutely fine thankfully! One thing that is a bonus of being in a cold UK climate, it’s prepared me for low temperature waters to swim in!
For this race I was wearing my race suit under my Head wetsuit, I wore water shoes (I had a short run to T1 after swim exit), a wetsuit hood, swim cap, ear plugs and of course, Zoggs Predator Flex with low light lenses. On race day it was super foggy and was raining so I was extremely pleased with my goggle choice! Honestly, the conditions were totally opposite to the day before which consisted of blue skies and sunshine, this was more like being back in the UK! At least I had experience of these kinds of conditions.
I boarded the San Francisco Belle boat with the other 2,000 triathletes as we made our way out to race start. I was extremely nervous at this point, concerned about being able to sight properly in the conditions and of course, making my jump off the boat too. I had been practicing the jump and today I was going to put that training to use. The pros went off, then it was my turn to leap off the boat. No time to pause or doubt anything, I had to go, before I knew it I was in and off swimming, following the blue swim caps of the pros, until they left me behind. Soon others appeared around me, but the fog was making things tricky to navigate. I had to sight a lot and slow down to get my bearings.
Most people I spoke to when I told them I was doing this race asked me if I was worried about sharks. Firstly, there has never been a shark attack, secondly sharks don’t come into the bay and thirdly no sharks were seen on my swim apart from a curious sea lion!
I soon got into my endurance pace swim rhythm, smooth swimming focusing on the glide and catch. I was happy at this point to have selected the low light goggles, chosen to put a swim hood on as it made acclimatisation that bit quicker and the fact I’d learnt how to bilateral breathe because this swim was busy! People were everywhere, and because I was swimming quicker than I’d expected I was basically with everyone! At the last point as you head in, it becomes quite narrow, not to mention choppy so I did get a lot of feet and hands on me, but it’s to be expected in this kind of race. It’s all part of the challenge in my opinion, also my attempt not to swallow too much water failed, I swallowed so much!
I recall glancing at my watch seeing I was on for a 38-minute swim, when I was panicking about not making cut off, but due to how busy the last part of the swim was, I did it in just over 40 minutes. I’d already won the race for myself at this point. I could go onto the bike knowing I’d done the hardest part in plenty of time. What an achievement. I could see the sand, all the people applauding and I was on land. I’d just completed the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon swim. I can now ask the question what do Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood and Annie Brooks all have in common? That’s right, we all escaped Alcatraz!
If you’re looking for an incredible swim and love a challenge, you have to do this race, they also offer an Aquathlon the day before if you don’t like cycling. But what a bucket list item to check off and an event that has only made me realise all the more, how much I just love to swim.