Escape from Alcatraz 2019 athlete quotes:
“I hate to use the word Epic, but Epic seems to fit. Iconic maybe? All the fanfare of a full IM, and price, but 1/4 the distance and suffering. Happy to have done it at least once now. Given the chance to choose between IM Boulder and Escape, I’d still pick Escape. There’s no other race I’ve done that compares. The ferry jump, swim, hilliest bike ever, run through hills, sand, sand ladder and along the bay from Golden gate to Marina Green… over way too fast.”
“Alcatraz was great. Glad I came and did it. I probably will not enter the lottery again as it was a bucket list. Time to focus on other buckets for next year, but jumping off the ferry and swimming to San Fran, biking the crazy hills and running that crazy run course was great. Great crowd support. Great organization. My only complaint was it seemed like it was over in a blink of an eye. Like BAM, you’re done suffering. Reminds me more of a sprint race than longer course.”
“That was a doozy of a run after a tough bike. UPHILL, wooden steps, dodging oncoming runners… MORE HILLS, run through sand, UP a sand ladder… MORE UPHILL and then finally descend and back to flat gravel paths to the finish line… I’m still a little sore. Personally it was the experience I was looking for. Epic to ferry out and jump and swim, fight the current to land in the right spot and kill yourself on the hills of San Fran. The one thing I noticed was a lot of suffering, but in a compacted amount of time compared to long course races. It was akin to racing a sprint all out, but for almost an Olympic distance pushing the HR up on the hills and throughout the run. You really had to take advantage of downhills to recovery for the next climb, otherwise you were going to have to walk the bike up. Great adventure!”
“Escape was great, but man felt like it happened in a blink of an eye. All the pomp and circumstance of an IM, but like 1/4 the distance and time for the actual event. Felt like prep for an IM, but seemed to be over quick. It was nice though afterwards to be able to function and walk around without feeling lost in space. It was a bucket list race and 100% glad I did it. No expectations on time or placing, just wanted the experience and raced it as smart and hard as I could.”
Ok, I lied, those quotes were ALL from me as I discussed the race with anyone that asked! It was simply awesome. Exceeded all expectations.
BUT, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Lets go back in the Hot Tub time machine a week and swim around the anxiety and anticipation before the race, then we’ll dive into logistics, then the race and finally my takeaways and recommendations for logistics and training.
PRE-RACE ANXIETY + EXPECTATIONS
Leading up to the race, time seemed to fly and suddenly before I knew it, it was time to drop the bike off, taper and pack to fly out. I had a lot floating around in my head trying to grasp how everything was going to play out while actually trying to enjoy myself.
- I was planning to fly in and Uber it. No rental car! I planned a place 2.6 miles from Marina Green and hoping to make it all work by foot, bike and Uber. How was I going to get my bike from TBT, get food, get my packet, get back and not be wiped out for the race.
- My bike was having issues. I didn’t trust my road bike enough to bring it, so I went with my QR PR6. From previous traveling and packing, somehow both shifter cables got kinked and needed to be replaced including housing, the weekend before shipping it. How was that going to play out with only a handful of rides on the hills of San Fran!?
- On a few rides post-cable fix, the shifting wasn’t stellar on my race wheels. So, when I dropped it off for TBT I asked the shop to adjust the derailleur and they found my hanger was bent! Luckily they trued it up before I left… but no chance to ride it after they fixed it. Fingers crossed…
- Logistics of having my wife with me. Not that she needs special attention, but lets face it, not all SO’s enjoy the race experience.
- The pure logistics of getting me, my bike, gear, packet, to race day, set up, to the ferry and on the boat in time… AND THEN be able to hand over my bike and gear to TBT and not end up with stuff I can’t fit into my carry on luggage after the race.
- I was really questioning the experience vs finance and energy factor. Plain and simple, was doing this race really going to be worth it? I had considered IM Boulder instead, but when I got in on the lottery, it was now or never. Would I be happy with the choice after the race?
Lets get some of the above addressed here in a misc logistics section.
My wife ended up having a work conflict and had to stay behind, so I didn’t have to be considerate of other people on the trip, ALL ME ALL THE TIME! But in seriousness, I didn’t have to worry about offending anyone with my agenda. It also meant I could cheap skate out on eating and made one grocery run the entire trip for the 4 days in San Fran. SAVE MONEY! Score.
I had to be very methodical about time, energy and resources to make trips for stuff. Food. Bike. Packet pickup. Pro panel. Athlete briefing. I didn’t want to be going back and forth wasting precious time between my AirBNB, TBT pick up and Marina Green. Friday was two trips. I combined a 2.6 mile run to sports basement to get my bike (and some aqua socks – more on that later) and then rode it back for a bike check. Luckily there was a nasty climb through the Presidio to test the shifting and it passed with flying colors. SMOOTH AS BUTTER. I also had to be smart and bring my bike pedals with me since I did not want to ship my Garmin pedals with my bike and flew with them. MAKE A LIST PEOPLE! It will save your ass from unnecessary anguish and resource wasting.
Oh, and my AirBNB hosts were SUPER nice and let me check in way early. Had they not.. I would have been carrying my crud around from 8am to 3pm. YUCK.
I followed that up with an Uber BACK to sports basement for the pro panel, and Uber back. It was a little costly for a 3 mile ride each way, but I didn’t want to blow more energy and time by running or walking back and forth, and I did want to see the pros talk. They also had good course intel as well.
Here’s where some of the twists come in. I could have picked up my bike Saturday with my packet and consolidated a trip, but then if I did have a bike issue, less time to find somewhere to fix it. So, Saturday was only left for a trip for my packet, and swim exit bag if I wanted to leave anything. You see, from swim exit to transition is a 0.50 mile run on gravel and pavement. You can do it barefoot, but they also give you the option to have a bag to have shoes in, and shove your wetsuit in and run to transition. If you wanted to use it, they wanted that dropped off Saturday. They also gave you a bag for drop off at the pier before the ferry left, or leave it on the ferry, but you might not have seen it back until 1pm. After debate, I opted to NOT use the swim exit bag and be self sufficient and not have to leave anything on the boat. That takes a lot of proactive planning to know what you need for each section of the race with so many moving parts. Transition. Swim exit. Bus to pier. Ferry boarding. Basically the plan was simplified to transition and swim gear. The only trip Saturday was Uber to and from Marina Green for packet pickup.
Now, here’s where I got creative. I bought the cheapie aqua socks to wear from transition to swim jump off the ferry. Worst case I just leave them on the ferry. Best case, which is what I did, stuff them in my wetsuit to have at swim exit. I’ll expand how that went in the swim part of the recap. The general point was I wanted to be self sufficient as I heard there were past issues with finding bags, missing bags and missing wetsuits after the race if you dropped them in the bag at swim exit and left it. I wanted as little to worry about as possible, so skipped that option.
I was debating also whether to drop my bike Saturday and uber/walk to transition race morning, or ride my bike in race morning and uber back after the race. The specter of walking 3ish miles with my gear (and all the gear that needed to go with TBT) was not enticing, so I opted to ride my bike in race morning with my gear and uber back after. Spoiler alert, it worked out well. There was some section in the Presidio that were dicey in the dark, but took it nice and slow and made it easily in 25 minutes from my VRBO. Another gymnastics coordination to have all the gear packed that goes back with TBT and what I would need for the race, keep it separate and organized for a 4am transition setup in the dark. Did I mention you need to plan for this race???
It took a lot of planning, but I was able to manage it all without a rental car, which I would NOT have wanted to deal with around the event and in San Fran in general. They are all over Uber and they do ride sharing there as well which made a 3 mile trip much more palatable using Uber. I did find a grocery store less than a mile from my VRBO, so it all worked out really well with no car and some keen organization and planning.
ON TO THE RACE, THE SWIM
The swim and jump off the Horn Blower is really the crown jewel of the event. Ya, people talk about the hills on the bike and sand ladder on the run, but you will never have a chance to jump off a ferry just off Alcatraz. You might be able to find some hills to ride and a sand ladder to run in other places… but not many.
I was not really worried about the distance. What I was concerned about was the water temp and sighting to land at the swim exit and not after it. Too many stories of people not adjusting for the current and landing too far and having to climb rocks to get to the exit. Having swam IM 70.3 Indian Wells in 52 degree water, I kind of knew what it would feel like. It was going to suck. BUT, how was this going to work out jumping straight in instead of walking in from shore??? I would be lying if I wasn’t secretly worried about a cold water shock freak out… and keeping my goggles on my head jumping in… and being close enough to the front group that the boat edge wasn’t too far off the water as people unloaded and the boat floated up.
Maybe you read the first part of this post? Ya, made it. Cinched up the goggles. Shoved my aqua socks down my wetsuit legs for the exit and JUMPED. What was also awesome was getting down to the side of the lower deck and watching the pro’s dive in. Spectacular. I had my neoprene cap, throw away socks with aqua socks to walk around before the start, pop tart bites, ear plugs, water and my Hot Shot as planned. Only thing to drop was the socks and trash. No need to stick around for a gear bag from the ferry!
AND I MADE IT to the swim exit AS PLANNED. Watch the videos people. Read the race emails you get weeks leading up. SIGHT THE LANDMARKS. Save you, it will. Basically I jumped in and didn’t really feel an immediate water temp impact. Ya, it was cold in some spots, but there were warm pockets as well and it was a great swim. My mission was to swim towards the bay and keep track of the landmarks to know if I was tracking with the current to hit the swim exit. It worked out PERFECT! Basically I was just aiming for a straight shot and the current brought me home. Jumped out, found a side spot, stripped the wetsuit, grabbed the aqua socks that drop out of my suit legs, threw them on and carried my wetsuit to T1. I will say this, have SOMETHING for your feet. That would have been a brutal run on rocks and pavement without something for my feet.
T1 was uneventful, the way I like it. My stuff was right where I left it. Threw on my bike shoes, helmet and headed for the exit. Temps race day were NICE and warm, so no need for layers or anything like that this year. Did I mention my Garmin pedals AND Fenix 5 plus watch shot craps the weekend before the race? Ya, luckily I live 1.89 miles from Garmin HQ and they had stock to swap both out. So, I get the pedals set up, but had to re-pair senors, calibrate pedals and all that jazz Friday when I got my bike. All the more reason to get it Friday and have it til race morning to get it dialed in, and it worked to a T.
It was a great feeling to know all I had to worry about on the bike was the course and other athletes. Not, are my sensors working. Not, are my shifters going to hold up. Just ride and have complete trust my gear was ready.
Some tips for future racers, I would recommend a road bike for the climbing and bike traffic. Pretty much wall to wall bikes and little time for aero. I had a few good spots, but Golden Gate park added speed bumps, so I couldn’t just open it up. Some poor guy paid the price with a wipeout, so keep that in mind. I stuck with the tri bike as I said before, I didn’t have the faith in my roadie. Tri bike is doable, though.
And… be ready for hills. Not rollers. Not long climbs. The kind where you are going downhill, hit a left and BAM UPHILL STEEP GRADE… like the kind that will rip your derailleur off if you were in the wrong gear. KNOW HOW TO RIDE STEEP HILLS. Know how to approach and anticipate for shifting. And… ride the hills to be ready for the strength it will take to get up them. There were times I seriously questioned if this was the hill I’d have to jump off and walk to avoid falling over. glad to report, though, I made it through them all, but I had already been putting in some 160 mile weeks on the bike, so I was ready. Don’t think you can roll out of bed and just mail this race in. No sir.
What’s 8 miles, right? I’ve consistently been over 13 miles for my long run and 25 to 30 for weekly totals. I figured I was ready… and I was to a point. Ignorance is bless as you just don’t get an appreciation of what running UP flights of wooden stair cases would feel like looking at an elevation chart. It was nice of them for the 2 mile warm up before stairs to hell, followed by STEEP downhill dirt trails to run through sand and then the sand ladder. Awkward and painful does not really capture it. The only thing you could do was keep moving forward to get through it. I powered where I could, and the course didn’t break me per say, but I was red-lined the entire run. It was like a sprint where you were all out, but then you have a recovery AND THEN ALL OUT AGAIN… and then a recovery ALL OUT AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Roller coaster man. It was great!
I do like to give credit where it’s due. Back in 2017 I raced IM 70.3 Boulder and went to a run clinic by Dave Scott. There he introduced me to run form techniques that greatly enhanced my ability to keep for and economy to last through a grueling race. I’m not the fastest dude by any means, but my last 2.5 miles were sub 7 minute miles after that fiasco of a bike and run course. Sure, there’s a fitness side to that, but being economical through the run saved something for the flat run into the finish. I’d also like to throw out the disclaimer NOT to do what I did in 2017 and change your run form for race day after learning said technique tricks the day before the race. It lead to a HIM run PR and worked out… but wasn’t smart. Fun though….
Like I said before… it was over WAY TOO FAST. Ya, you want to end the suffering of racing quickly, but I crossed the line, got my medal from Andy Potts and headed to the massage tent, food and medal engraving. Packed my bike and gear, dropped at TBT tent and Uber back to the VRBO to relax.
With 70.3 and full IRONMAN races.. it’s most of and all of the day affairs. You get done and have to get all the stuff lined up and most of us are headed to the airport or on the road first thing the next day. No time to really soak it in. Luckily for me I had planned to fly back Monday night so I had Sunday afternoon to relax and Monday to take a ferry tour of the bay and really soak in the history of the area and the magnitude of the race accomplishment.
You can follow my IG page (https://www.instagram.com/ryanfalkenrath/) or FB page (https://www.facebook.com/SetThePaceTriathlonDotCom/) to see my results, 2:50 and some change. 30th in AG, so no awards and not exactly burning it up, but I felt like I was in a good place to give the course hell and thanks to my 15 years of experience racing and traveling, the logistics worked out and I was able to truly get lost in the race and the experience. I was able to push the envelop in my terms and challenge my limits as a triathlete at an iconic event. I don’t know if I will ever qualify for Kona or Boston marathon or some other icon in endurance sports, but for 2 hours and 50 minutes, I was as close as you can get in that category of event.
WRAP IT UP
Anyone that asks me, I will tell them, DO IT. If you make the lottery, take your spot and figure it out. It’s not cheap and I poor-boyed it where I could. I made it work and made sacrifices to race, but SO worth it for once in a lifetime. All doubts were erased if I made the right choice. The atmosphere and venue was out of this world. EVERYONE was excited to be there and organizers were happy to have you there. It equals the excitement of IRONMAN events in a day when triathlon is sliding a bit.
As for the training side and being prepared, this would have been completely another experience without my 15 years doing this sport, 6 IM’s and 13 HIM’s with all the travel that’s included. Being in June, here in the midwest it rained… A LOT. That meant less time riding outdoors and without the experience and knowledge gained over the years using indoor trainers and making the leap to smart trainers (CycleOps H2 now), there would have been no way I could have fared like I did. Again, I was not blazing fast, but I felt like I could hold my own and didn’t have to walk hills on the bike and could somewhat attack the run. Those mind numbing long rides in the basement on my H2 paid off, big time. My training simply allowed me to be lost in the race pushing my fitness instead of holding on for dear life.
It’s not an impossible race for someone that’s not into HIM’s and IM’s, but you can’t mail it in for this race. The swim takes confidence and knowledge to hit the beach with the current, and not freak out jumping in the water and the cold. The bike obviously takes training and the run takes training. It’s not recommended to go from couch to Alcatraz, but it’s possible.
So… that was my long winded write up. Hopefully you got something out of it. Hit me up with any questions and I’d be happy to answer them!
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