Now in its 35th year, the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon is one of the few big events that has survived that long, let alone reached such legendary status. This race has done very well for itself over the years considering it is a one-off event not falling under the big financial and PR umbrellas offered by the reigning giants in the triathlon race world; i.e. WTC Ironman or Challenge family.
The uniqueness of this event is evidenced by the impressive pro field, some of whom are taking time out from their Kona quest to participate in this odd-distance race (1.5 mile swim, 18 mile bike, 8 mile run). Those Kona-seeking pros, unless they have already qualified, are focused on carefully choosing point-heavy races in their quest to qualify for the World Championship in October. Those who have already qualified are focused on two things; avoiding injury, and carefully blocking out their training and recovery efforts all towards the goal of giving themselves the best chance of success at Kona.
So why so many pros at this San Francisco race? Perhaps it’s the mystique of the location; two iconic draws: a swim across treacherous waters from the legendary former penitentiary followed by a stunning backdrop provided by inarguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Or perhaps it’s lure of racing with other pros just for fun after the rush of early season high-point races such as the three big ones in May; the North American Championships (St. George 70.3 and Ironman Texas) and the Brazil Latin American 140.6.
Or it could be the money, not great, but not too shabby for a couple of hours of pain. Male and female placings would take home a bit of change for 1st through 6th place, with 10 grand for 1st, 5 for 2nd, on down to 1 grand for 6th.
Regardless of their reasoning, they signed up in droves. Some of the notable male pros racing in this year’s event: Josh Amberger, Kevin Collington, Cameron Dye, Ben Hoffman, Eric Lagerstrom, Andy Potts, Drew Scott, and Matty Reed. In the women’s race: Mirinda Carfrae, Leanda Cave, Emily Cocks, Ashleigh Gentile, Lauren Goss, Sara McLarty, Jenny Fletcher, and Magali Tisseyre.
*Author’s update: As noted by some alert readers in the comments/forum, it turns out that the pro field was actually limited by the race organizers, controlled by an invitation-only process.
Befitting its name, this race starts with a point to point swim, and since that starting point is just off the rocks of Alcatraz Island, all athletes must take an hour-long ferry ride to the start. So with that early morning commute behind them, they nervously face the day; all 2,000 of them, pros and age groupers huddled on the chilly decks as they make their way slowly across the bay.
Thankfully the volatile San Francisco weather provided a fairly good day for this year’s race. With the inevitable fog and chilly air temps, the bay waters were mercifully mild compared to most days. But it wasn’t always so. Two years ago the Alcatraz event was moved from early June to very early March due to the entire harbor being tied up for weeks with the America’s Cup sailing event. As you can imagine, that move resulted in extremely harsh conditions. With water temps that day in the low 40’s, dangerously below today’s starting water temperature of 57 degrees. Water safety personnel rescued over 150 swimmers from the chilled water that day (three times the norm) and sadly, a swimmer died that day, in what has otherwise always been a remarkably safe swim.
Keep in mind that this is a massive 1.5 mile swim effort, with swimmers battling sometimes choppy water and an always present heavy tidal current. Swimmers are cautioned to aim for a point well up-current from their eventual landing spot resulting in a huge arc of a swim line as the current pulls them off course continually. And while all this is going on, they must have in the back of their minds those words they read in the Athlete’s Guide: ”Sharks of any significant size do not generally come into the bay…”. Nice words of comfort. Likewise the race prep instructions urges one to take multiple cold-water showers in the days leading up to the event, and to wear a minimum of two swim caps on race day.
And, in a divergence from most races, if a swimmer is not out of the water by the 55 minute cutoff they will be picked up by a boat and taken to the swim exit…and, get this, be allowed to finish the race with no penalty! It’s all about safety here.
So on to our race re-cap. In a surprise showing, Josh Amberger overtook Andy Potts and exited the chilly waters in 26:32, with a full 1-minute lead. Potts was followed within seconds by Cameron Dye and Eric Lagerstrom, and they in turn were followed by three fast age-groupers; in fact 4 of the top 10 swimmers were age groupers (Roos, Kiedel, Harper, and Viola). Keep in mind that there was no appreciable buffer between the pro swim start time and the age grouper swim starts; presumably for safety reasons…just get everyone off that boat and onto shore as quickly as possible. Other pros coming into shore still in range for a great race were John Dahlz, Brian Fleischmann, Graham O’Grady, Matty Reed and Drew Scott all within about a minute and half of the leader.
In the women’s race, first on the beach was Sara McLarty in 28:54, followed by Lauren Goss 2 seconds later followed by Leanda Cave, Emily Cocks, and Ashleigh Gentle all within the next minute.
The race leaders were followed by hoards of age-groupers, and they all faced the next challenge: a half-mile run to T1 on numb feet. In fact the run to T1 is so laborious that the athlete instructions recommend having a pair of shows devoted just to this run from the water to T1. Not quite sure where the timing mats were positioned but to give you some idea of the length they had to traverse note that the pros, arguably the world’s fastest transitioners, had T1 times ranging from 3:50 to 5 minutes.
The Bike and the Run
Though the live streaming broadcast coverage by USL.TV was very well done and a treat to watch, there was no accompanying play-by-play blogging so the on-course maneuvering among the leaders was pieced together for purposes of this report using the published results, social media updates, and direct information provided by race participants.
Coming off from his great swim Amberger pulled off the fastest bike split of the day with an impressive 46:44 and was first out onto the run course, but would ultimately lose enough time to slip to 4th place at the finish. And though Collington had one of the slower pro swims at 28:09 he gained time with a speedy bike split (1 second slower than Amberger) and a fast T2 so that he was well placed in the running but faded a bit toward the end for an overall 3rd place finish. But the real story would be the final gut-wrenching sprint at the finish when Lagerstrom overtook 6-time champion Potts in the magnificent flag-lined chute for a finale that had the crowd screaming on their feet over that 2 second lead. Awesome racing, indeed.
In the women’s race, Cave was first out of T2 after the fastest bike split (51:51), but she too would suffer on the run losing valuable minutes to the top three. Carfrae was only 1:37 down from the lead as she hit her stride going into her powerhouse event where the odds were in her favor as she traditionally excels with a strong run. But with this shorter distance the Ironman World Champion just didn’t have enough distance to make up the loss against two very speedy ladies. Goss would lead over Gentle by just a few seconds for much of the run, but ultimately Gentle would pull ahead and outpace Goss to win with a 15 second gap, coming in at 2:13:43.
We did get some on-course updates from spectators advising that Matty Reed and Emily Cocks both flatted on the bike and ultimately neither were able to finish the race. And as Collington points out in his audio report Drew Scott also flatted, but was able to do a quick change and managed to finish in the top 10.
And so ended the 35th running of the Escape From Alcatraz, final results below: