Saturday, July 7, 2012

Escape From Alcatraz Race Report

Better late than never, below is my experience at Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. I apologize in advance for the long report… I hope you can feel the excitement! J  

After a good night of sleep, I was ready to tackle this unbelievable triathlon… My bag and gears were ready from the night before. The only things left to be done were to get dressed, fill up the water bottles, and answer the big question: pump the bike tires to 120?

I had the privilege of having my dad drive me to the race while my friend, Sophy, and my mom got to sleep in a bit longer. My father rarely went to any of my synchronized swimming and gymnastics competitions while growing up. But this time, however, it was different. Not only was he going to support me but he actually decided to drive me to the race himself. For a late morning riser, I was impressed to see him actually awake and on time. Within minutes, he was ready to go. I think he was starting to be worried about what his little girl was about to do… Swim across the San Francisco Bay with extreme cold water, currents and sharks, bike through the hills where even his big SUV has difficulty climbing, and run up hills, through sand and up sand ladders; all among 2000 elite athletes. I could tell that he knew this race was not a small competition his daughter used to do as a child.
Once I arrived to transition, all was according to plan. Good bike position near the bike out and bike in. All I was missing was the Tri 2 One race morning story telling drama and excitement. :)
Transition set up tired but happy and excited smile!!!
Extremely fit athletes were surrounding me. Some seemed to have lost their sense of touch with no garments on, and some were wrapped up as if they were ready to climb Mount Everest. It was chilly but the cold wind did not intimidate me. I was ready. Mentally ready to swim in freezing water.
Beautiful sunrise view of Alcatraz Island

While heading to catch the shuttle, I made a quick glance to my right and saw Leanda Cave, one of the top triathletes in the world. She was just like any of us heading for the bus with her wetsuit and goggles in hand. It made me smile seeing how focused she was. At the same time, she did not let the race affect her and was willing to take a picture with another fellow competitor. I wish I had my camera. Once in the shuttle, a very tall man sat next to me. He was sipping on natural Zico coconut water. This was definitely a conversation starter! Did I mention I love ZICO!! This unknown man seating next to me was quite interesting. He shared his swimming experience and told me he was doing the race as CEO relay challenge and representing his brand as a main sponsor of the race. He was about to complete in his very first open water swim and was not nervous at all. I wanted to find him after the race to know the details of his experience and whether he was ready to become more active in the triathlon world. Unfortunately, I did not find him but I am sure the swim exceeded his “expectations!”
Once I arrived at Pier 3, volunteers were very well organized getting the pre-race swim bags. I applied glide everywhere and left my sandals and sweater in the bag and headed for the boat. With exhilaration, I found and greeted my teammate Courtney. We sat together for a while discussing our preparation and expectations. I had found my Tri 2 One drug! Nerves were starting to settle as we chatted with two other elite triathletes. One of them was a 50 something year old women who had completed 5 Ironman across the globe. She shared some amazing stories and how this race still remained one of the most challenging and thrilling race she has ever done. Before we knew it, the ferry was surrounding the Island of Alcatraz. I headed to my age group start location and was able to admire the prison island and its surrounding. While anticipating the start I met two Team France athletes. I was delighted to meet my home countries top athletes but they were actually not quite friendly. Consequently, I moved on and ended up meeting a 25-29 competitor (Ginger I believe.) She had the biggest smile on her face. She was observing her surrounding and taking everything in…. I took the same initiative and enjoyed the pre-race start. We both advanced to the edge of the start opening, walked on top of the blue map and heard the beeping sound. It was on…My Escape from Alcatraz had officially started! While jumping into the water, I glanced at the Golden Gate Bridge in the far distance and an extreme feeling of nervousness took over my body. I started swimming away from the boat fighting for my spot and trying not to let any swimmer take advantage of me. It was a fight but this fight actually enabled me to ignore the cold water. Half way in the swim I looked up and saw a vast array of swimmers everywhere. I tried to sight for the piece of land I needed to go to but my vision did not enable me. It was just too far away.

As highly suggested, I did a few strokes on my back to observe the breathtaking view of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate through the fog. I cannot even describe how breathtaking it was. All of a sudden, a very cold feeling went down my back. I then realized I was swimming freezing water and needed to keep swimming to keep warm. At this point, I did not feel my hands - nor my feet - but my body knew what to do! Once getting closer to the swim finish, I glimpsed at the four yellow buoys marking the swim finish chute. I took three strokes and as I looked up again to breathe I found myself past them. The current was so strong that even as good of a swimmer as I am, I was unable to fight it. I sprinted and gave my all to try to get to shore but I was barely moving. My first real fight against open water.!All could think of was my shuttle neighbor and hoped he was doing ok. 
Spectator view of the first swimmers arriving from the island

Once running out of the water, I could not feel my feet. I knew sharks did not bite them away since I was able to run. I glanced to my left and saw one of my supporters yelling my name. It made me smile and helped me forget the pain I was in however it also made me forget I needed to start taking off my wetsuit! Oops!

Forgetting I have to take off the wetsuit! oops!

A few meters away from the swim exit, volunteers helped athletes take off their wetsuits. I tapped on the back of one of them and requested his assistance. I probably looked like a crazy lady desperate for help. He pulled down my top, through me on the ground and pulled the wetsuit off my feet. The process probably lasted less than a minute but, as much as I had seen it done at other races, I did not expect to be treated so aggressively. It was awesome! His energy conveyed me to suck it up and keep racing as hard as possible!

Thumbs up! All Smiles! - I obviously don't know what's ahead of me!

Through the transition out to the bike, I saw my mom screaming my name, I smiled for the camera and kept going. A few meters away, I heard Sophy shouting my name and inspiring messages. She knew exactly the words I needed to hear! She ran through the crowd on the other side of the fence probably knocking out a few people in her way. It was amazing. She was a crazy lady running for her life. Her liveliness made me feel as if I was in the finish chute going for gold… At last I got to my bike. I put on my helmet and glasses and headed for the mountains. I mounted the bike and started cycling at a very good pace of around 24 mph. I felt strong passing fellow competitors until all of a second I made my first left and there it was the anticipated hill my teammate Craig had previously described while sharing his experience. I got off the saddle and even with all my weight on the peddles, I felt a wind tunnel in front of me… As if I was pulling 10 big men on bicycles. Once I completed that hill, we made a right turn and there it was again an even more aggressive hill. At that point, I regained feeling of my limbs and it was clearly not a pleasant feeling. My muscles were burning. Little did I know I was going to endure this pain for the next hour and six minutes. When climbing one of my first hill, my heart raced with delight. I heard the loud zooooooooms sound. All in the most aero position, professional athletes were flying down the hill I was trying to climb. As a wannabe pro, you can’t imagine the excitement I felt to see them fly by. The up hills I experienced were strenuous but the toughest part of the bike was actually going downhill. Holes and cracks made the road of San Francisco not very thin-tire friendly, hence I made the right choice to not pump my tires that day. It was so steep that my watch displayed a speed 39.8mph. I freaked out. No wonder my biceps and forearms were burning. I felt as if at any moment my body would be thrown above the handle bars. The continuous braking did not slow me down but barely helped me not reach a speed above 40 mph. I am certain, I reached 40+mph at one point but did not want to risk looking away from the ground in front of me…. Nevertheless, the muscle burn was immediately forgotten once I glanced at the panoramic outlook. The view of the Pacific Ocean with a light fog hovering in far horizon was calming and breathtaking.
Part of the bike course was familiar as I ran through the path last December while training for the half marathon and other part I biked through the day before. The best part of the course was this amazing cliff we climbed. Drafting penalty was not a possibility. Most of us were trying not to go backward. Athletes were breathing hard, some off the saddle, some on the saddle with aspirant high cadence and some walking the bike. As I tried my best to climb, I complimented a few women who were also struggling to push hard to keep their position. I passed a few men who vice versa encouraged me to keep this “good pace” (10mph). It was mind-blowing to see so many fit athletes together fighting the massive hills. Living in Miami, nothing could have prepared me for this bike course. The many stair climbing and bridge repeats most likely helped a bit but feels ridiculous compared to the atrocious elevations. After the last downhill, I felt extremely strong going 26mph on flat. I knew the race was almost over. The adrenaline rushed as I saw the amount of spectators cheering. I heard my friends and family in the background shouting and encouraging me. I was focused to finish strong and in style.
(I am behind the man... very focused!)

The run out transition was one of my favorite moment of the race – seeing this amazing triathlete coming in the opposite direction right next to me. Andy Potts was flying through the finish chute. The crowd was going wild. The speaker shouted “ ... and for the 5th consecutive winner, Andyyyyyyy Pooooootts!!!” No need to describe the emotions that went through my body. It was extremely moving and exciting.

After this transition rush settled in, I started the run with fatigued legs. I tried my best to keep an 8:15 pace but my legs had a hard time adjusting. I climbed my first hills turn after turn. When it came to the 3 flights of stairs, my legs could not handle the pain. My achilles tendons were burning so much that they felt as if they were ready to snap. I walked the stairs but do not regret it. I took the opportunity to slow down and appreciate the most astonishing view once again. I took a moment to take it in before pulling together the remaining strength and courage in me. I knew the race I had been talking about in the last few months was about to end. I ran up some more hills, down the trail path and there it was: the beach run. It was amusing seeing the runners follow the path of the water in a snake like motion. The excitement of the big waves crashing onshore made me forget my painful legs. It was now time for the sand ladder. Just like the other athletes by me, I am proud to say I walked the ladder but also proud to say I passed a few man! :) After the ladder, I knew I had to give it my all. Going down the stairs a man shouted “1-1-7 , keep it strong, I am 17 years older than you, don’t let me catch you”. I proudly replied “bring it!” Little did I know this man started running a 6:05 pace. I tried to keep up but only after less than sixty seconds, I had to slow down the pace. I concluded the race feeling tired but strong and focused, with an average pace of 7:15 for the last 2.5 miles.

The finish line met my expectations. It was exhilarating reaching the finish line was worth every second of pain endured!

Completing Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon was definitely on my bucket list but I am greedy and hope to get the opportunity to do it again. Having gone through it, I have an intense desire to raise the bar on this extreme challenge and finish in the top 10%!

Thank you all for motivating, pushing and supporting me! What a wonderful experience! :) 

All Smiles and appreciating the reward: Beer Garden!
Even Better Reward #2: Smitten yummy ice cream! :)