Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, June 12 2016, a Family Journey
Photo of Alcatraz taken by Dylan the day before Escape From Alcatraz Tri, June 11 2016
“JUMP. JUMP. GO.GO. GO. DO NOT HESITATE.”
The cadence and volume of the start coordinator at our exit from the boat was frenetic enough to suggest that “GO!” and “JUMP!!!” were only precursors to exponentially more calamitous communiques along the lines of “stampede,” “iceberg,” “abandon ship,” and “Jesus Christ, did you see the size of that shark!!!”
I had been expecting “Ready. Set. Go,” lightly seasoned with the soothing preamble of “good morning” and “have a great race.”
The Escape From Alcatraz triathlon is to your standard Olympic triathlon what Metallica’s single St. Anger is to Miles Davis’ My Funny Valentine. It’s The Shining compared to The Notebook, The Godfather to Mr. Ed, or more apropos, Jaws to Finding Nemo. If you survive the “1.5 mile” swim from Alcatraz to the sliver of a beach just west of the St Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco (you are allowed 60 minutes max), you continue with a ½ mile warm-up run to your bike, followed by an 18 mile bike ride (17 miles of which is uphill) capped off with a brisk 8 mile run (112 miles of which is uphill, through sand, and into the wind). Completely unreliable sources report the race course was designed initially in 1320 by someone named Dante and adopted later by the Spanish Inquisition (something I wasn’t expecting). The word Alcatraz, often confused for a Spanish word meaning “Pelican,” is more accurately translated from old Arabic to mean “dragged breathless into the gloomy depths.”
The entire premise of the event is a little off the charts. As a native San Franciscan who has spent hundreds of hours sailing inside, outside, and around The Golden Gate, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the #1 guiding principle under sail is “stay on the boat.” The logic behind that adage closely aligns with the reason they chose Alcatraz for a prison. If the guards didn’t shoot you as you bolted over the wall, it was pretty much guaranteed that between the current, the bitter cold, the chop, and the occasional Great White (that’s a reference to a shark, not a large Caucasian), the swim would kill you.
And as for biking and running, should you actually make shore, San Francisco ranks second to the Himalayas as a geographic region least likely to be referenced as “flatland.”
The full implication of those facts didn’t resonate from the comfort of our New York home as we planted the first seeds of this adventure and discussed the possibilities of participating during a family dinner back in late January, 2016. Distance over time and geography has a way of buffering reality and glossing over the devil and its details, which in hindsight is probably a good thing. It’s a law of nature which enables us, for example, to have babies, schedule a colonoscopy, volunteer to host family Thanksgiving dinners, and adopt a pet in need.
The perspective from the living room couch and the fluffy four month cushion between the end of January and the June start took the chill from of the water, leveled the hills, and downplayed the complexities of whatever logistics might be involved in training during a school year or schlepping ourselves and our gear across the country. Alcatraz would be my 17-year old daughter Dylan’s 3rd Olympic triathlon, my 16-year old son Elijah’s second, and my 7th, all at the Westchester Triathlon in Rye, NY. So, the 3 of us and my wife Reggie, who would not compete but would have to deal with and support our nutty unrefined training schedule, were a unanimous and unfettered chorus of “oh yeah,” filled to the brim with a knee-jerk but not completely unwarranted “yes we can!”
The driving force wasn’t the iconic event in and of itself, as compelling as the bragging rights might be. It was the prospect of tackling it together. We wouldn’t be training to compete. We signed on to share an adventure and welcomed the excuse to train as a trio. The actual event, a mere 3 to 4 hours all told, would be, in the broader scheme of things, simply an exclamation point. The bulk of the story would be the prep. From our pre-planning repose in February, we were wooed by the siren songs of cycling together, swimming off of Rye Beach, soaking up the sun and scenery as we jogged together on warm sunny Sunday mornings, all precursors to raising our arms in celebration as we raced through the finishing gates on the Marina Green in San Francisco. There would be laughter, hugs, and laurels.
The practice proved more squirrely than the theory.
There is an established and proven science to training for a triathlon. I own a dozen books, two of which I have read almost to chapter 4 that detail how to escalate training in each sport, incorporate interval exercises, reach peak heart rates, orchestrate routines to engage in two or three sports in a single day (bricks), augment cardio with weight training, reach your peak and taper two weeks before the event. As I recall, every chapter begins with the phrase, “once upon a time.” The one slight though egregious omission in these impeccable blueprints for success, is life. Work, school, travel, homework, orchestra, stand-up comedy, basketball, SAT’s, drama (as in acting, not high school angst), drama (as in high school angst), injury, relationships, gigs, walking the dog, music lessons, and the occasional need for a nap complicate things. The day-to-day of anyone who has a job and family is to an effective TRI training schedule what Sarah Palin is to a comprehensive reading list.
We were a masterpiece of imperfection, not completely in line with the gracious assessments of friends who praised our highly disciplined commitment to the event and each other. Without question, we trained. You can’t cheat an Olympic tri, and you definitely don’t want to discover you have undertrained halfway between Alcatraz and San Francisco. The strategy of “I’ll get to it” fails dramatically unless you actually do – at least 4 months before someone starts screaming “JUMP!” as you teeter on the plank of a boat drifting 1 ½ miles off of San Francisco. But, as is true with our musical leanings, we improvised, gearing our workouts and training toward modest goals. We parsed complex schedules into the more manageable directive of “swim, spin, or run whenever possible.” As a goal, we strove for something in between don’t die, and finish the same day we started without the need of a Rabbi, priest, or EMT. But even those humble ambitions required serious and, if not well structured, at least consistent training.
Outside of shoveling snow or hopping in place to avoid hypothermia while waiting for the 8:10 AM bus, New York winters do not readily lend themselves to outdoor training. In lieu of cycling outside, we hit spin classes as many Monday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings as we could muster. We swam at least two days a week, often 3, until each of us could swim 140 laps (2 miles) without the aid of a floatation device or defibrillator. We logged miles on the treadmills and worked in “bricks” by tacking the treadmill onto the tail end of a spin class, or adding a swim before the spin.
Post Monday night spin class (l to r) Elijah, Brian (yes, he’s that tall), Dylan, me
But as the ancient proverb goes, into the confidence, commitment, and joyful collaboration of the Yang of every Tri, falls the vexing sting of the Ying. We screwed up countless family dinners by overstaying our 90 minute to 2-hour evening sessions at the gym. We frayed each other’s patience and tempers as we bolted training days (some way too early – many way too late) onto overbooked personal and school calendars. As often as we rocked out to the music of Brian’s and Mike’s intense spin classes at Lifetime Fitness and joked around in between sets in the pool – peace, love, harmony, and grace did not always win the day. There was tension. There was pre-dawn crankiness. There were severely abused snooze buttons on our alarm clocks. There was frustration and significant overdoses of physical and mental weariness. There were moments of abject despair. There was, occasionally, cursing.
There were also cabs. In April, Dylan got hit by one while walking in New York City. It knocked her down and ran over her left foot. No bones were broken, but training on a treadmill with crutches, bone bruising, and a purple-going-on-black foot three times its normal size wasn’t in the cards. The threat of surgery loomed for a few weeks in between cat scans, and it wasn’t until mid- May that light running was back on her dance card – treadmill only.
At about the same time, I injured my left Achilles. As is frighteningly common with those of us progressing ever deeper into our late 50’s, the injury was the result of doing absolutely nothing. No errant taxi, no dramatic tumble off an off-road path, no arrow to the heel. As I explained to the physical therapist, I walked out the back door, made it 20 yards past the mailbox and needed to call an Uber to get back to the house. He recommended a couple of weeks “off the foot” and suggested that I start eating dinners at 4:00 and move into a gated community in West Palm Beach.
Conventional wisdom dictates that a month out from the start, you should be approaching the peak of your training. Translating “peak” somewhat loosely, Elijah, Dylan and I marked our 1 month to start by cycling outdoors for the first time in a year. While California was shriveling up in drought, our weekends had been pelted with veritable monsoons, putting a frustrating kibosh on outdoor rides. We snuck in only two before we shipped the bikes, at which point June loomed, and we embraced with great intensity the last critical cornerstone of our sophisticated Tri strategy. We tapered.
Technically, our tapering wasn’t so much a strategy, as it was inevitable. The last couple of weeks before we left were the last 2 academic weeks of school. Year-end projects, rehearsals, performances, proms, field trips, and exams trumped the last vestiges of our finely honed training schedule. Peak or off-peak, the training clock had run its course. While we may not have risen to Olympic status, we had for all of our amateur blemishes, persisted. Uncoached, frayed and tattered, maybe, but we had emerged in a hell of lot better shape than we had been in January, and we had done so ultimately, with the laughter, high 5’s and hugs far outweighing the occasional frustrations, trauma and grumblings.
Thursday: Go West Young Mannings
And then, with surprising suddenness, the Escape in all of its enormity was upon us. The four of us, our gear, and the 20 or so Sherpas required to haul the gear, piled into the car at 4:15 AM the Thursday before the event. We were tackling the next and often discounted leg of our triathlon, the big schlepp west. Not unlike the high holiday services of Rosh Hashanah, trekking from Chestnut Ridge, NY to San Francisco is an endurance event during which one loses all hope that its end will ever come. Even Ironmen have been reduced to tears and whimpers, crumbling nearly lifeless in its wake.
Drive an hour plus to JFK. Wait with all your gear 25 minutes for the 15 minute train ride from the wasteland of long-term parking to the relentless bustle of Terminal 4. Marvel how it can be that all of the moving walkways on the nearly mile trek from the train to Jet Blue’s security line could be shut down and under repair. Careen through the security line, the flow pattern of which is based on the migratory behaviors of the one-legged narcoleptic sea tortoise. Enjoy the 6-hour flight which somehow felt like ten, even though the departure delay had only been a little over an hour. Rejoice that 7 of the 8 bags and the bike rack appeared first in baggage claim, and sigh with relief 20 minutes later when bag 8 flopped partially open and strangely damp onto the carousel, splayed and spent like Julie Moss at the finish of the 1982 Hawaiian Ironman.
We hopped the train to the rental car, and before we could translate War and Peace from Russian to Farsi, we endured the 90 minute wait for our car, drove north and rolled into the parking lot of the Bike Connection on Folsom Street, a mere 11 hours after we had rocketed from the starting gates of our NY home. We had had made it. The first stressor of the journey – getting there – dissipating as quickly as the late morning fog, unveiling what was becoming a stunningly beautiful San Francisco afternoon.
As a family, we are out of the closet, bi-coastal through and through. I’m a native San Franciscan. Elijah was born there in 2000, and all four of us rode the dot com-cum-bomb roller coaster in Marin from 2000-2006. Though it had never occurred to me to jump off the boat, I had commuted to and from Larkspur to the Embarcadero by ferry, passing Alcatraz twice a day, every day for those 6 years. But my tangential history with Alcatraz went further back than that. I grew up on the corner of Octavia and Jackson Streets, and at night, the beacon from the Alcatraz lighthouse would chase shadows across my bedroom window every 5 seconds or so, and on foggy nights, the horns on either end of the island would moan their warnings in 20 and 30 second intervals, trading fours from the northwest and southeast corners of The Rock. My dad would tuck me in and tell me “the old giants are singing their warnings to the ships.” Then in his deepest voice, he would mimic the two toned horn slowly chanting, “LOOK OUT,” dropping his voice to his lowest breathy sub-woofer pitch on the word “out.” For the first seven years of my life, those lugubrious bellows were the soundtrack of my bedtime ritual, the warnings of the giants frequently lulling me into the fog of sleep.
Watercolor rendering of the view from my first San Francisco digs, 1958
I doubt the prisoners on Alcatraz, who served time there up until I was 5, found the same solace in those horns. Given their proximity to the blasts, it no doubt drove them sleepless and close to insane, though outside of the Anglin Brothers and Frank Morris, it apparently didn’t drive more than a handful of them crazy enough to attempt a swim to San Francisco.
We celebrated our arrival by spending a few hours walking the streets of the city, quickly acclimating to our former homeland. We reveled in a compelling mix of nostalgia, excitement, and the percolating dollop of anxiety that come Sunday, we would all be swept out into the Pacific, never to be seen again. We walked, sampled cappuccinos, reminisced, breathed it all in, and eventually circled back to the bike shop and the car. Thrilled to add just a little more travel time to the day, we then braved the Thursday northbound rush hour traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge as we headed off to settle in with gracious friends in Marin who would host our first couple of nights. As we crossed the bridge, moving slightly slower than the security line at JFK, we looked out and down at Alcatraz, which given the wind, white caps and first slivers of fog that were surging into the bay, looked like it was making a run for it, charging into the headwinds and out to sea.
Friday: 2 days to race day
Come Friday morning we were all business. Well, come Friday late morning and after a sizeable breakfast, we were all business. In the passing of a single evening, we had transformed from soft, giddy, nostalgic tourists to the hardened true Tri warriors that we were. We had mapped out our Friday accordingly. We would swim in the bay and acclimate ourselves to the gender altering cold, drive the bike course, go for a short maintenance run, and then retreat to the Sport’s Basement at the Presidio for the highly acclaimed Friday evening welcome and race tips. In the heartbeat of a day, we were resolved to morph from clueless to clued-in and shake off the angst that was brewing from all the unknowns of experiencing the Escape for the first time.
Aside from driving by the three different homes we had lived in during our years in San Rafael and a quick warm up run at the San Rafael High School track where we had played when the kids were young, our plan was taking shape with impeccable precision. It wasn’t that far past noon that we found ourselves running the path in the hills above China Camp State Park looking over the east bay in one direction, and over San Rafael and up toward Mt Tamalpais in the other. This had been our backyard, and for the briefest moment, the view, the oak trees, the receding fog, and the smell of the rolling California hills created the illusion that no time had passed since we had first moved there 16 years earlier. On the flip side, the universe was using the landscape to reiterate its stark argument of “don’t blink.” At nearly 6’2”, Elijah was no longer classified as “carry on,” and long gone were the days of toting him up those hills perched atop my shoulders on the lookout for alligator and blue belly lizards. And as I looked at Dylan, blossoming at age 17, it was hard to reconcile memories of her splashing around in the tide pools in knee-high rubber lady bug boots.
The San Francisco Bay encompasses an area of approximately 1600 miles. You would think that given that expanse, it would be an easy body of water to find a way into. But entry points for swimmers, where you can find parking, slip into the water without leaping off a pier, safely avoid boat traffic, fishermen, nasty rocks and Hawaiian bound currents, are annoyingly few. While most would be quick to recognize this lack of access as an emphatic indicator that swimming in the bay shared troubling parallels to operating a toaster in the bathtub, we were undaunted. With great confidence, we set a bead from our running trail down to the shores of China Camp.
It was in the parking lot just up from China Camp, riding the high from our pain-free 3-mile jog/talk/run, that we met the tattooed lady. She was 50-something, heavy set in a weathered and rugged way and was wearing a white tank top that showed off the tattoos on her arms. With a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, she was hauling a couple of surf casting rods out of the back of her ancient Subaru wagon.
“Beautiful day to be fishing on the bay,” I ventured. “My dad used to take me out on the wharf at Aquatic Park.”
She turned her head and glanced at us from under the brim of her cap and over the top of her dark glasses. She was a little rough around the edges, and in the brief silence that followed, I thought it might be wise to follow up my comments with the qualifier of, “we come in peace.”
“I drive up every weekend from Soquel. I grew up here.” She spoke with the gravelly tone of a smoker. “Always feels like home.”
“Wow. That’s a drive,” I said.
“Don’t I know it. Couple a hours each way, but ain’t no place like this in the world. And you can’t beat the fishing.”
“What do you fish for?”
She took a drag on her cigarette, pushed smoke out of her mouth and nose, and then in a very matter of fact tone, answered.
She paused for a moment. “Sharks and rays. Catch ‘em hand over fist on a good day.” And with that, she placed her rods against the car, and pulled out some pictures, showing off a couple of 1 to 3 foot leopard sharks she had caught her last time out. Apparently, they hadn’t named Tiburon “Tiburon” because of the number of lawyers that lived there.
“What are the three of you up to?” She asked.
Elijah, Dylan and I traded a rapid flurry of wide eyed looks, frowns, raised eye brows, and nervous smiles as we glanced at the photos, each other, and the tattooed lady.
“We’re going swimming,” Dylan ventured.
“Here?” she asked. “Here in the bay?” She gave me a look over her glasses that suggested she might be on the cusp of calling Child Welfare Services.
“Yes,” I said, in a tone that was equal parts statement and question.
“You kidding?”She asked with a big smile, flashing her nicotine stained teeth.
We gave her the short story of the Escape and our plan for the day and then capped off the conversation with, “Good luck fishing.”
She looked back at us, a long ash ready to drop from the end of her cigarette, tackle box in one hand, surf rods in the other and said, “And good luck to you. You’ll need it more than I will.”
At low tide at China Camp, you practically have to walk to Nevada in knee deep silt before you get to water that’s deep enough to swim in. After attempting that walk from several different entry points, we reverted to plan B and gingerly walked to the end of the pier at China Camp. We stared at the rickety ladder that was last refurbished in 1886 when the local Chinese population was filling the McNear brother’s coffers through harvests of dried shrimp. The ladder descended from the pier into the muddy waters at angles of 90, 60, or 100 degrees, depending upon which rung you happened to be slipping off of. Listening to the zing of the tattooed lady’s fishing line being cast from the opposite side of the pier was playing chicken with our confidence.
Being far brighter than I, Elijah and Dylan paused before following me in. They smiled and shouted down questions to me as I treaded water a dozen yards or so from the pier. How was the water? Could I touch the bottom? Any limbs missing? They were stalling, scanning the waters around me for dorsal fins. Having confirmed with the tattooed lady that nothing was biting, and satisfied that enough time had passed since I had entered the water without sparking a feeding frenzy, they climbed in, and we ventured out.
The water was plenty warm and relatively still in the shallows, with visibility less than an inch. Elijah popped up his head and announced with profound intensity, spider senses tingling and eyes wide inside his goggles, “this is really, really creepy.” Then he clarified, “SO creepy.” It got creepier. We swam so close together we frequently banged into each other, the unexpected contact always triggering a surge of adrenaline, under water shouts, and a futile attempt to walk on water. We could see the tattooed lady looking out at us. It occurred to me that she was viewing us as chum as she began to cast in our general direction.
At about 50 yards off the end of the pier, three things happened. The brown murk turned to a bluish green murk, which somehow implied the possibility of bigger fish. The water temperature dropped from 60 something degrees to 50 something. Out from the protection of McNear point, the current accelerated dramatically. We swam parallel to the beach for close to 20 minutes and made it barely 100 yards forward. Each time we stopped to ensure there were still 3 of us, the anchored boat we had swum by seemed to bear down on us, as the current pushed us back at a disquieting pace.
20 minutes later, the tattooed lady waved at us from the pier as we swam back in. We had opted to bypass the old ladder, which looking up from the water had seemed even more precarious than it had looking down from the pier. We swam directly for the beach as she shouted out her fishing update.
“Nothing biting,” she reported.
“Same here,” I shouted back.
The outdoor showers at China Camp had been retrofitted and meticulously calibrated to preserve the dwindling water supply in the face of California’s relentless drought. We pushed the big silver knob on the bare pipe which in essence triggered a mild sneeze from the shower head, a release of roughly a tablespoon of water in mist form, half of which evaporated before dampening our heads. We washed ourselves and our wetsuits sneeze by sneeze, 1 square inch at a time, feverishly slapping the button with one hand and swatting away the yellow jackets that were vying for the same coveted drops with the other.
Windows down, radio blasting, and mildly misted, we rocked out of the timeless China Camp, our trio newly instilled with a burgeoning sense of invincibility and mild euphoria. Physical exertion with a double shot of primordial fear had us soaring on an endorphin high. As the car slowly crunched over the gravel driveway leading out of the camp, we looked down at the pier. The tattooed lady looked up at us, lifted her rod and motioned it back and forth like a crosier, our newly found patron saint of bay swims offering a final “Dominus vobiscum” to the trio of lunatics that had tempted fate in her coveted fishing grounds.
“Not a bad little maintenance workout,” I offered.
“You know, dad,” Dylan added after a brief pause, “for the rest of the world, a 3-mile run and 30 minute open water swim would count as a pretty significant workout.”
Elijah was quick to add, “For a lot of people, it would count as a week’s worth of workouts.”
Planning the Escape can distort your perspective. Or as Dylan summarized, “It’s kind of crazy. I’m just saying.”
“SWIM ACROSS THE RIVER!” As we entered the Sport’s Basement on the grounds of the Presidio that evening, a chorus of athletes zealously chanted that phrase in a call and response from the high priest and iconic spokesperson of the Escape, Eric Gilsean. Eric has made the swim from Alcatraz almost as frequently as the ferries of the Red and White Fleet.
“The Lord be with you!” was the call. The congregation genuflected and for the third time in succession responded in unison, “SWIM ACROSS THE RIVER.”
The prevailing wisdom behind the “swim across the river” mantra is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million gallons of water pass under the Golden Gate per second. If you swim a 45 degree angle from Alcatraz directly toward the finish instead of 90 degrees “across the river,” you will become an active participant in the food chain, swept out to the Farallon Islands (28 miles west of the Golden Gate),and into the breeding and feeding grounds of some 200+ ravenous and perpetually irritable Great Whites. Swim across, on the other hand, and the current will gently deliver you to the side door of the Saint Francis Yacht Club.
The four of us were willing disciples as we entered the massive hanger of the aptly named Sports Basement. Elijah, Dylan and I were still riding the high of our afternoon workout and were ready for the warm embrace of our newly found Alcatraz brethren. We walked in with high hopes and reasonable expectations, ready to be welcomed, reassured, and anointed with motivational choruses of “YOU GOT THIS!”
But that’s not how the punctuation works at the Escape. It’s not a triple forte “rise, shine, and hope- springs-eternal” flavor of “You got this!” It is a decidedly detached, cautionary, and Clint Eastwood pianissimo of “You got this?” It’s a question. And it’s a question not delivered out of paternal concern but as a lightly veiled warning, with the subtext of “you sure? because we use live ammunition, there’s no net, and we eat our weak.”
A subtle undercurrent of aloofness and condescension permeated the official tenor of the Escape. From the online videos to the race tips, registration, and mandatory meetings, there was a vibe that had subtly held us at arm’s length, a mojo that kept our potentially unbridled enthusiasm, bridled.
PowerPoints. Sighting points. Technical bike tips. Maps. Guidelines to ascend the infamous 400 sand steps. It was definitely informational and not unfriendly, but the dryly delivered cascade of facts, warnings and the occasional odd anecdote muted what should have been a blossoming sense of comradery and enthusiasm. This was Ops not an open house, a briefing not a bonding exercise, more attitude than gratitude.
That’s Normandy. Click. These are the landing craft. Click. Exit the boat rapidly. Click. Swim across the river. Click. Avoid landmines. Click. Take in the view. Click. The enemy will be heavily armed and shooting at you. Click. Have fun.
At one point, in the course of explaining how to rapidly exit the boat, we were treated to the cautionary anecdote of a guy who had traveled across the country, only to lose his nerve before diving into the bay. He lay on the deck of the boat in a fetal position, tearfully worrying about getting home to his family.
“Don’t be him. Why make the trip and spend all that money if you’re not going to pull the trigger.”
Excitement and anxiety build in the days leading to a race, and a healthy balance between the two creates a tension that sharpens the senses and heightens performance. But by the time the race tips came to a close, anxiety had wrestled my excitement to the ground and had a boot to its throat. Gremlins of doubt were overrunning my fields of dreams. They wielded torches and shouted that I would never make it, and that I would take my kids down in the process of trying.
I turned to Elijah, “cover me, I’m going in.”
The seasoned salesman in me had beckoned. You want to break down barriers; you go face-to-face, mano-a-mano. Eric had mentioned a practice swim, and that was my “in.”
With Elijah at my side, I introduced us. “Hey, my teenage kids and I will be racing together Sunday. We are out from New York.” Eric’s response registered on the conservative side of loquacious.
“OK,” he said.
Realizing that was the end of the paragraph, I followed up with, “You mentioned a practice swim. What time does that start?”
He looked back at me as if I had approached General Omar Bradley on the eve of D-Day to ask if there would be lounge chairs and refreshments served on Omaha Beach.
“You don’t need to know that,” he said. If you had a fear of being coddled, this was your race.
Just as Elijah was about to shout, “Man down!” another member of the race committee quickly interjected.
“It’s not really a practice swim,” he explained. “A group of select athletes are making the swim tomorrow morning to gauge conditions for the Sunday event.”
Special Forces, reconnaissance only. No Grunts.
It had been a long day. The four of us retreated to dinner with friends, lightly shaken, not stirred.
The Anglin Brothers and Frank Morris bolted from Alcatraz on June 11, 1962 (a few days before my 4th birthday), almost 54 years to the day of our 2016 Escape. But for all the complexities they faced – chipping through cell walls with spoons, crafting plaster heads to pose in their beds, fashioning life vests and a raft out of stolen rain coats – there is one variable they didn’t have to contend with. Getting to the start. As lifetime residents of The Rock, their front door was the start.
The rest of us, on the other hand, would have to contend with most understated challenge of the event: getting to Alcatraz. The instructions sound deceptively simple. Arrive at Marina Green. Rack your bike. Set up your transition. Make sure you catch one of the many buses shuttling athletes the 2.5 miles to the ferry at Pier 3 on the Embarcadero. The first one leaves 4:30, and the last shuttle leaves at 6:00 AM. The Ferry departs for Alcatraz at 6:30. Jump ship at 7:30.
As we were so warmly and frequently reminded, miss the boat, and you miss the boat.
The one devil missing from the details was the preamble to the seemingly innocuous “arrive at Marina Green” part. It’s akin to Frank Morris reducing his escape plan to “let’s meet at the water’s edge and swim for it,” glossing over the rather profound particulars of concrete cell walls, armed guards, goon towers, and rows of razor wire.
Arriving at Marina Green in the predawn hours would be no easy feat. Despite the fact that the entry fee for The Escape now rivals the Pentagon budget, you can’t rack your bike and set up your transition area the day before. That means, you, your bike, and all your gear will need to share a room the preceding night. It also means you need to rouse your Sherpas and get your aforementioned bike and race gear from your home or hotel to Marina Green in time to set up, without missing that last 6:00 AM shuttle. No stress. No pressure.
As an added caveat, there is no parking at Marina Green, so you either have to park at a local garage (provided you can find one that’s open at 4:00 AM), have a friend schlepp you, or get an UBER driver to stop laughing long enough and help you disassemble your bike and heave it into the trunk. Or, if you are worried you aren’t getting enough exercise, and don’t mind navigating the streets of San Francisco in the dark, you just can walk or ride (with all your gear). The nearest motel is just under a mile, though most are in 2 to 4 mile range.
For a tourist, getting to Alcatraz is a day trip. For us, it would be an aside, the fine print that constituted a veritable fourth leg of the race. If we had had the luxury of setting up the afternoon before, we could have reduced our prerace tasks and associated stressors to putting on a wetsuit and finding our way to and up the gangway of the ferry. As it was, by the time the starting horn would sound on Sunday, I would be frayed and in serious need of a nap.
Anticipating those complexities, our Saturday involved moving closer to the start. We packed up and left our friend’s home in Marin, destined eventually for the Hotel Zephyr at Fisherman’s Wharf . By early afternoon, the kids and I sat together on a bench at Marina Green eating Korean box lunches we had purchased from a deli truck. We had run the gauntlet of signing in, signing up, snagging our race packs, getting our arms “tattooed” with our race numbers, and taking in the final do’s and don’ts of the mandatory pre-race meeting.
“SWIM ACROSS THE RIVER.” Close to 2000 voices had chanted across the sprawling lawn of the Marina Green.
From our bench, we soaked up the sun and looked out across that river and out toward Alcatraz. It was windless and glassy, not the usual temperament for the North Bay on a summer afternoon. And although we had bikes to pick up, a hotel to check into, and lingering worries about navigating the race, we took a breath and took it in. For our little trio, it was our shared calm before Sunday’s storm.
I gathered my thoughts and expounded on the day and all the days and months that had led to our big Escape. Looking out toward Alcatraz, I said “wow.”
“I know,” Dylan agreed.
“Swim across the river,” Elijah added.
Race Day, Sunday, June 12
At 3:15 AM, three iPhones, one standard alarm clock and the hotel wakeup call all sounded within seconds of each other. It was in indeed, alarming. The i-cacophony of a submarine dive tone, a harp, and marimba mixed with the rasp of the alarm clock (which increased in volume exponentially every few seconds) and the bleating of the hotel phone had me bolting out of bed and careening blindly into one of the bikes as I tried to locate “off” switches in the pitch black of the cramped hotel room. I simultaneously thought the building was on fire, that I had missed the entire race, and that I needed to check my email. Someone in a hockey mask starting a chainsaw next to our heads would have ushered in the morning more gently.
In fewer than 10 minutes and with adrenaline surging, all four of us were up, dressed, and the kids and I had our timing chips strapped to our ankles. Then we faced another of those understated yet complicated and vitally important pre-race essentials, eating breakfast. All the race literature agrees that fueling prior to a Triathlon is critical. It’s the questions of what fuel and what quantity that will set your head spinning. Miscalculate the delicate balance of carbs, protein and fluid, and you face one of two extremes – hitting the wall at the halfway point of the race, or having your intestines detonate a few hundred yards offshore.
Hotel Zephyr at 3:30 AM on race day – 3 bikes, our gear, partridge, pear tree
Drink coffee. Whatever you do, don’t drink coffee. Oatmeal will carry you through the race. Eat oatmeal, and EMT’s will have to carry you to the E.R. Consume coconut water and white bread. Avoid any fruit juice and anything with gluten. Drink as much water as possible, and load it with a teaspoon of salt and as much lemon juice as you can stand. That aforementioned drink is also prescribed as preparatory beverage prior to a colonoscopy.
What all of the literature fails to mention is that at 3:30 in the morning, you have absolutely no interest in eating or drinking anything. Once your brain has registered that the hotel is not actually on fire and that there is no one in your room with a running chainsaw, it reverts to singular and emphatic directive of “GO BACK TO BED,” not “BOY COULD WE USE A BURGER, A PLATE OF PANCAKES, A COUPLE OF BANANAS, AND A HARDBOILED EGG.”
True to form, we improvised. After all, Morris and the Anglin’s made it, and they probably didn’t deliberate at great length about what they ate before scaling the walls. I imagine their debate about bananas vs. oatmeal was superseded by the whole “don’t get shot” strategy. Forcing food over some seriously nervous stomachs, we ate some French bread, bananas, and dark chocolate. We drank water and organic fruit juice and each packed a coconut water and a power bar to carry us through the setup, bus ride and Ferry. We were still 4 hours from the start.
We loaded the rental car, strapped our 3 bikes to the bike rack designed for 2 bikes, and by 4:30 AM, we were hugging Reggie on the curb of the eerily windy and dark Marina Green.
“Love you guys. Everyone…EVERYONE comes back safely,” she said. “You’re going to do great. Have fun.” I gave Reggie some final instructions on where to meet us as we came out of the water, and cashed in on one additional lingering hug, which wordlessly emphasized the “everyone comes back safely” and “I love you” parts. And with that, she drove back to the hotel, where she would be able to snag another three hours of sleep before taking a cab back to the St Francis Yacht Club.
And just like that, our quartet was reduced to a trio.
We entered the pavilion, and Dylan, Elijah and I were scattered over an area roughly the size of a football field. We agreed on a meeting place near the busses, and set off our separate ways to find the transition areas that corresponded to our individual race numbers. The place was hopping, though it had a strangely desolate feel to it. A line of buses idled on the street. Flags from some 50 plus countries represented in the race bordered the transition area and were flapping in the breeze that was trucking in under the Gate. I arranged my gear under the dim light of my iPhone, somewhat manically rechecking that everything was accounted for. Despite the fact I had packed and repacked my gear several times, I looked into my bag with a completely irrational fear that nothing was actually in it. I pulled out each item with an absurd combination of surprise and relief that it was there.
“Towel. Did I forget a towel? Jesus, I forgot a towel. No got it. Thank God. Helmet. Oh my God, I must have left the helmet at the hotel. No, there it is. Bike shoes. How could I only have packed one bike shoe? No, it’s under the towel. Oh my God, I am an idiot.” At one point, I scurried around scuttling my well-ordered gear, desperate to find my goggles, which were hanging around my neck. And on it went in my head.
By 5:15, the Marina Green was swarming with wetsuit-ed athletes, a jostling colony of neoprene ants, harder and harder to distinguish from one another in the hustle, bustle and dark. It was cold, and I was doing my best to tune out the little voice in my head that had transitioned from obsessing over forgotten gear to musing just how much colder it would be once were bobbing around in the bay. As I set out to look for the kids, the guy at the end of our row was anxiously asking everyone and anyone if they had an extra pair of goggles. He sounded German, and at first I thought he was on the hunt for a search engine.
“Hey,” I said, and I pointed to my forehead. He was wearing his goggles over his swim cap.
Miraculously in that sea of athletes, Dylan, Elijah and I rediscovered each other amazingly quickly. We took an inventory on swim caps, goggles, waters, timing chips and power bars, then snagged whatever seats we could find on one of the buses.
The guy I sat next to was from Oregon. He told me he had just turned 67, but he was squirming around in his seat like a 10- year-old on the monorail to Disneyland. He explained it was his 8th Escape and began gushing praise for the event.
“Oy boy, are you in for a treat. This race is going to change your life!” He patted my leg with enthusiasm. “It’s a life changer,” he said, just to clarify.
“In a good way, right?” I asked.
He gave me two hugely enthusiastic thumbs up. “In a GREAT WAY! You have NO idea.”
He couldn’t wait to get into the water and was literally bouncing in his seat as he recounted every spectacular vista point I could look forward to. He kept gesturing out the window as if he were actually seeing the view from Baker’s beach or from the downhill bike run heading toward the Cliff House.
Mid-ramble while detailing the ride through Golden Gate Park, he abruptly stopped and held his left arm out across my chest as if I was about to step in front of an errant cab. He shot his right index finger in the air signaling he had remembered something incredibly important. He leaned in close and said in almost a whisper, “one thing.” He paused, and then emphasizing each word very clearly said, “don’t freak out when you freak out on the swim. It happens to everyone the first time.” Then he went back to bouncing and recounting all of the great rides in store for us at the Magic Kingdom.
I looked back to see how the kids were faring. Both had struck up conversations with their seat mates. Both were smiling. The woman in the aisle seat to my left was out cold, head tilted toward me, dark reflective goggles on her forehead as if she had two sets of eyes, mouth open wide and snoring in loud and irregular staccato bursts. The guy next to her was staring into the seat in front of him nodding his head sharply and rhythmically as if he had a soundtrack blasting in his head.
The energy around us was surging. You could feel time accelerating as the vortex of the start began to suck us in. People had cheered when the bus started moving. They cheered a second time 15 minutes later when we reached Pier 3 at the Embarcadero. The second round of cheers jolted the snoring woman awake, and she snorted and spun her head back and forth several times startled and completely disoriented, seeming to wonder for a few moments how so many people had made it into her bedroom.
We filed off the bus and walked down pier 3 to the San Francisco Belle, the 292 foot stern wheel river boat that would ferry us to within swimming distance of Alcatraz. The Belle sported 3 expansive decks that were essentially empty ballrooms. They were loosely organized by age groups, which I disregarded in order to hang with Dylan and Elijah on the bottom deck. We stretched out on the carpeted floor at the mid-way point with our heads to the wall, sipping water and slowly finishing the last of the bananas. As the minutes slipped by and we crept closer to launch time, we went from stretched out to sitting upright, huddling ever closer together as 1700+ athletes packed themselves in.
Our conversations with each other and with the people around us were a mix of excitement, reassurance, and the jitters. None of us were convinced we would recognize the litany of landmarks we needed to identify as we swam across the river. All of us were pumped with the realization that we were on the cusp of doing this, despite the fact we preempted every other statement with “I can’t believe we are doing this.” Our trio had coalesced, and we were reveling and reeling at the crossroads of “holy crap” and “hallelujah.”
When the diesel engines kicked in, every deck of The San Francisco Belle erupted in cheers. The woman next to me shot up like a bullet, she snapped on her latex cap, put on her goggles and began bouncing rapidly on her toes and flapping her arms at her sides. If she had been near an open hatch, I think she would have leapt into the bay.
A couple from Houston, TX kissed and embraced to the point I thought they might be in need of a private berth before we got to Alcatraz. A bear of a guy in front of us, who looked as if he must have sprayed himself with WD-40 in order to squeeze into his wetsuit, took on a worrisome green hue. I had seen him finish off several bananas, some granola bars, and large bottle of water as we had been sitting around. He battled back a rumbling series of burps and then announced, “I don’t do so good on boats.” Athletes parted like the Red Sea for Moses as he made a bead to the head.
10 minutes or so into the commute, Eric hit the air waves, making his welcome announcement over the Belle’s PA, which, given the low fidelity, was apparently on loan from the New York Subway system. His voice elicited another raucous round of cheering, and from that point forward, not a single athlete was sitting. We could make out just enough over the static to hear “welcome,” “swim across the river,” and a recount of our swim landmarks: Fontana Towers, Aquatic Park, Piers of Fort Mason, Marina Green and the Wave Organ, Golden Gate Yacht Club, Marina Green, St Francis Yacht Club. Each of us had etched those landmarks in our heads, but for us first timers, we still had no idea how that might translate while floundering about in the bay. Scores of us had our faces against the windows trying to make out each marker along the waterfront.
The couple from Texas had reverted to hand holding. “Are those the Fontana Towers?” He pointed with his left hand that still clung fast to hers, lifting her arm as he gestured.
“Yes,” and then I pointed out most of the landmarks, left to right.
“So if we can see them all from here,” he asked, “how do we know when to turn?” I mulled that one over for a bit. No one in our general vicinity had an answer.
“Houston,” I said, “we have a problem.”
Then the diesel engines slowed and the Belle positioned herself for the start. A canned version of the National Anthem crackled and went. The perpetually cheering crowd cheered again. From somewhere to port, an air horn sounded. Another cheer. The elite athletes had jumped, and we began our slow surge toward one of three exit points at the far side of the deck. In fewer than 8 minutes, all 1700 of us would be off the boat and into the bay.
Elijah, Dylan and I were stationed on the far side of the deck, with hundreds of athletes between us and the door. Given our position at that wide end of the funnel, our progress was more saunter than stampede. And in that moment, the three of us circled together for a team hug.
And that was the moment for me. The Universe had hit the pause button, and the joy and intensity of our embrace resonated in my soul and will live with me beyond any other memory of that day. I looked at each of them with an overwhelming sense of wholeness, joy and pride.
“If you can see all the landmarks, how do you know when to turn?” A woman behind me was still wrestling with Houston’s dilemma, and the spell was broken. The Universe hit “resume,” and the surge of athletes quickened. We shared one more hug, and then Elijah made his move.
“We only get 60 minutes to finish the swim,” he said. He was by far, the weakest swimmer of the three of us. “I don’t want to be the last one off of the boat. Love you.”
He turned and snaked his way through the crowd. Given his height, I was able to track his blue cap as it bobbed and weaved toward the open door, moved outside, and without once turning back, dropped out of sight. Not a second of hesitation. And just like that, our trio had become a duo. I was holding Dylan’s hand when he vanished, and I was suddenly struck to my core with a somewhat ill-timed but incredibly powerful thought that I had lost my mind and that the Escape was a REALLY bad idea.
About 15 feet from the exit point, the starting commands became audible. As they grew louder, festivity and excitement morphed into something between intense focus and controlled panic. We had transformed from Love Boat partiers to the tightly wrapped troops approaching the beach in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.
“JUMP. JUMP. GO. GO. GO. NO HESITATION. JUMP.”
Dylan asked me to go first, and she and I were separated as we approached the deck. I noted that the woman barking the commands was wearing a jacket, cap, gloves and was nursing a steaming hot cup of coffee. The brisk wind beginning to power in from the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t agreeing with her. In the millisecond it took for me to glance at her and covet her coffee, the wall of wetsuits in front of me had vanished. With a shriek, a fellow orange capped lemming had soared off the deck and into the morass, leaving me at the precipice. Worried that the staccato “GO! GO! GO!” might be followed by small arms fire, I targeted a spot in the roiling sea of colored caps, limbs, and dorsal fins, and leapt, dropping 10 feet from the deck to the bay.
As I made my way back up to the surface, another plummeting triathlete raked my head with a foot or elbow and ripped my goggles off and down to my neck. I took a few strokes, got the goggles back on, and looked back just in time to see Dylan leap off the boat. I took another few strokes and looked again, thinking ever so briefly we might swim together, but the chaos of caps had swallowed her up.
Once you swim clear of the drop zone, the race tips recommend you stop and take in the view. “Take a moment and take it in. You will never have a view of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate like you will as you start your swim.”
You would hope not. There are very few scenarios in which treading water in the bay is an indicator that anything good has happened.
I stopped and I looked, less for the view than for the hope I could spot Elijah or Dylan. I had seen the view from dozens of sailboats and frequently from the overturned hull of my International 470 (sailboat) I had owned when we had lived in the Bay Area. But the perspective as a swimmer was a whole different kettle of anxiety, precisely because there was no boat. Alcatraz looked exponentially larger and more foreboding when viewed from 6 inches above sea level. And nothing says “calm” or “all is well” like a large tour boat such as the SF Belle when it’s frenetically belching all of its passengers into the bay.
What really gooses your survival instinct is the sudden and overwhelming realization of the vastness of the bay and how instantly you become less significant that the proverbial drop in the bucket. And in that vastness, the sea of swimmers was dissipating, and I had lost sight of both of my kids. Intellectually, I had always known our trio would become three solo acts, but the practice was far more unsettling than the theory. I was hit with that same bolt of panic you feel when you lose sight of one, or on this case both of your toddlers at the farmer’s market. And this market had a depth of a little over 100 feet.
“OK, then,” I said out loud, to absolutely no one. I took a last look back at Alcatraz, turned, sighted on the Fontana Towers and started swimming.
Surprisingly, the cold wasn’t an issue. It was brisk but not debilitating, eliciting only 1/3rd of the profanity of winter surfing off of the coast at Ocean Beach, Linda Mar or Santa Cruz. But there was a primordial sense to it that slammed my adrenal pedal to the metal. Race goals aside, the “fight or flight” response defaulted to a DEFCON 2 version of “SWIM!!!” with the insistent subtext of “WE SHOULD NOT BE HERE.”
Looking down into the seemingly bottomless murky blur-green void magnified that sentiment. The brackish bay smelled and felt very much alive. It suggested not just that things lived below, but that things had been eaten there, and that the larger players in that chain were watching, not that you would be able to see them before they bit down.
The day was cloudless, but the breeze coming in from the Gate blew against the current, increasingly stirring up the chop. I swam hard toward the Fontana Towers, bumping along with a pod of about 20 swimmers. At roughly the 10 minute mark, half the pod angled left and the other half swerved right. Forgetting that larger carnivores feast on the lone calf culled from the herd, I split the difference and headed straight toward what looked like landmark 2, the piers of Ft Mason. In a few moments, I couldn’t see another swimmer anywhere near me.
I had started out too fast and was breathing hard, and each breath I took had me looking due east and directly into the newly risen sun. Every now and again one of my arms caught a swell and my stroke got clipped. Alternately, I would take a stroke at the top of a swell and my arm would swing forward as my right side became partially airborne. If the swim had been a flight, articles in the overhead bins would have shifted, and the flight attendants would be buckled in and praying.
Wrestling with the nightmarish illusion that I was swimming in place, I stopped to get my bearings and took a white cap directly in the face. Water shot up my nose, my goggles flooded, and I breathed in a massive gulp of the bay. I shouted “FLUCK,” sucked in a few additional mouthfuls of bay water as I coughed out the first, reset the goggles, and started swimming again.
I generally love the swim. It’s my strongest suit. Once I shake off the lurking primal fear that I might be eaten, the open water swims simultaneously calm and invigorate me. I get swept up and lifted in the grace, rhythm, and awesomeness of Mother Nature. The Alcatraz swim, though, or perhaps the totality of the Escape, was messing with my mind. As I swam, I had to force myself to slow down, repeating a mantra of “calm down…find your rhythm…breathe…no one has ever been bitten…”
Mid-mantra, my inner saboteur posed a question.
“If you’re having trouble,” it hissed, “how do you think your kids are doing?
I came to a dead stop –chilled to the soul, winded, and suddenly on the precipice of panic. I slid my goggles onto my forehead, and thought to myself. “My kids…” I started searching for a paddleboard, Jet Ski or any guide boat that could begin an immediate search and rescue for both kids, especially Elijah. My heart rate shot through the roof, and I began chanting a string of profanity, treading water, bobbing in the chop, spinning in every direction looking for help.
I couldn’t see a single swimmer. There were at least 100 yards between me and the only support boat I saw, and their attention seemed to be focused on the swimmers between them and the Gate. I tried putting my fingers in my mouth to whistle, but the only sound that came out was an inaudible watery wheeze.
Panic built on panic. I got swept up in a tsunami of anxiety that immobilized me. A frenetic series of nightmare scenarios played out in my head. Shark attack. Heart attack. Drowning. Hypothermia. Headlines.
“ESCAPE NIGHTMARE – Father and Kids Fatalities of Alcatraz Event.
United Airlines denies grieving widow refund on family’s return flight”
I treaded water in an almost vertical position stretching my head high off the water searching for a guide boat, legs and feet directly beneath me, kicking up to get a better look. I had assumed the only conceivable position capable of counteracting the natural buoyancy of a wetsuit.
My free fall into extreme freak-out lasted less than a minute, but the intensity of that self-consuming insanity slowed time like only a root canal can. Then two things dawned on me. First, next to bleeding profusely, nothing attracts sharks like panicking and flailing around on the surface. Second, and most riveting, I had the chilling epiphany that the type of panic I was experiencing was probably the most common cause of drowning. I needed to get a grip. That thought and two white caps into my face triggered the next series of rational lifelines that pulled me up from the abyss. The kids were strong swimmers. We had actually trained. In all probability, they could swim from Alcatraz and back without any problem. The only trouble I was in was thinking that they were in trouble. Elijah and Dylan may be on their own, but they knew the routine and what to do if they needed help, apparently more so than I did.
Then three swimmers appeared from nowhere and crossed inches from me. One blue cap passed on my left, then two orange caps crossed directly in front of me swimming left to right, a perpendicular course to the first. I had to hold my hand out as the third swimmer passed to keep from getting kicked. She stopped and gave me a look.
“You good?” she asked with a smile. She bobbed in an out of view between swells.
I paused for just a second. “All good,” I said, apparently with less conviction than I had intended.
“You sure?” She asked.
“Just taking in the view.”
She smiled again, gave a little wave and then took off.
“I’m an idiot.” I said, almost laughing. And then I recalled the advice of my bus buddy. “Don’t freak out when you freak out on the swim.” I looked around sheepishly, embarrassed and exhausted by my melt down. I took a few deep breathes, lowered my goggles and resumed my trek across the river.
Fifteen minutes or so later, and much to my chagrin, I made it across the river. I looked up to find myself directly in front of the piers at Fort Mason, significantly west of the St Francis. In a major navigational blunder, I had actually swum across the freaking river. Instead of the gentle arc I had imagined, my route was forming a perfect “L,” not exactly the shortest distance between two points. The river hadn’t swept me anywhere. I hung a sharp right, swimming parallel to the waterfront and east toward the St Francis, with the current, but into the wind.
The water grew sharply colder the last several hundred yards as the bay chop transitioned to low rolling swells that lumbered in from the Pacific. They bounced off the breakwater in front of the St Francis yacht club and sent swells sloshing back toward us. As I had approached the Marina Green, I had started to rejoin the collective and caught up to an increasingly large number of swimmers. Our pod grew from one or two, to a few, to dozens. 20 yards from the beach, I found the bottom and stood up.
Standing thigh deep, I let out a huge shout and threw both arms into the air. I looked back toward Alcatraz with a “you don’t scare me” grin you could see from the Oakland Hills and shouted “HA!” I was euphoric.
The majority of athletes hit the beach and immediately bolted for their bikes. Not being the favorite to win my division, I took my time and spared a good minute to stop and take a long look. After close to an hour in the water, I figured I deserved the view and the moment. It was stunning, made all the more so since I was taking it in on my feet rather than splayed on the deck of a Coast Guard vessel. I scanned the swimmers for Elijah and Dylan. Looking toward the Gate, I saw dozens of athletes that had overshot the beach and were swimming back against the current. In the other direction, a long thread of caps continued working their way toward the finish, tracing a path 1/3rd of the way back to The Rock.
As I stood there gawking, another swimmer found his footing, rose up just a few feet from me and literally leapt into my arms. He gave me a massive hug. “Holy crap,” he repeated several times, “can you believe that swim?!” I thought he might kiss me. Still holding me he said, “we made it brother,” and then almost tearfully made his way toward shore, hugging every emerging swimmer in his path.
I made my way up the beach to the path that led the ½ mile back to the transition area. I started running. Fifty yards in, I saw Reggie. She was smiling, comforted, I figured, that at least one of us had survived.
I knew she would need reassurance. We kissed and then exuding nothing but confidence, I began my swim summary with “Don’t worry about Elijah,” which was going to be followed with a quick synopsis of the brutal nature of the swim and how he could be 20 or even 30 minutes behind me. But I didn’t get any further than, “don’t worry about Elijah,” before she cut me off, smiling.
“I’m not worried,” she said. “He finished the swim about 20 minutes ago.”
Ed after swim and enroute to the ride. “Now I understand why Jesus walked.”
I saw Reggie again as I rode my bike out of transition. I knew the second I saw her that Dylan had finished the swim. There was no way in the world she would have left the beach without knowing she was safe. Before I could shout out the question, she beat me to the punch with, “She’s right behind you! It’s all good. GO!”
The Escape describes the ride as highly technical and the run as challenging. I would label both accounts as accurate but understated, not unlike limiting the description of Attila the Hun to “irritable.”
“Technical” references the 18 mile ride during which you are either ascending near vertical hills or racing down them while negotiating a series of hairpin turns in close proximity to several dozen other variably skilled riders. That said, and forgetting for the moment the bay water that was pouring out of my nose and ears, the course itself was a tourist wonderland, second only to say, a trip to Alcatraz. The ride takes you along the Presidio (sea level), up to The Palace of the Legion of Honor (roughly the elevation of Mt Reiner), past the Cliff House and along Ocean Beach (a marketing benchmark in creative naming), through Golden Gate Park, and then back again. In a word, spectacular.
Being a little less technically savvy than some, I had an issue or two shifting gears transitioning between descents and climbs, in a large part due to my death grip on the handlebars. I threw my chain twice, but outside of that, and one cavernous pothole I hit on a downhill stretch (my proctologist assures me the indentation of the bike seat will fade over time), I finished the ride as per my Tri strategy – fully engaged, upright and unscathed.
Biking the streets and hills of San Francisco
After the swim and the ride, just the mere concept of anything involving 8 miles, be it walking around a track or driving the distance in a golf cart, was daunting. But the Escape’s run route in particular was an enraged beast at the end of a long twisted tunnel. There was nothing parenthetical about it. It was its own little shop of horrors with enough plot twists to be an entire event in its own right.
The first couple of miles involved running along Crissy Field and directly into a steady 15 knot breeze. Relief from those headwinds came in the form of gravity, and a long series of steps that snaked up at about a 40 degree angle to the bluffs overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. It was an unanticipated and unwelcome obstacle that no one had bothered to include in the Escape handbook, the evil unmentioned sibling to the dreaded Sand Ladder that would come later.
I traversed the steps and slowly worked my way up the gridlock of runners, tourists, and mountain goats that were weaving their way to the Coast Trail above the Golden Gate Bridge. After passing the sign commemorating Sir Edmund Hillary’s summit, I leveled out on Lincoln Blvd and was elated to see Elijah. He seemed to float toward me, light on his feet, smiling heroically. He was fewer than 3 miles from the finish but looked as fresh as if he were on the first mile of a warm-up run. We traded a high five as we passed each other, which sent my heart soaring.
What felt like several hours later and about the time I figured Elijah had finished, I emerged at the top of the dreaded Sand Ladder having left the quicksands of Baker Beach, the 400 sand steps, the frogs, hail, and locusts, all behind me. As riveting and exhilarating as the geography was, I was troubled to discover that after that last sand step, you are still heading uphill. And just as I was bemoaning that fact, worried that my get-up-and-go might have laid-down-and-coded back at sand step 280, I came across a marker that read “Mile 5.” Volunteers were perched around it banging on cow bells. They shouted to keep going and enthusiastically bellowed “ONLY 3 MORE MILES!” as if this was somehow good news. I had a flashback of my dentist removing his knee from my chest holding one of my wisdom teeth in his hand announcing, “only two more to go.”
As much as you are on your own during a triathlon, you are never actually alone. As intense as they tend to be, and aside from the rare occasion they are landing on you in the bay, Triathletes look out for one another. They are their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, infusing the world with their “YES I CAN” perspective and always quick to shout encouragement or offer help, even to complete strangers.
Running on fumes since my overly energetic ascent of the sand steps, I hit the wall a few yards after that Mile 5 sign. I slowed to a walk, and cursed loudly, knowing that as much as I was pining for a nap, stopping for even a few minutes would be the kiss of death. A towering bearded guy behind me saw the moment unfold. Startling me, he shouted in a joyful tone, “Hey buddy, don’t stop now.” He slowed as he came up beside me, patted my ass, and added, “Keep it going baby, you’re almost home!”
I had been graced apparently by the patron Cheshire Cat of the Escape.
“Almost home?” I asked. Obviously, one of us had picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.
He turned and walked backwards looking toward me. “Yeah, baby, almost home,” he repeated. “You got this man,” and smiling with a thumb’s up and then a wave forward, he nudged me on.
“Just over this hill, and it’s all downhill, baby.” Over-the-hill and downhill, not what you want to hear at age 57. Then he added, “Downhill in a good way. Wind at your back.”
I got another ass pat as we started running together. He was a 4-time Escape veteran, no doubt the offspring my starry eyed bus partner. Could I believe the swim, the ride, and the panoramic views of the Pacific, the Golden Gate and the bay! He oozed “hallelujah!” and nursed my eternal optimism back to life.
After a half mile of his accentuating the majestic and my marinating in the aura of his unbridled wonder, the wall I had hit simply vanished. I rediscovered my legs and tapped into a fifth gear. He set me loose with a jovial “go baby go.” I crested the hill, made it to and then down the last set of steps, running each of my last two miles at a sub 8-minute mile pace, a walking pace for a geriatric Kenyan, but an Olympian pace for me.
I streaked across the finish – elated, arms raised, pain free, and completely spent. I swirled in an emotional whirlpool between tears and laughter unable to decide if I should jump for joy or simply pass out. So I walked. After a celebratory embrace from Reggie, I headed into the pavilion to find Elijah, one of two sacrificial lambs I had cast into the tides of Alcatraz. Ecstatic and carrying a half-eaten plate of food, Elijah found me, ran to my side and embraced me with his free arm.
“Great job dad!” And then he added, “Are you OK? I waited for you for a while. I was starting to worry.”
Sacrificial lamb number 2 bolted across the finish about 15 minutes behind me. Exertion, exhaustion, relief and elation had pushed Dylan to tears. As we hugged, she told Reggie and me how brutal the last few miles had been for her.
“I knew that if I stopped, I would never be able to finish.” After taking a breath and with a self-deprecating smile, she added, “And I swam across the stupid river and had to swim all the way from the piers of Ft Mason.” Like father, like daughter. Elijah, on the other hand, had swum the perfect arc from ship to shore, a text book swim of riding the current.
Dylan was bemoaning how slow she had been as we picked up our race results. I cut her off mid-sentence and handed her the printout.
“No way,” she laughed and rolled her eyes. Slow maybe, but steady. She had won her division.
Elijah had the bested the three of us. Dylan placed first in her age group. I didn’t die. As Reggie said as we started our trek back to the hotel, you couldn’t have written a better ending.
On-shore, off-road, finito
We took the red eye home that night, an element of my overall plan that might still prove detrimental to my MENSA application.
Our Bay Area extraction wasn’t as simple as a quick Uber to the airport. We had to schlep ourselves and our gear 2 miles back to the hotel for a 1:00 check out. We showered, packed, drove the bikes to The Bike Connection for shipping, reversed course to North Beach and Mo’s Grill for an overdue and awesome lunch, picked up some snacks for the flight, returned the rental car, and hung out at the airport waiting to board our flight home.
From pre-race alarm to Jet Blue wheels up, it had been a 19-hour day.
Looking back on it, that rapid post-race egress should have been overwhelming. But at the time, we didn’t give it a second thought. Our quartet was on-shore, off-road, and out of harm’s way. All we felt as we lingered on the grass of Marina Green was a tremendous sense of togetherness, gratitude and accomplishment. We were whole again, intoxicated and humbled by the success of our escape. The hustle, bustle and hassle of getting home barely registered as a postscript.
We relived and recounted our best-of and worst-of highlights over Mo’s burgers and milkshakes. We were worn out but still wonderfully wound up, and Elijah and Dylan were beaming.
“I think we did a good thing,” I told Reggie as we settled into our seats for the flight home. We listened to the kids in the row in front of us who were still recapping some featured moments.
“A great thing,” She whispered to me. “You helped them find and unleash their super powers.”
And sensing the anxiety that hadn’t quit gnawing at me, she added, “and the only things that got swept to sea were Dylan’s cap and Elijah’s booties.”
I buckled up. The next thing I remember was Reggie waking me as the plane rolled up to the gate at JFK. Two hours later, superpowers engaged but in stealth mode, Dylan and Elijah began their last week of the school year, and I made my first client call of the day.
——————————— El Fin ——————————–
Some useful links and the parking lot for a few photos
Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon – sign up. Give it a shot.
The Bike Connection – awesome job receiving and shipping our bikes. Thanks! Next time I think we will just rent from you.
Bike Flights – no hassle, no issues – best way to ship the bikes
Tiburon – not named that because of the number of lawyers that live there. Seems a great white stopped by Alcatraz in 2015 for a quick bite. Gave the meal its seal 0f approval.
View from our Saturday afternoon lunch spot
Saturday Pre-race meeting on Marina Green