My 2015 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon Experience
In June of 2014 I read an article about triathlons. I’ve been physically active all of my life so this sounded like a great way to exercise with a specific goal – completing a triathlon. Coincidentally, a triathlon was scheduled two months away at my local gym in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Also, the gym had a series of clinics scheduled for new triathletes – what luck! I told one of my best friends, Joseph Lepera from San Francisco, California, about my plans. He encouraged me and told me I would probably start doing more triathlons in the future. I said “absolutely not – I’m doing one and that’s it!” Joseph suggested I enter the 2015 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. He told me it was a difficult course (1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz Island to shore; 18 mile bike ride; 8 mile run) and hard to get into. I said “no thanks!”
A month into training, however, I was hooked! I loved how my body was responding to three functional sports – swimming, biking, and running. A month later, I completed the UNC Meadowmont Sprint Triathlon (250 yard swim, 9 mile bike ride, 5K run). I immediately signed up for a second more difficult triathlon. Believe it or not, I also decided to enter the 2015 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon! Alcatraz is a difficult triathlon to get into – I would have to enter the lottery. However, another option was attending the November 2014 Escape from Alcatraz Academy conducted by Eric Gilsenan which would automatically qualify me. In October, prior to the academy, I completed my third and longest sprint distance triathlon.
Alcatraz Escape Academy
I arrived in San Francisco the day before the Alcatraz Escape Academy. The water in the San Francisco Bay is frigid – normally around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. To help prepare for the shock, I went for a swim (in my wetsuit) in Aquatic Park. The water was frigid! My face and feet immediately went numb. But after about 2 –3 minutes my body adjusted and I felt fine. Doing a trial swim really helped me the next day. At the Academy, we did each of the three events with a break in between. We boarded a boat that took us parallel to Alcatraz. I was really nervous about the swim – strong currents and cold water. When I jumped into the water, I felt comfortable. At the end of the swim I realized I needed to become a far better swimmer to enter Escape from Alcatraz, but at the same time, it really boosted my confidence that the swim was doable. At the start of the bike ride, I met professional triathlete Emily Cocks. The 18 mile bike ride is flat for about two miles. However, the remaining 16 miles are all hills! In my experience, hills are about three times more difficult on a bike than level ground. On to the run… The eight mile run, starts like the bike ride – flat for a couple miles followed by hills. The run course has about 500 stairs including the infamous Equinox Sand Ladder at Baker Beach. Not being a good runner and nursing a hamstring injury, I struggled but completed the run.
At the end of the Academy I realized I had a LOT of training to do to successfully complete Alcatraz! However, I had seven months to prepare. I took a couple weeks off to heal and to develop a training schedule.
The best decision I made was deciding to have Emily Cocks develop a customized five month training plan! Every workout outlined precisely what I needed to accomplish. I trained five days a week. Every day but one consisting of multiple activities, such as swimming/biking or biking/running. I was already in good physical condition, but after a week of training it became apparent I would need to be in MUCH better shape to complete Alcatraz. I swam three days a week starting at 5:00 am – short distances, long distances, intervals, conditioning drills, you name it. The bike workouts started at one hour per session and eventually extended to 2.5 hours. Since I was recovering from a hamstring injury, my runs initially started at 20 minutes eventually extending to 70 minutes. At first it was really difficult; it took my body a couple months to adjust to the demanding workout schedule. The Saturday morning workouts were always the longest – a long bike ride followed by a 30 minute run. In early January, I remember being totally exhausted – I didn’t know how I would ever finish the race! One day after a heavy snow storm, my gym was closed and the roads were covered with snow. I improvised by running in a paved parking lot in a shopping center. Another January day, I completed the bicycle ride when it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside. My feet were frozen, but I laced up my running shoes for a 30 minute run. Steadily, however, I got into better and better shape.
There were only two activities that ever questioned my resolve to participate in Alcatraz – bilateral breathing while swimming and the dreaded bike ride up the hill on Booth Road Drive in Chapel Hill. Bilateral breathing is important because it teaches you to breathe on both sides and increases aerobic capacity. But the first couple times I tried it, I was starving for oxygen. Within a month, however, I wondered what the fuss had been about! Alcatraz has some really STEEP hills. On every ride, I would bike up Booth Road. It’s only about 200 feet long but it’s one of the steepest hills I’ve ever climbed on my bike. After three months, I was climbing the hill twice during each bike workout.
In April (two months prior to Alcatraz), I completed an Olympic distance triathlon. This was my longest triathlon to date and gave me lots of confidence that I was close to where I needed to be for Alcatraz. I completed two more months of training with no significant injuries. On to San Francisco!
I arrived in San Francisco on Thursday – three days prior to the Sunday race. To get acclimated to the water, I attended an evening swim clinic conducted at St. Francis Yacht Club (near the swim finish). I felt like I was on a roller coaster! The water was far choppier and colder than I recalled seven months earlier. Also, it seemed like I swallowed about half the water in the bay! I could only pray the water would be smoother on race day. On Saturday I picked up my race packet and attended a mandatory athlete meeting. I walked over to Aquatic Park and decided to swim one more time in hopes of bolstering my confidence following my lackluster swim on Thursday. As soon as I got in the water I felt great! The water was much calmer and I had a great swim. This was a much needed boost of confidence. When I went to bed I kept repeating the phrase “get to shore – get to shore!” Simple instructions…
I’m a morning person – but waking up at 3:20 am?!? I took my bike to transition and got everything ready. Since Alcatraz has you start the race by jumping off a boat, you catch a bus from Marina Green to Pier 3 to board the boat. I ate breakfast (two baked potatoes), put on my wetsuit, and boarded the one-way boat ride. There was a lot of nervous energy from first-timers, like myself. Fortunately, I talked to a couple athletes who had completed Alcatraz multiple times and they gave me some great last minute tips. About twenty minutes before the swim, a calmness and confidence came across me. Nearly one year of training would soon be put to the test!
The swim – the hardest part is jumping off the boat…
As soon as I jumped into the Bay I relaxed and felt totally comfortable! Water temperature was nearly 60 degrees with smooth currents. I spotted my course to land from the volunteer boats in front of me as well as fellow athletes. When you swim from Alcatraz to the St. Francis Yacht Club, you don’t swim directly from point A to point B. You swim towards the shore line and make a right-hand turn as you get closer to shore. I did experience rough choppy waters a couple times. Turns out the rough Thursday swim experience was great preparation! I realized I was close to shore when I could see the Stucco roof of the St. Francis Yacht Club. Made it to shore! On to the bike ride…
The bike – hilly San Francisco
When I told my Mother I was training for Alcatraz I mentioned the hilly terrain of San Francisco. She said “just like on TV, right?” Exactly… During training, the bike ride was the leg that I feared most because of the hills. However, with all the hill climbing I did during training, I did fine. One memorable event occurred while I was climbing the hill by the Cliff House. I heard a female shout “Jon Wallace!” I wondered how Joseph’s wife Carolina managed to get several miles from Marina Green to the bike course?!? However, it turned out to be my coach Emily Cocks. She said “you’re looking great (fortunately, I was passing someone on the hill)!” I asked her what happened and she said “flat tire.” I’ve had a few myself, so I know the feeling. Last leg – the run.
The Run – almost there!
After I completed the bike ride I realized I was going to make it. Eight more miles! The run started on flat ground for about the first two miles and then I climbed some steep hills followed by about one hundred stairs. I descended onto Baker Beach for a nice run in the sand until…the Equinox Sand Ladder – 400 stairs in the side of the hill! The longest continuous set of stairs I’ve ever climbed. I grabbed the cable and pulled myself to the top. One last half-mile hill and the remaining three miles is all downhill. But not so fast – I tweaked my hamstring about 100 feet after finishing the Sand Ladder. Two people stopped to see if I was ok. Every person I met (athlete, volunteer, race coordinator) was always super friendly and helpful to me. The last three miles of the race went by in a blur.
I did it!
I crossed the finish line and a volunteer high-fived me and handed me my medal. A year of training and I completed my goal. I felt great and had fun! My friend Joseph, his wife Carolina, and their 3 month-old son Antonio met me at transition to congratulate me. With a time of 03:59:30, I certainly didn’t set any course records. I wasn’t exactly a “ball-of-fire” as my Father likes to say, but that was never my goal. Setting the goal in 2014 to finish the 2015 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon was a monumental accomplishment for me. I always say goals that don’t scare you aren’t set high enough! With less than one year of training, I completed Alcatraz and got into incredible physical condition!
Thanks to all who helped made it possible!
There are so many people to thank for supporting me on this venture! Joseph and Carolina Lepera, who not only talked me into entering Alcatraz, but housed and fed me on two different trips. Eric Gilsenan, who taught the Escape from Alcatraz Academy, and provided great race information and support. My triathlon coach, Emily Cocks, who developed an incredible training program, answered all of my questions along the way, and frequently checked in to see how my training was progressing. Coach Pedro Ordenes, of Water World Swim, for his expertise in instructing me how to complete the swim from Alcatraz to St. Francis Yacht Club. A special thanks to all the volunteers who made this such a great event! Most important of all, thanks to my parents… for having me!