NOTE: This post has been a work in progress! I’ve had so much to say and couldn’t finish it in one sitting, so it’s been updated in pieces. Needless to say – that’s why it’s 3 months late!!
On Friday, June 5th, Brian and flew out to San Francisco. We arrived early (~11AM west coast time), which gave us most of Friday to explore San Fran a bit. We stayed at the Hotel Majestic, which was located in Pacific Heights – about 2 miles from the race site in Marina Green. After grabbing brunch at a delicious local spot called Sweet Maple, we walked over to Marina Green (little did we know how much that walk would bother our calves and feet – holy hills!!). The race crew was setting up for Sunday’s race and to be honest, there was so much energy in the air (in anticipation).
We decided it would be best to stay on east coast time. Transition will open at 4AM, which essentially is 7AM EST. 7AM won’t result in crazy sleep deprivation. We sacrificed eating at yummy San Fran restaurants by eating from Whole Foods’ salad bar both Friday and Saturday nights – at 4PM.
Since the bike course was only 18 miles and super technical with intense climbs, descents and sharp turns, it didn’t make sense to ship my Tri bike to San Fran. It’s really pricy and it’s not like I’d be in the aero position for very long. I decided to just rent a road bike from a local bike shop, City Cycle.
Let me tell you that they were AMAZING and super helpful. We swung by first thing Saturday AM to pick up our bikes. For $100, I got to race on a sweet Trek Madone 4.7 – it was so smooth and lightweight. They set me up on the bike and added my pedals and saddle.
After picking up our bikes we rode over to the Marina Green park to pick up our race numbers and swag. There was a LONG line, so we went directly over to the race merchandise tent. Since I was so excited about the race, I went a little overboard! I bought a hat, visor, t-shirt, towel, coffee mug and a sweatshirt (ha!).
Afterwards, the line to get our race stuff took about an hour or so. It was mainly b/c you have to sign your life away in forms. Luckily, the folks at Normatec had their recovery boots out for use, so I took advantage of it after getting my packet. That 15-20 minutes helped my legs immensely, particularly after walking so much around the San Francisco hills. I really, really want to buy some, but the price is just too much.
After that, the pros were holding a meet and greet session, so I walked over to meet some of the most inspiring pros and had them sign an EFA poster for me. It was surreal!
Ok, so on to the race! Sunday morning, we woke up around 3:45/4AM and got our stuff together. We rode our bike to the race site, which was interesting due to some crazy straight-up (what felt like) 90 degree hills. It was super fun to ride the streets of San Fran with no cars, though. We got to transition around 4:30. Right away, I saw Andy Potts setting up. He was focused and in the zone – so cool.
You can feel the excitement in transition
I found my way over to my transition spot and got set up.
Around 5:30AM, Brian and I boarded a bus, which took us over to Pier 3 by the Ferry Building (near the Oakland Bay Bridge). I waited to eat my breakfast (refrigerated Whole Foods oatmeal and hard boiled eggs) while on the bus.
The “Hornblower” boat was waiting for all 2,000 of us to board. It wasn’t taking off until 6:30, so we had some time to hang out – mainly wait in the Porto-Potty line. I had packed my wetsuit, 2 swim caps, Blue Seventy booties to keep my feet warm, googles, water and a banana for a snack. I went ahead and put on the bottom part of my wetsuit, but left the top off to keep cool. We left our “warm” clothes in a bag that we’d retrieve after the race.
They started calling for everyone to board the boat around 6:15-6:20, so we got on. It was already incredibly packed with racers. There were 2 floors within the boat swarmed with athletes.
Brian and I went upstairs and found some open space in the stairwell. We had to calm our nerves and chill out for the hour boat ride over to Alcatraz Island. The only excitement we experienced was one of the volunteers by the stairwell who had to constantly tell people they couldn’t go upstairs to use the 3rd floor bathroom – VIPs only! A few snuck in and it was a great distraction from nerves.
All of a sudden the countdown was upon us – 10 minutes until go time! Brian and I made our way down to the first floor packed full of athletes. I think someone sang/played the national anthem. A race director also gave a little speech, but I can’t remember it for the life of me! Nerves! I do remember, though, that they told us the water temperature was a balmy 60 degrees. We all rejoiced because 60 degress was SO much better than the mid to low 50s that we were expecting.
All of a sudden felt a little panicked. I wasn’t sure where to sight! Would I get lost? Luckily, someone had a print out (left on the floor) that explicitly told you were to sight, so I studied that.
The pros were lined up on the deck ready to jump at 7:30AM. Shortly after they jumped, the crowd of athletes started moving towards 1 of 2 doors to jump. It was hard to believe that within 6-8 minutes, all 2,000 of us athletes would have jumped off of the boat. Brian and I decided to go out the door to the left of the boat and shortly discovered we were among the last to jump somehow. Others must have been more aggressive about pushing towards the front.
As we got closer, I started to get really excited. It was that edging-up-the-roller-coaster feeling. I could hear the beeps from the timing mat get louder and louder as I got closer. My swim cap was on. My goggles were on my head. My booties were securely under my wetsuit. My timing chip was fastened around my left ankle. My Garmin was set on “triathlon” and I had acquired my GPS satellites. I was ready.
The person in front of me jumped and then it was my turn! Oh the excitment! Brian and I jumped off the boat at the same time. There’s no going back now! I plunged into the water.
The platform on the boat was about 5 feet above the water, so once I jumped, I went under pretty far. I started to worry that someone was going to jump on top of me, but I was safe. After collecting myself for a few seconds, I started to swim. It was a shock to the system. I had not swam in salt water in who knows how many years. It tasted disgusting! The water felt so cold that I was having a hard time swimming and breathing. I popped my head up and saw Brian. He made me float on my back for a minute and take in the scenery. Alcatraz Island was right beside us. It was gorgeous in all of its criminal glory. I quickly remembered how lucky I was to be able to “escape” by swimming across the San Fran bay. Not many will do it.
So, onward I went. I located Fort Mason and sighted against it. The current was SO strong. As much as I swam, I felt like I made no progress to get closer to shore. I would look up to sight and would have to redirect myself back to Fort Story. As I swam, I started to warm up and didn’t feel the ice cold water on my face and hands anymore. It felt refreshing instead. At one point, I came across a guy waving/yelling for help (b/c of a cramp), so some other racers and I tried to help him by yelling as well. I got closer to the kayak and told him to go get the guy (good deed of the day).
I kept swimming, sighting and redirecting. I tried to keep my stroke smooth and steady. They warned against breathing on your right side because of the wake possibly hitting your face; however, I didn’t have any problems with it. I’m just not comfortable breathing on my left side.
My goggles were foggy and when I looked around me, I felt alone – I couldn’t see anyone nearby. I started to get a little negative thinking that I was among the last and would be pulled in by a boat b/c of the time limit. After a while, I decided to lift my goggles when I was swimming to look around (since I couldn’t see). Sure enough – there were plenty of people around me. Yay! I wasn’t lost at sea. 🙂
I again reminded myself of how cool this was – to be swimming in the Bay, knowing there were sharks below me hanging out. I tried to savor every minute of it as it would be over before I knew it.
Sure enough, it was! I eventually saw the beach and sighted/swam towards it. I got to the beach and the announcer said to look behind me and see everyone who was still swimming. Looking at my time online (~45 minutes), I was among the back 1/3, but that’s ok! I made it. 🙂
There was a mini-transition area right around the bend from the beach, where you could put on shoes to run the 3/4 of a mile up to the main transition area. I decided to forego this in favor of running in my booties (basically barefoot). It saved about 4-5 minutes I think. I ran up the hill and it really wasn’t bad. I realized that I run on the balls of my feet when running barefoot on concrete b/c otherwise it would be too much impact to my body if I ran flat-footed. Interesting observation! There were SO many people cheering everywhere – it was so energizing.
As I was running into transition, I heard the announcer say Mattie Reed’s race ended due to a blown tire out on the bike. Bummer for him. I quickly raced to my transition area and took off the rest of my wetsuit. It was a struggle, likely because I had dried off quite a bit during the run. I tried to quickly put on my warm socks (it was ~60ish degrees outside), bike shoes, helmet and sunglasses and ran with my bike towards the mount line. Luckily my transition spot was near the bike in/out, so I didn’t have to run too long.
I took off on the bike. Normally I feel a little rocky because I’m still getting my feet from the swim; however, the 3/4 mile run to transition helped shake off those cobwebs. I felt pretty good and ready to go. The first 2 miles were flat, which was a welcome sight. Then, we made a sharp turn and went up into the Presidio. Granny gear was in place! Unfortunately, Brian and I didn’t drive the race course (mainly because we didn’t rent a car), so I had no idea what to expect next.
There was a LOT of climbing! My bike felt smooth, so I just kept my legs spinning. One of the coolest things about the race was seeing the pros coming back in on the bike. They were going up a fairly steep hill, so it looked like they were riding about the pace of us age groupers. 😉 It was definitely motivational.
For the rest of the bike course, there was a pretty steady climb up until ~mile 5-6 when we entered Lincoln Park. We descended pretty dramatically – I had to hit the breaks quite a bit b/c the roads were quite curvy and a bit scary. It then evened out heading into Golden Gate Park. The elevation map shows the climbing resuming coming out of the park, but I don’t remember it being anything too major. I really tried to make up some speed here – it was actually quite fun!
The BIGGEST climb of the day was right at mile 12. It was one of those San Fran hills. I managed to pedal up the first part until it evened out, but then came the shocker, crazy grade of a hill. It was short and punchy, but totally intimidating. At first glance, I decided I would just walk it. Save the legs for later! I honestly didn’t mind because I was also nervous that I might not make forward progress. I hadn’t practiced on a hill that steep before.
After that, things evened out and we continued back towards Marina Green. Around this point, I saw Brian heading out and told him he was in for some recovery for a few miles. We climbed a bit more and then finally, I could coast back down towards town. I managed to pick up some speed at the end. Over the course of the ride, I got more comfortable on my bike, which definitely helped. Oh and it’s probably worth noting that I hate 2 PowerBar gels along the ride. Also, I’m sure it would have been a beautiful, scenic ride, but the fog was still rather dense, so you couldn’t see anything over towards the water.
You could feel the energy of the crowd coming back into transition. There is nothing like it! I dismounted my bike and ran back towards my transition area. I quickly put on my run shoes, belt, visor, gels and headed out.
I’m not a huge fan of running – particularly not in the hot and humid weather – and I just have to say that this run was BY FAR my most favorite run leg of a race ever. It felt perfect and my legs felt great – likely because I couldn’t really hammer it on the bike (I only averaged around 14 mph, crazy!!). By now, the fog had lifted and the views were spectacular! We ran on a trail towards Golden Gate Bridge. It was SO fun.
After passing the bridge, we started to run uphill a bit heading towards Baker Beach. There were quite a bit of stairs – possibly 2-3 different sets and uphill road climbs. Once we approached Baker Beach, there was a swift descend down into the beach. I let my legs rip! It was probably not great for my legs or knees, but I was flying down that hill. Baker Beach was incredible – sooo pretty! We had to run through pretty dense sand until you got closer to the water where it was packed down. We ran to the left until we came across an aid station at the turn-around where I took a gel.
I steadily ran back towards the other side of the beach where I approached the infamous sand ladder. It was as tough as they said it was, yet really fun. I grabbed a hold of the rope and climbed up step by step. My legs BURNED about half way up and I had to take quickly little breaks here and there. From what I remember the sand ladder was about 400 feet of climbing. A TV station was broadcasting from the top half of the ladder, so we got to say hello as we went.
At the top, I regrouped and got the feeling back in my legs and started to run again. It was a nice downhill from here on out.
We ran back down all of those stairs that we previously climbed. At that point, I came across Brian who was just starting off on his run. He tried to get me to stop and hang out, but I didn’t want to for 2 reasons: I was feeling GREAT and having a great race – I had to keep going. I was also in a single file line going down the stairs and I would mess people behind me up.
I kept cruising back towards the finish line. I felt great and was actually smiling through most of the run (that never happens). I ran past Golden Gate Bridge and onto the trail through Crissy Field. My pace was still consistent and good.
I eventually rounded the bend to come into finish shoot (which was amazing BTW). The crowd was cheering loud and eventually I made it in. I felt GREAT!
I averaged around a 10:40 pace, which accounts for all of those stairs and the sand ladder – I was quite happy with my run. Overall, my final time was ~3 hours and 30 minutes, which was MUCH better than I had estimated. I had officially “escaped from Alcatraz” and had the medal to prove it. 😉
My friend Tricia, who now lives in San Fran, came to the finish line to cheer me in – she’s the best!! I met up with her and her husband right after I finished.
Overall, it was one of the best experiences ever. I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I didn’t want to do other races or take other vacations instead.