Last Sunday I took part in the iconic Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I was there with CAF ambassador “One Arm” Willie Stewart, who’s completed this race a dozen times along with 2 paratriathlete relay teams: Mohamed Lahna/Alan Shanken/Geoff Turner and Barry McKeown/Creighton Wong/Lindsay Moorehead.
These guys inspire me, I’ve raced with Willie a couple of times, he maybe 10 years my senior and an above elbow amputee (so less of an arm than I), yet he kicks my butt every time…by a long way! And Lindsay, a double leg amputee completed the run for her relay team…and this is one tough mother of a run with steps, hills, dirt, narrow twisting cliff paths, sand and the infamous sand ladder.
For me the race started 3:30am in Danville after a very restless nights sleep…it’d been a tough couple of days with not much sleep. We left the house at 4am, Kerry driving, me trying to sleep. Since my last big race at Wildflower a month back I literally hadn’t trained. Not the best of preparation in the world…
We arrived at transition around 5am in the dark and I quickly setup my bike and transition area, grabbed my wetsuit and headed off to catch the bus to Pier 3 for the boat ride to Alcatraz and the race start.
There’s over 2,000 athletes on the boat and in around 6 minutes after race start everyone has jumped off in to the cold, San Francisco Bay water…it’s quite an experience…and sight to behold.
For me the race didn’t start well, as I was getting ready I put my swim goggles on only to have them snap in my hand, leaving me with no goggles. With maybe 5 minutes to go I was fortunate to find someone with a spare pair that I quickly donned before lining up behind the Pro athletes ready to start. By my side was Willie, Mohamed and Barry…now to give you some perspective, Barry needs assistance to “jump” in to the water as he’s paralyzed below the waist and can’t use his legs…he swims the 1.5 miles to shore on his back. Damn!
The horn blew at 7:30am, the Pros jumped off the side of the boat quickly followed by us paratriathletes…wow, this was my first time in the ocean this year and the cold was a BIG shock to the system…I couldn’t breath…literally. I put my head in the water to swim, took one stroke and ran out of breath and had to stop. I just couldn’t swim, I’d never experienced anything like it before. It took me a good few minutes to catch my breath, adjust to the temperature before I could swim properly. It did at least give me an opportunity to take in the view…the Bay Bridge, San Francisco skyline, Golden Gate bridge and Alcatraz…amazing.
It’s a long 1.5 mile swim from Alcatraz, about 20 minutes in the swell started to build and I had to get a little assistance as I gathered my strength…I was definitely wishing I’d trained a little harder for this one.
After exiting the swim it was up the sandy beach and time to strip of my wetsuit and run the 1/2 mile back to the transition area. I kept my little booties on to protect my feet a bit.
The bike is only 18 miles, but includes over 1200 feet of climbing through San Francisco’s twisty and often badly paved roads. I believe there are over 20 turns on this course! Even though the swim had seriously kicked my butt, I put that behind me and focused on pushing hard, completing the ride in an hour and 7 minutes…Willie was 10 minutes ahead of me.
With the bike done it was off for the run, 8 miles along one of the most unusual triathlon run courses out there. The first 2 miles is relatively flat as you run by Crissy Fields towards the Golden Gate Bridge. From there you climb up a 100 or so steps and head under the bridge to hit dirt and cliff top paths…that said, the views are spectacular as you wind your way along the cliff tops to Baker Beach.
Once you hit Bake Beach you are running on sand, trying to stay on the firm stuff…not too soft and not too wet! I was running with Alan at this point (lower limb amputee) and saw him take his first of several tumbles! This is not an easy run for lower limb amputees, I take my hat off to you.
After the turnaround on the beach you head back the way you’d come and towards the 400 step sand ladder. This is around mile 5 and a real leg burner. They time you up the ladder, took me a leisurely 4 minutes, the Pros are up that thing in under 2.
After the ladder it’s the final climb back towards the bridge and from there it’s all down hill back to the Marina Green and the finish. The run took me an hour and 20 minutes and I finished the race in a total of 3 hours and 25 minutes.
It was a tough, yet fun day and an honor to be racing with my fellow CAF athletes, a great turnout for a great event. I’ll be back next year, better prepared and ready to give “One Arm” Willie a race for his money.
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