Break It Down With Cam Dye
As we roll into the meat of the 2015 triathlon season, the best race of the year is nearly here! Escape from Alcatraz has always been my favorite race because of its rich history and adventurous spirit. It’s one of triathlon’s “Classics” similar to cycling’s Paris Roubaix or Milan San Remo, where only the toughest athletes prevail.
The first Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon was held in 1981 and it has seen some of triathlons most notorious athletes cross the finish. Past winners include Scott Tinley, Mike Pigg, Greg Welch, Simon Lessing, Chris McCormack, and Andy Potts. And lets not forget about the stellar women who once stood on top of the podium including Paula Newby Frasier, Michellie Jones, Barb Lindquist, Leanda Cave, and Sarah Haskins to name a few.
Each year, this historical event draws triathletes from around the world to battle the race’s unique elements. Each athlete must swim across the San Francisco bay, ride up and down steep city streets, and end the day by tackling the infamous sand ladder on the run.
While these challenging quirks make the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon exciting, they also make equipment choices and race strategies a bit more involved than normal races. I talked with Rudy Project pro triathlete Cameron Dye about his experiences racing Escape from Alcatraz and he provided some great tips for how to prepare for such a special race.
Swim from Alcatraz Island
A reliable alarm clock is a must for Escape from Alcatraz because race day includes a painfully early and busy morning. Fist you’ll stop by transition to drop off your bike, then you’ll hop a bus to the San Francisco piers where you’ll finally board a ferryboat that will take you out to sea. After nearly an hour on the water heading out into the middle of the bay, it’s time to dive off the side of the boat into the icy waters below (the water temperature is usually in the mid 50’s)!
Some athletes bring stretch cords on the boat so they can loosen up their arms before jumping in the cold water. Cam, however, says he “just tries to stay as warm as possible on the boat and then swims hard for the first part of the race to really get the blood flowing”. He also wears a BlueSeventy neoprene swim cap that helps trap precious body heat while navigating the rolling waves.
The 1.5-mile swim to shore is technically challenging because of the choppy waves and cold water. The strong current also makes it difficult to stay on course and it can easily sweep you past the swim exit. I always found the easiest way to swim the quickest was to follow the lead kayaks and boats as they guide swimmers to shore.
Once the sharks and sea lions are behind you and you’re feet are back on solid ground, there’s a long run to transition that quickly heats things back up after a chilly swim. If you’re really cold exiting the water, leave your wetsuit on while you run to transition and you’ll be nice and toasty in no time.
Bike Up and Down the San Francisco Hills
Onto the Escape from Alcatraz bike course, you’ll wind your way up and away from the shore and will be faced with leg breaking climbs and twisty descents. But what else would you expect from this city of hills? However, the course eventually flattens out as you ride through Golden Gate State Park. The park’s gentle curves and flat terrain are fast! And it’s this combination of flat, fast pavement with steep climbs and descents that make choosing a bike for Escape from Alcatraz so tricky!
A road bike will get you through corners faster and make climbing and descending more efficient. However, a triathlon or time trial bike will gobble up time on the flats with its aero advantages. So what to choose?
Cam has spent plenty of time contemplating this question. He explains, “the two big factors are how comfortable you are descending on a TT bike and how aero/comfy you can get on your road bike.” While Cam still hasn’t made a final decision on which bike to ride, he isn’t worried because he notes “there are lots of climbs and descents as well as a fair bit of flat and false flat, so in the end it is probably a wash either way.”
In any case, there are other important equipment choices to consider beyond the bike. Most importantly, an aero helmet is a must even if you do choose to the less aerodynamic road bike option. Rudy Project’s Wing 57 and Wingspan TT helmets are great choices for Alcatraz and will help you zip through the bike course and get out on the run even faster.
Run Along the Beach and Up the Sand Ladder
A flat first mile makes for easy speed early on, but beware of the hills and sand to come. Next, you’ll run to the historical Coastal Defense Battery that was built at the turn of the Century. In this area, watch your head as you bend down to run through a really cool low ceiling tunnel. Then you’ll climb up an endless set of stone steps and head off into the beautiful hills just past the Golden Gate Bridge.
San Francisco is known for its foggy mornings and low visibility so choosing the right sunglasses is important piece of the Alcatraz puzzle. Cam races in the Rudy Project Genetyk glasses because he can easily swap out lenses depending on the sunlight. For this year, Cam is planning on using Rudy Project photochromic lenses because he “likes that the lenses will change as the conditions do.”
Whether it is sunny or foggy on race day, the beauty of the run course shouldn’t be overlooked. You’ll run past the Golden Gate Bridge and overlook the San Francisco Bay as it melts into the Pacific Ocean. That is, until you drop down to the deep sand of Baker Beach and the infamous Sand Ladder. With 44 loose and sandy steps to climb on tired legs, the sand ladder has long been my nemesis at this race. With plenty of fans and photographers lining the steps, you won’t want to slow down or walk in front of everyone. But Cam provided some great advice of how to tackle the ladder with style. “The biggest thing I think is consistency. Starting conservatively at the bottom and feeling great as you reach the top is much better than starting at full speed and finishing completely out of gas.”
I never seemed to pace myself up the ladder and I suffered for it severely. It’s also good to remember that there is still a fair bit of running to go after the ladder. Luckily, most of the remaining run course is downhill, however, so you can fly through the last few miles in no time.
Just as the first few finishers make their way across the finish line, most of San Francisco is finally rolling out of bed and starting to make their way down to the shoreline. This makes for some fun and supportive spectators who generally seem more excited for you than your closest relatives would be. As you run down the finishing shoot with thousands of people cheering you on, a feeling of accomplishment will quickly wash over you. Escape from Alcatraz is no slouch of a race and has defeated many of the toughest athletes out there. But with a little patience, preparation, and whole lot of fun, you can tackle this adventure race!
As the triathlon community becomes more and more obsessed with Ironmans and 70.3 distance races, I’m happy to see Escape from Alcatraz still drawing world-class pros and eager age groupers from around the globe. Every triathlete should experience the challenges of this iconic adventure race at least once! So get out here next year and ESCAPE from the ‘normal’ triathlon experience at Escape from Alcatraz.