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Alcatraz Triathlon XIX

golden-coast triathlon

by Todd Walsh

alcatraz jpg (20681 bytes)

Say what you will about Dave Horning's Envirosports events (and people have plenty of opinons), but when it comes to the Alcatraz Triathlon- the same event Horning's been involved with over the last 19 years, he doesn't mess around. This race only gets better and better each year. Also, City Sports/Competitor magazine producer, Bob Babbitt, recently named the Alcatraz Triathlon one of California's ten toughest races!

The 1999 version of this event took place the third weekend in September. Pulling up at the Ultimate Transition(TM) I noticed that the bike transition is actually in one of the old Army barricks at the foot of Chrissy Field hill! As I wheeled up my tricked out, ultra light, chro-molly stead (a vintage Peugut, circa 1989) Horning was atop his truck giving last minute race instructions to two or three dozen competitors. One of the great things about this race is the "deer in the headlights" look on all the faces at race check in and race morning. Sure, there are some serious triathletes at this race with all of the triathlete pre-requisites (shaved legs, ripped calve muscles, titanium/carbon bikes, Perl Izumi garb etc.) but bottom line-- This race scares folks.

After screwing around with a special sew up race wheel that buddy, Scott Adams had loaned me, I abandoned it in favour of my trusty Mavic. Race rule number 1: Never try out new gear on race day! Since I couldn't get air into the darn thing, I threw on the Mavic, and set up my transition area. With bike and transition squared away, I exited the barrick finally a little excited for the big day. Off to Union street for some pasta, where we dine next to ex-San Francisco mayor (and mayor candidate in this election), Frank Jordan.

After a surprisingly fitful sleep, the alram woke me at 5:30 a.m. I quickly blended up some metababol and start in on my first Powerbar of the day. Cruising out from my Richmond district home, pre-dawn, I'm actually feeling pretty darn good. I zipped through the Presidio (along the bike course) and checked in at the Barrick to make sure my tires were still inflated. Check! Off to Aquatic Park.

6:30 a.m., and things are actually pretty calm at check in. Not the frantic, crowded check in..."Maybe I'm earlier than usual?" Around 6:50, Horning gives last minute instructions, we sing the National Anthem, and start the 1/2 mile walk to the boat. Cruising with Martin, we lead the pack down to the boat. (This might be our only chance to lead in this race.) Ever the purist, Martin decided to do the race sans wetsuit. You gotta respect that.

The boat ride was its usual ride of tense vibes. In a normal triathlon, you can sense pretty tense vibes before a race- but in this race, tension runs right off the scale! Circumnavigating the rock, like clockwork, we pull up to the east shore and begin disembarkation at the stroke of 7:20. Another Horning/EnviroSports trademark: You always start his Alcatraz events at the ROCK! None of this "Escape from Pier 39" bull. In what might appear to be a momentary lapse in sanity, people start frantically leaping into the grey, chilly bay and make their way to the starting line, which is an imaginary line behind a row of kayaks. Funny thing, the last few races I've done, people get antsy and false start! And, you always get some a** hole who decides he can start 15 or 20 feet in front of the line- in front of the rest of us. Whatever. After one nervous false start, folks are lined up and the next thing you know, the ship's horn goes off and everyone begins the mad dash! It seemed like some serious swimmers at this year's event, but per usual, after the first few hundred meters, things settle down, and I'm all alone for the most part.

Except for a few patches of waves and serious white caps, the swim is not too rough. Water temp was around 61, and with a full wetsuit, the cold really wasn't a factor. "Keep your stroke long, dig in, keep movin'!" I tell myself as I bee-lined it for the huge condo buildings behind the Maritime Museum. Before too long, I've made it into the calm waters of Aquatic Park and hammer the last 400 meters.

On shore, folks fumble with their transitions and make their way out onto the 2.8 mile run over to the Ultimate Transition. This year, due to the San Francisco Blues Festival, triathletes took a left on Van Ness and then a quick right, skipping the normal route through Fort Mason. This short run always seems taxing and difficult after the 1.5 mile swim.

The last few years, EnviroSports has had a 3-loop bike course that is hilly and scenic. A few thousand feet of climbing. Midwesterners and other flatlanders are at somewhat of a disadvantage (or so they tell me) as the bike and run is pretty hilly for the most part. After a loop on the course, you start to mix it up with folks behind you who are on their first loop. So, you quickly lose track of where you are in the standings. Just remember that after three loops, head in for the run!

Back at the barricks/tranistion, I pull on the running shoes and head out, high-fiving, veteran triathlete and pro race announcer Whit Raymond as I do so. Almost immediately you start climbing the trail staircase near the Bridge. One of the volunteers joined me at this point and ran with me for 1/4 mile, explaining to me he's an ultra distance runner and that he has a lot of respect for us triathletes. I ask him, "How do you keep running in those things when you get tired?" He remarks, "you just walk it if you have to." I explain that I just want to cruise it out to the turnaround then bring it home-- just make it back. He tells me, "Oh you'll make it, you'll make it," as I leave him and head out on the trail solo.

This second run is only 7.5 miles, but is indeed challenging. You coast down fire roads to Baker Beach but then must traverse the length of the Beach and then begin the steady uphill through posh Sea Cliff up to the Palace Legion of Honor (the turnaround.) The weather at this year's races was ideal- a bit overcast and cool with a really faint breeze. Perfect race conditions.

After the turnaround I was caught by a couple agile runners, but kept myself together for the long traverse back across the beach and up the infamous and daunting Sand Ladder. Lucky for me, two of my buddies were at the top of the ladder shouting encouragement-- and making jokes about drinking too many Anchor Steams. The Sand Ladder humbles even the best runners at this point. I managed to walk it at a good clip. From there it's just a little more uphill, trails, then the fast steep decent and 1/4 mile of flat to the finish line.

At the finish line, people come staggering, running and charging to the finish line and celebrate their own personal escapes. Some drink champagne, some hug their loved ones, others just grin and soak it all in. There's definitely something extra rewarding about finishing this triathlon.

The Alcatraz Triathlon2000 marks the 20th Anniversary of this super race. Just make sure to get your entries in early, so you get the early discount. I know I will.

Check out the 1999 Alcatraz Triathlon Results

Next year's race is set for June 25, 2000. Visit www.envirosports.com for registration info.

You can send email to Todd Walsh at, webmaster@golden-coast.com for training tips for this great race.

Golden-Coast Productions, 1999