Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Escape From Alcatraz Phase 1

The Swim

Few events stir the soul of a triathlete than the Escape - on paper it's a feeling that is hard to explain. The swim is a mile and a half, the bike is 18 miles and the run is 8. Ok, so what? If you have the time, let me tell you, "so what"!

The pre-race talk said that for best results, get to transition early, get set up and get to the bus that will take you to the pier to board the boat that will take you to Alcatraz. Its not that complicated in real life. I did as I was told, got there at 4am, was on a bus by 4:30, and sat at the pier with a bunch of other freezing cold, anxious triathletes until they let us on the boat at around 6am. Some warming barrels would have been nice...what am I saying?!?! Escape is NOT for the feint of heart or one easily dismantled by a little cold weather!

I had been told that once on the boat it would be "standing room only" - it was not that bad. We weren't crammed in like sardines or anything similar. I found a spot on the floor to sit and stretch and "relax" as much as I could - sitting next to me was a regular guy who had done the race 7 years in a row - he was good to talk with. They gave us a time countdown starting from an hour out, and at 6:15am, just as promised, we were under way.

The boat steamed out to the island, and circled around a bit once it was just off the eastern tip. Once it settled in to a spot we were about 200 yards off of the Rock, dead even with the long side that faces San Francisco - no cheating allowed for swimmers today! (Diana took this great pic on her way to the venue from the hotel - this is looking out from the Aquatic Park, and swimmers are in the water...) Everyone was zipped up and ready to go, and standing at the windows looking for the pros to start. 40 year-olds and up were on the second deck, as we were the last wave to go. When the pros jumped off, you could feel the boat list a little bit closer to level.

The armada of kayakers had formed an alley in which to swim - designed to keep folks from swimming too far off course in either direction. We had been told to swim to the piers at Ft. Mason - three long yellow buildings difficult to miss when sighting. The kayakers must not have gotten this briefing as the alley was pointed much more towards the Golden Gate Bridge, and when the pros took off, that's the direction they went. Someone, a minute or so after they left, realized the sighting error, and turned in the correct vector - and all of the swimmers in the front pack seemed to turn at the same time - it was pretty cool to watch.

Before we knew it, the 4 minutes between the pro wave and the 40-50 wave were up, yet we were all still standing up stairs watching people jump in 3-at-a-time. We quickly headed down stairs and bottlenecked just outside the doors - this was when it finally became real to me. The brisk air back on my face, the cold steal deck on my feet - this is really it! Behind me, back at the door, a race volunteer motioned feverishly to go this way, so I did, and ran to a jump doorway that wasn't being used - I looked back once to see that I was one of the last off the boat, held on to my goggles and jumped in.

I broke the surface and was THANKFUL that I had taken the time to do two swims prior to this in Aquatic Park to get used to the temperature. "This isn't so bad" was my initial thought to the water temp, and off I started swimming in the direction of those long yellow piers. I had stashed my waterproof disposable camera in my wetsuit leg, but wanted to get a little momentum before pulling it out. When I finally did turn to check out my progress, I was pleasantly surprised at the distance I had put on that island. Turning back around - reality check - there was still a bunch of water between me and shoreline.

Hey, I'm a back of the pack swimmer. I exasperated that by stopping to smell the roses and take some pictures along the way. I wasn't going to tear up the course or impress anyone with my times or splits - but I think I was getting some kayakers a bit worried. I had one right on my tail for a while, and one was on my "Bridge side" for nearly all of the swim (in this picture, you can see the gold dome on the right side of the picture - it looks that small in real life too...). If you ever thought you'd be alone on this swim - forget it - I was never more than a couple of paddle pulls away from someone on a boat. I was surprised to see someone hanging on a kayak pretty early on in the swim, but it was cold, windy and the current was strong - the swim was very much mental. More than anything else, I think. If you are reading this getting ready to go do this race (lucky you), just keep your head in the game, and KNOW for certain that the safety folks will not let anything bad happen to you out there.

All my fooling around mid-swim cost me dearly in the end. Once you get past the 3 yellow piers, you are supposed to switch to the west and sight on the Palace of Fine Arts - a huge gold dome that is also hard to miss. The current is moving at about 5mph, across your swim path - as if the bay were a river heading out to sea. You are supposed to be at a point in the swim, once you are past the piers, that sighting on the dome will take you in to the swim exit. That's the plan, at least.
I'd sight, swim, sight again and be off to the west really quickly. At this point it was very cool to actually SEE the swim exit balloon, and the people on the stairs at the shoreline. Finally, the end was in sight. Unfortunately, it was going by me alarmingly fast. I was heading out to sea...

That thought entered my mind, and it was difficult not to panic. I looked around, and other than kayaks, lets just say it was not too crowded in my neck of the Bay. Start swimming hard, Bigun. "Splash, Splash, Splash" I looked up and the kayaker that had been shadowing me was now along side of me, protecting me from swimming under the Golden Gate Bridge (this water shot of the Bridge was typical of our days in SF - fog covered the top of the bridge always). He pointed way to my left and said that I needed to swim in that direction. Into the current? Yep. Ok - Swim hard, Bigun. At that point, I really, really didn't want to have to grab a kayak or be rescued by a jetski - but man that current was moving! I stopped for a breather (I know, this is a looooonnng swim!) and watched as I lost 25 yards of beach drifting west in the current. Bigun, you have no time to rest. I put my head down and swam. On the beach, a volunteer was motioning me in, watching out for rocks, just for me. How awesome is that?!?! I could see that I would make the beach, however far away from the actual swim exit, and stopped swimming against the current and just made a bee-line for the beach. My hands finally hit sand; I stood up, and actually found the energy to run down the beach to the swim exit mats, crossing over in 45:02 - 1,400th out of 1,544 finishers. Pretty cool...

15 comments:

bigmike600 said...

Amazing story so far. Open water ocean swimming seems like it would be hard to battle the current.

JohnnyTri said...

Dang, I'm hooked! Cant wait for the rest..

Great Job Bigun!!

rockon`

Myles said...

I love the pics! So what was the water like aside from cold? Murky, nasty? surprisingly pleasant?

Can't wait for more!

Di aka "Mrs Bigun" said...

you are so sexy in that cap!!!

Excel Man said...

Great job. Can't wait to hear about the bike and run. There should be a rule against "to be continued" blogs. ;-)

Wrenching Winz said...

Trying out for the Coneheads? Great swim in the conditions. Nice time too.

Spokane Al said...

Wow - that sounds like an amazing swim. I am looking forward to hearing about the rest of the race.

Dan Seifring said...

Wow what a great race report. Talk about a cliff hanger, can't wait for the rest.

Great job on the swim.

greeneyedlady said...

I'm with Excel Man - no, seriously, I AM with him! ;)

J-Wim said...

I'm with your wife, the cap is very fetching, especially with the goggles :-)
Cool pix - How in the world did you swim carrying a camera? I struggle to walk and chew gum......

Bolder said...

great pics again.

i'm thinkin' that after wisconsin, i might not enter in anything that is wetsuit legal...

after lookin' at those pics!!

BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

21stCenturyMom said...

Thanks for that great description. I will be in that water on Sunday doing Sharkfest. brrr... but everyone tells me it is fun. I'm so glad they have all those boats out there!

blink140pnt6 said...

Is that Buzz Lightyear?

Fe-lady said...

I LOVE the fact that you took photos during the swim! It's something I have always wanted to do-but didn't know where in heck to store the camera when I wasn't using it! (I hope you framed one of those for your work place...you should if you haven't!)
Great story! Don't you just love swimming in the SF bay? :-)

toofewbikes said...

I just missed you and Di in NorCal. I got out there on the Tuesday after Alcatraz. I can't believe that you took that camera along with you. The kayakers must have thought you were nuts. It took surprisingly good photos, though.

Richard Armstrong