Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Escape From Alcatraz Race Report

By: Kraig Erickson

Greetings Footzoner’s!  My name is Kraig Erickson and I am the newest FootZone employee.  I have just moved to Bend from Eugene and I am super excited to be part of the Footzone team.  My background is in fitness and endurance sports coaching.  I was the Fitness Supervisor at the Downtown Athletic Club in Eugene and coached the running club there.  In addition to being a personal trainer, I am a USAT Level I Coach, US Masters Level II Coach, and a Functional Movement Screener.  I plan on being heavily involved in the local triathlon and running scene, both as a coach and competitor.  My wife, Tara is the Technical Director for the Oregon Rush Soccer Club and we have two kids, Maklain (8), and Taj (6).

For my first blog entry I decided to do a race report for the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon that I competed in on March 3.  This is a famous race that has been going on for 33 years and is a “must have” on any triathletes bucket list.  It is very hard to get into, capped at 2000 athletes, you either have to qualify at a sanctioned qualifying race (there are no qualifiers in the northwest anymore) or get in by lottery.  I have entered the lottery twice and been lucky enough to get in both times.  The first time I got in was 2007 and then again in 2012.  Last year while preparing for the race in June I came down with a still un-diagnosed illness that had me unable to train for almost 6 months.  It was a very scary time as I was tested for a bunch of very scary illnesses and thankfully all tests were negative and I came out of the woods at the end of June.  I was able to defer my entry to 2013 with a doctor’s note.  The losing side of this trade for me was the race date, because of the America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013 the race was being moved from the traditional first weekend in June to the first weekend of March, brrrrrrr!  Oh well, at least I didn’t lose my $400 entry fee.

I viewed this race as the symbol of putting my illness to rest and getting back in the saddle, literally.  Training for an early season race can be very difficult but the race is fairly short with it’s Olympic-ish distances.  The swim is 1.5 miles where you jump off a boat anchored next to Alcatraz and swim to Marina Green.  The bike is 18 very hilly, technical miles through the Presidio and Golden Gate Park.  The 8-mile run is an urban smorgasbord of pavement, gravel, stairs, single track, tunnels, beach, and the infamous “sand ladder”.   My memories of the race in 2007 were very good and I was super excited to return.  After over 10 years of racing and 3 Ironman races, I still think Alcatraz is the coolest race I have ever done.

After a surprisingly nice end to last summer with a successful race and the best fall of running that I have ever had, the stage is set for me to have a great winter of training and be ready for a dip in the bay in March.  Then life happened.  Soccer season, followed by the holidays and then an unexpected move to Bend, left my training in shambles.   I went into race week knowing that I would swim well (this is my background) and run well.  The fact that the ride would be my longest outdoor ride since August did not bode well but I was hopeful that my evolving mountain lungs might make up the difference at sea level, literally in the sea.

Then the curse of Alcatraz slapped me again.  My last day at work before leaving for the race I started to feel a little “off” towards the end of the day.  By bedtime I had a fever, chills, aches, and was really not feeling well.  I spent Friday in bed, throwing up, etc.  I got up Saturday loaded the car and headed for San Fran.  I felt pretty good but I had not eaten in about 24 hours, my ribs hurt from barfing, and any passing of gas should be a proceed with caution operation. 

I arrived in San Francisco after an uneventful drive.  Checked into my hotel and walked down to Marina Green to pick up my packet and take a look around.  The first thing I noticed was that the sun was out but it was still windy and cold.  I got checked in and walked to the water took a picture of Alcatraz and felt the water.  Brrrrrrr!  They said the water was 51-52 degrees.  By the way the recommended temp for an ice bath is 54-58.  I was not looking forward to the swim start in the morning, air temp mid 40’s, and water temp 51.

I hadn’t eaten a solid meal since Thursday night so I found a nice little Italian joint near my hotel called Parma.   I wasn’t too serious about my race and my appetite seemed to be back so I chose the saffron risotto with asparagus and shrimp, and my traditional one beer.  The meal was excellent and the restaurant was filled with athletes and there was a lot of excitement in the air.  I sat next to a couple from Houston.  The husband, Adam was competing in Alcatraz for the first time so I gave him some pointers and headed back to my hotel pretty excited about the race.

I woke at 4:00 AM and ate some breakfast and organized my things.  My go to break fast when on the road for a race is, Greek yogurt, a plain bagel with peanut butter, and a banana.  I grabbed my backpack, put my helmet on and saddled up for the short ride down to the transition area.  There were already tons of people setting up when I got there.  I set up my transition located the places where I would be coming in an out for each discipline and found some landmarks on the street to find my place.  In a race of 2000 people the transition area is huge so making sure I knew where I would be running to was important.  I gathered my swim things and boarded the shuttle that would take me to Pier 3 where I would board the large riverboat that would take all 2000 of us out to Alcatraz. 

The pre-race time on the boat was very odd for me.  It is rare that I am at a race by myself and that I don’t know a lot of other athletes.  That combined with the quiet, nervous energy that I think is unique to Alcatraz makes for the quietest 2000, wetsuit clad people packed like cattle on a riverboat that you will ever see.  I did see the only two other people that I knew racing, Bend Pro Matt Lieto, and soon to be Bend Pro Jesse Thomas.  I wished them both good luck and returned to the quiet.  I situated myself as close to the door as I could.  If you are over 30 you are supposed to go to the upper deck of the boat.  At 42, I swim very well and do not want to be behind tons of people for the rest of the race so I camped out on the bottom of stairs right near the Pro’s and when they headed out to the deck for their start I filled in the area they had left.  At 7:00 the Pro’s were off and the rest of us piled off the boat right after.  It is quite a scene, 2000 people off the boat in 6 minutes and splashing towards the beach. 

I was in the water in the first wave of swimmers and quickly tried to get into a rhythm.  I remember that in June of 2007 the sun was shining and the bay was very calm.  It was a gorgeous day to swim.  March 2013 was totally different, the sun was not out and parts of the shore were fogged in, making sighting very difficult.  There was quite a bit of wind and the swells were pretty big and white capped. This YouTube video shows the Jump Start. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKqRayXD_VI&feature=em-share_video_user

The amount of times that I got to take a smooth stroke or get a clean breathe, I could count on one hand.  Early on I was thinking that this swim was going to be very hard but the people behind me that were not very comfortable in open water were freaking out.  I swam well and noticed that I was passing some of the Pro’s that had left before the rest of the field.  I navigated my way across the “river” that flows between Alcatraz and the Marina and exited the water super stoked about the swim.  It was hard but really fun.  It is not very often that you get to do a swim like that and those are the types of things that keep me coming back for more.

There is a funky half-mile run from the swim exit at the beach, back to your bike.  Many people leave a set of shoes and a towel at the swim exit.  I chose to run barefoot in my wetsuit, hoping that this would help me warm up.

Me heading to my bike.
I got to my bike after the short run and transitioned out of my wetsuit and into the most bike clothing I have ever worn in a triathlon.  To my wet tri shorts and jersey I added, arm warmers, a coat, socks, shoes with toe warmers, and gloves.  I headed out on the 18 mile bike cold but hoping to get warm quickly.  I knew going in that bike fitness was where I was lacking the most.  All of my training had been on my Computrainer indoors and there hadn’t been all that much if it.  The bike is relatively short but it is very technical and you are always going uphill or downhill.  Once I got settled in and my feet and hands started to thaw.  The pain in my hands and feet quickly switched to my thighs and calves.  My thighs screamed at me at the top of every short, steep climb for not giving them enough work leading up to this race.   The road was in much worse condition than I remembered and there were several teeth rattling potholes and bumps.  Early on I realized that the flu had taken its toll on my hydration.  Although I thought I had been drinking plenty over the past couple days to get back from being ill.  My calves were tight and crampy early on and stayed that way.  I tried to enjoy the ride and became a spectator on the racecourse cheering for my friends, Jesse Thomas and Matt Lieto.  Both looked great coming back on the bike, Jesse in 4th and Matt not far behind.  I made a mental note to try and get them some splits on the run.

Bend Local, Jesse Thomas
I was super excited to get off the bike and start the run.  My run fitness was much better but I knew that my dehydration issues would keep me from running as fast as I would like.  I quickly settled into a nice easy pace feeling the tightness of my calves and looking forward to the tough, technical course.   The first few miles of the course are nice and flat, super easy, and then you start up the stairs.  The stairs are followed by single track with the pro’s flying at you at warp speed.  I counted first place, Olympic Silver Medalist Javier Gomez, second place Kiwi Graham O’Grady and glanced at my watch.  Here came Jesse in third place, but over a minute back of second with less than 3 miles to go.  I stopped and yelled for him to get on the podium as he flew by (he ended up third).   Matt came by in 10th and looked really good.  I kept running and really enjoyed the rest of this course.  I transitioned down to the beach and ran the short out and back on the soft sand knowing that the “Sand Ladder” was the next obstacle to attack. For those of you that have not heard of the infamous “Sand Ladder” here is a video.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwJxu6s4-PQ&feature=em-share_video_user

After the torture of the sand ladder I cruised back along the course and back to Marina Green.  I kept my pace nice and easy, I could tell that if I tried to push it my calves could seize at any moment.  I grabbed some electrolytes at each aid station and slowed way down to thank the volunteers. 

The finish line is insane!  With 15,000 screaming spectators with a grandstand, loud music, the works.  I crossed the finish line in 2:56, unfortunately not out of breath.  I was about 4 minutes slower than I had been in 2007, and I am much faster now than I was then.  Some of that could be chalked up to the swim conditions but mostly due to being sick and not fit (on the bike for sure).  I had a great time, all things considered.  This race is an amazing experience that every triathlete should experience at some point.  One of the main things that I have learned over the years preparing my athletes and myself for races is not to get to upset about the things you have no control over going wrong.  Just know that something may happen that is going to affect your racing negatively and there is nothing you can do about it, just roll with the punches, or in the case the 6-foot swells and the flu.  We get so caught up in the results and forget about all the fun we had preparing for the race, training with friends, and reaching new milestones.  Now I can put the curse of Alcatraz and my lost 2012 season to bed and look forward to exploring my new home in Central Oregon and a successful (and hopefully faster) 2013 season.  Good luck to you all with whatever is on your schedule this year!

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