Friday, April 5, 2013

RR: I never know why people read these. Escaping from Alcatraz.

Race Reports
I have never understood why people write these and people read them, but apparently we are all secretly gluttons for punishment who really just want to share in the pain of the competitor. I have raced twice since moving out to California, so here is the first report of the two races I have done: the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.  I give a quick shout out to my coach, Martin Spierings, who will be getting a blog post later. My second race, the Oakland half marathon, will also get a race report, so if you enjoy reading this, hold your breath and it will be up later on.

My initial idea to do triathlons started when I was around 8 years old and I was on vacation with my family, and in the condo where we were staying was a triathlon magazine. I was already on a swim team, and I fancied myself to be athletic, so why not do a triathlon. I ran around in the lawn outside of the condo for a while to start my “training” immediately. Quick anecdote-my perceptions of my athletic ability as kid were no where close to reality. My dad continually reminds me that one day he asked me who was the best player on the my 8 and under baseball team-I obviously said it was me even though it was clear that I was one of the worst...

My dreams of competing in a triathlon were postponed for a while-I realize that I hated running, but as a teen, I told myself that I would enter the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. That goal became a reality this year when I entered into the lottery and received a spot.

A quick breakdown of the race- a 1.5 mile swim in the San Francisco Bay (water temps low 50s), a hilly 18 mile ride with roughly 1000 feet of elevation change and some steep sharp hills, and a hilly 8 mile run. The race this year was moved up from June to March to accommodate the America’s cup, which is being held in the San Francisco Bay.

Finally, to the race report:
This is the first race since high school that my family was going to be in attendance. An added bonus-my brother was going to be there-we had effectively just switched coasts-I got a job at my old high school after living/working in Virginia, and he had been at UCLA for medical school, but he got placed at Yale for his ER residency. He flew out a week early for his wedding to see me race. Much appreciated. With my family there, I had to put on a show.

The transition area opened around 4am for a 7:30am; I was there by 4:30. My brother drove over with me in case I couldn’t find parking. I knew that it was going to be a good race day because on the drive over, we heard Kesha on the radio. My friend Greg Grosicki and I would always listen to the latest Kesha song to get pumped up. The song this morning?

Judge all you want, this is catchy and it gets stuck in your head, and you can race to it.

I set up my bike and transition gear, and went for a quick jog to loosen up. My awesome brother hung out while I warmed up.
My bike in T1. Reppin' my tribe pride.

The worst part about this race is the fact that it starts 7:30, but you need to be ready around 5:30~6am. You board a bus that takes you to a pier, then you have to be on the boat that takes you out to Alcatraz by 6am, and then you sit. A huge unexpected bonus of this was seeing a friend of mine that I had swum with at Orinda Aquatics-we randomly were on the same bus, so we got to catch up for a bit.

On the boat, you are only supposed to bring on your wetsuit and goggles, which means that you are sitting on a boat when it is ~50 degrees outside in your tri suit and holding a wetsuit with ~2000 other people. People were nervous, sitting in small circles talking or resting.  I sat on the floor and tried to stay warm, and tried to plan out my race.

Every 20 minutes or so, someone would come over the intercom with some words of encouragement, which were needed as it had startled to drizzle outside, and air temps were also in the low 50s. As we drew closer to 7:30, it was announced the start of the race would be delayed by 15 minutes due to a cruise ship in the way. I moved myself near the doors, trying to get in the opening wave of people going off. When the doors finally opened on the boat, we could see that we were about 50 yards off of Alcatraz.

The national anthem was played, and the race started. We were to jump off the back of the boat, and then either use land sights to swim in or follow a boat with a giant orange buoy on the back of it. I was about ten rows back from the first people jumping in, and the crowd was moving slowly. I ended up jumping over a hand railing at the back of the boat to get in the water as I had already crossed the starting mat, and I was getting impatient-my time had started, and I was on a boat, and there were people in my way, so over the railing I went.

And the water was cold (race day temp of 51 degrees Farenheit). I had been swimming weekly in Aquatic Park, and the first time I was in the water there, I could barely keep my head in without significant discomfort. My longest swim in Aquatic Park had lasted 40 minutes. I hoped to be out of the water in 30. I was wearing a wetsuit, a swim cap, a neoprene cap, and then my race cap. I hoped this would be enough.
Aquatic Park on a sunny day

It was super choppy in the water. The waves were so big that the boat with the marker buoy we were supposed to be following would disappear behind the waves. That, plus the cold, caused me to tighten up, but I realized that this is swimming, and swimming is easy, so stop being such a pansy Savage and stretch out and swim.

I usually don’t put effort into my swim, and save everything for the bike and the run. The second two disciplines are notoriously difficult in this race. I felt pretty good after the swim, but was really cold. After the swim, you have roughly a half mile run to get to transition to your bike, and at Escape, they give you a chance to put on shoes and take off your wetsuit (you set this up the day before at packet pickup). You let the volunteers know what you race number is, they guide you to your pre set up bag, and you do your thing. I was so cold that I couldn’t enunciate my race number, and ended up using my hands to tell them my number. I struggled with taking off my wetsuit and putting on my shoes. My T1 was insanely slow. I ended up slipping on the run to the bike and landing on my ass, but no damage done.

I got to the bike, put on some cheap target gloves, and started pushing pedals. The course is hilly, and I was familiar with it as I had ridden the course a bunch of times. My goal was to be under an hour on the course-slower than normal, but factoring in the hills. I was riding with a couple of people, and I started to pick people off on the inclines, and holding on the flats and declines. I will say that this is the only course that I have yakked on-it was unexpected, and I ended up with a mouth full of vomit around mile 4. I spat it out, rinsed, and pushed on. I felt fine, so away we went.

The rest of the bike was uneventful. A couple of steep technical downhills hitting above 40 mph a couple of times. I saw a couple of people who had crashed, but I pushed on. I knew I was under my goal time, and pushed on into transition, shoving a gel down my throat with about 3 miles to go on the bike.

I hit t2 feeling solid. I hopped off the bike, slipped on my shoes, and…leg cramp. My quad tightened up as I ran out. One major mistake that I made prior to the race was that I had never run the course. I knew that the course was hilly, and I knew where the general hills were, but I didn’t know anything else. I was nervous, and now with a cramp, I was scared about not being able to finish.

I left with a group of three or four from t2. I knew I had about 15-20 people in front of me, plus an unknown number of pros. Only a few people had passed me on the bike, and I knew I was in solid position after my swim. These people that I left with kept me focused on the run-despite the cramping quad, I wanted more than anything to hold on to my position.

Fortunately, no one from the group I left with was a beast runner-that probably would have mentally killed me. At the first aid station, I poured down a water and whatever electrolyte beverage they were handing out, and was able to loosen up. Then the hills began. I started to pull away with a guy in an Olympic Club tri suit, and he paced me the rest of the run.

The run goes flat, then up, then down, then along baker beach, then up, then down, and flat again. Standard out and back course. The pros started to pass me on the way back, and they looked intense. No smile, no words of good luck, no nothing from them. They were there to race. And they were booking it. The Olympic club guy and I ran for a while, and then he broke away on the downhill before baker beach.

If you ever are in the bay area and have the opportunity, you should ride and walk the course. It is incredibly beautiful, but difficult to take in while racing. The only thing that you are focusing on is climbing the hills, carefully descending so you don’t crash on a turn, or rolling your ankles. On the run, I took a few looks at the Pacific.

 Views on sunny days from the bike course. The bottom is Ocean Beach, the top is obviously the Golden Gate Bridge.

After a few glances up on the descent to take in the views, you hit baker beach. I ran down near the water for the harder sand, and pulled back one runner, and a couple of pro females. We then hit the “sand ladder”-effectively a very long stair case that is built into a sand dune, and a long uphill back. I fell for the second time in the race, as my foot slipped on one of the stairs. I took my time on the stairs, not wanting to blow up with half the run back.

After climbing the final hill, I looked down at my watch to realize that I needed to put out just over 6 minute miles for the final three miles to get under my goal time of 2:30. After holding just under 7 for the first 5, I knew this would be a challenge, but it was all downhill or flat, which would be to my advantage. The only issue was that the rest of the field was heading out, and there was little space on the trails. I had to fight to stay on the paths and keep my balance.

I pushed through the two downhill miles to realize that I would need a 6 minute mile to get under 2:30. I was gassed. And then I got passed by a couple of runners. I buried my head and fought to hold on, but I couldn’t go with them. I crossed the line in just over 2:30 according to my watch.

I took my finisher medal, and found a spot to sit down in the finishing area. My family came over to find me, and told me that I had placed 38th overall, and 5th in my age group-a huge surprise for me-I knew that I was near the front, but didn’t realize that I had done so well. My dad told me that I was also under 2:30, with an official time of 2:29:45-I had finished in a higher place and a faster time than I had planned. Both huge bonuses, and a mental break for me.
My official result. They had fancy kindle things where the times were electronically updated-cool, but it was time consuming to have to wait to get one.

A huge thank you goes out to my family. I heard them at every transition yelling for me. Definitely took any pain out of my legs. I am incredibly grateful that they came out to watch a race where they would only see me for minutes, and then stand for hours waiting for me to show up again. This is not a spectator friendly sport, and they were there to support me.

A thank you also goes out to my coach, Martin Spierings. I have never had a coach before for triathlon training, and he has kept me disciplined and I have not missed workouts because of him. He adjusted as needed, and hopefully I will improve through the season with his help.

After the race, I took a closer look at what could have been done better. I did a lot of things wrong. Slipping twice, the incredibly slow t1, the cramping on the run are all simple mistakes that can be eliminated. Not running the run course beforehand-a stupid mistake. They all added up and I ended up on missing the age group podium by :30 seconds. This race was early in the season, and I pretty much didn’t train from the end of August until December.

I will be back, and I will go faster.

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