I never sleep well the night before a race. I’m too excited to sleep, yet for some reason, I slept well this time. Maybe it was that my body was on New Jersey time that weekend. Maybe it was the peace of mind that comes with experience, which is surprising because something always goes wrong. It’s just a matter of what and when.
Triathlons are tricky. You are swimming in open water, not a pool, so current is an issue.
You are biking and running outside, so hills are an issue. There are time cut offs you have to make, so the danger of being too late is an issue. Escape from Alcatraz came with an additional concern: I needed to be on a 6:15 a.m. ferry to the swim start.
5:15 a.m. I was in taxi with my best friend, Peter and my wife Janet.
5:35 a.m. I started to set up transition. That entailed laying out my shoes and clothes for my “transition” from the swim to the bike ride.
5:45 a.m. I started my morning prayers. It only takes me five minutes to say my morning prayers. Four minutes in, Peter started yelling at me, “Hurry up or you will miss the ferry.” He was standing on the other side of the barricade with my wife who was also worried that I would miss the bus that took me to the ferry that took me to Alcatraz.
(Isn’t this a run-on sentence?)
Only participating athletes were permitted inside the transition area.
(So your friend and wife were powerless to move you along faster?)
I knew that I had nine more minutes, so I wrapped up my praying (literally). That’s when I found “the” problem.
Not enough air in my bike tires. I had to make a split second decision: Do I start running around looking for a pump or do I just leave it and trust that slightly under inflated tires would be OK?
(But you had nine minutes)
I still had to exit the fenced off area and make my way to the transport bus. Naturally once I reached the bus, there was a line to board.
(So your wife and best friend stopped nagging you?)
I made my wife and best friend Peter stop nagging me. We took one last photo together, I said goodbye and boarded the bus.
Once at the dock, we climbed aboard the ferry and I looked for a place to sit on the floor.
It looked like an evacuation transport for triathletes. Just neoprene wetsuit clad athletes sitting on the floor. Some laying on the floor sleeping.
(Maybe they died of fright?)
The engine of the ferry came alive like a slumbering dragon who just awoke. The floor vibrated below my feet.
(The neoprene wetsuit clad athletes woke up?)
I didn’t check, I was staring out the window at Alcatraz Island. My thoughts were focused on “The Rock.”
I knew that exiting the ferry meant walking like lemmings off the deck, into the 55 degree waters 15 feet below. One minute you are standing, in neoprene, warm sun on your face, feet firmly planted on the deck of the ferry. The next, your face is under the water. The icy grip of 55 degree water clasping to every exposed part of your body, like needles poking your skin. The gurgle sound of the ocean rushed in to fill your ears. Your field of vision is filled with bubbles rising in the green water, while sun light cut through shining down on what lays just below the surface, where your eyes focus. Above the water is an armada of kayaks to support a migration of swim caps that seem to bob on the water’s surface. Sometimes I turned to breathe and I saw Alcatraz or the San Francisco coast. Other times, the swells were so high that I got a mouth full of water instead of sea air for my lungs.
(You enjoy doing this?)
Oh, yes. I had trained for this at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.
(You didn’t panic when you couldn’t breathe?)
Panicking leads to hyperventilating, puking, drowning, not finishing the race…I relaxed my body and continue swimming as I spit out the sea. Practice has taught me to focus instead of panicking. The cloudless sky made visibility easy, when the waves permitted me to see over them. I felt like I was motionless, but the current was pushing me ever more towards the mouth of the Pacific Ocean.
I listen to the kayakers yelling at me to “turn left.” I did, but the current was too strong. I soon was in danger of being swept out to sea.
A police officer on a jet ski (you can’t make this up) pulled me over and informed me to hold on as he will “reposition me.” Normally, any assistance results in disqualification, but this is Escape From Alcatraz. In the space of 30 seconds, I went from becoming shark food to being positioned parallel to the shore.
I swam to the beach and ran to my bike.
Peter and my wife were waiting there to greet me.
I changed and ran my bike out onto the course.
(You cannot ride your bike inside the transition area)
First two miles were flat, which made me forget that this is San Francisco. For the next 14 miles, it was like cycling a camel’s back. Every time I went zooming down a steep street there would be an incline to meet me. There were two incredibly steep climbs on the way back. I saw cyclists dismount and walk their bikes. In 11 years of racing, I have never dismounted and walked my bike up a hill and this wasn’t going to be the day I started. When the inclines became steep, I stood up and continued to climb. Standing up while pedaling causes your quads to fatigue at an exponential rate. If the pain began too great, I might have puked, but I would rather throw up than walk.
(What is with you and puking?)
Mile 16 was the steep, final descent, but I limited my speed to 25 mph (instead of 45). The roads were bumpy and winding. My wife would murder me if I got killed from a tire blow out.
(Remember those tires I was talking about)
The last two miles were flat and I continued on at 23 mph. The months of cycling at home were paying off. I was now passing people who had passed me on those hills.
(Yes, it did feel good).
The end of the bike course comes up on you quickly when you are going 23 mph, so in the last mile I opened my bike shoe straps. I slid my feet out of shoes & pressed down on the clipped in shoes with my toes. At the “dismount line” I hopped off the bike.
In triathlon, you can’t ride up to your bike rack, you have to walk (or jog) your bike over to the rack. To “transition” to the run, I just needed to remove my helmet & slide on the sneakers.
All I had to do was run eight miles, but this is San Francisco.
Mile one: My legs felt like they were full of sand, but I refuse to walk. So I focused on the fact that the sun was shining. After what felt like six months of winter, this was a welcome change for me. I was “in the zone” jogging along when random stranger ran past me and asked:
“You from New York?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Do you know Aaron Birnbaum?”
“Yes, how do you know him?”
“We’ve done a few long runs together.”
“I don’t think my nephew runs.”
It wouldn’t be a triathlon without a random stranger making conversation with me. It just seems to happen at every race.
(Isn’t that how you met your best friend, Peter Shankman?)
Mile two: As I closed in on the first set of stairs that I had to climb.
And you thought the swim was the only challenge?
My phone rang, so I looked at it.
While running. It was my house line:
“Hey Dad, I have a question. Can I...”
“Eric I’m in the middle of a race. Call your mother.”
Mile three: I ran up the flight of stairs and past the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mile four: I ran down onto the beach, through loose sand. Each step sank in, causing fatigue. This isn’t running, it’s dancing in quicksand.
Mile five: At the end of the beach, I came to “The Stairs of Sand.” Ok, this is by far the hardest thing I’ve done today. I knew that if I tried to run, the sand would just open up and swallow my sneaker.
(So, naturally you tried to run)
Naturally. I quickly reached “puke level fatigue,” so I walked.
(Again with the puking?)
Mile six: I’ve crested “The Stairs” and began my run back. I was being extra careful not to become so enamored with the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge that I trip and face plant on the WWII concrete instantiation. Experience has taught me that when the endorphins are flowing, mistakes happen.
Mile seven: Alcatraz greeted me as I ran to the finish. By this point I was really feeling the sun beat down upon me. In my mind, I kept thinking, “There had better be beer at the finish.”
Mile eight: Fifty feet from the finish line, my wife, my best friend, my athlete and his mom all gave me “hi-fives” as I ran by…and yelled at me to “RUN FASTER!”
This was shorter than an Ironman, but in many ways, it required just as much preparation. That’s OK, I enjoyed the journey as much as the destination…except that the destination had cold beer.
By David Roher