When it comes to triathlon racing, the less you grip, the more you can rip.
Work, coaching and family life has kept me very busy the last several months and weeks, a theme I covered in my Ironman Santa Rosa report last month. So properly preparing myself to race has taken a pronounced back seat. It's the one aspect of my life where I feel comfortable sacrificing, since it's "only" me who is affected. This translates to being OK with doing the best I can completing workouts, and not studying a race course as much as I normally might pre-event. That time is best invested instead helping my Good Wolf Coaching athletes.
In this case, personal race prep taking a back seat also translated to forgetting my wetsuit at home after helping pack and load the car for Steph and Audra. I realized it halfway up the 5 Freeway to Oakland and rented a last-minute wetsuit. (Thanks Sports Basement for the clutch BlueSeventy Fusion suit!, and for Good Wolf athlete Paul helping me try to find a quick replacement.)
So my approach to Alcatraz was necessarily simple:
Just be happy to race…it was iffy all week leading into E3, our Super Bowl in the videogames business. Went so far as to request late packet pick up on Saturday -- and didn’t confirm 100% that I could race until Thursday.
I haven't done a non-70.3 or full Ironman distance race in two years, so my "go hard or go home" fitness level isn't quite there. Which made my race strategy even simpler: Find the hardest sustainable edge of my current version of uncomfortable and stay there as long as I could. Then, keep nudging that limit north as the race progresses. Jim Lubinski, my coach at Tower 26, agreed -- this would be the plan.
In sum: Race as hard as I can sustain, and have fun doing it. Let it RIP!
(H/t to Gerry Rodrigues, coaching guru at Tower 26, who often says “grip it and rip it” to describe the propulsive phase of a swim stroke…I’m riffin’ off that in a slightly different way.)
That's more important for what it didn't mean. I DIDN'T over-analyze every hill pre-race. DIDN'T obsess about weather, currents and chop in the water. DIDN'T stress about gear (or beating myself up about not bringing it!). DIDN't stress about what I ate or drank -- heck, I downed a beer on my birthday the day before ha! And I DIDN’T monitor pace, heart rate or watts during the race. Don’t GRIP!
Then, I went out and executed a strong performance – 10/258 in my age group. I wasn't in the best shape, physically or mentally speaking. But I was able to think and feel my through a challenging course moment-by-moment, totally present -- and it paid off.
Swim: We were blessed with one of the finest San Francisco days of the year. Calm waters, clear skies, low to non-existent wind, and some heat. Good Wolf athlete and race day volunteer, Diana, was gracious to drop me off at the race and kept commenting on the ferry ride how lucky we were with the weather. Knowing Twain's quote about the coldest winters being San Francisco summers, I could imagine!
The ferry ride was calm and peaceful amidst an on-board energy wave of nervous athletes stuffing themselves into wetsuits. I boarded the boat early, found a wall on the lower deck to rest my back, and stayed calm. I had planned to head to the upper deck, but there was so much chaos with athletes of all ages scurrying to find the best seating spot that I opted to do the same.
When it was time to prepare to jump into the 56-degree water, I took some advice from an Andy Potts coaching video Diana showed me from the day before. I grabbed two cups of ice water and poured them down my wetsuit front, shocking my chest a bit and preparing for the massive temperature jolt about to come. That’ll wake you up!
It worked, along with copious amounts of Aquafor on my lips, around my nostrils and cheeks. The water was cold, but never unmanageable. I've honestly swam in colder temperatures over the years (IM Couer d'Alene 2011, IM Tahoe 2013). I felt comfortable in the water and could actually feel my feet (AND toes!) when I exited onto the beach 34 minutes later.
The biggest trick to the Alcatraz swim is sighting. Everyone talks about it beforehand. You're supposed to look to Marina Towers directly across the ferry. Then, aim for the tree groves in the Marina Green Park. Then, there's the dome you can point yourself towards near the Marina Yacht Club. The race director implores everyone to swim ACROSS the river, then angle towards shore.
I did this diligently...until I started reading what was happening around me, and I trusted my gut to shift position sooner. I could see out of my right corner eye (thank you Aquasphere Cayenne goggles for the great peripheral vision!) that kayakers were starting to angle farther to the Golden Gate Bridge rather than in a perpendicular-to-shore direction. I also noticed I could see fewer and fewer swimmers directly in front of me.
I don't have the GPS data (damn watch couldn't catch a signal) to back up whether this was a good move. I may have made it too late, actually. Once I re-positioned towards the dome, I kept it directly in front of me and angled left towards shore only with about 500-700 yards to go. I had heard stories about how the current could sweep you too far to the right of the beach, forcing an against-the-current swim. Long story short: Sure, sight off the landmarks everyone tells you about. But make sure to be mindful of where the kayakers are positioned as well, watch them, and split the difference.
My swim was good for 46th out of 258 in my age group coming ashore. That’s better than normal for me, actually. Considering the lack of swim training lately (1-2x week), I’ll more than take it.
Once you get to shore, you’re greeted almost immediately by wetsuit strippers, ala an Ironman event. It’s a no-brainer to utilize these folks in my opinion. You’re cold coming out of the water and sudden jerky movements to remove your wetsuit might result in a cramp or even a muscle tear. I also recommend opting for a second pair of running shoes (the primary pair being at T2) to shove on your feet to run the roughly half-mile to your bike at Marina Green. You get a bag to place those shoes from the race organizers pre-event. I held onto my wetsuit like a football and ran as hard as I ever have in a transition back to my bike.
The big debate going into the bike portion of Escape from Alcatraz is whether to bring a road bike or tri bike. I opted to slightly modify my road bike setup with an 11/28 cassette and deeper dish Enve Smart 6.7 wheels. I’m personally glad I did. Road conditions at Golden Gate Park are not great, with many cracks and divots on the pavement, along with several speed humps. There are very few sections of the course where you can just drop into an aero position and stay there for an extended period of time. You can’t even avoid the speed bumps by riding the street gutters because there are too many people cluttering the entire roadway. Further, the course became congested quickly, and many people broke cardinal rules of bike handling, drafting or passing etiquette. I saw multiple people pass on someone’s right side, and even I had to a couple times as well since there were two or three people riding side-by-side up hills or on parts of the Golden Gate Park portion of the course. I would have felt on-edge and downright agitated on a tri bike.
If you’re going to ride a tri bike at Escape From Alcatraz, it should be for the following reasons:
You are totally confident you’re going to be in the hunt for a podium spot;
You’re an excellent swimmer and will therefore have more room to maneuver earlier on the bike course;
You have excellent bike handling skills – there are at least three sketchy corners where you are taking significant downhill speed into a sharp turn, in race traffic;
You’re a monster cyclist that can simply ride away from a pack to avoid traffic; and/or
You can climb and stay in an aero position while doing it.
With my road bike setup, I pedaled and descended hard, with aggression the entire way. I only glanced at my watts occasionally, usually on the tougher climbs. Which, by comparison, felt similar to approximations of Chalk Hill at Ironman Santa Rosa in terms of intensity and gradient. When I looked at my watts, I wished I hadn’t as I was way over budget (250-plus!). But since my goal was to redline and have fun doing it, I kept pushing. After 11 years of triathlon racing, I know what a sustainable redline feels like. I was definitely there, questioning my judgment, my discomfort tolerance, and fitness. That means you’re doing it right!
One trick that helps me get through the difficulty is to have an internal soundtrack playing in my head. It takes me away from the temporary misery while fueling my motivation depending on the song. Lately, my family has watched a lot of The Greatest Showman, basically on a loop. Audra loves it! (I secretly do to…) The beat and positivity in “Come Alive” propelled me through my bike ride and the intensity of Loren Allred’s vocal performance in “Never Enough” kept my fire lit on the run.
Side rant: Some coaches argue against training with music because you can’t use it on course. I think that’s ludicrous. The training we do is incredibly monotonous. Making it even worse by not bringing something to help you get through the dull daily moments can lead to burnout. If you use music or podcasts wisely, it’s nutrition for the brain. Why wouldn’t you bring good mental nutrition with you to a race?
Speaking of nutrition, I felt solid coming off the bike after eating a large breakfast early in the morning, a banana 30 minutes out and a gel about 15 minutes from the start. Essentially, I ate as if I was racing an Ironman. During the bike portion, I consumed most of one bottle of Base Performance “Rocket Fuel” (~200 calories) and it held me over just fine for the remainder of the race – along with half a small gel flask later on the run.
Riding into T2 just under an hour later, I was definitely feeling the stinging sensation in my legs, but knew I was ready to run. After the race, I learned I jumped more than 30 places on the bike in my age group, hitting 14th at this point. (Yes, I wonder what I could do if I swam more and better!)
Only the legendary Wildflower Triathlon can claim a more challenging California triathlon run, though the course for Escape From Alcatraz wins hands-down in scenery. Plus, you don’t have to worry about snakes!
Rather than get into paces and course details (sand ladder!), I’ll keep this pretty brief. I felt my run was successful for two reasons:
I pushed hard the whole way and had room to push even harder the last two miles;
I used basic racing tactics to help me beat more people down the stretch.
The first part is simple, I knew where my “comfortably uncomfortable” limit was on an eight-mile run route I didn’t know, and stayed in that place until the peak of the long hill after the dreaded sand ladder. The out-and-back route helped me game-plan in the moment. Then, barring some embarrassingly bad staircase descending, I pushed my pace until the very end.
Race tactics helped me keep at least five people off my back at various points in the race. My most common tactic was to “encourage” others to work with me going uphill to share a pace load. I could tell when I had people drafting off my pace ascending hills (it’s not hard…footsteps and the panting over my shoulder kinda give it away!) and would flick my elbow like a bike race. At one point, I remember telling people to do some of the damn work themselves and one kind soul took me up on it. Not pulling a bunch of people up the long climb following the sand ladder helped me conserve energy for the final descent and flat section of the course later, where I dropped the people following me up and over the sand ladder. This also involved a bit of playing possum in the home stretch – I asked two guys to take over the work with about a mile to go as I was “gassed.” I stayed with them just off their feet for about a minute and then dropped the pace again, passing for good. Hey, all is fair in racing (minus the drugs), right?
One quick note on the sand ladder: It’s basically a 2-4 minute leg and lung buster practically straight up a flight of wooden-plank stairs. If you’re in LA, the best way to train is to get to Santa Monica stairs and practice repeats there; knowing how to descend stairs nimbly later in the run is just as important. If you’re not in LA or can’t easily get to Santa Monica, just take the stairs at your workplace if you have them for a period of weeks and practice doing them quickly both ascending and descending. Also, be ready for a quarter-mile or so run in full sand before you turn onto the shoreline as you approach the sand ladder.
Escape From Alcatraz was a confidence boost for me. I recovered well from Ironman Santa Rosa four weeks prior. I also had mentioned in a triathlete forum discussion weeks ago that I’d have been happy with top 15-20 age group placement. Jackpot! Of the nine people who beat me in my age group, two raced IMSR and clobbered me there by almost an hour each. But I was within 3-5 minutes of them both at Alcatraz. Most of the other guys in front of me either had raced at Kona, at least one earning an age group podium there, 70.3 World Championships, or even both. (Thanks to Christophe Balestra and his Obstri.com app!) It was a stacked field, and I was in good company -- on a busy husband/daddy/career/coach training budget.
It feels gratifying to know that the best of what I can give athletically to this sport is still good enough to be competitive on occasion. Even if I forget a wetsuit along the way.
So what does it take to rip it and not overly grip it? I think it’s a delicate balancing act filled with several considerations. Among them:
Balance race preparation while embracing your moment-to-moment instincts;
Balance mental presence (be in the moment) while thinking ahead;
Balance taking calculated risks while trusting your race plan;
Balance respecting your physical limits while nudging them north; and
Balance focusing on yourself while acknowledging the race around you.
Accomplishing this has taken me a long time to come close to getting right. And failure is part of the journey. In order to improve, you must take risks. I’ve failed many times, sometimes repeating mistakes. That makes recent personal successes like Ironman Santa Rosa and Escape from Alcatraz that much more special.