Alcatraz XVII Triathlon
Saturday, June 28, 1997
1.5 mile swim, 2 mile warmup run, 15.6 mile bike, 10 mile run
San Francisco, CA

My third swim from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park proved one thing: No two Alcatraz swims are alike. And never assume that you know what you're doing out there.

At my first Alcatraz tri in '95, I had no idea how well I swam; I had a straight shot into Aquatic Park and finished up in something like 45 minutes. '96 was the year of the killer ebb current that dragged more than a few hapless swimmers west of the cove entrance; yours truly got caught in that monstrous current just outside the cove and narrowly avoided being dragged beyond the entrance. After a furious struggle, I slipped limply into the cove and climbed out of the water in 52 minutes. Ouch!

Well, this year I erred on the side of caution. Determined not to become kayak fodder beyond the Mason Street Pier, I (and not a few others) swam determinedly east of the Aquatic Park entrance. Head for the Pyramid! Head for the Pyramid! Beware that vicious current playfully referred to as the "Tahiti Express"; make it your ally this year, not your enemy. Let that current be the express train that carries you into the cove in first-class comfort and style!

Hmmm. Hey, it was a good idea. But we sort of forgot to account for the wind blowing in from the Gate that was kicking up some furious east-bound chop. And how were we to know that the "Tahiti Express" was more like a tired old Model T Ford this year?

Basically, I wound up swimming something of an oversized upside-down "L" course. I kept expecting the current to move me faithfully westward as I directed my strokes toward the southeast, but it just never happened. Additionally, I think I was swimming faster than I expected to, because by the time I realized that I wasn't being pushed westward by the current, I was much closer to land than I expected. Ooops. OK, well, just make a hard right and swim west for a while; the current is sure to catch you sooner or later.

It never really happened. I don't think it did, anyway. I kept thinking about a friend who'd done this swim two weeks before and mentioned that he'd made the very same mistake; the chop and waves blowing in from the Golden Gate basically beat the *&#@ out of him as he battled his way toward Aquatic Park. Yep, well, now I know precisely how he felt.

A pity, really, because I felt stronger than I'd ever felt befor on that swim. My swimming has definitely improved this year, and I was really looking forward to a PR for the little Alcatraz splash. Sure, it felt like I was swimming for an awfully long time, but it always feels like you're swimming forever at Alcatraz. Yeah, I was aware that I'd overdone the easterly thing, but I wasn't at all prepared for the numbers that greeted my disbelieving eyes upon hitting the split button on my watch at the shore: 57:02. Double Ouch. Whoooeee, that is ugly!

Oh well! I still felt good about that swim anyway. So what if my navigational skills proved to be less than adequate? Hey, I need to get used to swimming for a long time anyway; IMC's just 8 weeks away. I'll tell you one thing, though: It was definitely the roughest of my 3 Alcatraz swims. The chop never quit, and more than once I turned my head to breathe only to have a wave collide head-on with my face. Truth to tell, I rather enjoyed the thrill of adversity (yeah, I know, I'm sick; but what did you expect, I'm training for an Ironman).

After the swim, I regarded the rest of the day as cake, just a long, hard training day. The rumor that Deb heard about the bike course turned out, unfortunately, to be true. Because the June 1 race started at a ridiculously late hour (10am), the bike course for that event had to remain closed to traffic for an absurdly long time. Understandably, this angered and alienated local residents to the point that the Envirosports event was coerced into changing its bike course at the last minute.

The new course consisted of three hilly loops through the Presidio grounds; I actually found it much tougher than the original course, despite the fact that it was about 3 miles shorter. I tried to take it easy on the bike, but the hills made it impossible to really softpedal the ride. I made the most of the descents and suffered on the climbs. It was frustrating to know that just a week before I had been able to ride hard at Danskin, but now, after a week of no training while fighting off a bug, this short ride hurt like the devil.

With the constant up and down there was never a flat place to get aero and really hammer. However, there was at least one major plus about the last-minute course change: the wind out on the Great Highway would surely have taken down more than a few riders had we been on the original course. In the Presidio, we were generally pretty well sheltered from those blustery gales, and thank heaven for small favors.

I rolled into the transition area after an hour and seven minutes for the 15.65 miles. I am appalled to admit that this meant my average speed was 13.8 mph. Oh dear. Um, yeah, well, a training race, remember, a training race.

So now go for a nice long easy run. With a few hills. And some sand. And some sandy hills. Uh huh.

It's uncanny how he does it, but race director Dave Horning manages to make the race harder every year, one way or another. This year the run course included a minor change that intensified the pain. Rather than running up Lincoln Boulevard on the roadway through the golf course, we turned off earlier onto the dirt trails out to Land's End. Sure, this eliminated the climb up Lincoln Boulevard, but it did not eliminate the CLIMBING. It just meant we got to climb in sand and dirt. Oh, sure, it was breathtakingly beautiful out there, but why the hell didn't he just make us run up the Sand Ladder twice? The effect would have been precisely the same.

Even when you take it easy on that damned Alcatraz run it beats the crap out of you. I never get over how hard it is. I was just trotting along most of the time, trying to relax and survive. Every uphill just whipped the tar outta me though. And the Sand Ladder really broke me this year; I just hope nobody who knows me actually witnessed the method I employed to haul my sorry tail up that thing.

When you were a kid, did you ever chase your dog up the stairs in your house, duplicating his manner of locomotion by using your hands as well as your feet to negotiate the steps? There you have it, that's how I did it. At least until my arms and shoulders became exhausted. Then I simply resorted to hauling myself upward via the cabled railings. And every year more and more of the rungs of the ladder disappear beneath waves of sand. Fun! Uphill through sand! Can you imagine anything more enjoyable? And you know, on that other sandy uphill section we didn't even have a bloody cable railing to hold on to...

The funniest part of the day had to be when I rounded the steep concrete curve of the trail heading toward the Golden Gate Bridge on the way out and encountered a Japanese wedding party taking photographs with the Bridge in the background. Excuse me! Coming through! Pardon my sweat....

Well, I finished up at a respectable, brisk trot, but definitely held back. No point in completely frying myself when I've got 4 more hard weeks of IM training ahead of me. Final time was 4:27:17, my slowest Alcatraz yet, but what the hell! I swear the damned thing gets harder every year. One thing's for sure: Alcatraz is NEVER boring.

On a final note, heartiest congratulations go out to RSTer and total studmuffin Deb Melnikoff of Santa Cruz. Our Miss Deb smoked that course to win her 40-44 age group AND come in 3rd woman OVERALL!!!! Yeeeeee-yowww! Not to mention she did the whole thing with a smile on her face. Deb, you are such a rockmeister, and definitely an inspiration! As far as the other top finishers, the only name I recognized was number 1 woman Nancy Vallance. The male winner was a transplanted Englishman now residing (I think they said) in New York whose name I didn't catch but whose time was 2:50:xx. So I was only an hour and 37 minutes slower, cool!


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