Wednesday, June 8, 2011

watching Escape from Alcatraz

The weather cooperated on Sunday morning as the feared thunderstorms never materialized. I thus put on my cycling clothes and rolled down Potrero Hill to begin my ride to the Marina to watch the triathlon.

The island. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011


I arrived at 7:10 am, well before the 7:30 am start. Alcatraz island was visible through the slightly misty air. There was plenty of activity in the water, small craft to guide the swimmers through the strong current. It was definitely an exciting time: within a short time I knew that thousands of participants would bravely jump into the freezing Bay and begin swimming towards the shore more than a mile distant. I wondered if any had ever bailed out when crunch time came.

The bike: no problem. The run: no problem. The swim: I couldn't imagine swimming in such cold open water that far. I'd be lucky to be able to breathe again after the thermal shock of plunging into the icey waters. Wet suits can only do so much...

Escape from Alcatraz likes being punctual, and this year was no different, with participants getting wet right on schedule starting at 7:30. From my viewpoint there was the faint hint of activity in the water (including a claimed seal sighting) until, approaching 20 minutes after start, the swarm of splashing color became distinct. And it didn't look good: they were clearly overshooting the beach. Could they recover in time or would they be swept out through the Golden Gate to the pleasure of the waiting sharks? I couldn't tell.

The swarm. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011


Yet then two deviant splashing bodies came into view. Dustin McLarty and Andy Potts were on a perfect line to the upstream corner of the beach. I thought back to 8th grade algebra: someone can swim at speed x and run at speed y, what's the optimal point to land on the shore to go from a point r0 offshore to a point r1 inland? These guys run around four times faster than they swim, so obviously you want to hit the relatively short beach as soon as possible. Dustin went through the timing arch in an official time of 22:29, with Steve right on his heals only two seconds down. Meanwhile the current-swept hoards were frantically trying to recover against the rushing waters of Golden Gate.

I later asked Dustin how he'd managed to take a better line than the others. "I guess I have more open water experience than most of them," he replied.

The main wave of swimmers lands on the beach. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011


Fully 61 seconds after Steve followed Dustin through the arch, Andrew McCartey crossed in 23:32 for third place on the leg. Despite being first out of the water Dustin would fade by the end of the race to 14th. Andrew would finish eighth. But Andy Potts would exploit his excellent swim to win Escape from Alcatraz by 34 seconds over second place Bevan Docherty, who finished 9th in the swim, 76 seconds slower than Potts, in that second wave of finishers. So while in this swim-heavy triathlon the swim didn't dominate the results, a smarter line may well have been what gave Potts his win over Docherty. Or maybe most of that time simply came from Potts' superior water speed.

It was really incredible watching the swimmers energe from the freezing waters. There was a seeming endless wave of them. They varied in how far they overshot the beach, some actually needing to swim fully upstream against the strong current to make the landing zone, but more typically having to just hold off the influence of the flow and sustain an orthoganal trajectory to the coast. I asked a spectator, the wife of a first-wave competitor, whether the currents were weaker approaching the shore, thinking maybe there was a stagnation region. No, she responded, it's stronger there.

With swimmers still arriving in huge numbers, I gave up my viewing spot on the crowded transition region, and decided to watch the next "leg" of this race. This wasn't the bike, but rather the run from the shore to the bicycles, a considerable distance. Most runners did a double transition: running shoes just past the beach, the long run to the bikes, then change into cycling shoes for the bike leg. The best times I see among the top forty eventual finishers were 3:43 for Docherty (2nd overall) and Matt Chrabot (3rd overall) with Potts the only other to break four minutes with 3:55. It's curious the T1 podium seems to match the final podium ignorning order. I suspect each of these guys did the run barefoot, as did some of the runners I saw later. Good calluses could be said to be the key to winning here.

Most participants were considerably slower on T1 than these first three. The running pace generally seemed fairly relaxed. Most were likely just trying to recover from the numbing, tiring swim. Meanwhile in the opposite direction riders were beginning their bike leg.

The "cyclist" view of triathlon tends to be people with way too much disposable income riding their $10k P4's, Spiz, and Trinities with an inflated cost-to-fitness ratio and with body positions which squander the fractional advantage gained from their carbon über-frames. But the reality here is while most of the "pros" were justifiably on high-end rides, more pedestrian bikes were common even among riders who were well-placed. I was forced to rethink some harsh stereotypes.

I set out alongside the bike course to find a good viewing spot for the returning leaders. The bike leg is only 18 miles long, which I estimated at more then 40 kph should take the lead riders around 40 minutes. This turned out to be optimistic: Andy Potts turned the second-fastest bike leg on his slick Kestrel with 46:35. But as he passed me, he was absolutely flying. He looked super-smooth in his aero tuck as he extended the advantage he'd gained in the swim. Dustin McLarty, who'd been first out of the water, was 4:59 slower.

Approaching the finish of the bike leg. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011


As riders would pass I'd shout their placing to them. It got hard to keep track once I'd gotten up to thirty, so I gave up and move on up the bike course to try and intercept the runners, who were running on a parallel trail closer to the water.

Lead woman on the bike. Note the conspicuous lack of dedicated time trial equipment other than clamp-on aero bars. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011


I reached the stairs at Fort Point seconds after Potts had passed, so I missed him. But I was ready for the rest. I was pleased to see fellow Roaring Mouse Larry Rosa here with his camera. Larry was doing commercial work for the race and if he was here that meant it must be a prime viewing spot. He does really superb work.

Taking the stairs two at a time. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011


I was a bit surprised to see the runners I watched take the stairs two at a time. I'm usually pretty good going uphill (not at the level of these guys!) and find it's better for me to "downshift" and take stairs like these one-by-one. I feel the increased load from bounding up them in pairs needs to be repaid with interest later. But I defer to their judgement. I'll be able to test my theory when I do the Zombie Runner Half-Marathon on the same steps in ten days. I'll try the steps one-by-one and see if I can keep up with people doing the double.

I then climbed up from Fort Point on the nearby road to find the famous "sand ladder", the most challenging part of the run. On the road above the stairs riders were going in each direction... only a few still heading out but many, many more returning to T2. The anti-drafting rule was completely unenforcable here, but I didn't see anyone taking advantage. Again I was impressed: my view of triathletes had been that most of them do the wink-wink, nudge-nudge on the anti-drafting rules. Yet I didn't see a single case of this.

I encouraged riders climbing the steep hill before the final descent, then parked my bike near the exit of the sand ladder. A saw a few of the runners near the front pass through here. I initially assumed it was off-limits to go down to see the ladder itself, but I was given permission to do so by the volunteer.

There were a few photographers there, but to my amazement nobody else. It was an extremely cool viewing spot. Everyone, without exception, looked beaten down to some degree. The climb is steep and the sand saps energy. Again this seems to me like a "shift down" moment... save it for what follows. Some of the competitors were pulling themselves by the cable, following the advice which had been offered at the previous day's briefing. All were walking, which had also been advised, although I'm not sure if that was always by choice.

The sighted member of the tandem team leads his site-impared teammate up the feared sand ladder. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011

The guide cable along the sand ladder provided support for tired legs. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011


After I'd seen enough of this suffering, I ran up the upper, shallow grade portion of the sand ladder I'd previously descended, got on my bike, and returned to the start-finish. A large number of participants were descending at this point.

The Stanford women's relay team shares the joy of crossing the finish line. From EscapeFromAlcatraz2011


At the finish I found a spot in the grandstand erected there to watch the Stanford women's relay team run together to the line. Very cool.

But the finish line didn't really interest me: the real action was out on the course. So I left the stands, took a final tour of the expo region, then went to catch the 10:30 AM scheduled meeting of the Mission Cycling ride at the Golden Gate Bridge.. along the way I stopped to cheer more of the runners.

Results are here.

No comments: