the Great Escape from Alcatraz

Wind and cold closed the Saturday evening expo early, and the weather hadn’t changed by 4am Sunday morning when I rolled into the transition area. After my gear was set up, I met Teddy and Justin, who would bike and run respectively on Chris’s team. I walked Teddy through the handoff of the timing chip from Chris before the bike ride, and how to find Justin after the ride. (Each teammate would wait in the transition area and hand the computer chip ankle strap to the teammate who would race the next leg.) Chris, a highly competitive veteran triathlete saw these remedial academics and blanched. I guess we forgot to tell him neither of his teammates had ever seen a triathlon. However, Teddy and Justin are excellent athletes and their team finished third out of 24.

I finished significantly behind them, but then again, I started behind them also. Or so dictated the plan for race start. After a short 4:30am bus ride from the transition area to the ferry, Chris, Jay, Tom and I froze outside for the next hour until the ferry started loading. The San Francisco Belle was a floating casino gutted of all furniture. Even so, 1800 athletes barely fit. Jay and I were the lucky ones, squashed against a wall where I curled up inside my wetsuit and sweats, trying to get warm. I didn’t feel my feet until fellow racers’ body heat warmed me for half and hour in the crowded bathroom line. I barely made it back to our coveted place against the wall in time to finish getting ready to race. When I arrived, I found that my spot was taken, but Jay was talking with a guy about FCA-E and Christ. The enthusiastic man suggested, let’s pray. I leaned forward in to their huddle to join them. Meanwhile, Chris had gotten to pray for the race over the ship’s loudspeaker (it was too loud on the lower deck where I was to hear that, however.)

In the bathroom line, I’d heard the description of the race start: pro’s, challenged athletes, teams in the first wave at 0700; 30-34 year old athletes in the next wave at 0701; 35-39 year old athletes at 0702:30… That’s all I needed to hear, so I stopped listening. Each group had a distinct color bathing cap. The wave before me (Jay’s wave) had red caps. Mine was light green. I lined up in the midst of a sea of red and green caps. A fog horn blew. The race had started. But I stood still in a milling crowd steeped in anticipation. A minute passed and the loudspeaker mumbled on. My earplugs and neoprene bathing cap drowned out what might have been audible above the din. Slowly, the red- and green-topped stream of black wetsuits oozed through two sets of double doors. As I neared the choke-point, I heard the countdown to my wave’s start. By not pushing eagerly toward the brisk water, I timed it so that I leapt the two feet down into the swirling sea just as they sent off my wave. There were already green caps in the water, and many red ones still on the boat. It was just a big mass-exodus as fast as people could funnel out the doors and down the stairs from the second deck.

Normally in triathlons, the swim is mayhem at the start and quiets down once the racers spread out and settle into their own paces. But that is in pool and lake triathlons. In San Francisco bay, the choppy waves kept me from finding a rhythm, and repeatedly tried to usurp the air being gulped into my mouth. Fifty-six degree water slid up my arms every few strokes, but surprisingly didn’t steal my breath or numb more than half of my legs. Those weren’t the only disruptions, however. Normally, triathlon swims go from buoy to buoy, never more than couple hundred yards from a course marker. But this swim goes from a boat beside Alcatraz Island to Chrissy Field on the mainland. There are kayakers along the course for safety. But there are no buoys, just strong currents and a lot of pre-race advice on how to find your route. I aimed at the white warehouses until I realize all the other swimmers were “down current” of me, so I was being more conservative than they. Then I shifted my aim point to the dome. As I swam, the dome slowly aligned itself with the red-roofed building that marked our exit point. That was all I could sense of the current. But when I saw that my time for this 1.5 mile swim was faster than my last lake-swim time for 1.2 miles, I walked away with renewed respect for that current.

Overall, the swim was not nearly as bad as I had feared from all the warnings and nightmares I’d heard. But as I bent to remove my wetsuit, a stinging pain engulfed my neck. It would be several weeks before my neck would heal from the salt water sandpaper my wetsuit had apparently become (despite multiple applications of Body Glide).

I stomped my way free of the wetsuit and donned running shoes for the half mile “warm up run” to the transition area and my trusty steed. Along the way I greeted Sandi and passed many people jogging in their wetsuits, which I decided was probably the better way to go. It could not have been 60 degrees out yet, but I was comfortable in my FCA-E jersey and tri shorts. Comfortable minus my lower legs, that is. They were still comfortably numb.

Part of the reason I subscribe to the mantra “where there’s a will there’s a way” is that I will my bike shoes on at each triathlon – because my fingers are simply too cold to function and my feet are numb. I may have looked funny in my bright yellow sleeveless jersey and multi-colored fleece mittens, but by half way through the run my hands (and feet!) finally returned to their normal state.

For all I had heard and read about the Alcatraz swim, I had no idea that the bike and run were worthy opponents also! I must have touched every gear on my bike at some point, shifting from the largest to the smallest cog at least once every mile, and even standing once when I ran out of gears before I ran out of up-hill. Between daunting climbs were steep descents over painfully rough roads decorated in neon pink paint to warn of the worst pot holes. Nearly every steep down-hill was adorned with dangerously sharp turns in the middle or bottom. The only semi-enjoyable one passed the buffalo in Golden Gate Park; I knew were there from driving the course the evening before. I also knew that the views along the rocky coastline were phenomenal – I just couldn’t take my eyes from their scan for smooth pavement to enjoy them. The fun of this course certainly lay in the difficulty of it – and though 18 miles was a short bike leg compared to the swim and run distances, it is definitely of comparable challenge!

Willing my way out of running shoes and into bike shoes, I held my mittens in my teeth. As I started to run, I donned them unashamedly. Not only might they help my hands feel like hands sooner, but they were great companions for my runny nose. The wind in my face as I ran the first two flat miles of the run course wasn’t a welcome breeze, but wasn’t unpleasant either, especially since it would help blow me to the finish line later. Leaving the flat of Chrissy Field, I was surprised by a set of steps. The course map designated “sand stairs” at mile 4.5, but said nothing of these. These began the narrow section of shoulder-wide trails overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific coastline that continued for the next mile or so. Along the way we funneled through a tunnel whose roof sloped from sufficient running height to just above bent-in-half height. Pro racers brushed past on their return leg through the dark of the tunnel and along the narrow trail edges with shoulder-high brush. We ran single file until finding a strategic place to pass, like the wide winding road down to the beach. The hard packed dirt of the road gave way suddenly to soft grayish sand. Shoeprints led to and along the water’s edge then up around the turn-around at mile four. An occasional wave pushed returning runners into oncoming out-bound runners as people danced out of the foam’s way. Up from the beach led the famed sand staircase. A set of logs with about two feet between each were cabled together up the steep slope. I stepped on one end of a log and a heavier athlete stepped on the other, nearly launching me airborne. I wished he could have launched me up to the top, but that never happened. Instead I trudged from log to log and pulled my way up the railing to the top then turned down the same narrow trail we’d come up. When Sandi and I hiked that trail the next day, the views were beautiful.

Hitting the wide flat trail through Chrissy Field I realized I had mixed feelings: I was glad to have only two more miles to run – and those flat, but I would miss the challenge of hills and trails. This was truly “triathlon meets adventure racing”. It was the closest to an off-road triathlon as I’d ever seen at a road tri. And I loved that aspect of it! No longer occupied by where to place my feet and how to balance along the winding trail, I searched for something to keep my mind engaged. I settled on the Twila Paris song words “for the glory of the Lord, I have been created” and marched my running feet to its beat, while praying that somehow this race would be for God’s glory, both for me and for the other teammates. I crossed under the finish line just under three hours after leaping from the boat, happy to have completed this race that I’d wanted to do for years.

We spent the overcast, brisk afternoon downing pasta, soup, fruit and cookies, and sipping coffee and hot cocoa my cousin Carrie and her friend Mark procured for us. Even the caffeine, however, could not preclude the much-needed nap that loomed before dinner.

Teddy’s little Subaru Forester was packed to the gills with six compact, athletic bodies on our way to Gordon Biersch restaurant for our victory dinner. We had only a little more trouble fitting in on the way home, stuffed with hamburgers and fries. Did I mention the real reason we work out? So we can eat whatever we want!! Jay regaled us with tales of God’s handiwork at the Lake Placid Ironman last year, where Jay was baptized after the Iron Prayer service. It was good to be encouraged by yet another reminder that God is still in the business of changing lives.

That evening, the FCA-E team split to return to the six states from which we’d come (PA, MN, NV, NM, VA and SC). It sounded as if other teammates were as excited as we are to continue furthering FCA-E’s mission and God’s work around the country. So thanks for putting this all together, Chris!

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