Remembering Escape from Alcatraz

June 7, 2012

Probably the thing I most remember about Escape from Alcatraz is the huge, wavy mass of San Francisco Bay. It’s pitch dark underneath the surface, and so dense that I can’t see the bubbles in front of my face.  I can only hear them burbling past my ears with each breath. It’s chilly too; my cheeks and hands feel almost numb. I bring my head up to sight, level with the waves. I seem to be alone. The other swimmers, thousands of them kicking and splashing, are too far away. I’ve veered off course. Ahead of me is the Golden Gate bridge, impossibly high and bright red. Behind me is Alcatraz and the boat I’ve jumped from.  Five million gallons of water per minute is emptying to the sea and is pulling me with it, away from my destination at the Marina.  I look toward two white buildings in the city, my sight point. I pause for a second of amazement that I’m here, in the middle of the bay, and then I dip my head in and swim on.

San Francisco

America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Everywhere else is Cleveland.

-Tennessee Williams

Growing up, we’d head to northern California most summers, spending time in sunny, leafy Petaluma with my grandmother, San Francisco, and Oakland where my parents had worked. I still feel connected to the area even though it’s been years since I’ve been here.  Today, it’s a sunny day with a cool strong breeze and high puffy clouds. I can see miles of the pastel Victorian houses, the painted ladies, in the hills. I stroll though the Marina district, Fort Mason where the triathlon transition is being set up, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli square. It smells like the ocean and the sun feels unusually warm.  I feel like I’m on a cloud of anticipation for the race.

I have a habit of looking at a body of water and then picturing myself swimming across it. So, the Escape from Alcatraz has been on my list for as long as I’ve known that you could. When I was a kid, we’d look at fog rolling in over the bay, and people would say, mock-seriously: Nobody can swim from Alcatraz. The sharks, the current, the cold….

Later that evening, I meet up with my family, and my brother-in-law drives us around the race course and gives us a tour of the city. He grew up right downtown when it was made up of working-class neighborhoods and he would run and play all over with the local kids. What we’re looking at now is ritzy and gentrified: shiny condos and high-end dining, but we can picture what it used to be when he tells us a few stories. We eat too much pasta at Scoma’s on Fisherman’s Wharf, and I start to feel nervous. And, unfortunately, the rekindled romance with San Francisco has left me with sunburn, a blister, and fatigue from walking around way too much for a pre-race day. There’s nothing to do now but try to rest up.

The Race

Every window in Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco – Susanna Kaysen

It’s 4:00 AM in my hotel and I’m nervous. I can’t believe I’m going to do it, all of it – the early morning, the dark, the cold, the waiting around, the worrying about gear, the energy I’m going to expend on the course. I’m almost depressed at the thought of it! Nevertheless, I’ve been race-nervous enough times to know that it’s just that, and has nothing to do with what I really want, which is to be swimming in that bay. I gather my gear and hop on my bike. It’s still dark and shadowy outside. I cruise through the city and Fort Mason with the rest of the triathletes who funnel out of hotels and roll down the streets with their duffel bags on their backs. We’re the only souls out at this hour. I find my transition spot and start setting up. I can smell the sea air and it feels warm. I walk around and examine the transition area, and when I feel like I know the entrances and exits, I drop off my post-swim gear bag and get on the bus to the Pier 3.

It’s light by the time everyone gets wetsuits zipped up and morning-clothes bags dropped off, and the sky is clear. When I shuffle on the boat with two thousand lean, suited-up triathletes, somehow I find a few people I know from swim practice in Seattle. They give me pointers and tell me I should think about joining their tri team. I’m grateful for the sense of community and the time passes easily, though I am still so nervous I can barely eat the bagel I’ve brought with me. The boat cruises along with a smooth hum, delivering us to our fate right in front of Alcatraz Island.

When it’s time to go, we funnel to the doorway of the upper deck and down the stairs. I’m frustrated that I’ve ended up near the back, one of the last group of athletes to go. I already have my goggles on, which is lucky because as I round the corner it’s time to jump off! Go, go, go, the organizers yell. I don’t hesitate. I see the opening in the deck railing and I jump in. The drop is only a few feet, but time expands to many breathless seconds of mid-air limbo. Finally, a splash as I hit, then I swim! I’ve forgotten to start my watch and shoot, it’s gone to power-save mode. I swipe it to turn it on, and then stop my swim stroke a few seconds later to hit the start button. I swim toward the apartment towers as I’ve planned, feeling stiff in the cold water, and edgy from the waves and splashes of people all around me. I regret wearing booties because I feel the water seeping through them and I know they’re slowing me down. Still, I pass other swimmers consistently, sighting every five strokes or so, getting into a rhythm. I start feeling confident and back in my element. I’m tossed around by the waves and every so often, I get a mouthful of salty water. At one point, I’m aiming directly at the Golden Gate Bridge and all alone, traveling with the current that wants to carry me under the bridge and out to sea. I adjust my direction and keep swimming. Nothing seems to get closer until finally, somehow and I don’t know how, I realize it’s time to aim for the Legion of Honor dome and the marina. I angle that way and swim hard. Finally, the beach is in front of me and I stand and walk, almost getting knocked over by a wave. Thirty-seven minutes. I wave to my husband, find my bag, strip my wetsuit, throw on my shoes and I’m off, running to the transition!

Swim time: 37:26
Swim place (div): 2

T1: 6:55 (it’s a long run)

We’d driven the bike course yesterday, so I know what’s coming: a flat stretch, then the first climb into the Presidio. The course is crowded, especially the climbs, but I don’t feel unsafe. I just have some difficulty maneuvering through the technical sections. The downhills are fast and fun. Coming down Sea Cliff is gorgeous and I make sure I enjoy it (how could I not?), flying down the hill with the ocean in front of me, glittering out as far as I can see. Once down that, the course cruises into Golden Gate Park with its nice flat and rolling sections. Next, back up Sea Cliff – can I climb any more? Some of the climbs are steep and difficult for me. I’m not pushing as hard as I can, but I know I can’t, not if I want something left for the run. Finally, I ride through some residential areas, back down through the Presidio and then back to transition.

Bike time: 1:04:33
Bike place: 10
MPH: 16.7

T2: 1:46

I start the run, feeling as I usually do after the bike, uncoordinated and heavy. But, I’m running eight minute miles and if I can just keep it up, I’ll be satisfied. Soon we start climbing, and climbing and climbing. I shuffle up hills, slog up steps on a narrow path. I wonder if I’m going to make it without walking. After forever I come to some downhills, down to Baker Beach. Sand! I take a few steps, my muscles trying to support me despite the unstable give of the sand. It’s so hard to run, but I do it anyway. Then, up the infamous sand ladder, grasping a rope and stepping up and up. Looking back, I wish I would have challenged myself more – it takes me over four minutes to climb. Then, finally I’m done and it’s all downhill to the finish. I feel nauseous and hot, but in a rhythm as I pass the row of beautiful homes adjacent to the transition. I race down the finish chute lined with flags from every country, and it’s done!

Run time: 1:10:32
Run Place: 11
Sand Ladder Time: 4:04
Run pace: 8:49

Overall time: 3:01:09
Division place: 5

Back in the hotel, I think I’ll nap but I just close my eyes without falling asleep. My family leaves town that same day, but I get to spend the afternoon in the room, writing and doing nothing. I go out once to get something from Ghirardelli Square and when I come back to the room, there’s a plate of cheese and wine sitting on the table for me, with a note. It’s from the hotel staff: they apologize for any noise from a wedding last night and hope it didn’t affect my race. I pour myself a glass, toasting the day I checked off one of my longtime race dreams. It wasn’t a perfect race, but it was a perfect experience. I know I’ll want to someday race this one again, and it will be just as amazing, but my focus will be on the known, not the unknown. (I’ll angle straighter across the bay, I’ll get off the boat earlier. I’ll train on trails and sand!) As for today, I enjoy the memory of this one: the immense water, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the run over every kind of surface imaginable, and finally getting to finish one of my long-time goals.