Race Report: Escape From Alcatraz

"That hurt, but we're smiling. Everyone's smiling here, folks."

“That hurt, but we’re smiling. Everyone’s smiling here, folks.”

Crap. It’s 2013 and in November I sat there and told grandiose tales of a new me that was going to blog more frequently… Well, we’ll go back and close out 2012 and give a preview of 2013 but for now, let’s talk Escape!

The first race on a packed 2013 calendar was none other than the famous/infamous Escape From Alcatraz. With its face-numbingly cold swim, very technical bike and murderous run (looking at you, sand ladder), EFA would have been a challenge during its regularly scheduled time, early June. But because of America’s Cup, it was rescheduled to March 3. To say I was concerned about the conditions and how my slight frame would handle the cold (read: I’m a cold wimp) is an understatement.

EFA Song
Here’s a track that I was listened to a bit as I trained for EFA. Click that play button and jam along while you read.

Exec Summary

  • Escape From Alcatraz is cold, tough and competitive. It’s also top tier in its production, competition and venue. Fun!
  • In my first race of the year, I placed 3rd in my age group, 10th amateur and had the second fastest amateur run and sand ladder splits.
  • This is a great springboard to Iron Man 70.3 Oceanside on March 30th.

Getting Ready

After taking the offseason pretty seriously, come Jan 1, I was ready to get rolling again. Gearing up for EFA was certainly the priority, but in light of Oceanside 70.3 at the end of March, the focus had to be grander in scale. Solid sessions in the studio, big weekends with big yards and big miles – the squad and I were gettin’ after it.  One thing loomed over me however. Just how was I going to handle swimming in the San Francisco Bay on March 3 and perform effectively thereafter?

To that end, the M2 group was awesome. A few swims in Aquatic Park (in February!) followed by runs helped me get a feel of…just how little I would be able to feel.

m2 ap swim

Kahn, BC Mike, V., Kari and I take to AP like some seals

I also took advantage of having the course in my back yard and ran the run course a handful of times. This may or may not have proven to be beneficial…


“Oh, it’s early in the season…”

“It’s cold…”

“This course doesn’t suit my strengths…”

Well, that was the case for everyone. I knew where my fitness was at and the single objective that I had was race how I knew I could and let the cards fall as they may. There are so many strong athletes at EFA and the course has so many wild cards, that anything else seemed unreasonable.

A secondary, and perhaps just as important, objective was a fitness gauge for Oceanside.

Race Morning

4:00 a.m., the alarm goes off! Sweet! I checked my Fitbit One – not much sleep, but the quality was there, muy bien. My mom came into SF for the race and she’s always so good with race weekend (she’s so good all the time), but at 4:02 I heard the water boiling and walked out to coffee being made and the breakfast items we set out the night before ready to go. Over breakfast I read my traditional pre-race email from Ali which, per usual, provided motivation and perspective.

Threw my bag on my back, put the bike lights on, kissed my mom goodbye and coasted down to transition which was abuzz by 4:45 a.m. The process of setting up transition, putting on the wetsuit (bottom) 2.5 hrs before the swim start, getting on a shuttle to the boat, sitting on the boat for over an hour…suboptimal.

Once I was on the boat though, I found company in my friend Kate Farmer. As we made it out onto the water, I positioned myself by the door of the boat. I was told, “Get in front on the boat” to avoid the massive pile up that happens on the EFA course, so that’s what I did.

The Swim

Note: My condolences to the family and friends of the man who died in the swim. A very sad result for a guy who was excited to do what he loved and a somber reminder of how serious the swim leg of triathlon is.

The doors opened and all of the sudden the warmth of the boat escaped out the door to be replaced by unobstructed bay wind, while the daunting view of the rough waters and the city skyline brought to reality what was about to happen. Shortly after the national anthem and after the pros started, there was some confusion between the age groupers over whether we were starting or not. Before I knew it I was running with the first ten folks off the boat and jumping into the icy waters.

First thought: SWIM!

Duh, but as 2,000 racers leave the double decker boat in 6 minutes, you have to redline to make sure someone doesn’t jump on you. I kept this pace up, partly because of flight response but also because it was GO time! I felt energized and didn’t even notice the cold. I was right in the mix. Plenty of caps with the right colors on around me. I felt strong and in the flow of the race.

It would have been nice if this would have lasted. As the swim went on, I began to take on water during breaths. This worried me because if it happened too much and I would risk getting sick on the bike. Secondly, I really started to second guess my line. The caps became fewer and fewer around me. Had I not effectively “crossed the river?”

If you are not aware of just how much attention needs to be paid while sighting in the swim from Alcatraz to Crissy Field:

I powered through the waves. Every stroke eventually felt like the last 50 of a masters workout. I was getting more worried that I was off course, popping up to make sure I was OK. I eventually made it to the Yacht Club and drove in towards the beach.

When I got out of the water, I looked around me. Crap. Not exactly the guys I left the boat with… I had some work to do.

EFA Run_swim out

Transition 1

The transition from Swim to Bike is 0.5 miles long. I had a bag with shoes and arm warmers ready to help with the run and to warm up. But on the boat I decided that I was going to blow by the wetsuit strippers and my bag and run in my wetsuit, barefoot to my bike. This ended up being warmer and faster. Everyone wins.

Shout out to Vince for verbally hustling me through T1.

The Bike

As I mounted my bike, I began to pedal. GRAAAHHGGGHHHH!!! (That was the actual noise that I made).

EFA Bike

Crappy Bike Moment #1

My inner right thigh was cramping mightily. Like: can’t-pedal-my-bike-holy-son-of-a-stingray, cramping. This happened at some Olympic races last year, but man this was the worst. I slammed a Roctane GU that I was saving for later, washed it down with the Roctane in my bottle. I put my head down and rode gingerly into the stiff headwind.

Not being able to move quickly was really not making warming up easy. “Ok, increase cadence 5rpm. Can you do that? Good, another 5.” I held my breath, but it seemed to have passed.

I knew I had to start immediately making up time on the bike, so I started to hammer. Flats were pushed and climbs were controlled, but driven.

Crappy Bike Moment #2

Something I feared before the race was starting to play out – my bottle was trying to eject at every inconstancy in the pavement. And if you’ve ridden here, you know there are many.  This caused me to be very timid at times, distracted at others. Both of which can be very dangerous.

Something has to work to keep this bottle in the cage...

Something has to work to keep this bottle in the cage…

Crappy Bike Moment #3

The descent through the golf course out of the Legion of Honor is a fast one and I knew I needed to take it seriously. However, as my bottle tried to eject, I tried to save it in instead of breaking.

My race almost ended at mile 5 of the bike.

As I tried to make up for loss breaking time, my back wheel skidded out and did the tri-bike wobble. I went down into the groove of the curb and was inches away from crashing before making the save by the skin of my teeth.

What I thought I looked like making the save:

What I probably looked like making the save:

I gathered myself and pressed on, helped by cheers at Lake St. and El Camino (thanks, Woody & fam!). Once I hit The Great Highway and Golden Gate Park, I grooved along pretty well and set a new tone for the bike leg. All was good, except the bleepin’ bottle.

I’d recently worked with M2 and Brett to find a new focus for my biking. It showed today as I was in a frame of mind to attack in a disciplined way, consistent with the plan we set up. I worked the climbs in control and attacked the downs/flats, coming into transition with nothing on my mind but freakin’ run my butt off.

Transition 2

Missed rack fail. Half way out T2 without watch fail. BLEEP. Ok, early season rust was shaking off all day.

The Run

I’m really stoked about having the second fastest amateur run split. I probably would not have guessed coming out of T2 that this would have been the case. The headwind was still stiff and I was cruising a little slower than expected. I knew I had to pass as many people as possible before the stairs up to the bridge, so I upped the pace.

I had a HUGE rush as I went through the SFTri aid station and got a – seriously – roaring personal cheer. Seeing the familiar faces and hearing the positive words, it was exactly what I needed. This spurred me on to attack the stairs leading up to the bridge.

SFTri Aid Station Rock Stars - bottom of the hill

SFTri Aid Station Rock Stars – bottom of the hill

SFTri Aid Station Rock Stars - top of the hill

SFTri Aid Station Rock Stars – top of the hill

I topped out the stairs (thanks for the cheer, Gary!) and continued the 275 ft. climb with the focus to just get to the single track Coastal Trail in front of as many people as possible before it was congested. As I attacked the up, I started to see the leaders come the other way. Side note – it was quite inspiring to see a field with so many champions running the opposite way.

As I made it past the second SFTri aid station (W00t!) I settled into a draft right behind a kid with a Stanford kit on in a no pass zone. This was a perfect recovery from the hard uphill. Once we got into the descent and I started to attack, I saw M2 standing as he usually does, casually, coffee in hand. He told me I looked strong, which was good for confidence, because I knew he wouldn’t have if I didn’t. I wanted to see if the Stanford guy was a threat so I really pushed the down.

Is he following? Is he following...?

Is he following? Is he following…?

The Switch

This was the moment where the switch flipped. It happens in (almost) every race. Sometimes it happens in the first 200 meters, sometimes in happens in the last 2 miles. But there’s a point on every run leg where a mental switch flips for me and I go into a state of mind that’s so intensely focused on the task at hand and ruthless to anyone in front of me, that it would likely scare folks who know me. Or make them laugh. Ali would probably laugh.

Fresh off the knowledge that I’d made my first meaningful pass, I took to the trail onto Baker Beach like a bat out of hell. I immediately found hard sand and plodded along. I made the turn and assessed what was behind me. All good, focus onward. I continued to pass and did not break stride onto the sand ladder.

And up we go

And up we go

Having practiced the sand ladder enough times, I put myself into the same place mentally, “Go on the outside for more consistent footing, pretending you’re on a bike and spin the hill.”

Sand ladder done!

Great positioning by Brett for support and photos. Now, for the other half of the climb…

The thing about the Sand Ladder is that it’s only half of the climb. Blow yourself out here and you have a long trek home. I continued to dig into the climb and hurt. I knew there was reprieve by way of a favorable downhill to get my legs back under me before hitting the final 2 flat miles.

I passed M2 and he assured me I could pick off more folks before the finish line. After topping out, I started the descent by going through the SFTri aid station agains, this time, much more tunnel visioned. As I bombed through tunnels, down single tracks, down stairs, I was fully recovering from the uphill and readying for the final push: 2 miles of flat, grooveable fire trail and blacktop along the water.

I hit the flat with tons of confidence, even though I was hurting. This confidence was rooted in how good I felt and how familiar this stretch was – almost every run from my front door includes this stretch. One workout in particular, however, really made a difference: an interval workout on Crissy Field with Vince and Virgilio. At the end of that workout, Vince and I could not have wanted to quit any more. It sucked. But we worked through it, quite quickly, I might add. I sourced from those same sensations and visions to really push the last 2 miles.

As I hit the asphalt, I knew I had 100 meters before the last half mile. I wanted to start my kick at a quarter mile, but as I came up on a guy (ultimately the 2nd place finisher in my age group), he wasn’t letting me pass. So a half a mile out, I started my kick. I felt him no further than 10-15 meters behind me for the majority of the kick. This feeling was foreign. As we made the turn to head down the long chute, he took off. For the first time in my tri life, I was out kicked. I kept the focus and drove to the end however, finishing hard and in control.

EFA Run_chute

AMERICA. (Thanks for the great pic, Michael Rycroft!)

As it would turn out, his run was actually more than 3 minutes slower than mine, so the kick did not lose me 2nd place (which I would have had a hard time getting over). He started far enough behind me on the massive boat that the time worked out for a comfortable finish in 2nd for him.


A welcome early season podium

A welcome early season age group podium. Props to Yoni on another stellar race.

Mike Vulanich

My broken out results – happy with run and sand ladder

EFA Podium_crop

What to take away

Swim – Working hard to stop being such a pool noodle. Can’t help but be a little bothered by having the slowest swim time on the front results page. That said, not many swims like that…poor benchmark. Keep up yards/masters and see how tamer Oceanside swim plays out.

Bike – Get post-swim nutrition down to prevent cramps – Roctane to the face. Happy with effort, continued progress against new approach should play out to better bike splits.

Run – Very happy with where I’m at early this season. Continue speedwork, losing a kick is not fun.

Gear – Gotta find a cage that holds my bottle! Or a bottle that stays in my cage… Regardless, that was brutal and actually was an issue in Vegas as well.

What’s next

Oceanside! San Diego, M2’s gotta a treat for you. So many of us will be down there racing, it’s going to be a blast. My focus is 100% on this race as of the posting of this blog.

Who to thank

My mom for flying to SF and supporting during the race – so thankful for a great visit. Ali for being so supportive – SF resident in 6 days! The M2 and SFTri Club communities for support and motivation. Vince and John for making sure I was adequately fueled with GUness when I stopped by the tent. Fitbit for being such a supportive group to work for and for making products that helped me prepare. Eric Gilsenan and the Escape From Alcatraz crew for putting on a top tier, global race! All of the volunteers – without you, the races don’t happen. And of course, everyone at the race and all my friends and family who were so supportive on Facebook, in emails, through texts, etc.

Rock and roll!


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