Race Review: Escape from Alcatraz
We do a deep dive on the super expensive, super famous triathlon.
This is the first in our indepth race reviews on popular races, so that you can make your calendar decisions. With the Escape from Alcatraz lottery closing this Wednesday, Nov. 23, we thought we’d start with EFA. Once we build up a library, these Race Reviews will ultimately live in a resource archive only available to paid subscribers.
I’ve done Escape from Alcatraz ten times over 15 years (I think) in all its various iterations: When it was managed by Tri-California, when IMG took over, when Tri-Cal put on their competing “Alcatraz Triathlon in San Francisco.” One year I did all the iterations in one summer. I also used to coach private clinics for athletes preparing for the race. So I think I can give you a fairly comprehensive and unbiased Alcatraz race review.
That’s me in the pro field, second to the far left. Photo: Rocky Arroyo/Escape from Alcatraz
Let’s cover the EFA basics first:
The “real” race is the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which has a long history dating back to 1981 and used to air on TV in San Francisco (which is also why everyone in San Francisco thinks it’s a really really big deal).
You have to enter a random lottery in October and November (there are two drawings) to win a spot to the race in early June.
The race is typically the first or second Sunday of June. In 2023, it’ll be on June 11.
If you win a lottery spot, you then have to decide if you want to take it. It costs $775 to enter the race this year.
The distances are 1.5-mile swim, 18-mile bike, 8-mile run. It is hilly and slow, depending on the weather; winning pro men and women typically do it in around 2 hours and 2:15.
One general point on overview, before we get into the course specifics and operational logistics:
In 2012, there were 1,714 athletes who finished. Last year, there were just 1,371 finishing athletes—and they added an aquathlon three years ago. (Nothing wrong with that, just that it’s generally a sign you can’t get the registrations you need solely through your premier event.) It definitely used to have a highly competitive age-group field; it was very much a coveted elite amateur event and it always attracted a deep pro field too.
In recent years—read:since management changed—the overall clientele and vibe has shifted in both subtle and not subtle ways.
The invite-only pro field (combined with behind-the-scenes things like not typically covering accommodation or travel costs) has had the effect of shrinking the pro field.
Additionally, what was always an expensive race because of city permits and Bay watercraft logistics has now leaned fully into the uber-expensive market space. You can buy a VIP experience for $1,150 total (including the $775 entry) or a $1,550 deluxe VIP package. This has very clearly changed who does the race. While there are still, of course, top age-groupers, it’s not the absolute claim to fame, bare-knuckle amateur elite battle it used to be. (This is not, of course, unique; in much the same way a lot of the larger big name races—Wildflower, Chicago, New York—used to be top-line resume items for elite amateurs, they’re not as much anymore, if they still exist at all.)
The other, harder to quantify, side effect is that the race used to be both a huge deal in the tri world and also a huge Bay Area event, meaning all the local clubs and teams and schools would be out manning aid stations and cheering on course. When it changed management and the price nearly doubled, I remember the local triathlon club quit manning their regular aid station that first year. Why volunteer for something that wasn’t really for us anymore? Some of that has come back—two years ago, when I was absolutely imploding, I had the slowest longest sand shuffle ever to wild screams of ‘Go Kelly’—but if you’re expecting massive crowds, you’ll likely be a little underwhelmed.
The Escape from Alcatraz Course
Look, this is what everyone does this race for, right? You get on a boat that’s typically used for high school proms, you sit in a huddled sweaty mass on a ballroom carpet while it boats itself out to a position in front of or near Alcatraz island, and then you jump off into the very cold water and just start swimming towards shore.
A few things to know: Do not hesitate at the edge of the boat. Once you walk out the door, you’ve crossed the timing mat and your time has started. Check to make sure the water below you is clear of people and then jump. Spread your arms and legs out and try to push down as you hit water, so that you don’t go too far under. And then just start swimming away from the boat; if you need to pause to get your bearings or fix your goggles, DO IT ONCE YOU’RE AWAY FROM THE BOAT. You do not want to get jumped on top of.
The swim, itself, is not that long (1.5 miles), but it is typically choppy and tough. It’s taken me as short as 29 minutes and as long as 47. There is a one-hour cutoff time, but if you’re not going to make it, they just pick you up in a boat and drop you about 200y from shore and you can continue on. The swim’s been canceled once and shortened once, that I’m aware of, but it typically goes off.
The key thing to know is that the swim is always timed to be with the current, so you are essentially swimming across and down a river. That means if you aim diagonally at your target, the St. Francis Yacht Club, (like the hypothenuse of a triangle), the current will likely sweep you past it. You, instead, want to aim directly across the river and then let the current carry you down, adjusting your sighting and angle as you go. The longer you’ll be in the water—ie. the slower you are—the more the current will affect you, and the more you should aim across first and then go down the shore. The faster you are, then the more you can aim a straight shot at the finish, because there’ll be less time for the current to carry you out of wack. (The lead boat in front of the pro men takes that direct line, fyi.)
In short: aim across at the Jeremiah O’Brien (depending on how conservative you need to be), then at Aquatic Park (there are two big apartment buildings behind AP/Fort Mason you can spot), then Palace of Fine Arts until you can see the red roofs of the St. Francis Yacht Club. The beach you get out on is just past the St. Francis Yacht Club on Crissy Field. You can also almost always see Sutro Tower sticking up, so you can also adjust in relation to that.
This video does a pretty good job explaining:
Pro tip: If you accidentally get swept past the exit, don’t try to swim backwards against the current. Just get out of the water where you can and then run back on the beach.
Pro tip #2: The water is cold (around 55 degrees), but not as cold as it used to be, because global warming. It will be an absolute shock when you jump in, but you’ll probably be amped up enough (especially if you’ve jumped around and warmed up on the boat) that you’ll be fine. SIPE can, however, be an issue and people have gone into shock, causing medical issues. Be aware of the signs: clawed hands, coughing or extreme shortness of breath, and definitely any coughing up of blood. Practice cold water swimming before you get to Alcatraz, and wear a full-length wetsuit, as well as additional booties and caps if you’re not great at the cold.
Pro tip #3: Practice! There are a number of open water swim groups that do guided Alcatraz crossings regularly in the Bay (in addition to the race’s practice swim). I’ve done a couple of those when I was really stressed about it, and it helped a lot. Check out Water World Swim and Odyssey Open Water.
People think so much about the swim, they don’t realize the Alcatraz bike and run are also quite hard. The main thing to know about the bike is it is very hilly and some of the turns and descents can be quite abrupt. Someone once described it to me as an interval workout, as in you don’t just go a steady triathlon threshold effort the whole time; you have to go much harder, then recover while also staying foot on the gas enough on the descents. Last year, I rode a 1x with a 48T chainring and a 10-33 cassette; it was fine but I wouldn’t recommend it. Typically, I’d ride something more like a 48/35 with a 10-28 cassette (odd, but that in SRAM Red eTap is what’s on my bike right now, just for reference).
There are no aid stations on the bike, because of rules from the various parks that the course goes through. Bring what you need.
After a flat portion out of the Marina and past Crissy Field (which you’ll also run through later), you start climbing and then descending and then climbing. If you’re in San Francisco a few days early, it’s worth pre-riding the course out to Golden Gate Park.
There’s one descent and turn that always seems to get everyone: After you pass the Legion of Honor (you’ll notice it) and then descend down through the golf course. The road can be bumpy and at the bottom you make a sharp right turn onto Clement Street immediately into a short uphill. The gearing and surprise on this always causes some problems. Not even a mile later, at the end of Clement, you’ll have another short little descent into a sharp left at Seal Rock (before a quick right) and people reliably skid out on that turn. If it’s foggy or wet, there can be some crashes at that spot.
After a long sweeping photographic descent then down to Ocean Beach, you do a little flat-ish loop (aero time!) in Golden Gate Park. Watch out for the many speed bumps. And then you go back up the way you came.
Pro tip: I did it on a road bike one year without aerobars—and everyone always asks this question—but it’s not worth it. If you can handle your TT bike or if you have clip-ons on your road bike (I’ve actually biked quite well here twice with clip-ons on a road bike), it’s still a time trial course. Probably half of it is flat enough for aero to matter and some of the long sweeping descents are worth taking in your bars.
See: aero bars
Again, this run is all about the hills. There are parts that are so steep you can’t even run, like just don’t try.
Again, you have about two miles flat past the swim exit and through Crissy Field along the water. Then you start running up stairs, lots of stairs, and weird little trails and paths, and more stairs, all the way to a tunnel under the Golden Gate Bridge. (Some years they have to redirect because of construction, and we had to run on the road once instead of through the tunnel, but it’s same general idea.) The tunnel is wacky, it’s rock and dirt, and it’s low enough that even at 5’2” I have to duck. If you don’t duck, you will hit your head and you might bleed. Then you’re back on trails again. You’re next to the bike course briefly on Lincoln and then you drop down a steep fire road to Baker Beach.
Most people dread the sand ladder coming back up from the beach, but I actually hate the mile or so you run before that out to a turnaround and then back in the sand. There are almost always cones that try to keep you to the left, but man, screw it, the packed down sand along the edge of the water is much easier to run on. Depending on how crowded it is and if other athletes have already made the same choice, try to stick as close to the packed sand as possible. No matter what, though, you do have to trudge up through the deep sand to the turnaround spot and back.
After you go back down the beach you’ll hit the big feature of the run: the sand ladder. You can see a video of what this is like here.
The sand ladder is about 400 wooden steps—they’re really logs and slats under the sand, with cables along both sides. Use the cables. Definitely walk the steps. Even the pros walk. The hard part is to not slow to a complete stroll, but to keep moving and walking quickly and then once you’re at the top get running again even though it’s still a gradual uphill trail. The sand ladder, itself, is only two to three minutes, maybe five, but you still have to go back then up and down the trails, tunnel, and stairs you came out on.
Depending on when you hit the bottom of the stairs on your way up or the top of the stairs on your way back down, there will be lots of athletes going the other direction. There may also be confused tourists out on the trails around the Golden Gate Bridge. Stay to the left, warn people when you’re approaching. Some of the front athletes will be coming down the stairs very very fast, especially if you’re headed up as the pros are running full speed down, so stay alert.
Then it’s just under two miles flat-ish back along the water to the finish.
Pro tip: Practice running down uneven stairs. It’s a lot harder to do without twisting an ankle than you think.
The finish line, transition, and expo are all on the Marina Green, which is a large grassy park along the water in a very nice neighborhood of San Francisco.
Transitions: However, when you exit the swim, you’ll be at the small beach just past the St. Francis Yacht Club, which is about a half-mile west of Marina Green. After you get out of the water, you have the option of putting on shoes and shedding your wetsuit for the half-mile run to T1. The run is along a concrete sidewalk. I’ve tried both—running barefoot in my wetsuit, and stopping to strip it off and put on shoes. Neither seems particularly faster than the other. Whatever time you lose in the changing shoes, you probably make up in running faster. For what it’s worth: most of the pros don’t stop, but some do. If you have foot problems or the idea of running that far on hard concrete makes you cringe, then stop and put on shoes.
If you’re going to do this you have to drop off your bag with your shoes when you check in. You also have to put your wetsuit and goggles back in a bag, which you’ll get back post-race. Do bring a second pair of shoes for this.
Parking: Can be tough. You can typically find parking on the streets of the neighborhood, but it’s a bit of a PITA. They don’t allow you to park in the lots along the water behind the Marina Green (which you enter at the far end past the expo) unless you have a VIP parking pass, and there’s no parking on Marina Boulevard or any of the race course. There is typically a designated race parking lot farther away—some years it’s been past the Sports Basement, recent years it’s been at Marina Middle School up Fillmore—which you can park in and then get a shuttle or ride your bike down. The easiest option, however, is to have someone drop you off in the morning.
Shuttle and boat: You’ll have to check the official schedule for this year’s times, but typically the race starts at 7:15 a.m. and the boat leaves Pier 3 an hour before that. If you are not on the boat at 6:15 a.m. when it leaves, you will be left behind. I have seen it happen. To get to the pier, shuttle buses leave Marina Green until 5:45 a.m. Again, if you’re not on that last shuttle, you’ll be left behind. (Of course, you can get a Lyft to Pier 3 at that point, if you’re totally stuck; it’s a ~20 minute drive.) Race volunteers will start yelling at you that the last bus is leaving by, like, 5:15 a.m. because they’re really stressed about it.
At Pier 3 there are port-a-potties and there is a gear check before you get on the boat. Whatever you wear with you on the shuttle or whatever you bring to the pier, you need to check in the pre-race bag (with your number on it) before you get on the boat. Anything you bring on the boat, you will NOT get back.
Check-in: You do have to check-in at Marina Green the day before and go through body marking (which you can, if you really want, just skip and put your race tattoo number on yourself). You do not typically have to check your bike in the day before—you can usually bring it on race morning—but double-check to be sure they haven’t changed that. It can also be very worth your time to sit through a “mandatory” race briefing to get an update on the current and weather conditions.
Weather: It’s San Francisco, so it’ll probably be slightly overcast and in the mid/high 50s in the morning. Bring warm clothes and warm dry clothes for after. It may warm up to high 60s by the time you’re on the run. Which is, actually, perfectly nice triathlon weather. You can still get sunburned sitting around in the post-race party (trust me). But the only time the weather’s ever really been an issue is the super rare rainy and foggy early June day—because that makes it tough to sight on the swim (if it’s too foggy, they’ll shorten the swim due to safety concerns with watercraft being able to spot swimmers), and it can make it slippery on the bike.
Swag, Awards, and the Post-Race Party
The Alcatraz swag is historically some of the best swag in the game. I think I have multiple branded jackets, beanies, a duffel bag, a gym bag, a Bluetooth speaker for some reason, and lots of t-shirts. If you like medals and awards, like if that’s important to you for a race, they’re quite good.
In terms of the overall post-race party and expo, it’s….fine. Honestly, I’ve never paid for VIP and I’m typically pretty cold and tired after and usually my husband is waiting for me with warm clothes. There’s a food spread in the athlete area next to the finish line that usually includes a buffet: typically pizza or a half-burrito, some kind of bread or pasta thing, some chips and fruit, cookies, and a cooler of drinks. There are tables inside the athlete area to eat, but if you want to go out and find your family then you have to leave the athlete food area and sit around in the big grassy field.
The main annoying thing is it can take some time to get your bags back—ie. the bag you dropped off at the boat and the swim bag you left at the swim exit (if you opted to shed your wetsuit there). It can also take some time to get into transition and get your bike, if you aren’t a pro athlete or if you don’t happen to have a random USA Triathlon jacket that you’re wearing while walking with authority (not that I’ve done that).
IMO, yes. It’s a huge headache, lots of logistics and minimal fanfare, and it’s one of my absolute favorite races. It has all the wacky fun of the pre-sanitized triathlon era. You might run into a rocky tunnel! You might fall down a stair or crash on a stupidly tight turn! You might get swept past the beach! It’s OK!
It’s gotten significantly more expensive over the years, and so I understand why it’s hard to justify for a lot of people. I do, however, think the notion that just because it’s shorter it’s not worth the money is dumb. If getting your money’s worth is a concern, then just go slower.
Given the price tag, it’s probably not worth doing more than once. (For me, it’s worth it, because I pay nothing in travel or accommodations.) But as a bucket list event? There’s absolutely no other race you’ll remember more.