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A Grueling Race to Swim-Bike-Run

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Any race on the pro triathlon circuit can be expected to test the outer limits of human endurance, self-induced punishment, and nutritional supplement sponsorship. But only one has a starting line that would’ve made Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly pee their Speedos. That honor belongs to the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon (EFAT).

 

 

On Aug. 14–15, the annual Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon turns 40—fully afloat in the wake of 2020’s canceled event, due to the pandemic, and still the scariest three-part race named after a former maximum-security prison.

Triathlete Ben Kanute finishing swim
Ben Kanute will compete this year for his record fourth consecutive win. Courtesy Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“That first jump is a pretty shocking jolt every time,” says professional triathlete Ben Kanute, EFAT’s reigning three-time champion, about the start of the race.

That infamous start has competitors leap into San Francisco Bay from a passenger ferry parked near Alcatraz Island. That’s followed by a breathless 1.5-mile swim to the deceivingly distant Marina District shore of San Francisco through dark, choppy, 55- to 60-degree water with treacherous currents and the odd laughing sea lion. “You really have to mentally prepare yourself for that swim,” says Kanute. “It’s sort of a free-for-all out there at first. Then things start to settle down and just go kind of numb—including your hands and face.”

During the famously “escape-proof” offshore prison’s years of operation (1934–63), numerous Alcatraz inmates graciously pretested this first leg of the triathlon course during over a dozen breakout bids from the Rock. All were unsuccessful (many fatal), except possibly for one 1962 attempt by three inmates who either made it all the way across the bay without a trace. Or didn’t.

“We do not recommend this to be a participant’s first triathlon,” says Jennifer Lau, VP of Action Sports for event-runner IMG, which will also be launching its inaugural Escape Aquathlon race (Aug. 14) that same weekend, consisting of an abbreviated 750-meter bay swim and 5K run. “The open-water swim is like no other in the world, and one of the most difficult in the sport,” says Lau. “It’s like crossing a rapid racing river with millions of gallons of water flowing out under the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Runner walking up Sand Ladder with San Francisco Bridge in the background.
Postcard views are little consolation on the misery-inducing Sand Ladder. Courtesy Image

Off the Rock

The remaining two-thirds of the triathlon include touring some of the prettiest corners of San Francisco’s Presidio and Golden Gate National Recreation Area at top speed on an 18-mile bike course full of brutal hills and turns, and running a punishing eight-mile multiterrain course on pavement, grass, dirt, beach and a nasty set of cliff stairs called the Sand Ladder.

“At the Sand Ladder, you’re basically running up a steep, giant dune,” says Kanute of the 200-plus primitive wooden slat steps awaiting wobbly triathletes at Baker Beach. “It’s another part of this race where you just have to accept that it’s gonna hurt.”

Conceived during the early years of triathlon competition as a shorter, meaner alternative to Hawaii’s Ironman slog, the first Escape race was held in 1981 with zero fanfare. A small pack of neoprene-less first-generation triathletes knocked out a swim from Alcatraz, followed by a former version of the course that sent cyclists across the Golden Gate Bridge into the grueling hills of Marin County and a run on the notorious Double Dipsea trail leading up and down Mount Tamalpais, the region’s highest peak.

Now entirely based in San Francisco, EFAT’s cycling and running courses have changed over the years. So have the number of participants, ballooning from an original 200 mainly local competitors to 2,000 triathletes from more than 50 countries. A random draw system was put in place to handle the triathlon’s 10,000-plus applicants, who may have as low as a 30 percent chance of getting in. This year’s inaugural Aquathlon lead-up race is meant to appease some of the overflow.

What hasn’t changed about the triathlon in its historic 40 seasons?

“I think probably just the whole feel of it—the incredible challenge, the unpredictable conditions, the amazing setting and vibe, and obviously that swim. It’s really one of the last classics in the triathlon world,” says Kanute, a Rio Olympian who’s aiming for a men’s record fourth-consecutive EFAT title in a winner’s circle that includes many of the biggest names in the sport over the past four decades.

“Whether you’re going for first or 500th place,” the top-seeded triathlete adds, “it is still one tough race.”

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