Subscribe to San Francisco Magazine

Mod Lux Feeds

Now Playing

Escape from Alcatraz, a love story

Why this world-class race is also a local treasure.

     Crowding up to the big windows inside that old ferryboat, squeezed among 2,000 other eager beavers all rubber-clad and borderline hysterical as we struggle to see key San Francisco landmarks that’ll guide us in our mad-dash swim across the bay: that’s the part that gets me excited when I think about the 2012 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.

     San Franciscans don’t generally think or talk much about Escape from Alcatraz, unless we’re on a Clint Eastwood bender. When it comes to marquee local sporting events, we’re quicker to tout Bay to Breakers or Mavericks. And yet, here’s the funny thing: Escape from Alcatraz shows up on nearly every list of the world’s greatest triathlons. Every serious triathlete on the planet—and there must be an awful lot, considering that 2.3 million Americans alone participated in a triathlon in 2010—dreams of one day making the trek. From 40 countries they’ll come this year, and not just amateurs like me. The sport’s top pros will fly into our city with high-tech wetsuits and carbon fiber racing bikes worth many thousands of dollars—and 7,000 fascinated spectators will be on hand to watch.

     The hysteria is partly due to the event’s unique history, dating back to 1981, when triathlons scarcely existed and guys from the Dolphin Club thought San Francisco ought to have a race like that crazy new Ironman thing in Hawaii. Because Escape from Alcatraz got in on the ground floor, it dominates the short list of recognized brands. So many hopefuls apply to compete that IMG, the official race organizer, holds a lottery to apportion race slots.
 

     But what really makes Escape from Alcatraz one of the crown jewels of the world triathlon circuit is the idiosyncratic way it celebrates its locale. Most triathlons follow one of four cookie-cutter distance templates: Sprint, Olympic Distance, Half-Ironman, and Ironman. In distinctly San Francisco fashion, however, Escape proudly ignores that conformity, letting local scenery dictate the course instead.

     The race begins with a 1.5-mile swim into the city from where the boat stops, out near Alcatraz. There’s always a big current pulling you sideways, toward the Golden Gate, so during that crazy moment on the ferry, everyone is building a mental map of the shoreline. That way, once you enter the mad scrum of the swim, you can look up every few strokes to locate yourself relative to Fort Mason, Sutro Tower, the Palace of Fine Arts, or, God forbid, Fort Point, aiming to exit the water at precisely the right part of Crissy Field. You’ll strip off your wetsuit on the spot, sprint a half mile up to Marina Green, and jump on your bike and ride 18 miles through the Presidio and around Golden Gate Park, before running 8 more miles down Crissy Field, under the bridge, along Land’s End, out to the deep sand of Baker Beach, and up the 400 steps of the infamous  sand ladder toward Lincoln Boulevard, so you can bolt back to Marina Green.
 

     And just holding all that together in your mind, among happily hyperactive strangers madly excited about your town not just as a vast athletic arena but also as a cultural beacon, food capital, and pretty place, it’s hard not to fall still deeper in love with San Francisco. Even knowing how bad it’s going to suck to swim across that icy-cold bay.