No escaping Alcatraz challenges

Navigating the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay offers a unique start for triathletes. Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

When Leanda Cave jumps into the water near Alcatraz Sunday morning, she'll be wearing a wetsuit to guard against the frigid water of San Francisco Bay. This will be her seventh start in the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon, so she knows what's in store.

The water temperature will be in the 50s and the strong current will push the triathlon's 2,000 swimmers hard toward the Golden Gate. Cave will be both excited and anxious about starting one of the world's most notable triathlons, now in its 34th year.

It's a swim so challenging that officials at the now-closed federal penitentiary on Alcatraz used to boast the island was escape-proof.

"I wouldn't want to have been one of the convicts back then trying to escape," Cave says, laughing. "I mean, the swim is very daunting. It's a shock to the system because you don't get a warm-up. You just jump off the boat. So for first-timers out there, it's really nerve-wracking. You really have no idea what to expect, how cold it is."

Even before the start, "your head's already screaming these painful thoughts," she says.

Despite the challenges, Cave, 36, has done just fine. The British triathlete who now lives in Boulder, Colorado -- and has won both the Ironman World Championship and Ironman world 70.3 titles -- has won Alcatraz four times, including in her 2007 debut. Once in the water, swimmers have to negotiate the current, keep raising their heads to pick out landmarks, and get to Aquatic Park in San Francisco, about 1.5 miles away.

"I just follow the feet in front of me and hope for the best," Cave says.

Heather Jackson, who won last year in her race debut, says the swim is challenging, but so is the rest of the race. After the swim comes an 18-mile bike ride up and down the hills of San Francisco, followed by an 8-mile run over constantly changing surfaces. But Jackson says it's the swim that gets everybody's attention.

All of the stories about the biting-cold water, currents and the history of the supposedly escape-proof island seep into athletes' minds.

"I think maybe it's the fear that it brings," says Jackson, 30, a former schoolteacher and hockey player from New Hampshire who now lives in Bend, Oregon.

"I know I was scared s---less going into it," she adds, laughing. "Once I got through the swim I remember getting to the shore and being like, 'Oh, my God. I did it!' You're just so relieved you're there.

"Because that swim, you're not really swimming. It's so wavy out there, and you can't see anything. You're basically doing what you can to get to shore."

In the beginning

To clarify, Alcatraz wasn't actually escape-proof, even during the nearly 30 years the federal prison was home to hard-core and celebrity criminals such as Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly. Several inmates attempted to either swim or float off The Rock. Some never were found; some believe those men got away.

But in December 1962, one inmate, John Paul Scott, proved it could be done. He made it all the way to Fort Point below the Golden Gate Bridge, nearly three miles from Alcatraz. Using water wings made of a denim shirt and rubber gloves, Scott made it to the rocks at Fort Point, where he was quickly nabbed.

"His condition is not too serious," a doctor who treated him told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. "You might just say that he's damn cold."

So when the first Escape From Alcatraz triathlon was held in 1981 -- the brainchild of four men and a woman inspired by the Ironman in Hawaii -- it came with a certain allure. It would be not only a test, but one held in a beautiful setting with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline, with a big dose of history.

And during it's nearly 34 years, the race has become one of the most popular and best-known triathlons in the world. For pros, it's a must-do. For amateurs, it's on the wish list. For most, getting the chance to compete can be difficult. Each year, 5,000 to 6,000 enter a lottery for about 1,800 amateur slots in the field of 2,000.

The original course was much different than today's. After the swim came a 15-mile bike over the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley and a 14.2-mile run on the famous and difficult Double Dipsea trail course over Mount Tamalpais to Stinson Beach and back to Mill Valley. The course stayed basically the same through 1989, when the race was nationally televised for the first time by NBC.

The difficulties of shooting the race on the Dipsea route -- trees over the trail often hid the runners -- caused the run to be moved in 1990 to the Marin Headlands just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Eric Gilsenan, 49, who entered his first Escape From Alcatraz triathlon in 1989 and on Sunday will do his record 26th consecutive race, has seen the event evolve. Over the years, he has become one of the race's organizers, one of its announcers, its coach and historian.

He recalls the Golden Gate Bridge Authority in the early 1990s pulling the bridge out of the event after two-time champion Greg Welch found himself on the wrong side of the bridge during the bike race.

"So Welchie gets off his bike and, a la "Frogger," he runs across all six lanes of the Golden Gate Bridge with his bike in bike shoes -- click, click, click, click, click -- gets on his bike, passes [leader Mike Pigg] and wins the race," says Gilsenan.

He added: "They said, 'You guys will never have anything to do with us again.' "

Since then, the race -- since purchased by IMG -- has been confined to San Francisco, and the course has mostly stayed the same since the mid '90s. One constant has been the quality of athletes. The best and best-known triathletes in the world flock to the race. Men's multiple winners include Andy Potts (five times), Chris McCormack and Pigg (four), Simon Lessing (three) and Welch and Hunter Kemper (two).

On the women's side, Michellie Jones has won eight times, Cave four times and Paula Newby-Fraser three times. Lessing holds the men's record on the current course at 1:54:41; Jones has the women's mark at 2:08:54.

Cave says the race is on a par with the Ironman World Championship in Kona. It's an iconic race that every serious triathlete must do. It's tough, has a strong field and is unique. Its 25.5-mile distance and course are like no other.

"If you really have a dominant day in Escape From Alcatraz," she says, "it kind of makes people stand up and notice."

Jackson says the other thing that makes Alcatraz special is its length. The pros have to go all out, like a sprint, but it's longer than a sprint.

"For me, I think it's one of the hardest out there, just in terms of it is short enough that you basically have to go all out in all three sports," she says. "It's not an Ironman where it's about the pacing and nutrition. It's under two hours, but in all three [disciplines] you're going all out as hard as you can."

In a way, says Gilsenan, the race gets its character from the famous prison.

"Alcatraz was not built to rehabilitate the inmates," he says. "It was there to punish. And like that, the swim and the bike and run punish the athlete. But we're there by choice. They weren't."

The swim

San Francisco Bay isn't a fun place to swim. Most of its water comes from snowmelt in the Sierra, which is why it's bone-chilling. And the currents are swift, with about 5 million gallons of water per second pouring out the Golden Gate into the Pacific.

Gilsenan tells rookies and people in his Escape Academy clinics that to get to San Francisco from Alcatraz they have to "swim across a river."

First, the swimmers go south across the current, then turn west closer to shore and swim with it to the landing spot at Aquatic Park. If swimmers aimed straight for the finish, the current would take them far to the west.

"If it was a football route, it would be 'buttonhook right, hit you on the 40,' " he says.

In addition, kayaks, Jet Skis and motorized boats patrol both flanks of the course for safety and guidance. After arriving at Marina Green Beach adjacent to the St. Francis Yacht Club, swimmers run a half-mile to the start of the bike leg at Marina Green.

The bike

The first two and last two miles of the 18-mile bike route are flat, but the middle 14 are anything but, with elevation changes of more than 300 feet. "Mile 3 through 16 are up, down, left, right, up, down, left, right," says Gilsenan.

It's a historic and scenic trip, through the Presidio of San Francisco, along the Coast Highway and through Golden Gate Park before returning to Marina Green.

The run

The eight-mile out-and-back running circuit heads west through the Presidio to Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge and on to Baker Beach for a mile over sand, then back up the Equinox Sand Ladder (400 steps of railroad ties) to the top of a bluff.

From there, it continues east on the Coast Trail to the finish at Marina Green. The course takes runners over grass, asphalt, dirt, sand, railroad ties, gravel and concrete, and elevation changes up to 300 feet. The Sand Ladder can take its toll on pros and amateurs.

"You can sprint up the stairs in two minutes or you can take your time in three to four minutes," says Gilsenan. "You're better off in three to four, because if you go too hard you're getting diminishing returns because you have to recover."

Finally, with two miles to go, the race turns fun. The course is flat, the winds are at the athletes' backs and the crowds are out.

"I always love running back along Marina Green, the Presidio and into the finish-line area," says Cave, who also won in 2008, 2010 and 2012. "It's so fun with the crowds cheering you. That's why I think this event is so amazing. It attracts a lot of spectators and you get a sense of accomplishment. Such a warming feeling."

'Pretty cool triathlon'

To Gilsenan, the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon is more than a race. After getting out of the Coast Guard -- out of shape and with little direction -- he entered the 1989 race with no triathlon experience and finished 102nd out of 200. To him, it was a life-changing event that gave him direction and put him on a positive path.

Veteran triathletes welcomed him and guided him, and caused him to get involved in the race while also still competing in it. Now, he says, he tries to pass on that welcoming spirit to all who take part, whether they're pros or novice age-groupers.

He still marvels at the fact amateurs can compete on a famous stage on the same course with Ironman champions. And those amateurs get just as much -- or more -- out of it than the pros.

"I've seen dad become a hero in the eyes of their children just because they've seen dad finish a race," he says. "They're like, 'Wow, this isn't the guy telling me to finish my homework. He's a guy finishing a pretty cool triathlon.' "