Athletic events in recent years have developed a habit of taking their participants to some amazing places that hardly seem fitting for their respective sports.
For the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil took on the monumental feat of building a stadium in the Amazon jungle, to which players embarked via numerous boat trips along the Amazon River.
This year’s Giro d’Italia (“The Tour of Italy” for the Anglophones readers out there), one of road cycling’s most prestigious races, began in the surrounding deserts and streets of Jerusalem.
And for the past 37 years, Escape from Alcatraz, one of the most unique events the American triathlon scene has to offer, has ferried its competitors out to the infamous prison to which the race owes its namesake and directed them along San Francisco’s northern beach fronts, all to the backdrop of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
THE COURSE LOW-DOWN
Not many would consider simulating a prison-break the ideal way to spend a weekend, but, still, this year the race attracted thousands of athletes from all 50 states and more than 40 countries.
The course proves easy enough...if you’re attempting to curtail a life-sentence. A ferry ride to the Alcatraz prison island deposits racers in the middle of the San Francisco Bay for a 1.5-mile swim to the shore followed by a 0.5-mile run to the transition zone. Up next is an undulating 18-mile bike ride, and, finally, an 8-mile run with virtually every terrain imaginable.
THE ATHLETE’S PERSPECTIVE
For Canadian triathlete, Alicia Kaye, who finished 2nd in this year’s edition to Sarah Haskins by only fifteen seconds, Escape from Alcatraz provided the perfect mix of technicality, difficulty, and sheer wackiness to help fine-tune her form leading into her bigger race goals later in the season.
Kaye explains that earlier in May she committed to participating in the Challenge Roth in Roth, Germany on July 1st, an “Iron-distance” triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run) not affiliated with the trademarked “Ironman” brand, but instead organized by a separate sports agency based out of Germany.
“This year, I’m racing a little more than usual. The last two years I raced a lot of Iron-distance races and this year I wanted to pepper in some short-course racing to just keep my threshold higher. I found that I lost that a little the last couple of years, so Escape from Alcatraz sort of fit. I hadn’t done it in ten years and it’s a pretty iconic triathlon, and there was really good prize money.”
According to Kaye, the race provided exactly the kind of race-sharpening efforts she hoped it would. “It just worked [in my schedule] and I’m super glad I did it because it was fun to be battling on the front, on the run in particular, exchanging the lead.”
Kaye with her husband and fellow professional triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker post-race.
The stand-out result did not come without doing her homework. Kaye stresses that one of the most important steps in race preparation for an athlete at any level proves as simple as three words: “know the course.” In this regard, Kaye’s process proves her embodiment of a 21st-century athlete.
“The Internet makes everything so easy,” she explains. “Google maps and Street View are so cool because you can just sit there and just go along the course, and watch videos from a number of people who ride the course with the GoPro.
For Alcatraz, such resources proved invaluable.
“This helped me get ready for really technical corners on the bike...There were probably four to six corners that, if you knew what you were doing, you could flow through them, but if you didn’t you would be on your brakes, not sure what was around the corner. We drove it as soon as we got to San Francisco, and I spent a lot of time watching videos going through it. That turned out to be a huge advantage for me because I had the best bike split by ninety seconds and that’s where I made time up on the rest of the women. ”
The preparation for Kaye does not stop until moments before the race is set to start.
“Basically, I have a Go-bag, which comes with me to the start, and I set-up everything in transition in that Go-bag,” she explains. “I’ve got my wetsuit, swim cap, goggles, chamois cream, sunscreen, and PR Lotion is in there, and applying it is one of the last things that I do before heading to the swim start. And once the race gets going there’s no stopping and reapplying or anything like that since it’s not possible in such a short race, but I’ve found that at the very very high intensities, I’m able to go a little harder.”
WAVES OF EMOTIONS
Kaye took the win at the Philadelphia Escape Triathlon in 2017
Despite the massive mental and physical preparation that Kaye puts herself through for these kinds of events, there are still aspects of racing that she admits she can only process when she’s staring them right in the face.
Kaye’s recollection of the Alcatraz gives reassurances to the everyday-racer that even amongst the professionals, sometimes even they don’t know exactly what is about to happen.
“You’re standing on the edge of this boat--having hopped over the railing--and you’re standing where you’re not supposed to be. There are waves, there’s swelling, and you’re going to dive head first with no swim buoys and someone saying, ‘Sight off of that cell tower, but the current’s going to pull you this way.’ It’s just very nerve-wracking.
“I’m a swimmer and that’s my job, but all the athletes are looking at each other like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this is a thing. If you’re not ready for that aspect of Alcatraz, you may not even make it off the boat.”
Despite finding herself for the first time in a decade once again in a place she did not feel she was “supposed to be,” Kaye did indeed find her way off the boat and raced herself into a runner-up position in one of the most prestigious races in the country.
Up next for Kaye is an Olympic distance triathlon in Philadelphia on June 24th before she heads off to Germany for Challenge Roth the following week.