A Race Report from Neil Brooks
For the past 5 years I have been ticking off my triathlon “bucket list” and last week I was able to cross off The Escape from Alcatraz from that list.
It will be etched in my memory forever as one life’s great experiences, on so many levels.
I was lucky enough to get a sought after race spot through the lottery, but it really meant nothing without the support of friend Rob Parker and his team at Facilitate Corporation.
He so graciously sponsored me to compete at Alcatraz and without his support it would of just remained a pipe dream. I am also grateful and honoured to have raced to raise awareness for Monstar Foundation and their pursuit in finding a cure for Motor Neurone
Alcatraz is as much an adventure race as it is a triathlon. Starting with a 2.4 km swim from the footsteps of the famous prison in icy cold sharkie waters, followed by a 28 km bike through the very steep streets of San Francisco and finishing with a 13 km run that consists of trail, bitumen, soft sand and the famous or infamous if you like 400 step sand ladder.
My alarm was set for 3 am, which in reality was just a formality and wasn’t required as sleep was a commodity in short supply the night before the race.
I arrived at the transition area just after 4.15 am with high expectations, coupled with the knowledge that I’d worked extremely hard for this event and felt well prepared. I had already committed to myself that I was going to leave everything out there in terms of effort for this race.
Like moths being lead to a distant flame, the pilgrimage of triathletes from all over the world started filling the bike transition area with the flickering of head lamps and phone torches.
The racking of bikes and checking of equipment like soldier ants the competitors were busily taking on nutrition with anxious smiles and warm greetings. Tyres were being pumped, helmets being adjusted and finally nervously pouring themselves into their wetsuits as the buses lined up to ferry the athletes to the “San Francisco Belle” for the paddle steamer ferry ride to Alcatraz and the start of the Escape.
“The Belle” with her overwhelming size and grandeur, would of looked just as at home on the Mississippi River as it did in the San Francisco bay packed with 2000 athletes and officials, I’m sitting amongst the brethren, in awe of my surroundings and as promised 6.30 sharp we leave the pier and start our slow roll to Alcatraz.
Sitting amongst the other athletes there is a sense of comradeship that I have never experienced at any other triathlon!
There are the old hands and the young guns, people lining up for the 10th Escape as well as newbies like myself from all around the world sharing stories and experiences of how they got here, how they’ve fared here and how they want to leave this most exhilarating backdrop, a playground like no other.
The official start is at 7.30 am and as the clock approaches 7, if at all possible the energy seems to lift another notch, we get our instructions and are told that 2000 athletes have to be off the boat in less than 6 minutes.
At 7.20 the American national anthem is sung and to say the feeling of euphoria was high would to be an understatement, the hairs on the back of my neck were at a full attention salute as they hit the high note of “and the home of the brave”.
Pros and elites were to go on the first horn and the rest of the field wait for the call and it’s all for one.
I had my bearings was about to jump into the unknown and can honestly say I’d never been more excited to be on the start line of any race ever!
My adrenalin was so high jumping off the Belle and into the water, the first 10-15 seconds replicated that of being in a washing machine, with the first thought that entered my head “sh*t this water is cold”.
It was choppy, it was windy and throw into the mix a ferociously
nasty swell complimented by a sweeping westerly current and I was loving it.
Because of the size of the swell, it was really hard to get into any sort of rhythm and I found it difficult to get my bearings. I was getting thrown around like a rag doll and I tried to wait until I got pulled to the top of a swell before I’d try to sight the mainland markers. Each time I rose to the top of a swell, I was mesmerized by the flashes of the morning sun hitting the beams of the Golden Gate Bridge on the right, the Bay Bridge on the left and Alcatraz in the rear view mirror when I cared to look back.
It was the most horrendous swim in terms of conditions, but the setting made it not only worth the pangs of intermittent sea sickness, but buoyed by exhilaration as my mindset was almost euphoric. I just kept reminding myself where I was, what I was doing and the hard work I had done and sacrifices I had made to get to the start line. My swim training preparation in the weeks leading up to Alcatraz were consistently 20km per week.
I was at the pointy end of the field and I didn’t really swim with anyone around me , but as I would eventually work out there was another reason I was on my own – I’d swum off course.
Moments before we all took the plunge, we were warned about the sweeping current and unfortunately I had overcompensated for it and by the time I hit the shore, I was about 200 meters East of the landing beach, which realistically cost me 2-3 minutes.
I felt like I’d swallowed half the bay by the time I’d reached terrafirma, but was in great spirits both mentally and physically and soaking in my surroundings at every opportunity. Now it was time for the 800m transition run to the bike, while at the same time peeling off my HUUB wetsuit.
I had a pretty smooth transition, found my bike straight away, which was a feat in itself amongst the 2000 lookalikes and was really conscious to keep my heart rate under control and not to burn too many matches too early in the bike.
Coming out of T1, the bike course heads out towards the Golden Gate Bridge and the wind smacked you in the face and was as warm as a mother in laws kiss.
As I got towards the bridge, the bike course turned left and straight into the first of many climbs for the 28 km ride past Bakers beach out towards the Great Highway.
There was nothing flat, it was either 70km/h or 15km/h and nothing much in between, 28k would normally be a short bike leg for a triathlon but this was no normal event and by 20k into the bike you were feeling like you were finishing a 90 km ride of a half Ironman.
I had done the bulk of my training for Alcatraz in Uluwatu, consistently racking up 250-300 km per week in the hot, humid and hilly area of Bali.
I knew I was going okay on the bike as I’d only been passed by a handful of riders and I’d researched bike times from years gone by and I knew if I could complete the bike course in under an hour, I would be on song for a good day out within my age group. My Garmin was telling me on the ride home my average speed was up around 30 km/h, which should deliver me right in the Mayors office.
It was an out and back course, so on the flats coming back into transition it was 50 km/h tailwind which allowed me to get my head straight and mull over my race strategy heading into the run.
Coming back into T2, the crowds lining the course were unbelievable and very generous in their support of ALL athletes.
I had a pretty smooth transition through T2, racked the bike put on my running shoes and was heading out to the beast of a run course which could intimidate the most seasoned of runners, which at 6’6, I am not.
In my lead up, I’d been running around 50-60 km a week which included a lot of hills, lunges, stairs and core work.
My goal was to run the first 2-3 km at between 4.40 and 4.45 per km pace without going to deep into threshold. I couldn’t believe it my first km was 4.42 and I knew I was having a good day, everyone had told us about the infamous sand stairs at about 9 k into the run but no one had mentioned the concrete stairs at about 3k in, which took you up to Lincoln Boulevard.
They were impossible to run up and were about 2-300 stairs that instantly took your heart rate to the max and made your legs burn like you’d been stabbed with a hot poker. Then, just when you thought you had conquered the burn, when you got to the top, it was another 1-2 km of road climbing before hitting a steep gravel descent which took you down to the beach for some soft sand running.
On the way up, your hamstrings and calves were of fire, on the way down your quads and knees were screaming like a teenager at a Justin Bieber concert.
Half way down the gravel descent my shoe got caught in a wooden tree root and literally ripped my sole off my right shoe, this was at about 7 k into a 13 k run and it was flapping around filling with sand as I approached the 400 sand stairs.
I’d heard about them, seen them, imagined them and now was confronting them – THE SAND LADDER.
It’s really quite simple…THEY ARE BRUTAL and when you get to the top, you still aren’t done. As you turn left there is another 6-700 m of trail climbing before you get to the down hill which once again is very technical and full of tiny stairs and turns and with a shoe that was completely blown I was hanging on mentally with steely determination not to let this ruin my day.
As I headed back to the flats, I was given an enormous boost when 30 m up the road was one of two guys in my age group that had passed me early into the run and now it seemed like he’d left his best on the sand ladder.
Over the next 2 k, I’d forgotten about my shoe and was fully focused on reeling him in, which I did, at least temporarily anyway. I made my move with less than 2 k to go, but this was Alcatraz and no one gives up easily, he countered and returned the favour. I sat on his heels for about another 200m and then decided I was going to try and break him. I didn’t want to get into a sprint finish, as on top of a blown shoe, my left hamstring was on the cusp of cramping.
As I turned for home, I spotted another guy in my age group, who was only a further 20 m up the road and was going up and down on the spot.
I had no choice, I had to go for it and give it everything I had, the roar coming down the finish shoot was enormous it doesn’t take long for the crowd to work out when two guys are in the same age group and are laying it all on the line.
I passed him with less than 5m to the finishing line and locked away fourth place in my age group finishing 75th overall out of 2000 starters.
It was a great day for me, such a feeling of both relief and achievement. I’d hoped before the race to finish in the top 10 for my age, so to be 4th was a tremendous thrill.
My sponsor Rob Parker from Facilitate Corporation was there at the finish line and I instantly caught his eye and he was as thrilled as I was and we both knew at that moment, I’d given it everything I had. He would later tell me the look he saw on my face as I’d crossed the finish line was worth every penny he’d spent in getting me there.
I’d finished Alcatraz, ticked the box, made so many knew friends and cemented in my mind why I love this sport so much, it gives as much as it gets and you get what you deserve in the end.
I deserved a great result in San Fran because I’d done all the right things in preparation and 4th was a good reflection of where I’m at in the sport.
Everyone said I’d struggle at Alcatraz being a giant and it was a small guys course, that may be the case but I wasn’t about to let it hold me back. I’m proud of 4th and think I can go one better.
Next year given the same opportunity I believe I can climb onto the podium and who knows after that. One thing is for sure it won’t be through lack of trying.
I’m very grateful to Rob and his wonderful team at Facilitate, as well as his clients and friends that came to support me on the day and are now my friends. I have a small core group of friends that know who they are from swimming and school days who have also been a great
I would also like to thank Dean Jackson from HUUB for the ongoing support over the last 2 years in keeping me warm and fast whilst I am swimming and racing.
As usual, I had the amazing support from my wife Elle and our son Levi. They are my main motivation in life and to see them so proud of me, is really all I need from life.
Thanks once again and I thank you all for sharing my journey.