ESCAPE Race Report 2014

What a day...ESCAPE from Alcatraz is a brutally tough but amazing event in so many unique ways and it never fails to take me on a roller-coaster of all existing human emotions while punishing me physically on every possible level. My team is based in San Francisco and I have many friends and family there too so being able to connect with so many people I don't get to see very often makes for such a special day.

I was not feeling all that well the week leading up to ESCAPE...sleep had been illusive and poor choices of food and beverage consumption had me feeling run down and achy. The worst part about not having a good pre-race week is that my mind starts to grind on me, I expect the race not to go well and I start to question my motivations and my abilities. As per usual I did not get much sleep the night before the race so I was feeling pretty groggy in the morning. After a long week I honestly considered just going back to bed but for whatever reason I didn't. In past years at this event I have run out of time in the morning so this year I did absolutely everything possible the night before so after getting down to the race and setting up I actually had time to go back to the car and warm up for a bit before catching a shuttle to the ferry.

I was on the boat earlier than usual so I found a quiet corner and curled up to keep warm. Somehow even my coffee had failed to wake me up which for me is not a good sign but I nibbled on some sweet chews and focused on people-watching to keep me distracted. Of all the things that are great about ESCAPE, no one ever mentions people-people watching on the boat ride out to the island. There is everything from the ultra-masculine tower of muscles using stretch cords aggressively in the middle of the crowd to warm up his huge lats, to the travel weathered adventurer from the midwest who got in through the lottery staring out the window with a look that is half awe and half 'why in the world did I decide to do this?' In the same room there are olympic medalists and Ironman world champions as well as people who are shaking because they have never swum in the ocean and land looks impossibly far away.

With a couple of minutes to go we filed out onto the ledge of the ferry and climbed the rail to await the start. Hanging off the edge of the ferry with a cold breeze in your face, staring out across the choppy bay towards a finish which you can not see is a daunting way to start a race, but I had good friends on either side of me and I just told myself that all my worrying didn't matter any more because there is no turning back at that point.

The horn went off and I got a good clean entry. I had solid early sight lines so I got started positioning myself and waited for the powerhouse swimmers to come by. The lead group came up on my left and I got in behind them hoping to stick around long enough to get close enough to shore to only have to sight the finish. Unfortunately the water was pretty choppy and for some reason I was zigzagging all over the place and I quickly found myself alone. Another small group came by and they were swimming more my speed so I tried tucking in with them but again swells would roll through and I would find myself way off to one side or another. It is always very disorienting getting tossed around in the cold water and not being able to see where you are going and eventually I gave in to the frustration and just tried to churn it out on my own for a while. There is always a moment during the swim in from Alcatraz where I question why in the world I am out there getting my ass kicked by the competition and the elements, this was it. Eventually my goggles got too fogged up and I could not see anyone around so I stopped momentarily and swished them out. It was a good thing I did because I had been swimming in the wrong direction and I was way off course, with a long line of people swimming away from me towards the exit. I got back on track and reeled in a couple of people on the way to the beach.

The swim exit went well and I got off towards T1. My legs felt tight and I could not get going as fast as I wanted but looking ahead the gaps to some of the stronger guys were smaller than in years past and that was very encouraging. I got to my bike and out of transition quickly with several collegiate athletes and some of my teammates nearby. Having people of a similar speed nearby to push you helps a lot so after a smooth jump onto the bike I set my sights down the road. With riders at good intervals I had a lot of people to chase and I set about pulling people back...I caught and passed two people before the first climb and I could see two more collegiate guys up the road less than a minute ahead. I pushed a big gear on the flats and spun up the hills catching two more people on the climb to the Legion of Honor. It was really windy up on the hill and the descent down onto the great highway was a little scary. The ocean air was blowing straight in from the side right and it was challenging just to stay upright let alone in the correct lane but I could tell it was worrying the other guys more than me and I passed two more people on the way into the park. On the way back I had the lead woman up the road to chase and I caught her at the base of the returning climb. The hills in this race are always really painful and some of them are fairly the last roller I was feeling like my quads were going to explode. I didn't know whether I had overdone it or not but the clock doesn't care so I put my head down and pushed a big gear back to transition to give my lungs a quick break.

Photo by Ken Rakestraw

Cold and tired I hit T2 and got changed as quickly as possible. Grabbing all my stuff I turned around and headed back out the way I had come in and after running out the 'bike-in' volunteers started yelling "WRONG WAY!!" My brain snapped back on and I quickly turned around laughed saying "Oh yeah! I knew that sorry guys!" My little detour lost me two positions but not by much and it was good motivation to have some people just up the road to chase. I got settled into a good pace on the flat two mile section that opens up the run. I wasn't gaining on the people ahead of me but I knew I was running fast and just tried to stay motivated. Some friends were out on the course and were shouting that we were in the top ten which was great news and that boosted my spirits significantly. I hit the base of the steps feeling good and got into a rhythm taking one then two at a time. I tried not to look up the stairs too far and just focused on what was right in front of me. One guy passed me on the stairs but he was a teammate and I gave him some encouragement, telling him that there were guys not far ahead that he cold catch. Cresting the stairs I pushed my legs to get back up to speed and got a good response, though I was exhausted, and I ran solidly through the trails on the upper bluffs. I let my legs loosen up down the descent to the beach, getting a little respite for my lungs and letting gravity do the work. I hit the beach and was relieved to find that the sand was packed much better than in years past and it was possible to actually run instead of slogging through the sand for the out and back. I passed one person on the beach and saw that I was within a minute of some really strong guys with a decent gap on the next parson chasing me. I hit the sand ladder, where in previous years trying to run a little had completely crushed what was left of my aerobic engine, so just let myself walk it. Back up on the bluffs I passed my friends screaming encouragement again and I finally felt like the finish was within reach. 

A quick and safe descent of the stairs brought me within two miles of the finish but cheers from the aid station were for two people. I knew Andrew Bauer had been about a minute back at the turn-around but had he really made up that much time? He had put up an incredible performance earlier this year at the Oakland Half-Marathon so I knew it was possible and with just over a mile to go I gave a glance back to se he was within fifteen seconds. When the finish line is close and your body is screaming for any amount of respite, the hardest thing to muster is more effort but I knew we were on the cusp of a top ten. I gritted my teeth and dug for that extra gear, pouring all the fuel on the fire that I could handle. Another glance back with half a mile to go brought relief as Andrew had faded and I would not have to endure the indescribable pain of a sprint finish. 

I eased up in the final chute and slapped a few familiar hands reaching over the barriers crossing the line completely wrecked but in an excellent time for me and a top-ten finish overall! Within striking distance of some guys that are renowned in the sport, this was a great result for me and the fact that it comes at the end of a bad week, a tough month and an awful last year makes it all the more sweet. Hanging with my friends and family after the race in such a beautiful place capped the whole experience off and after a tough day of ups and downs I was so glad that I did not quit, that I got out of bed in the morning and despite battling the course and my frustrations I pushed on. 


  1. Awesome, Eric! You're a wonderful writer; what a beautiful story. I hope that this is a start to a much better year! Congratulations too. ;)

    1. Thanks for reading and for your support Natalie!

  2. great race and report Eric, wel done, great effort to kick start the 2014 season.