Sunday, May 16, 2010

Escape from Alcatraz Race Report - The Training part

From the day I got the email “Congratulations! You have been selected in the 2010 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon Random Lottery!” to the moment I crossed the finish line, I have to start out by saying that I have never gone through a training – racing time period with more emotional turmoil than I did with this race. It has already been two weeks since I’ve finished and I haven’t even allowed myself to meditate on this experience until just now. You are all reading this because you have been a positive influence in my training, directly and indirectly, and it is my minimal duty to express proper gratitude and appreciation for being a part of my life and motivation that prevented me from completely bailing from the race (I had all the reasons!) and to ultimately finish the disastrous run course and into the finish line.

** Training, or no Training??**

Most of you have heard too much at this point about my chronic hip issue… After my half marathon in February, running opportunities were pretty much shot, starting from the time I was supposed to do the Great Race of Agoura Hills half marathon in March. I did the best I could to strengthen my weak spots and hoped for my hips to endure the two half marathons to prep me for this particular race, but no, things just didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. But that always happens in training, things never go the way you planned, so it seems.

The alternative plan was to then focus on the swim – I mean, I need to get out of the water first to finish the race, right? I had heard so many tales of the cold and the strong current of the Alcatraz swim – and the 1.5 mile distance wasn’t the most comforting factor, either. I recalled the many times I used to hyperventilate and stiffen up in the cold waters of Malibu and Oxnard (Strawberry Fields Tri in July last year), which I was able to overcome only after warming up in the water for at least 10 minutes before the race start. Realizing that the Alcatraz race would offer me no time to warm up (you are required to jump off a boat straight into the water once the gun goes off), I knew I had to somehow overcome that cold water factor. Also, I had to just become comfortable in the ocean in all situations, period. So how would I achieve that in a mere two months’ time?

I thought of the people I knew who had no fear of the ocean whatsoever – who really think being in the ocean in all weather is the most fun thing to do (i won't name names, but there are three, and you know who you are if you're reading this). I wanted their spirit to rub off, so I asked them to take me out to the water. Thanks to them, I did end up picking up the most valuable reinforcement to my psyche – ocean swimming is so fun! I didn’t agree with them 100% and I am not sure if I ever will, but at least I forced myself to believe in it somehow by telling it myself over and over. Their comfort levels in the water, however, to witness in person, helped me feel relaxed too so that I could focus on swimming, not NOT freaking out. I also picked times when the water would be choppier than in the mornings so that I could get used to random splashes in my face and drinking salt water through my nose. Contrasting types of training methods were employed – from a very calming “let’s just tread water and feel comfortable in the ocean” approach to the Spartan-style “keep swimming, don’t stop, don’t be weak, Alcatraz is going to be a lot colder and choppier than this!” approach. In hindsight, they were both very effective training approaches.

Bike training – sooooooooooooooo, I only got on the road twice (maybe three times?) leading up to the race. I could only pray and hope that my grueling trekking experience in Peru’s high altitude would help me get through the hills. There were a few occasional hill interval training on the trainer, but overall bike training was non-existent if I compare this to the time and devotion I put in last year for my half ironman race.

Overall, my preparation for this race was challenged with terribly busy work days, big and rather untimely travel plans (what was I thinking??? But nonetheless I had the best trip ever to Peru) and quite a few changes in my personal life which required me to be more “flexible” with my training time.

But no matter what, I still had to do the race - and that is what i did! :)

Escape from Alcatraz Race Report

The alarm went off at 4am. Shirley dropped me off at the race site around 530am, and she headed off to her volunteer site in the run course (I was really looking forward to getting to that point). I felt like a lamb heading to a butcher site, but Shirley, as usual, did an amazing job at calming my nerves and gave me the much needed pep talk.

I mindlessly went into the transition area and set up camp. Once I was done, I headed to the bus that was transporting everybody to the pier, where the San Francisco Belle was waiting for 2,000 athletes to board to head to Alcatraz. The San Francisco Belle was tourist cheesiness boat at its best!

SWIM – 1.5 miles

The boat left at 7a with all of us crammed in like a pack of sardines – I was in that boat for over an hour and a half, including waiting time leading up to the departure. In the beginning it was so nerve wracking cuz everybody was so quiet in the boat. However, as time went by we all started chatting to work our nerves off, and the boat became more like a party place without the alcohol. This actually really helped me because had I stayed quiet the entire time I was on the boat I would have passed out from the anxiety and the heat generated by crowd. I felt quite at home with 1,999 other fellow masochists who considered this an “exciting” experience.

There were three doors we could jump off from, so we all lined up and started walking towards the doors as the gun went off at 8am – the minute you were out the door you had to jump immediately off the boat, down about 5-7 feet into the water and just start swimming before someone else jumped on top of you. Thanks to Shirley’s advice from her race experience two years ago, I told myself not to wait to feel how cold the water was but to focus entirely on navigation. Crap, it was my turn to cross that door and that was it, I held my goggle down to my face and jumped in as if I was going scuba diving, and the minute I hit the water I just swam like I never swam before. I had the swim finish to my right (3 o’clock angle), but because of the current I was supposed to just sight in the 12 o’clock direction. It was counterintuitive at first, but I was also warned about the strong current that no one can swim against once you are off track, so I just did what I was told to do. About 15 minutes in, I felt my left arm numbing up from the cold, but I couldn’t even let that bother me, so I started swimming harder so that I’d warm up. When I felt nervous, I stopped and looked around me, and the sight of the Golden Gate bridge in the stunningly gorgeous weather made me smile and think “look at me, I’m swimming across the freaking bay!!!!!” and kept me going. I felt like a badass, I really did.

As I got closer to the finish, I saw more people in the water, which gave me a huge relief after being alone for most of the swim (everybody was swimming in all sorts of directions!) – and then finally I saw a big crowd at the swim finish gate, literally right in front of me, then finally was able to get up and start running out of the water – YEAH I did it!!!!! 42 minutes!


There is about a half-mile run out of the swim to the bike transition area – the race directors had us put our running shoes and whatever else we needed for this mini-transition in plastic bags with our bib numbers on them and drop them off before the race. They were swearing “oh don’t worry, we never lose your bags!” Ok, so I run over to find my transition bag, only to realize that I couldn’t find mine. I grabbed a volunteer and we both frantically started looking…after 5 minutes or so we both concluded that it wasn’t there. I almost burst out in tears “what about my run later?” to which the volunteer said “we will find your bag and leave it in your transition area before your run, we will find it.” I kinda didn’t believe in him but what the heck that was not my problem at that point, I just started running barefoot with water dripping all over me. The asphalt was pretty unfriendly on the feet, which was only amplified by the fact that my feet were ice-cold from the water…ouch ouch ouch ouch I kept saying as I was trying to run… it was a pathetic attempt nonetheless, as pretty much everybody passed me to the bike transition area. CRAP.

BIKE – 18 miles. Short and NOT SWEET – at all!

Finally, I arrive at the transition area, and I think I have holes under my feet. This woman about two bikes next to me saw me and all of a sudden offered up her running shoes and said “I saw that they lost your transition bag, I’m a size 9.5 and I have an extra pair of running shoes so if you need them later you’re more than welcome to it.” I’m like, huh? I’m a size 10.5 running shoes (my feet swell up a full size in longer runs, but regardless yes I have big feet) but I knew that could work somehow if things got desperate. She went off to ride and I thanked her as I started putting on my socks (as well as rocks and grass) while drying off as much as I could…I left the running shoes in my transition area and took off for the bike course, hoping that I wouldn’t have to wear them. They were Asics that I have tried before and suffered from serious pronation issues which sent me on a year-long physical therapy adventure… dang dang dang…hopefully they will find my bag….

Ok, so 18 miles, but quite hilly…lots of technical turns followed by ups and downs… it was an out-and-back course, so I knew there was nothing to laugh about going downhill one way as I knew I had to go up on the way back – however the scenery along the course was stunning – that was my only mental escape from the tough course. Once I entered the Golden Gate Park area after going down a long stretch of a fun downhill, the ups and downs finally settled down a bit into a flat path and I was able to enjoy a little break, which I took the opportunity to refuel with melting and sticky Hammer bars (but they really helped me through the ride!). Sooner than later, I got out of the park and I knew I had to go up that long stretch of a hill….ok I survived that ….then turn left….and then turn right…and then straight up hill for another….what, a quarter of a mile maybe? But damn I almost fell off the bike on the uphill after the turn as I pretty much lost all the speed that I didn’t have to begin with????? But I didn’t fall, I didn’t stop and walk myself up as some other racers did! It was so freaking steep I could feel my right hip flexor was about to snap and my right lower back just giving out any minute….ugggghhhhh just keep going Minnie, don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop…. Finally after three of those nasty series of hills…I finally enjoyed some flats and mostly downhill on the way to the bike finish….that was a short ride but it was hard and agonizing!

RUN – 8 miles.

I get to my transition area – I put the bike down, taking my bike gear off…and looking for that bag they said they were going to bring…but the only thing I saw was the pair of Asics the lady left for me…. at that point my brain went “hey you know what, they lost my bag, I don’t have my running shoes! I can totally blame them and say I couldn’t finish because of them! They were the ones that screwed up, right?” then I looked at those Asics and thought “what are the chances that this woman next to me happened to be close to my big shoe size? These shoes might not have the right support for me, but this has to be a sign that I can’t ignore??? Oh, this blessing is also a curse, let’s just do it!” so I crammed my feet into those shoes and just went for it. and that was because I had NO IDEA what kind of run course I was getting myself into.

First 2 miles, easy flat peaceful route except that I was desperate for a porta-potty…ugh…running with a stomach full of water is no way to be running… ok finally I see a restroom, take care of business, back on the course feeling as light as a feather…then out of nowhere a flight of stairs! I’m thinking to myself, is this the infamous sand ladder? But there was no sand…ok, these are just more stairs that the race directors *forgot* to mention…then down the road into the beach area…and then when my eyes followed the orange cones I started cringing as they were basically asking us to run on the soft sand…for about half a mile. I dragged my already beat legs and back and tried to run on the soft sand, but let’s just say that I wasn’t making much progress. Finally, I hear someone screaming my name by the water stand…am I losing my mind? I’m hearing my name…am I hallucinating??? Of course then it hits me it’s no other than my hero Shirley who was volunteering to be my eyes on the course!!!! All the other people volunteering with her were screaming my name too, which was totally awesome…. Yeah!!! I ran straight to her and gave her a hug and yelled “the swimming was the easiest part!” at which she totally laughed because she had to deal with me freaking out about the swim for like the past 3 months. Shirley ran about a quarter mile with me to keep me company – running on hard sand closer to the water felt a lot better, and I wanted to kick myself for not running on this surface to begin with, I was just being the law-abiding racer by naively following the cones, thinking I would get disqualified if I didn’t.

As I finally get through the grueling running in the sand, I look up and see crazy Equinox flags flying along a very steep hilly area….OHHHHHHH so THAT’s the sand ladder! Yeah, THAT!!!! I not only had to hold on to the ropes on the railings to pull myself up most of the time (apparently even the pros held on to them at crucial times so I didn’t care if I looked like a wimp for using them to help me) but there were also moments my hip flexors just wouldn’t move in forward motion, I had to actually start going up the steps laterally. PATHETIC! This thing was 3 times the height of the Santa Monica stairs, with sand on every step so that it would suck all the energy out of my legs. I just kept on, I didn’t look up to see where the end was and just focused on one step after another. Finally, with the last push of my legs and pull of my arms (still holding on that rope), I was done with the torture device and moved on to the joy of running uphill (everything is relative). I think I finally hit Mile 5 at that point, can’t recall… but as my feet started swelling up the shoes were feeling jammed in the toes and my right hip was completely shot from all the pronation. I just started laughing. There is always so much irony in my races.

Over the last two miles, I ended up running with a fellow racer from Michigan – he and I were both hurting so much but running at the same pace so we decided to run together to keep each other motivated. However, my right hip just froze up in the last mile I had to walk for a bit. After saying “see you at the finish line” I walked for 3 minutes to stretch out my hip…then went for the home stretch, just bit my tongue and ran/skipped all the way.

Finally, I see the finish line area and the big crowd was still around to greet the late finishers…as I was only about 50-75 feet away from the finish line, the announcers mentioned my name “Minnie Lee, from Playa del Rey” and I started jumping and smiling out of excitement. The announcers continued on to say “who else can you expect all that energy from, other than someone named Minnie from Southern Cali!” oh only if they knew I worked at Disney… anyway, DUDE I crossed that finish line in a leap with my hands up in the air, and I’ve got the photos to prove it!

The other racer from Michigan was waiting for me at the end of the finish area – we hugged and congratulated each other for surviving our Escape from Alcatraz. The company of a total stranger can help us get through a tough and lonely time! This is one of the reasons why I love this race. Oh yeah and the finisher’s medal too. :)


This wasn’t just another race under my belt – this was kind of an adventure, an experience I will cherish for life. From training to the end of the race, lots of unexpected events happened which almost stopped me from finishing – however, after every bad surprise, there was always a good surprise that came from people’s kindness. I was a recipient of Shirley’s kind offer to be there with me before, during and after the race when I thought I was going to end up going through it alone, I benefited greatly from the random woman’s graceful offer to give me her pair of shoes to enable me to finish the race (I didn’t end up seeing her after the race, I think she got timed out on the bike course), and without the kindness of all of your motivating words, support and your time to help me out with my fear of the ocean (you know who you are), I wouldn’t have been able to finish this race, not even close. Because of all of you I was able to face one of my biggest fears and get through a race I couldn’t fathom finishing. Even during the race I couldn’t fathom getting through it all at certain times, but all it took was that one jump off the boat and into the water…the rest was just driven by…the pure need to finish.

A lot of the times we face similar situations in life – actually perhaps this is just like life, in a smaller scale. We are living our lives, we don’t know what the heck is supposed to happen with our lives, what we’re supposed to be when we grow up, how we’re supposed to finish off in style…but we took the plunge, and now we just have to keep going, because we just have to. In the course of all this, I hope to survive a few tough times, enjoy a few surprises, both good and bad, and do a few good things and help a few people along the way…and hopefully I will raise my hands up in the air and jump as I cross the finish line of life. It is so long yet so short, just like this crazy Escape from Alcatraz race. NEVER GIVE UP, and FINISH SMILING!

For race photos, go to: