Greg Nolten's Alcatraz Race Therapy
This probably isn’t your normal race report and more info than needed but here’s my story. A little about me – I’m a late 40’s (okay, almost 50!) very busy contractor with a wonderful supportive wife and two nearly grown children. My wife inspired me to start running in 2009 when I did my first half marathon which was also the inaugural Seattle Rock N Roll. Prior to that event and training, I wouldn’t have gone for a run unless a bear was chasing me! After several years of toting the kids to view points along race routes to support my wife I was inspired to take a shot at it. The Rock N Roll was a bucket list item but the accomplishment and thrill of crossing the finish line that first time had me hooked! After sustaining a knee injury at work in early 2014 I had to stop running. Being an active person I
couldn’t sit around so I dusted off my 20 year old mountain bike and started riding again. About that time a good friend invited me to do some pool swims. After a month I realized I could probably do a sprint triathlon. In June of 2014 I completed my first sprint which consisted of a ¼ mile doggy paddle, 15 wobbly miles on a crappy old mountain bike and a reasonable run. I was one of the last to cross the finish line but once again, I was hooked! 2018 brought my first Half Ironman with about 1 per year to
Never would I have thought I would enjoy this sport as much as I have. I’ve made some wonderful friends along the way that have helped get me here but most of all my appreciation to Regan and her continued support of me abusing my body in this way! The comradery and support amongst the triathlon community has truly made my heart happy.
ESCAPE TRAINING – I had never heard of Escape From Alcatraz before, it came across my Facebook feed last summer and thought it looked like a fun challenge. Without telling anyone I filled out the entry form and a few days later I received an email saying I was qualified to enter the lottery. On October 27th I got a confirmation email stating my name was picked and I was in! My first thought as I quickly realized that I was just accepted into a race that I had no business being a part of was - “crap, I better take this one seriously!!”
As someone who works in construction 65 to 70 hours a week and starts around 5am, the thought of training every night was….well, it wasn’t going to happen! My basic training plan consisted of “do what I can when I can”. It was not a great plan but it was enough to get me through. I’m FAR from being an elite athlete and I knew I wasn’t going to have a podium finish but I was okay with that. All I wanted was to cross the finish line under my own power and in one piece! I read and watched so many videos on this event that it scared me almost enough to withdraw from the
race. They really want to make sure you’re fit, not just physically but mentally too. Even though this is what I would call a very technical Olympic distance tri with double the swim, the psychological side of this event (for me) had my anxiety at an all-time high. With the help and support from some amazing friends I got in as much training is as I could with very limited time.
MY TRIP – Not being a fan of flying and with the hassle of getting so much equipment to San Francisco I decided to take a solo road trip. The drive and being by myself in a new city was going to be a bit lonely but at the same time gave me time to reflect on my life and focus on the task coming up. By suggestion of Patty Swedberg, I signed up for a swim clinic hosted by a local swim group in San Francisco. It was a very helpful 2 hour session that gave us a complete tutorial on the event and a chance to experience swimming in the cold water with strong currents in the bay before the event.
RACE DAY - We all visualize California as sunny and warm but of course this day, race day, the one day we all wanted dry, was the first day of rain in a month with none in the forecast after. San Francisco set a record for rainfall on that day and I wasn’t sure I even left Seattle! One big thing I’ve learned from doing triathlons and being a small business owner is to not stress over what I can not control. This was very tough!
We took a shuttle from transition at Marinna Green Park to pier 33 where the San Francisco Bell took us to Alcatraz. I sat next to a guy from Houston on the bus who was also there alone, just as anxious as I was and coincidentally in the same hotel just across the hall! We hit it off, even met up for a couple meals after the race and took a bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, just because we could!
THE SWIM - Without a doubt this was the most challenging swim I have ever done. I knew it would be which had my anxiety through the roof for weeks leading up to the race! This consisted of a 1.5 mile swim across San Francisco Bay fighting 1,999 other swimmers, choppy waves, a strong current pulling us out to sea and even a sea lion! Unfortunately fog set in as we were shuttling to The Rock and for safety reasons they had to slightly modify the course but still got the mile and a half-ish distance in. The 6 foot jump off the main deck of the San Francisco Bell into the 55* water was exciting, terrifying, exhilarating but most of all…..really cold! Diane Haensel gave me the best cold water tip – “the first 10 minutes are going to suck but if you can get through that you’ll be just fine”. She was right.
About midway across the bay (after swallowing half of it!) I stopped for a quick rest and for just a brief moment the fog lifted. As I sat there in choppy waters in absolute awe of my surroundings - Alcatraz behind me, city of San Francisco in front, the Oakland Bay Bridge to the left and the Golden Gate Bridge to the right, a question really set in. “Who’s stupid idea was this?!!” Well, it was mine! I also realized how incredibly grateful and lucky I was to have the ability to take part in an epic event of this magnitude. With the 6 knot speed of the current, I swam what equated to 1.6 miles in 36 minutes! I suppose using the current is cheating but I’ll take a record speed swim however I can get it!
TRANSITION 1 – After exiting the water at the St. Francis Yacht Club we had a ½ mile run to transition back at Marina Green Park. There were wetsuit strippers and a mini transition there that you could towel off and put on a spare pair of shoes for the run over. I opted to run in my swim booties and keep my wetsuit on to stay warm and it worked out great. I’m grateful for the volunteers handing out bottles of water to rinse the nasty saltwater taste out of my mouth!!
THE BIKE – 18 very hilly miles through the Presidio of San Francisco. Fortunately living in the PNW we have lots of hills to train on. That came in handy as I lost count but passed well over 300 cyclists on this leg of the race! Since the roads were wet (due to the only 5 hours of rain in a month!) we were all forced to slow down as the roads are slick and my old school rim brakes didn’t work as well. They did an excellent job with signage on the coarse warning us of sharp turns ahead. As we rounded the West side of the Golden Gate Bridge and down to the Pacific coastline we
encountered a 20+ MPH head wind. Experts say aero bars were not needed but at this moment I was glad to have them. With heavy rain blasting my face I got into a tight tuck and with an adrenaline (and testosterone!) filled rush I flew past 20+ riders in a half mile stretch! Probably not the smart thing to do on wet roads but I’m a guy, I do dumb stuff sometimes! The last 3 miles where downhill with about a mile of flat before entering transition. This was my final opportunity to load up on nutrition and yes, pass more riders in aero position in front of a half mile
stretch of spectators!
TRANSITION 2 – Nothing out of the ordinary but pouring down rain!
THE RUN – Ugh….the run!! It was only 8 miles and I can usually do that in just over an hour on race day but the hills, stairs, sand, grass, stairs, dirt, gravel, stairs, mud and oh yeah, more stairs really slow down your pace. This race is known for a brutal run and they weren’t kidding. The first mile and a half was flat and good to get the running legs working after a hilly ride before
starting the first 250’ elevation climb over the next mile to get to the South end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a mix of pavement, gravel and stairs before making our way down to the beach on the West side of the bridge. We even ran through an old Battery tunnel that you had to duck to get out of! At this point I was pretty exhausted and starting to hurt but I guess the pain was life letting me know I wasn’t dead!
After a mile run on the beach in chewed up sand at about mile 4 is the dreaded “sand ladder”. This was a 250’ elevation climb up 400 stairs built from drift wood and sand. Even the pros had to walk and use the cable railing to help pull themselves to the top. Once to the top there’s another 100 foot elevation gain up a muddy trail that takes you to mile 5. The next 2 miles were down steep hills and, yup, more stairs! The last mile was flat and gave me an
opportunity to catch my breath and prepare to be greeted by several thousand spectators and local media!
THE FINISH - As I rounded the last corner into Marina Green Park and entered the finish chute with the happiest bunch of soaking wet miserable triathletes, I was overcome with emotion. Between work load and serious family issues that some of you know about, the last 6 months of my life have been an exhausting, emotional roller coaster and it hit me hard. Maybe I need to turn in my “man card” but honestly I broke down. A volunteer even asked if I was okay and that was embarrassing enough to make me snap out of it! I got my medal and took a few minutes to reflect on what I just did and the last 8 months of what it took to get there. Everything I work so hard for in life I do for my family even if the tri sport addiction doesn’t make complete sense to them. However events like this – they’re for me and this is my therapy.
Raise the Bar
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