One of the things on my bucket list in this new form is the Alcatraz swim.
That’s where they take you from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island in a perfectly good boat and you jump out and swim back to San Francisco. It’s about 1.5 miles and if you don’t swim just right against the current, you’ll be swept out towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
I swam Alcatraz in the annual Sharkfest swim before I was injured and indeed was swept out so far that an escort boat had to pick me up.
The problem is that I was a poor swimmer prior to my spinal cord injury (SCI) and I’m worse now. I haven’t been able to swim all year because of pressure wounds on my ankles that haven’t healed since September of last year.
So while those are taking forever to heal, I’m handcycling and doing triathlons as a relay.
I found my way into the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon this year as part of a relay along with Alan Shanken who is a below the knee amputee and has done every leg of this triathlon a number of times. We were a part of the Challenged Athlete Foundation contingent that was there.
When I got there in the morning, I found out the swim had been cancelled for the first time in the 37-year history of the race. There was a small craft advisory and heavy wind conditions that they deemed unsafe. So things started out with a bit of drama as race officials and racers figured out how to proceed with just the 18-mile ride and 8-mile run.
I was the only handcycle there this year. I quickly understood why. With 1,600 feet of climbing in under 18 miles of riding, it’s a tough challenge. It’s not something you just go do in a handcycle. I was out there for just under 2 hours. Most people on regular bikes take just over an hour.
So having plenty of time for thoughts to run through my head, here’s some of the more interesting items:
Don’t Be Afraid To Fail
Alan, my aforementioned relay partner, constantly asked me if I was ready for this challenge and if I think I could do it. Like up until the night before. And it really didn’t get into my head … until the night before. But I knew a couple of things:
I had done 1,600 feet of climbing once before, except over 35 miles of riding. It was last December when I was in far less racing shape. I was going for 50 miles but my arms gave out and the support van for our ride had to come get me. Now, I was in better shape and I knew what I was in for because I had ridden the course many times before I my SCI.
During check-in, the race organizers all knew who I was, as the only hand-cyclist. Which kind of worried me because it is a very technical course with a dozen left turns and a dozen right turns, many at the bottom of fast hills. But it also gave me comfort in that the staff on the racecourse were aware and prepared for me.
My biggest fear really was time. The original cut-off for the bike was 10:30am. If you were still on the bike leg at that time, a sweeper van would pick you up and take you to transition to go on to the run. My math looked like this: I do 18 miles regularly and it takes me about 1:15 (1 hour & 15 minutes) with 500 feet of climbing. Throw in another 1,100 ft climb to add 30 more minutes. My goal then was to do the ride in 1:45 and that gave me a buffer of about 30 minutes if Alan came in from the swim around 8:30am.
Besides the fact the swim was cancelled and the cut-off was extended, I was not picked up by the sweeper van and came in at 1:57 versus my 1:45 goal.
The biggest difference between handcycle and regular cycling is that you can’t put out as much power with your upper-body as with your legs. I say upper-body because the primary muscles used in handcycling are chest and back. Arms play more of a secondary role, as opposed to what most assume.
That being said, climbing is twice as hard and monotonous because you go about twice as slow.
Becoming a cyclist in the San Francisco Bay Area, I learned to love climbing. Partly because you have little choice with all the hills here and partly because the view from the tops are amazing. Eventually you get good at it and learn the nuance of technique.
But long climbs on a handcycle take twice as much patience and fortitude. There were many times in this race my Garmin GPS computer stopped while I was climbing because it didn’t think I was moving. Which by the way adds the biggest insult to injury when EVERYBODY – even the chump racing this TRIATHLON on a tourist rental bike – is passing you.
What I knew I had to do was buckle down and GRIND it out. Get my gearing right and just keep pedaling.
It felt like this race was 75% climbing. That means spending 75% of the time under 8mph. Then when I hit 30mph+ on a downhill, the distance was covered quickly before I was on another freaking hill climb.
Towards the end, I’d just find a marker 25 ft up the hill – like a traffic cone – and just keeping stroking to that cone and then the next and the next.
I knew one thing for damn sure. I couldn’t stop pedaling.
There’s one stretch racers know called Seal Rock Drive. After you’ve climbed the hill starting at Ocean Beach and passing Cliff House Restaurant, you get a short reprieve before turning right onto this insane short hill that at it’s worst is 17.1% incline.
At that point I was 12 miles into the race and was warding off cramps with nutrition. Going in, this was the part we all were most concerned with.
But I buckled in. It was tough as all hell. I picked a marker 5 feet in front of me to get to – that’s how micro my goals were at that point – and then the next and then the next.
I. Just. Could. Not. Stop. Pedaling.
But I really wanted to stop.
Two things lifted me:
- The other racers screaming encouragement as they passed me.
- Me screaming at the top of my lungs like a maniac weight lifter.
I knew I’d laugh at myself later, but in the moment I let it all loose and could hear my screaming echo off the homes lining the street.
Coaching Pays In Spades
Throughout the race I could hear my coach laying out specific strategy on how to race. I can’t say enough about getting coaching in life and especially in triathlon.
In the first triathlon I raced in after my SCI, my coach Neil Fraiser, rode with me and just coached me through. Approaching a long incline he said, “…now just hit your Granny gears and settle in to the slow pace and go. Don’t kill yourself trying to go fast up the hill.”
That reminder to be patient and settle into a steady pace without using up all my energy was the entire strategy for this race.
I knew how and when to shift into what gear to keep steady cadence and maintain momentum both into and out of inclines and descents.
I knew how and when to hydrate, how and when to take energy blocks and what kind of energy blocks so as to maintain my energy and not bonk or cramp.
All because of great coaching that taught me race strategy.
One of the things I appreciate most about triathlon is the community. Because we’re pretty high on endorphins all of the time, we tend to be pretty lovey dovey.
All along the route I heard encouragement from other racers: ‘Good job, mate.’ ‘Nice work.’ And my personal favorite: ‘Respect.’
It was really cool in this race to hear it in American, Australian, Castilian and many other accents.
When I had breath, I made sure to return the love.
I also have to add that it was a privilege to race with the paratriathlon elites. It’s a small community which is great to be a part of. In the paratriathlon category at EFAT was Jamie Brown, who coached me at the CAF paratriathlon camp in 2015 and is currently ranked #1 in the world in his division; Mark Barr and Mo Lahna, both Rio Olympians; Willie Stewart, a parathlete advocate and legend. Oh and of course, my relay partner Alan Shanken, who’s work in the Bay Area and beyond on behalf of Challenged Athlete Foundation is very well-known!
One Last Story I Find Funny .. Now
The race starts with a nice 1.8 mile flat along the Marina and Crissy Field. Out of the shoot I was cruising at 15 mph, but it slowly decreased as I approached the first hill. Part of that was a headwind we’re all familiar with and the other was just coming out a little too hard.
The return is on the same course and I came off the last hill and did a 25 mph sprint all the way to the finish. Part of that I attribute to all the people cheering during that whole stretch as far more people come to cheer later in the race.
The other part was that I was doing nearly 40 mph coming off that hill.
I probably could have been going faster except for the turn at the bottom of that hill.
Also, I can’t promise all my wheels were on the ground at all times.
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