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Advice for Escaping Alcatraz

There are thousands of multisport events every year, but events taking place in the San Francisco Bay, taking swimmers from Alcatraz to San Francisco, are notoriously tough. With options for Alcatraz swims, aquathlons and triathlons, you may be a registered athlete or dream of competing one day. Two coaches — a veteran and a one-time finisher — offer insight that may be useful to you come race day.

Part I: A Swimmer's Guide | Part II: Dos and Don'ts of Alcatraz

Part I: A Swimmer's Guide to a Successful Escape
By Gary Emich, a USAT certified coach who has swam more than 1,000 miles from Alcatraz — 668 crossings to date.

alcatrazThe River
I always quip Alcatraz is the Forrest Gump box of chocolate swims because you never know what you're going to get. It's never the same swim twice — ever! 

How can this be you're asking? Well, let's look at water conditions in San Francisco Bay. The Bay floods or fills up with water and ebbs or empties every 12 to 13 hours. Water levels rise or fall up to 8 feet in 6 short hours; and all this water, 4.5 million gallons per second, flows in and out of the narrow, one-mile wide Golden Gate. This can create tremendous currents. In fact, they can exceed 6 knots (7 miles per hour for you landlubbers). To underscore how fast this is, the existing record for swimming between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, a distance of over 6 miles, is 54 minutes. Those are 9-minute miles! 

The San Francisco Bay is a fast flowing river. Thankfully, race directors schedule events on days when currents are moderate to weak but it is important to remember: you will not be swimming in a still body of water. 

Where Are You Going?
Because of the currents (and deep water), there are no buoys on the swim course. During the pre-race briefing, the race director tells you to sight on certain landmarks back on shore. Then it's up to you to pay attention during the swim. Yes, there are safety boats and kayaks out on the water in case you wander too far off course but unless your sighting ability is very good, you could easily swim more than you intended if you're not swimming a straight line. At Alcatraz, it's not the fastest athlete who exits the water first but the one who swims the straightest line.

Sighting is a skill you can hone during your pool workouts. As you warm-up or cool-down, pick an object on the wall at each end of the pool: an exit sign, a window, a life ring, a fire extinguisher, etc. Raise your head slightly without disrupting your horizontal body axis, locate the object and return to your breathing rotation. 

How frequently you sight depends on how straight you swim. The next time you're at the pool, push off from the wall with your eyes shut and see how many strokes you take before running into one of the lane lines. Do this several times and you'll likely find a consistent number. If you hit the lane lines every 5th or 6th stroke then sight every 5th or 6th stroke. Remember, every stroke taken beyond your "number" without sighting is a stroke taking you off course - one you'll have to retake to get back on track. 

You Still Can't See?
From a mile off shore, those landmarks you're sighting on look very small. Because of the conditions in the bay, you only have the quickest of moments to sight before the next wave washes over you. You want to see as much as possible in that limited amount of time. Toss out the itsy-bitsy pool goggles and buy a pair with a larger field of vision.

To be honest, some people tell me these goggles with larger lens don't fit their faces so make sure you give them the fit test before you buy them - stick them to your face and the suction should hold them in place without the use of your hands or the strap. 

Once you find a pair that fits, buy two: one with clear lens if it's overcast or foggy on race day and one with tinted lens if the sun's out (you'll be swimming right into it). Despite claims about the anti-fog properties of any goggles, buy a bottle of anti-fog drops. Place a drop in each lens, rub it around and wash it out. The cold water of the bay is notorious for fogging lens.

Water Up Your Nose
In the San Francisco Bay, the winds frequently whip in from the west with waves crashing onto you from your right. If you only breathe to this side, you'll be sucking water the entire swim. Bilateral breathing is an important skill to master. If you breathe with ease to either side, the benefit is obvious. 

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet that makes this easy to learn. It's very awkward at first but invest the time; the payback is three-fold. Your neck muscles become more balanced. Your sighting improves since you now can look in two directions. And, most importantly, during rough water conditions, if the waves hit your face from the right, simply breathe to the left.

Ouch! Cramps!
Athletes spend $300 to $500 for a top-of-the line wetsuit to stay warm but won't spend 3 to 5 minutes eating and drinking something warm before hopping into the frigid waters of the Bay. Think of your body as a thermos. Your swim cap and wetsuit form an effective barrier against the cold but it's equally important to fill your inside with warm nourishment in order to maintain inner-body heat and to ward off cramping. 

Hydrating with an electrolyte-replacement drink high in both carbohydrate and potassium is essential before Alcatraz. I always heat mine in the microwave for 60 seconds. This works on two levels - besides maintaining inner-body warmth I'm also ensuring proper hydration with ample electrolytes to stave off cramps. Cold water exacerbates their onset. During one recent triathlon, approximately 5 percent of the racers exited the water with feet or calf cramps of varying intensities, some so severe they had to sit and massage before they could continue to the transition. Proper hydration before a swim prevents such a painful delay and keeps you from beginning the bike in a fluid deficit.

What Was That?
For some people, the single, absolute, most disconcerting part of the whole swim are the negative mental thoughts bouncing around in their heads during the weeks and days leading up to the swim. They're convinced that of the 35,000 souls who successfully have completed Alcatraz they are theone wearing the karmic sign reading "eat me."

I'm not going to lie to you. There are sharks in the Bay - five species to be precise - ranging from little 3-footers who feed on crabs and fish to the Sevengill Cowshark which can reach up to 10 feet and preys on smaller sharks and seals.

Before you throw your arms up, screaming and questioning your sanity for signing up to do Alcatraz, listen: I have been in the water with a Sevengill Cowshark. They're simply not interested in us as a food source - we're not on their menu. In the nearly 140 years members of San Francisco's South End Rowing Club have been swimming in the bay, no one has ever even seen a shark much less been bothered by one.

Bottom line? With 1,000 swimmers, 50 kayakers and 25 power boats in the water thrashing and cruising about, you've scared off all the wildlife in a 3-mile radius.

I Didn't Know the Water Was Going to be That Cold!
Though you'll wear a swim cap and a wetsuit, don't let Alcatraz be the FIRST time EVER you swim in open or cold water.

Locals know the place to train for Alcatraz is Aquatic Park. This enclosed cove is protected from the swift currents of the bay and is ideal for acclimating to cold water. For out-of-town participants, plan on arriving a day or two early in order to get in a short swim. The first few minutes you jump in are going to be painful but the initial shock of the cold water soon wears off as you generate body heat and warm the water inside your wetsuit. Mentally, it's huge to undergo this before race day so you don't experience it for the first time jumping off the ferry at Alcatraz.

Part II: Dos and Don'ts for Escaping Alcatraz (from a First Timer)
By Stacy Lueking, a Level I USAT certified coach who has competed in the Escape from Alcatraz once

DO: Drive the bike course. 
It's a great idea to bike the course or part of the course if you have the time. However, if you don't have time and/or want to conserve your energy, then I highly recommend at least driving the course. This way, you'll know exactly what to expect. I kept the route in my mind, so I knew what was ahead of me and I could plan my energy accordingly!

DON'T: Skip the race meetings. 
I'm sure some of you thought twice about this race before officially registering. If this is the case, then make sure to hit the race meetings! Last year, there was one non-mandatory meeting and one mandatory. If you are a first time Alcatraz Escapee, these meetings are worth attending. Get you course questions and concerns answered here. 

DO: Bring things on the boat that you're not sure you'll need. 
When it comes to race time, you can leave your things on the boat in your bag and you will get them back at the finish. This race was very well organized and I had no problems finding my bags at the finish!  

DON'T: Put your wetsuit on too soon!
You will have plenty of time to put your wetsuit on. I put my wetsuit on about 30 minutes before race start. It can get crowded on the Belle, which means it can get really hot if you put your wetsuit on too soon. 

DO or DON'T: Wear a neoprene cap. 
Last year, the bay was abnormally warm with a temperature of 57 degrees. I had a hard time making a decision about wearing my neoprene cap or not. I had only practiced in it once, so I was hesitant. I decided wear just my latex race cap and my head felt great! You could also wear two latex swim caps to keep your head even warmer. 

DO: Hold on to your goggles! 
With all of the excitement and adrenaline that comes with the start of this race, it is easy to forget the little things. So, remember to hold onto your goggles when you take the plunge off of the Belle. I used the Aqua Sphere Seal swim mask. My eyes were free from saltwater and did not fog up the entire time. They stayed on great even through some rough waves! 

DON'T: Be surprised of the temperature shock. 
Do you know what 55 degrees really feels like? If you do all of your training in a heated pool (like I did), then do not be surprised when you jump in and you experience shallow and almost panicky breaths. It took a couple of minutes for me to regulate my breathing. Focus on exhaling to help slow breathing down. 

DO: Focus on your landmarks during the swim.  
Landmarks, landmarks, landmarks!! Keep your eyes on landmarks instead of the finish during the swim. With the strong current in the bay, you could end up overshooting the finish if that's where your eyes are. Swim towards landmarks such as Fort Mason and the Sutro Tower. These are easy to spot if it's a clear day! Overshooting the finish tends to be a common first-timer mistake.

DON'T: Be surprised by extra stairs... other than the sand ladder. 
This is pretty self-explanatory!

DO: Take it all in. 
From the boat to the finish, it's a gorgeous course. Take in the view of Alcatraz and the view of San Francisco from out in the bay. During the swim, try to remember to stop for a brief second and look at the Golden Gate Bridge from the water. This view is something I still pull from my memory and think of how beautiful it was. Also, the view during the decent down the Great Freeway will take your breath away, if the speed doesn't first! 

Gary Emich is an ASCA and USA Triathlon certified coach, co-race director of the Alcatraz Challenge Aquathlon and co-host of the DVD "Lane Lines to Shore Lines: Your Complete Guide to Open Water Swimming." Visit www.lanelinestoshorelines.com for more information or to contact Emich.

Stacy Lueking is a USAT Level I certified coach living in Fort Worth, Texas. She coaches all levels of triathletes through her company, My Race Day. Stacy has competed in marathons and triathlons since 2004. Her accreditations include an M.S. in Exercise Physiology, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, along with Yoga and Pilates certifications. She currently teaches college health and wellness courses, coaches triathletes, and volunteer marathon coaches. To contact Stacy, emails_lueking@yahoo.com.

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