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Recaptured: The Alcatraz Prison

  • By TJ Murphy
  • Published May 4, 2010
  • Updated Aug 12, 2010 at 5:20 PM UTC

One of the travel delights of having finished the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon is to enjoy the tour of the fabled former prison.

Written by: T.J. Murphy/Triathlete Magazine

Between the years of 1934 and 1963 Alcatraz, a 22-acre island rising up from within the San Francisco Bay, served as the home to a maximum-security federal prison to some of the most notorious criminals the gangster era offered up. Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud—aka the Birdman of Alcatraz—to name a few. The mystique that haunted Alcatraz was due in no small part to its proximity to San Francisco, just one and a half miles of sub-60-degree seawater from Fisherman’s Wharf. The freezing waters featured currents of 6 to 8 mph, and with imaginations flaring with the thought of sharks, the prospect of escaping from Alcatraz was made for the movies right from the start.

Due to decay and operating expenses, Attorney General Robert Kennedy closed the prison. But the haunting past of Alcatraz—the famous criminals, the 14 escape attempts by 36 various prisoners (23 caught, six shot and killed and three unaccounted for in the famous 1962 escape led by Frank Morris), the fact that nowadays Alcatraz is a national park and you can walk in and around the cell blocks and prison cells (5-feet wide, 9-feet deep and the ceiling 7-feet from the floor), including the five solitary confinement cells on D-block, Alcatraz is about a spooky a place as you can find.

Or race a triathlon from. For the past 30 years Alcatraz has helped put triathlon on the map by virtue of the mysterious swim. If one thing has become vividly clear, you can swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. And then go for a bike ride. And run.

If there’s a fourth leg to the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, it should be an official tour of the prison, and as I witnessed this past weekend—thanks to various triathlon and tri-club T-shirts and hats, compression socks and M-Dot tattoos—triathletes were taking advantage of the opportunity. I too boarded the ferry boat at Pier 33 for the short ride out to Alcatraz, took the audio tour of the cell blocks and then spent an enjoyable two hours wandering around the island, taking in the sweeping views of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate, Marin and Angel Island, as well as the gardens and the seabird sanctuary. One thing is for sure, it’s not a lame tourist trap. As the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon should be on every triathlete’s must-do list, so should the tour of the former prison.

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TJ Murphy

TJ Murphy

T.J. Murphy is a 2:38 marathoner and five-time Ironman finisher. He is the former editorial director of Triathlete Magazine, Inside Triathlon and Competitor Magazine. His writing has also appeared in Outside Magazine and Runner’s World. He recently authored “Inside the Box: How Broke All The Rules, Stripped Down the Gym and Rebuilt My Broken Down Body.”

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