The iconic 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz Island to shore is a challenge that 2,000 triathletes take on every year during the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. The frigid waters—typically around 55 degrees—are a result of the 500 miles of Sierra Mountain snowmelt coming into the San Francisco Bay. Not to mention the 5 million gallons of water per second that enter and exit through the Bay’s mile-wide inlet under the Golden Gate Bridge, making for strong currents. As the staff head coach for Alcatraz, Eric Gilsenan, says, “Alcatraz is like a box of chocolates.” And, well, you know the rest.
“The water can look calm and crystal-clear, but you’ll get in and all of a sudden realize, ‘Whoa, I’m moving,’ and you can’t stop,” Gilsenan says. “If you stop, the water is still pushing you, and probably the direction you don’t want to go. You’ll have an ice cream headache one second and a warm face the next.”
Gilsenan, who’s done the race every year since 1989, runs a camp called the Escape Academy, where athletes complete the entire course (1.5-mile swim, 18-mile bike, 8-mile run) over a weekend and gain automatic entry into the race. He reminds triathletes that the Bay is a river, “so swim across the river.” Keep in mind it’s not a straight A to B swim—it’s more of an “L” turn. Follow these tips to get the most out of your time in the Bay.
What to wear: A full-length wetsuit and two latex caps work best. “When you cover your ears with a neoprene cap, you lose some of your balance,” Gilsenan says. “It may keep your head warm, but after a few minutes it has diminishing returns.”
Boat/jump tip: Avoid jumping too deep by performing a lifeguard jump: keep your legs apart and put your arms at your sides 90 degrees, and make a downward snow angel-like motion. 2,000 people have to get off the boat within a matter of minutes, so jump in and get out of the way.
Swimming technique: “Don’t go great guns to begin with—just get in and adjusted to the water,” Gilsenan says. “Five minutes in, roll on your back and look at Alcatraz and remember you’re swimming in the fourth busiest shipping channel in America.”
Swimming technique: If you don’t breathe bilaterally, now’s the time to learn. The right side is where most of the water comes at your face.
Sharks: You may spot seals or sea lions on race morning, but they’re just surveying the situation. Rest assured that any bigger sharks are far away. There are smaller species, but they stay 20–30 feet below the surface. “The water is silty and brackish and partly freshwater,” Gilsenan says. “The gills of the largest sharks don’t allow them to come into the area—there’s not enough oxygen or salt.”
Exit tip: There is a half-mile run between the exit and the Marina Green transition area. Most pros get away with running barefoot with their wetsuits on, but Gilsenan recommends a light pair of shoes for 90 percent of the field. “This is a three-shoe race. Shoes on the boat. Shoes at water’s edge. Shoes for the run.”
To help prepare for the swim and the rest of race day, check out the videos at Escapefromalcatraztriathlon.com.
Download a PDF version of this article, which features sighting points for the race.