On the Scene: The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon

Triumph and controversy reigned at one of America's most prestigious triathlons Sunday

Jan 6, 2006
Outside Magazine

San Francisco, June 5, 2006 —San Francisco's infamous fog rolled in Sunday morning as roughly 2,000 professional and amateur competitors splashed into the bay for the start of the 26th annual Accenture Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. Two hours later, things were noticeably sunnier for 31-year-old Matt Reed, a naturalized U.S. citizen from New Zealand, and 32-year-old American Becky Lavelle, who won the 27.5-mile race with times of 2:03:36 and 2:21:05, respectively.

"It's a huge win, my biggest win," said the lanky six-foot-five Reed, who finished 32 seconds ahead of American Andy Potts and won the race for the first time in five attempts. "This race is so prestigious. I've known about it since I was a kid, and I really wanted to win this one over any American race."

Aside from the historic backdrop and postcard setting, the Escape from Alcatraz is one of the most challenging triathlons in the world.

The one-and-a-half-mile swim stage of the race was particularly difficult this year, thanks in large part to a significant Sierra snowfall and the associated runoff. The cold runoff plunges downward in the water column, event announcer Don Ryder explained, which drives the currents lower and makes swimming more difficult. In past events, six-knot currents have aided racers, Ryder recalled, but on Sunday the flow hovered around one knot.

"[The swimming] was real rough," said ninth-place finisher Simon Thompson, "we were getting beaten up. There's wind chop and you can't see where you're going. We were out there for ages."

After the swim came 18 miles of cycling, with some hard climbing. "The roads here are steep," said Reed, who took the lead by passing Potts halfway through the cycling section. "In most races you can stay on your big chain, but in this one you're in your smallest gear."

The most difficult part of the final stage, an eight-mile run carving through wooded trails and along the shoreline, is the mile-long stretch on Baker Beach, said Lavelle. With just three miles left in the race, competitors must run up a series of 400 beach steps, carved out of the hillside and steep enough to require a rail. "I don't remember ever hurting that bad on [the run]," said the five-time Alcatraz veteran.

Sunday's race drew the sport's best. Hamish Carter, who won triathlon gold in Athens in 2004, finished sixth. Five-time world champion and course record holder (1:54:40) Simon Lessing finished eighth, while U.S. Olympian and last year's Alcatraz victor, Hunter Kemper, finished fourth.

"You won't find a stronger field of competitors," said Reed."Every year it gets tougher and tougher."

Despite the palpable sense of camaraderie among the competitors, the race ended with controversy. Craig Alexander, a 33-year-old Australian who last year walked away with $200,000 in cash and prizes for winning the Life Time Fitness Triathlon, was in contention more than halfway through the race when he was disqualified.

An official signaled Alexander to stop for a perceived drafting violation. Alexander defied the official, later claiming "it was a bullshit call," and continued riding. He would be disqualified for ignoring the official and crossed the finish line an irrelevant fourth.

Whether Alexander actually committed such a violation is up for debate. On a hilly, narrow course like the Escape from Alcatraz's, maintaining strict placement structure can be well-nigh impossible. "This course is fairly ridiculous," says Brent Allen, a spokesperson for Tri-California Events, the event's management company. "It gets so tight that everybody could have been called for a violation at one point or another."

Alexander, for his part, denies committing any drafting violation. "I feel like I wasn't infringing the rules," he said. "In that regard, I'm vindicated by the fact that my fellow competitors are willing to stand up for me. [Fifth-place finisher] Bevoan Docherty [and third-place finisher] Simon Whitfield … will back me up."

While speculation swirls about the official's initial call, there's little doubt of Alexander's impertinence. "I've never heard of someone just not stopping for an official," said Allen, "that's like the police pulling you over, and just not stopping."

Alexander faces possible suspension for his actions. Though unapologetic about his racing technique, he was contrite about his behavior toward the official.

"I'm a little embarrassed to be quite honest, " he said. "I don't feel that I infringed upon the rules, but at the end of the day the officials are there to enforce the rules as they see fit, and if he thought I had infringed them then I have to stand down."

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