I'LL ADMIT IT: I was scared to swim across San Francisco Bay.
Even though I'd done many triathlons over the years, the swim that starts off the legendary Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon is unlike any other in the sport: You leap into the water from a packed and heaving ferryboat near the old island prison, then swim toward the city through bone-chilling 50-something-degree water being sucked out beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. There aren't really supposed to be great whites in the Bay, but, well, it only takes one, right? The fear: It's why Alcatraz was made into a federal pen back in 1934.
I jumped in anyway. After 15 minutes of panicked freestyle, I took a break to tread water and catch my breath. Ahead of me was the San Francisco skyline—the skyscrapers, the hills, Fisherman's Wharf. I snuck a peek over my shoulder at the Rock itself. I was in a splashing column of 1,800 swimmers, all of us being pushed closer to shore by a stiff tide—making the swim easier than I'd expected—and I realized that not only was I done freaking out, I was having an absolute blast.
That's the thing with triathlons: The event itself always ends up being so much more fun (and doable) than you expect. Blame the sport's first big-time race, the 31-year-old Ironman, for the enduring perception that triathlons are all about agony. These days, races come in many flavors, from the relatively easy "sprint distance" events (half-mile swim, 12-mile bike, three-mile run) to intermediate events like Alcatraz (the 1.5-mile swim is followed by an 18-mile ride and a hilly eight-mile run)—all involving much less agony than the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile ride, and 26.2-mile run of an Ironman. And those shorter events have helped spur explosive growth in the sport. Last year, more than 1.2 million people entered a road triathlon—about 50 percent more than in 2007—and there are almost twice as many triathlons around the country now (1,891) than there were in 2005.
If you're thinking of joining the club, allow me to make a bold suggestion: Do Escape from Alcatraz first. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Sure, Alcatraz is tough on beginners and pros alike. At the end of the swim, you run almost a mile to warm your body, so you're not too hypothermic to ride a bike, and the real running leg includes an are-you-kidding-me grind up the infamous Sand Ladder, 200 wooden beams climbing up from the beach. But if you put in the time to prepare, you're going to find yourself enjoying one of the most exciting and scenic triathlons anywhere.
"The Escape from Alcatraz is incredibly fun," says Hunter Kemper, three-time Olympian and two-time winner at Alcatraz. "It's impossible to describe the feeling of jumping off that boat. There's nothing cooler for a first-timer."
And, of course, there are the fantastic fitness benefits that come with triathlon training. The workouts reduce the chance of getting injured (or burned out) by distributing the load across three sports—all highly rewarding in their own right—and the event virtually demands building a fatigue-proof core that translates to more power in just about any other activity.
As I floated in the Bay, I took in one more 360-degree view, then put my head down and started stroking, this time calmly and with more confidence. I had a lot of work ahead—a hilly ride and a scenic, if grueling, run—and I was going to enjoy every minute of it.
"Escape from Alcatraz is the most unique race in the world," Kemper says. "You won't be disappointed."
I'll second that.