Thursday, June 12, 2008

Escape from Alcatraz.........and the Denver Airport

This past weekend I had the opportunity of competing in a race that has been “on my list” for a long time, The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Participants of this world-class field are taken out by boat to the site of the famed prison and dumped off to swim 1.5 miles in the frigid swift currents of the waters of San Francisco bay to the Yacht club. From that point, there is a run, almost a mile, to the transition area, which is followed by a hilly technical 18-mile bike tour of the town. The 8-mile run is less than flat. Most of it is on single-track trails through steep hills, stairs and sand. This race is a mixture of an adventure race and a triathlon. This race is so popular because of the lure of adventure and the challenge of swimming across San Francisco Bay. Was an escape from this famed prison really possible?

A few days before the race I was on call. Unfortunately, I was up all night and my immune system took a big hit. The next day I came down with a sore throat and the fatigue that goes along with an upper respiratory tract infection. It couldn’t have been better timing. This plagued me even through race day. I felt like crap, but I kept a positive attitude and didn’t let it spoil my little adventure.

I managed to arrange a few extra days off work and left on Thursday. After a few delays, I made it to San Jose late that night and stayed with my Epic Camp pal, Mark Pietrofesa. He was a great host and his girlfriend Kammie made us an awesome breakfast the next morning. While staying with Mark, I was able to sample some of the great riding San Mateo County has to offer as well as swam at his health club. On my way out, I saw NFL star Jerry Rice. Mark mixes with the best.

Here are some photos of Mark and I and a bike trail to get to the nice roads in San Mateo county.

Albert Boyce, another epic pal, took us both out to dinner at Le Colonial near Union Square on Friday night. Albert won epic camp and was on the age group podium in Hawaii in 2005. Both he and Mark are a couple of the best 40-44 age groupers in the nation if not the world. Mark just won his age group at the Honu 70.3 and is now a member of the “Big Bowl Club”. Here's Mark's big bowl.
Albert is the man behind"Coffees of Hawaii" .He grew up in the Bay area, and is involved in a few other businesses as well. He is one of the hardest working guys out there. It was relaxing to take in some good food and good company and exchange stories.

Through triathlons, and traveling to races, I have met many fine folks. I suppose it is one of the things that I like about the sport and which keeps me in it. Both Dana and I are developing quite a network of like-minded friends from all over the country. Here's a photo of Albert in Yellow at Epic Camp.
Race day went smooth. The weather was perfect. I got on the boat with Albert and we shot the breeze until it was time to jump off. Being a former sailor of the bay, he showed me some of the nuances of the tides while we waited.

Once the starting gun fired, participants shuffled off the boat like penguins jumping off an iceberg. I had prepared myself for the worst, but I was pleasantly surprised when I hit the water. “Hey, this isn’t that cold”. Being a good swimmer, I ran into a lot of folks before I was able to get to clear water. I was kicked in the face a few times. There is a radio tower off in the distance that the swimmers have to sight. The tower is way left of the yacht club. If you swim to the tower, the ebb current to takes you to the target. I kept a steady course for it and landed smack dab in the center of the beach at the exit. Perfect!

The bike was very hilly and I felt like I just couldn’t get my effort level or heart rate up. I wasn’t able to get myself to the point of hyperventilating. It may have been due to some of the medications that I was taking along with the congestion I had. Tons of people were passing me. I experienced the same on the run. This wasn’t going to be my day, so I decided at that point to enjoy the race and take in the sights and the experience. I had a blast.

I ended up finishing seventh in my age group, and 70th overall, with a 2:32, which I felt was better than I thought I would have been. I thought I was middle of the pack. Albert rocked it and was sixth overall amateur. I just had escaped from Alcatraz, but little did I know that my entire escape experience was far from being complete.

I quickly collected my gear and headed up to my motel to pack my bike and make my way to the airport to catch my flight. Michael Yatsko, another good friend I met at St Croix last year, drove all the way up from the Monterey area to see the race and do a training run. He and I chatted a little while I packed the bike in the motel parking lot. It was good to see him. He is training for his first IM in Canada this year.

I had allowed myself several hours to make the flight. I felt confident that I had plenty of time, but after dropping off the rental car, getting on a number of buses and trains, and waiting in endless lines, with my bike box and all my luggage, I just made it to the gate just as my flight was boarding. Ahh, I let out a sigh of relief. I would make a connecting flight in Denver and be home in my own bed by midnight and back to work in the morning. It had been quite an adventure.

When I arrived in Denver, I found that my flight had been delayed 30 minutes due to weather. There were some folks at the gate who had been at the airport all day waiting for a flight to Tulsa. Each had their own stories, but the flights were overbooked so they were bumped sequentially from each flight as it left. This one was the last flight of the night and everyone was tired and anxious. Some old folks sitting across from me looked very tired. I had pity for them.

By 11 pm, we heard that our flight had been cancelled. I was very angered by the way we were notified. The gate agent disappeared, and then the “cancelled” notice turned up next to our flight on the departure screens. I overheard it from some other folks talking about it and since I had experienced the self-service customer service before, I quickly got in line to rearrange my schedule. I had to call the hospital to tell them that I couldn’t wouldn‘t be there. Others in my group would have to pick up the slack in my absence. I hate to do that to my partners.

Here I am at United Airlines "self service customer service"unshaven and unhappy.

Self-service customer service is a computer kiosk and a phone. Your personal information is entered on a touch-activated screen and if there is a problem, you pick up a phone and speak with some agent in a distant land. This is an ingenious way for the airlines to distance themselves from irate stranded passengers in their time of need. I overheard a lot of frustrated people having it out with the agent on the other end. The gate agents send you to the computer customer service and the phone agents send you to a gate agent whose attitude is “It’s not my job”. Everyone wants to pass the buck.

I managed to get a flight out the next day so instead of sleeping on the floor at the airport like a lot of the other folks, I got on a bus to the Hyatt and got a decent 5 hours of sleep. The exhausted old folks rented a van pooled together with some others and drove back to Tulsa. They were through with the airlines. I couldn’t blame them. They did the smart thing.

I got back to the airport early that morning to be greeted by yet another surprise at the security check in. My new boarding pass had been labeled with SSSS. I was a “high risk” security target. Were they on to me? Did they know I had just escaped from Alcatraz? I was shunted to the super secret security line where I went through everything but a strip search. However, I was placed into a chamber and “blown”. I made it through without the security team finding out about my escape.

I was on standby for the morning flight to Tulsa, but so were 30 other people. There wasn’t a lot of compassion from the gate agents. This flight was overbooked, too, as was the next one, and then the following one after that. It turns out escaping from Alcatraz was easy compared to attempting to escape from the Denver airport!

It’s a real shame how I and the other folks were treated. Here our flight had been canceled, and we were being treated so poorly. For all they cared we could just be stuck at the airport for days waiting for a seat to open up. After being gouged $200.00 for my bike and then all this, just leaves a bad taste in my mouth regarding airline travel. I don’t want to travel by air anywhere anytime soon. However, what did leave a good taste in my mouth was that I was able to try the entire espresso menu of both Seattle’s best Coffee and Starbucks while I hung out in the airport all day.

By 8:20 pm, 25 hours after I arrived in Denver, I finally boarded the plane to Tulsa. When I arrived at my seat in the very back of the plane. I found that I had the middle seat next to a woman with a crying baby. After I sat down a huge fat man sat down next to me in the isle seat. After we took off, I closed my eyes and was just about to drift off when my knees were crunched into my chest. The woman in front of me just reclined her seat all the way back. Oh boy, all these things combined had never happened to me before. What were the odds that I would experience the nightmare trifecta? A fat man taking up half of my space, a baby crying in my ear, and a full recline from the passenger in front. I was also in the rearmost seat, across from the toilet. The unofficial potty monitor -- where everyone thinks they need to ask you if the toilet is open, or make some other comment to the poor soul who got the “potty-monitor” seat. Luckily, the flight was only an hour in a half.

It’s good to be home, but since I have returned work has been rough. The week is almost over and I feel I have never been home. I had to pay all my partners for working for me due to my absence. I am currently on an other night call and all I want to do is just sleep and get over this illness. Exercise is the furthest thing on my category of needs.

Would I do it again? You bet, in a heartbeat! I loved this race. I definitely plan on going back and conquering this course again next year.


MarkyV said...


mcarnal said...


O' the experiences life throws your way!

Very emotionally volatile story and I can truely relate to everything you experienced during this, well rather interesting experience!

Trifecta - that one must have sucked, I've been there and done that and boy let me tell ya, the Tulsa Triathletic community should get together and purchase a small plane...

All in all I'm glad you were able to finish the race, hang out with friends, and made it home safely! I'm not so glad you had to experience the rath of the airlines, fat people, and crying babies! I don't wish those on anyone!!!

Well, rest up, enjoy the Tulsa Tri this coming weekend, glad you made it home!!!

Mark Pietrofesa said...

Sorry to hear the return was rough... stick with Southwest...I avoid United like the plague! Great to hang with you and catch up...

Mark Pietrofesa said...

Sorry to hear your return was so rough...I stick with Southwest and avoid United like the plague. Good to hang with you soon.