A mile and half swim through choppy, 55-degree water and tidal currents at 7:30 a.m. A half-mile warm-up run to the bikes, before an 18-mile bike ride through the hills of San Francisco, climbing more than 350 feet in elevation at the highest point. Sprinting toward the finish line with an 8-mile run on sand, stairs, pavement and other terrain up to 250 feet in elevation—this is no ordinary triathlon. This is the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon.
On June 3, 2018, 24 Hour Fitness’ Chief Financial Officer Patrick Flanagan was one of 1,500—selected from a lottery of 8,000—people to brave the icy bay waters and hilly terrain of San Francisco. This was Flanagan’s third and final Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. (He previously competed in 2004 and 2012.)
24Life sat down with Flanagan to ask about his triathlon training and what’s next for him.
Patrick Flanagan: A lot of it was spending time pool swimming, doing 2 to 3 miles a day in the pool. And then on weekends, [I swam] in the aquatic park. The interesting problem this year was in December and January, they had three sea lion attacks in there.
I would go into the city on weekends and swim in the morning, and after that, [I would] do either a bike ride or run inside the city, as well, because the temperatures in the East Bay can be 20 to 30 degrees warmer than in the city.
Once you get out of the water, your body temperature will drop significantly. You burn off so many calories as soon as you get on the bike that you actually need to start putting in more calories than you typically would in a normal triathlon, and then make sure you’re able to sustain that throughout the rest of it. It’s not the longest triathlon out there. I’ve done the half Ironman, as well, so it’s not as bad as that, but in terms of difficulty, after the swim it tends to be very difficult. So any given week, I knew I had to swim a minimum of three times before I got to the weekend. During those three times, I have to do at least 6 miles. Probably running on average about 30 to 35 miles a week, breaking that up anyway I could, hopefully getting long runs and short runs. And in terms of biking, I’d usually wake up at 5 in the morning and Spin for an hour.
24Life: How was this race and preparing for it different or similar from the two you did previously?
PF: The first time I did it, the swim took 29 minutes. And 29 minutes to me was an exceptionally quick pace. When I went into the second one, I’m not sure what happened but the tides were different. It took me 59 minutes to get out of the water. Basically, [around] 45 minutes, your body starts to get hypothermia. So it was a very, very miserable swim. This time going in, [I made] sure I was prepared for the swim part.
24Life: Was there anything that you did to prepare from a psychological standpoint?
PF: Conditioning through repetition. And do it in small steps. When you just get in a pool and start swimming, it’s not so bad because you can always put your feet down. When you’re in the middle of the ocean or open water swimming, people are afraid of swimming. And when your face hits very cold water, you gasp. When you start gasping, your heart rate will start spiking up because you have anxiety. And then from there, you start over-burning calories. So it’s really breathe and keep calm. That’s all you’ve got to do and you’ll be fine. I mean, I think in life that makes a lot of sense no matter what situation you’re in: Keep calm, keep breathing and you’ll get through it. If you panic, you could be doomed.
24Life: Any advice for a first-timer or someone who wants to do this race?
PF: Train hard and get in the bay as much as possible. Practice against the cold water. It’s cold water, and it has a high amount of chop on it, so you can’t see anything. Some days you can see land, depending on if there’s clouds. Sometimes you only have a mile visibility. It’s a big space and people panic. And you see that sometimes beside you and it’s kind of daunting.
24Life: Tell us about some of the people you met and raced with—any stories that stick out in your mind?
PF: On the boat is the best experience because you’re stressed thinking about what you’re about to do, but there are people from all age groups from all over the country, so you can just talk to people for an hour and a half to two hours. You start talking to them about their journey and how they got there, which gives you a good perspective. However hard it was for me to train, it was a lot harder for other people to train.
I was talking to this couple from Arizona—they don’t have any hills. They don’t have any open water places to swim. And it’s hot. It was much harder for them to train for this than me having to get on a bike at my house. I could leave my house and go running in roughly the same weather, and I can find open water within 30 to 45 minutes. And for some, just getting there is difficult. You have people doing it who are in their 60s and 70s and teenagers who try to do it.
24Life: How long did it take you to finish the race this time?
PF: Twenty minutes faster than before, and it all came down to the water.
24Life: This was a bucket-list race. What’s your next bucket-list event or race?
PF: The last things I haven’t done are a marathon and a full Ironman.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Patrick Flanagan