Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon
SCOTT CATHCART & ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ
EFAT, as the race is also called, is like no other event in the world. I’ve done it 23 times consecutively as of 2020 and, as in life, every year is unique. The swim is the great equalizer, and it is definitely intense. Some years there are decent swells, sometimes it is windy which can add whitecaps to the water, and there is almost always something funky and unpredictable about the ebb tide. On race morning, as the boat does the ceremonial circumnavigation of The Rock right before the start, I love looking around the galley during the national anthem, to catch a glimpse of all the anxious and excited eyes right before the gun goes off. No matter how many times you’ve done the race before, your adrenaline is pumping as the boat rocks with the swells, and the countdown begins. The multiple colors of squid lids (identifying the pros and different age groups) all blend together like a living, breathing, impressionist painting. The rolling swim start begins with 2,000 athletes jumping from the starboard side of the Hornblower yacht, into the water slightly offshore of Alcatraz Island, in under 6 minutes. There is simply nothing quite like that moment when it is your turn, when you have reached the edge of the boat and are about to jump into the Bay, to start swimming from Alcatraz to shore.
At that moment you really, really know you are alive – because you are supremely focused on survival! I’ll never forget that moment when I first jumped off the boat in 1997. And that feeling is one of the many reasons I’ve kept coming back to do this race every year since.
The births of my son and daughter in the late 90’s were inspirational moments for me. I looked back on my own life and realized that the directions I had chosen at a few forks in my road (especially as a teenager) were too often determined by even the slightest of last-minute influences. So I wanted to find a way to send a message to my kids by example – through an unusual, adventurous, sports-related event – such that, as they got older, if it ever came down to choosing one productive path versus another that was less so, they just might have become inspired enough to choose the better, healthier one. I also hoped that it might inspire them to consider doing something unique and adventurous in their own lives, to push themselves, and then be able to translate that confidence that comes from accomplishment into other facets of life.
My kids are older now, but I keep coming back. EFAT is like an annual present to myself – I absolutely love it. I consider myself the “unofficial ambassador” of the race, because I am always trying to convince everyone – my family, my friends, my business partners and new friends that I meet out in the world – to do the race with me. It is a great experience and I love to share it with others.
“There’s a reason the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon is so popular and difficult to get into now. It’s unlike any other race in the world – there’s something magical about the topography, the scenic beauty, the great spectator support, and of course, the epic swim.”
– Scott Cathcart
220 Triathlon Magazine
ALCATRAZ LIFE LESSONS
My sixth year I almost overshot the swim finish by trying to swim an (apparently too) aggressive line to the beach landing at the St. Francis Yacht Club. As I got closer to shore, the ebb tide was accelerating, and I was starting to get pulled out toward the Golden Gate bridge. I was determined to fight the tide and finish under my own power (in EFAT words, without being “repositioned”), and I swam as hard as I could upstream. When you finish the swim normally you already feel like you’ve just gotten out of a saltwater washing machine, so spending an 15 extra minutes swimming against the tide in the cold water saps both your energy and your spirit. I had my worst finishing time by far that year, it humbled me, and right after the race I was pretty bummed. But it was actually the best thing that could have happened. Driving home from that race, now almost 20 years ago, as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, I came to my senses and realized that, in the moment, I had completely missed the lesson. I realized I was incredibly lucky – on so many levels – to even be able to do this race.
In every race since that day, I remind myself that am not out there for “a time” – I am out there to savor the time. I still always make sure that when I cross the finish line I have nothing left in the proverbial tank, but I also thoroughly enjoy every step along the way.
TRAINING & PERSEVERANCE
Committing to doing the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon every year – no matter what – has made it a centerboard in my life, and in my family’s life (at least they certainly know where I will be in early June every year). The race serves as an annual reminder to me that I can’t let myself get out of shape, but I do have a fairly unconventional training routine in that I really don’t “ramp up” every year for the race. I just try to stay fit throughout the year, and maintain a mindset that I would be prepared to do the race any weekend, if it were to come around.
In 1997, my first year of real training, I swam a ton, mainly because prior to that I could only swim 4 laps in a pool before hyperventilating. And I was determined not to drown. Fear is a great motivator! The other thing my friends and I did to convince ourselves we were ready was to set up a “dry run” of the entire race 2 weeks before the race, which really bolstered my confidence. We swam 1.5 miles in Aquatic Park, followed immediately by biking the EFAT bike course and then running the EFAT run course. I’ve been doing these dry runs prior to every race since, though unfortunately my buddies have all mostly atrophied from the race and I do it alone these days – so contact me if you want to join me for a dry run of the event next year.
To do the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon every year – year after year, decade after decade – you can really never “let yourself go” physically. But that doesn’t mean training is always regular. My ability to dedicate time and effort to training has certainly waxed and waned over the years. For more years than I can count – and I would not recommend this to anyone else – I have only done a swimming workout twice in the year between EFAT races, and one year (in 2013, when the race was in March) I only swam once, in Aquatic Park, for my annual dry run. But I stayed in shape in other ways, primarily through regular running, biking and lifting. Net-net, you have to persevere, not just through the training and in the race, but also (and especially) by finding ways to stay in shape in those years that you simply can’t train like you want to. Preparing for Alcatraz is as much mental as it is physical. Get ready, be ready and stay ready.
by Josh Boxer, Marin Independent Journal | June 9, 2016
With 2,000 athletes competing in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon on Sunday, including two Ironman champions and three members of the Rio-bound U.S. Olympic team, there will be no shortage of talent out on the course. Few competitors, however, will have as much experience with this iconic race as Kentfield’s Scott Cathcart, 48, who is making his 20th consecutive “escape.”
Scott Cathcart featured by the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon as a 23-year veteran
@EscapeAlcatraz via Twitter | December 2019
Tradition. Family. Challenge. Inspiration. Identity.— Escape Alcatraz Tri (@EscapeAlcatraz) December 4, 2019
Hear from these longtime Escapees about what makes #EscapeAlcatrazTri more than just a bucket list race. @sdcathcart @Steve_Triath
Will you be joining us in 2020?!
Rd 2 Winners posted here: https://t.co/OiFLV45GGE pic.twitter.com/9xT4nD7yQQ
2020 Race Update: Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the 40th anniversary race scheduled for June 7, 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19. While this was a disappointment to all of us who love this race, losing it pales by comparison to those who have lost their lives, those who have suffered from the disease, and their families and friends. Hopefully we will be able to be back in the water for the race in 2021, and I will plan to dedicate my race to those on the front lines have put themselves at risk this year to keep the rest of us safe.
I would also like to express my sincere appreciation to the event management, race directors, volunteers, city planners and sponsors that work hard together every year to make the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon possible.