Escape from Alcatraz

Where is the ghetto for all the crazy people worldwide? How goes the coven of divers? What kind of neoprene do sharks like and do bicycles ride on the walls?

I divide races in two types.
First type – Q type races or qualification races. Races that I go through to understand my current achievements. Their characteristics – specific length, height, width, depth. They are measurable and visible, and based on their results one can monitor his/her progress. For example the five big marathons, half-marathons, half and full Ironmen, freediving competitions. For instance, if I know I ran the Amsterdam marathon in 3:30 hours, I can say I run faster than Ibrahim Zabodulski who ran the Paris marathon in 3:45 hours. I get myself prepared for these competitions following all the rules. They are key, reference points for my sports career, therefore during such competitions I strive for the result.

Fortunately, there is another type of races. My favorite – the E type or experience races. These races are different from any other; they have their own dimension, their own characteristics, and challenge. They are special; you do not strive for the result, seconds, meters and rankings. The purpose of these races is to live a new experience through immersion into something unknown, fight your fears, rethink yourself in sports and sports in yourself, and simply knock yourself out! This is what you’re going into sports for.

These are – Bosphorus, Baikal, Death Valley, Tough Guy, La Manche, Mont Blanc, Des Sables and many others.

The Escape from Alcatraz – is a 100% experience race. I really don’t like cold water, and for me swimming 2,5 km in open water under a temperature of 12ºC – is definitely a challenge.

This is why I got goosebumps when, by some miraculous chance, I won the lottery and got the congratulations letter recommending to start getting prepared right away. Brrr…

San Francisco

If I didn’t live in Chisinau, I’d be living in San Francisco. I love SF. This is my second visit to this wonderful place.

I love Frisco for its unique colorfulness, people, atmosphere of madhouse and holiday.

You sometimes get the feeling SF is a ghetto for crazy people from all over the world.

Very cool! 39th pier, fishing pier, killer-crabs, cable trams, streets like ocean waves, Pixar, Sillicon Valley, Golden Gate, and obviously the Alcatraz prison in the neighborhood.

The Alcatraz Prison

This prison is a fortress, located in the San Francisco bay within two kilometers distance from the West-American metropole.

It instilled fear even in the most desperate criminals. Those who violated public order – got into prison, those who violated prison order (and tried to escape) – got into Alcatraz.

Its nickname is “The Rock”. The king of the underworld – Al Capone – was held here. It is the most famous prison in the world.

And even from this prison people managed to escape. Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin escaped on 11th of June 1962 from the most protected prison. Nobody knows if there were successful or not. No one has ever seen them among the living or the dead.

Escaping from Alcatraz was impossible not only because it was the most secure prison, but also because the escape was only possible through the icy waters of the bay.

So cold that the heart of an unprepared fugitive might have exploded in seconds. And that is why in Alcatraz the water was hot even in showers – to avoid prisoners preparation for escaping.

Less than 12 months after the escape of these three criminals, the prison ceased to operate – it was closed, and later transformed into a museum.

Starting from 1981, crazy people, always desirous to check their endurance, participate at the annual triathlon race “Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon”. Nowadays, after the start of the Alcatraz race, triathlon participants have to swim 1,5 miles (2,4 km) to the San Francisco island, cycle 18 miles (29 km) and run 8 miles (12,9 km).

Participants are selected by lottery. And a couple of months ago, I also received a “notice”. Well… now it’s my turn to escape. Escape from Alcatraz.

Day of Escape

I woke up at 3 am. It was not difficult to do, because adaptation to jet lag was in full mode; Vika and I were watching the stars during the night, and sleeping like hamsters during the day. I packed up my bag, loaded it on the bike and went to the transit.

The night Frisco is surreal. Dark, streets like walls – up, down, up, down and far ahead in the sea you can see the Alcatraz lighthouse. I will never forget this sight.

The transit zone is full of athletes, I pass near a gigantic queue to fetch a pump – all 2000 people thought the other athletes would take one, therefore there was only one pump for all the 2000 people.

I leave the queue behind and find my slot, organize my stuff in the darkness, take my hydro suit and take the bus to the boat. For one second I hung up and thought I was dreaming, everything around me was so unnatural. Night, San Francisco, bus scored packed with people in hydro suits, they all talk about something and eat bananas. Strange, I also wear a hydro-suit and eat a banana. Who are these people? Why am I among them? Where are we going? Why bananas? Why so many questions? Then I saw the boat, the Alcatraz lighthouse and “woke up”.

We were all loaded on the boat and swam away. The boat was huge, two-tier. All around me, 2000 people laying, standing, sitting, debating how to swim, some frightened, others smiling in their sleep. In short, a coven of divers.


One hour later we’re approaching the prison. An honorary circle around the island and here we go! The profs have started! The adrenalin is building up in the blood. San Francisco can barely be seen in the distance, a bunch of excited faces all around, freaking cold on the deck, and the only sound is people slapping on the water – go! go! I’m waiting for my turn to jump and think how I ended up here, in this crowd of mad people ready to jump any minute into the icy embrace of the ocean.

And while you’re philosophically trying to answer this question, it’s your turn to take a step and you fall off the deck. Splash! Shock! Where am I? Who’s here? Where’s the top? Aha, I see it, and I’m swimming up. The water around is boiling with people. It is very cold… Where should I swim? Aha, we’re swimming to the shore, ahead!

Before the race we were explained how to swim – following some complex trajectory, first towards some towers, then towards the yellow building, then towards some other thing. I used to listen very attentively to these instructions during briefings. Now I understand that everything that’s required from me is to be in the crowd. The crowd will take me to the finish. That’s why I swam in it, without wasting time on orientation.

I also read something about sharks, sea lions and other marine life inhabiting those waters. Shit, sharks. I hope they don’t like neoprene. Although, even if there was a shark in the nearby, I think it was smart enough to avoid this trouble. Swimmers are dangerous, yeah!

In order not to freeze, I decided to swim vigorously. Not a bad plan, and within 15 minutes I felt “warm” – that is I ceased to shake, and all until the end of the swimming the cold didn’t bother me much.

I’m swimming. A comrade is hanging on my tail and periodically grabs my heel. For a long period. Those who swam understand how annoying is this. 10 minutes later I was completely upset by this, slowed down and made a sharp blow on the water with my legs. This was very effective when I was swimming in the pool –people usually change lanes after a hit like this. My friend wasn’t different, and also disappeared somewhere.

I felt that the current was taking me away sometimes, therefore I had to stop once in a while to look around. And this was correct – it turned out I was swimming perpendicularly to the main flow of people. With great difficulty, and following a winding trajectory, I swam to the shore.

I pop out of water, and run. There were 800 meters to the transit, and I’m pulling off my hydro suit on the go. A crowd of American people around, shouting and whistling some pipes, applauding. I meet legless athletes – these are the real ironmen!

We run – flip-flop, splash-splash – this is how wet triathlon athletes all dressed up in neoprene run on asphalt.

I surpassed nearly 30 people while running. We got to the transit. Off the hydro suit, on – helmet, number, shoes, socks, shit! Off shoes, on – socks, and then shoes. I put the watch on the wheel, glasses; now food – they were giving gel, I frowned, drank it down with isotonic, frowned again, grabbed my bike and ran to the exit.

10 minutes in the transit – my personal “record”! Good job, Dima! I’m proud of you!


San Francisco is not Miami, therefore at 8 o’clock in the morning the air is cold enough, and when you’re cycling on a bike, in a wet suit, you inevitably start thinking of a sauna with all the respective consequences. And with these thoughts of a hot sauna and brooms, I started the cycling stage.

The bike in general is my sore point. Sore, because it’s weak. And the cycling part of this race is quite difficult – hills on hills. Ups are slow, because I did not have time to work out the muscles on my legs, and downs are slow, because the path is winding and unknown.

A super technical route – requires attention to most minute details. Therefore, if you don’t want to find yourself in some part of the ocean, swimming with the sharks, or any other unpleasant place, you better watch the road. Locals have an advantage here. For us, the visitors, the route was completely unknown, and it’s precisely because of this that many of us were losing time. While for those who had the opportunity to bike here previously and explore the turns and hills, it was muuuuch easier; the route was abundant in turns and hills here.

I must say the day was perfect for the race. There were some stunning views along the way. When I climbed the first hill, I had a splendid view of the bridge and the ocean, spread under the sunshine. This was undoubtedly the most beautiful route I passed.

Then I entered the Golden Gate park. I think this was my favorite part of the track. On either side of the track, we were protected by huge trees. This was like some distant memory from childhood, when I was still very small, and the trees around seemed enormous, watching me, and I’m slowly pedaling and going ahead.

I was really quite slow at twisting the pedals – the road was getting more and more winding, strewn with hills, and this wouldn’t have been the San Francisco triathlon if there wasn’t the “I can barely climb it!” hill. This was exactly one of those hills, and it was at the 4th rise immediately after turning right back to seal rock drive. Within a little more than a kilometer, I covered about 100 meters in altitude. Before starting the climb on this hill, I made sure I fixed in the right transfer, and slowly, but surely started to go up.

In the case of some gradients, I wondered – how on earth did I climb them. Probably standing. They looked like walls, and bikes don’t climb walls, do they?

Knowing that cycling is not my strong side, I tried to get the most excitement out of the trip. And I succeeded!


And the transit again – bike to its place, off the helmet, on – sneakers, unwrapped my number, sucked the gel, put on the watches and ran.

Finally my favorite running. I love it for the full control over the situation – it all depends on me. Not on lateral wind or the flat tire, neither on waves and currents, but only on me. And you knock yourself out for being one to one with the track, and no one will prevent you from running it the way you want and can.

I thought only the cycling route will be special for its scenery, but I was wrong – the running track was again rich in such beautiful views like – the Golden Gate, San Francisco beaches, the ocean, and trails in flowery bushes. Overall, I was enjoying it, and this is probably why I was slower at running. By the way, due to this I saved a lot of energy that came in handy later… but I’ll tell you later about the when and where.

And then, it was time to run in the opposite direction. And on this way, those who already reached the control point were bumping into those who were still running towards it. The trails are narrow, and some of us had to stop to let the others pass.

Ah, about the track. We ran on sand, on wet sand, on gravel, on pressed mud, on asphalt – overall the track was interesting also because of all these surface variations.

When we reached the wet sand (we were running along the beach), the competitive spirit gave way to a romantic mood. The only thing missing was some music and your soulmate running towards you. Vika, hello! The only thing taking us back to reality was the splashes of the waves. The surf was quite strong; therefore, some athletes had to let it go first.

And at the end of the beach, the legendary sand ladder was waiting for us. These are 400 steps made of sand and logs, supporting the sand. For comparison, there are 200 steps on the Valea Morilor stairs.

To pass it, and even better run it, some athletes used side cables. And even the best sometimes combine running with walking to overcome it. By the way, the time during which an athlete passes the ladder is recorded separately in the results. Professionals can pass it in less than 2 minutes, my time was 3:11 – not bad if you consider the fact that I stopped to pose for a local photographer.

To pass it, and even better run it, some athletes used side cables. And even the best sometimes combine running with walking to overcome it. By the way, the time during which an athlete passes the ladder is recorded separately in the results. Professionals can pass it in less than 2 minutes, my time was 3:11 – not bad if you consider the fact that I stopped to pose for a local photographer.

By the way, while running I realized this triathlon took a toll on me – my hearing became worse on one ear. I thought this was due to the cold water. I could only calm myself down with the fact that the Alcatraz was worth it. Well, not much of a consolation, but I tried my best. In the end, 15 minutes before the finish, I realized I forgot to pull out the earplug that I used during swimming. Pulled it out, and oh, miracle! Hearing was back!

Then was the finish. Celebration hugs with my friends and lover, liters of coke, wallowing on the grass, award of medals (a cool one – it’s spinning), photos to remember and farewell to Alcatraz.


The Escape from Alcatraz became for me the most contrasted race. First, the terrible waters of the most famous prison changed with some stunning San Francisco landscapes within a matter of 30 minutes. Second, icy waters of the bay changed in a short period with the burning rays of the Californian sun. Third, this triathlon will always stand out among the others for 3 reasons: steep hills during cycling, variety of surfaces during running, and breathtaking views during swimming.

You’re in the icy water of the bay, on one side you can still see the lighthouse of the impregnable Alcatraz prison, on the other you have the coast of San Francisco by night, alluring with its permissiveness, and somewhere in the distance you have the Golden Gate, as a symbol of connection between two such different places.

I will always remember this…

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