Andy Potts has won the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon more than anyone else in the event’s 25-year history.
He won for the fifth time in eight tries last year, and has never finished lower than third, but that doesn’t mean leaping off the California Hornblower into frigid San Francisco Bay gets any easier.
“You don’t get to dip your toe in the water,” he said of the start of the race. “Sometimes when you jump into really cold water, if you can acclimate your body just a little bit, it really helps to be exposed to the elements before the gun goes off. What makes this race unique is it’s cold turkey.”
Potts, who is in his 11th year as a professional triathlete, said he spends the first few minutes in the water telling himself he’s OK. Eventually, all he has to worry about is the other thing that makes this event stand out among the other courses he competes on throughout the year.
“It’s this vast open water,” he said. “There are no buoys, it’s just dive off the Hornblower and get to shore at the exit point. Find your own way.”
Once climbing out of the freezing water and running a mile to his bike at the Marina Green — a necessary jog to help avoid hypothermia — Potts will complete an 18-mile bike ride that deposits him below the Golden Gate Bridge for the start of an 8-mile run that ends in what might be Potts’ least favorite part of the Escape: facing the sand ladder at Baker Beach.
“The timing of when the sand ladder comes into play is just cruel and unusual punishment at that time,” he said. “You’re five miles into the run, you have three miles left, you’re starting to really hit the turnaround, starting to smell the bacon. OK, this is the home stretch, then all of the sudden you faced with the sand ladder which is basically just a wall full of sand where it’s two steps up one step back.”
One thing’s for sure, however. Potts will not be hearing footsteps during the race. Or at least he won’t be paying attention to them.
“If you get in the race and you’re constantly looking over your shoulder at who’s breathing down your neck,” he said, “well, I can guarantee you the entire field wants to beat me just like I want to beat them. You know that they’re coming and they’re coming like a freight train. So you don’t look back. I only look forward.”