The sport of triathlon dates back to the 1970s with roots in San Diego, California and Honolulu, Hawaii. In these early years, swim, bike and run athletic workouts took place regularly, and grew organically into events in both cities. From there, the sport caught on internationally and in the years to follow, triathlon races started to pop up around the globe. Triathlons were growing in popularity, and by the early 1980s the sport had made its way to San Francisco where two iconic San Francisco Bay Area races (the Alcatraz Swim and the Dipsea Race) were connected with a bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, creating the start of the Alcatraz Triathlon Challenge evolution.
Since the first race in 1981, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon has enticed top professional and amateur triathletes to attempt the impossible – ESCAPE from Alcatraz Island. The infamy of Alcatraz Island is part of the attraction that draws more than 2,000 triathletes to San Francisco year after year. The prison was home to more than 1,545 prisoners during its existence as a federal penitentiary from 1934-1963. Famous inmates include Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Henry Young and Robert Stroud “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Perhaps the most famous “Escape from Alcatraz” was that of Frank Lee Morris, who was the brilliant mastermind of one of the most legendary prison escapes in history. Morris and two others escaped from Alcatraz on June 11, 1962, and they were never to be seen again. The mystique of the location and the riskiness of the course, most significantly the challenging open water swim in sub average water conditions, continue to draw competitors wanting to achieve bragging rights.
From 1981 to 1989, the triathlon course remained the same – an extremely challenging swim from Alcatraz Island into San Francisco’s Aquatic Park; a five minute run to Fort Mason; and a bike ride from Fort Mason to Mill Valley for the Double Dipsea Race, the oldest trail race in America that takes runners over Mount Tamalpais and down to Stinson Beach and back. In the early years of the race, triathletes without wetsuits were falling off their bikes from the cold-water temperatures and chilly westerly winds, so race directors added the five-minute warm-up run to Fort Mason post swim for safety.
The race continued to gain notoriety and in 1989, the triathlon was televised on NBC for the first time, increasing its popularity as a bucket list race. This was also the last year the Alcatraz Triathlon Challenge took place on the original course. In 1993, the course was changed to better accommodate the needs of television by having the entire race take place in the city of San Francisco. The 20-mile bike course was reduced to 18 miles and changed to take racers through the Presidio, up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco and out to Golden Gate Park and back to Marina Green.
The 18-mile run changed into an eight mile run along Crissy Field, under the Golden Gate Bridge past several city landmarks, down to Baker Beach and up the treacherous 400 step Infamous Sand Ladder. Since 1995, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon course has remained the same with the entire race, taking place in San Francisco.
Several similar races have come and gone since the early 1980s, but in its 40th year, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon continues to grow and remain a bucket list race for triathletes from around the world. From Olympian Barb Linquist, Simon Lessing and six-time winner Andy Potts, to Ironman Champions Mirinda Carfrae, Chris McCormack and Michellie Jones, the world’s top triathletes have competed in this legendary race. Past winners include: