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This Sunday, March 3, age-group athlete Eric Gilsenan will race the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon for the 25th year in a row, during which time he’s been witness to the race’s (and the sport’s) evolution. Triathlete.com chatted with Gilsenan to hear about his favorite memories of Alcatraz, how the race has changed, and how he’s changed along with it.
Some might say that Eric Gilsenan has developed a Bob Babbitt-esque style of weaving stories into normal conversation—reminiscing about the legends of triathlon racing across the Golden Gate Bridge, or about how and why the Escape from Alcatraz course has changed over the years. Twenty-five years of racing alongside the sport’s greats has set Gilsenan’s life on a path he never would have dreamed.
Originally from Boston, Gilsenan grew up through high school in Cape Cod (as a teenager in the 1980s, he had been a lifeguard at triathlons on Cape Cod, where Marc Suprenaut, known as the “Beast from the East,” frequently won). He spent time in the U.S. Coast Guard before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1986. After years of drinking and partying, he got out of the Coast Guard and found himself weighing 250 pounds. “I had to get my act together at 24 and realize that the party was over,” he says. “So I went to Alcatraz on a dare, and I did it Oct. 1, 1989. It was my first triathlon ever.”
That year was the first year it was televised, so it drew a stronger pro field. Scott Tinley won that year, but it was the last year it was raced on the original course—the run was too tough to shoot because it featured a tree canopy and hundreds of stairs. That year, the race had just 200 athletes (it’s now capped at 2,000 athletes).
Just so you get a sense of the race, Escape from Alcatraz is one of the most famous and difficult courses in the sport of triathlon. Now in its 33rd year, it features a jump off a boat into the chilly water off the coast of Alcatraz Island, a 1.5-mile swim to shore, then a half-mile “warm-up run” to transition before an 18-mile bike through the streets of San Francisco and an 8-mile run on Baker Beach, several trails and up the 400-step Sand Ladder. “It’s not a full Ironman, it’s not even a 70.3, but it is a challenging, tough, bucket-list race that whether you do it one time or, like me, a couple dozen, it’s tough,” he says. “Each of the legs is challenging. The temperature, the marine life, the chop, the current, the navigation, the other athletes, it’s tough.”
From that day in 1989, Gilsenan’s life took a turn for the better, and triathlon gave him a new purpose. After the race, “I called the race director and I said, ‘Can I do anything to help you?’” he recalls. “So I got a call back, and Dave Horning, the race director, said, ‘Yeah, you can come and help assemble aid station products. We had eight aid stations on the run, so we assembled truck by truck—bananas, apples, oranges, we had these new things called PowerBars. There was this drink called Ultrafuel, which is now history. After that, I got a $50 entry instead of $100. And that was in 1990. And then every year since, I would work the event, and although this is my 25th year in a row doing the event, this is my 24th year working the event.”
His responsibilities now include sending out the race’s newsletter, being the Escape Academy coach, and he’s even an announcer on race day. “One year they said to me, ‘If you’re going to be out on the boat, why are we sending an announcer out on the boat when that announcer has to be at the finish of the swim? So why don’t you do the announcing on the boat?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, no problem!’ So for the last five or six years, I’ve announced on the boat, and then I jump off and swim and bike and run, and I usually have about a half an hour between my finish time and the awards—I do the awards ceremony. So it’s a fun day, but by the time I get to the 75- to 79-year-old men and women, I’m pretty much falling off the stage,” he says.
Helping out with Escape from Alcatraz eventually led Gilsenan to find his own career—besides race announcing at races across the country, he started his own sports marketing company and is in contract with IMG, who’s owned Alcatraz for the last 20 years. He helps produce Escape from Alcatraz and the Beijing International Triathlon, and he also works with Petco to help with the Petco 5K9 walk/run series. Since IMG has taken over the race, Gilsenan thinks it’s only gotten better. “We’ve always had a unique race, and IMG has owned this race for 20 years. And they’ve let the race evolve,” he says. “They’ve used different management throughout the years. The race seems to continue to sell out. … Back in the day when I got started, it was mainly a bunch of skinny white males and a few women. Now you look at this sport, and it’s a rainbow. It’s great. People of all ages are involved with it. … The sport of triathlon changed my life, and I love to see all the diverse people that come to our sport, and it’s been great to see other groups, rather than just one dominant triathlon group, flourish in the sport.”
Gilsenan has also watched the course change over the years, from a race that favored runners (the run course was once almost 10 miles longer) to one that favors the swimmers—the lead swimmers can stay ahead of the packs on the bike, and because of the difficulty of the course, never get passed on the bike.
This year, Escape from Alcatraz is about a month earlier than it’s been historically (due to San Francisco hosting an America’s Cup). For athletes racing this year, Gilsenan advises watching the videos on the race website and reading the newsletter. For race day, you might want to invest in a pair of booties. “I used them for the first time last year, and it makes a difference,” he says. “Once your foot cramps, it’s hard to get that cramp out, so a little extra protection with the booties is good.” To prepare for the swim, he also recommends, if you live in the Bay Area, to head to Aquatic Park and get in the water to prepare your mind and body for what you’re in for. If you don’t live in the Bay Area, at least wade into the water on the Thursday and Friday before the race and put your face in the water. “Be ready for it, because a lot of people jumping off that boat aren’t ready.
For the bike, he recommends wearing full-length cycling gloves, or at least a thin knit glove under regular cycling gloves. “You’re going to have limited dexterity anyway,” he says, “so by giving yourself the gloves on the bike, it’s going to help.” Also, bring a jacket. The half-mile warm-up run is important—in the first years of the race when transition was right after the swim exit, by the time people reached the north tower of Golden Gate Bridge, they were falling off their bikes.
For the run, he reminds athletes to maintain your fuel—even though the race is close to an Olympic in distance, it’s much more draining. “They’ve got to make sure they eat,” he says. “One year Greg Bennett was in first place at mile 6 on the run—he had two miles to go—and he got 18th place. … He really just expended his fuel tank and he vapored. If Greg Bennett has that happen to him, it can happen to anybody.”
While Gilsenan didn’t give any predictions for a winner this year, he’s excited for the pro field slated to show up: “I’m stoked to have both male and female Ironman world champions here,” he says. Four-time Alcatraz champ Leanda Cave, Ironman world champ Pete Jacobs, five-time Alcatraz winner Andy Potts will all be racing, as well as Heather Jackson, John Dahlz, Kyle Leto and Matt Lieto.
Over the years, Gilsenan has raced alongside a lot of big names. His favorite memory, he says, would be Simon Lessing’s victory in 1995: “When you pass the V.A. Hospital and you go down to this corner, you can easily get to 30 to 35 mph. Easily. And [Lessing] went into this corner hot, taking a left toward the Legion of Honor, and he went down. And he was just wearing a Speedo. … He went down and ground his hip down to the bone. He was in first place and he fell back to fourth place. … But Simon didn’t quit. He ground all the flesh off his hip, and he ended up passing everybody—and this was back in the first year of the Sand Ladder. And he won the race and he had to take a taxi to the hospital. And that was really true grit. That’s Simon Lessing.”
When he goes back every year, Gilsenan makes sure he takes in the beauty of the course. “The entire race course is so beautiful. People save all their lives just to spend one day or week in San Francisco, and we get to utilize it as our picture-perfect course on that Sunday morning, and the Golden Gate Bridge is the most photographed object in the world, and we use it as part of our course.” When it comes to race day, he loves the crowds—both people he knows and people he doesn’t know.
“When I was first in the sport in 1989, I knew no one, and I was lonely. I went from a bar stool to trying to get my life together, and triathlon really gave me a place to hang my hat up. I went to Alcatraz and I knew no one in ’89. Then in ’90 I got to know a few more people and I started to do more triathlons in 1990. And then by ’91, I was on the Golden Gate Triathlon Club and I knew people. And now, when I go to that event, I can’t even walk 100 feet without seeing somebody that I know.”
For Gilsenan, Escape from Alcatraz embodies not just an athletic endeavor, but a healthy lifestyle that has fostered relationships and turned his life around. “The friendships I have now with athletes in the sport is the most valuable part of any of what I have in the sport,” he says. “[Remember to] enjoy the sport because it’s a lot more than swim, bike, run.”