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Recalled: 40 Years of the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon

After a cancellation last year delayed the 40th anniversary, the historic (and weird) race will celebrate its 40th running this weekend.

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This weekend marks the (belated) 40th anniversary of the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, one of the ultimate bucket list endurance events. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, the race will pick up where it left off in 2019, with a two-day festival featuring a new swim/run race on Saturday and the main event triathlon on Sunday. The notoriously tough course has caused incredible suffering among its participants, yet they continued to come back for more. From world champs to weekend warriors, thousands of triathletes have earned bragging rights for finishing over the past four decades. Here’s a look back at some of Escape from Alcatraz’s most memorable moments.

2021 Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon Random Drawing will open on Wednesday, April 14th at 7AM PST. Mark your calendars…

Posted by Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon on Monday, April 12, 2021

1981: The first Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon field assembles for a 1.5-mile swim, a 20-mile bike, and an 18-mile run. Reportedly, no wetsuits are worn by any competitor, and there is no boat to ferry the swimmers to Alcatraz, either. While Escapees are now unloaded from a heated boat, the earliest competitors take off from a rocky, windswept cove on Alcatraz Island and swim towards Aquatic Park. San Francisco local pro triathlete Dave Horning takes the win, will go on to repeat his victory in 1982, and later become the race director.

RECALLED: A Look Back at the First Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon

1982:  Claire McRae of Massachusetts becomes the first female victor of the event (there were no female finishers recorded in 1981). After winning again in 1983, McRae remained the only multi-time winner until 1991 when Paula Newby Frasier earns three in a row.

1989: The race is broadcast on NBC for the first time, increasing its visibility and adding to the allure and popularity of the event. Also this year? A local named Eric Gilsenan races Alcatraz as his very first triathlon, on a dare. He goes on to become a fixture at the race, not only competing, but playing  various behind-the-scenes roles in the event’s production. This year, he will compete in his 32nd consecutive Escape from Alcatraz triathlon while also serving as an announcer.

Gilsenan finishes in 1991. He’ll go for his 32 Alcatraz finish this weekend. Photo: Courtesy of Eric Gilsenan

1993: The course changes to better accommodate the television broadcast (the original run, featuring a tree canopy and hundreds of stairs, was difficult to shoot). The bike leg, which rolls through San Francisco’s hilly streets, out to Golden Gate Park and back to Marina Green, is reduced from 20 to 18 miles. Meanwhile, the run drops from 18 miles to 8, but the infamous 400-step sand ladder remains.

You can see the full old course and get more on the history of the race at TriHistory.com.

1995: The indisputable Queen of Alcatraz, Australia’s Michellie Jones, wins her first of eight Alcatraz victories, triumphing over Newby Frasier in a wire-to-wire performance. The men’s race is equally stacked, with Brit Simon Lessing recovering from a wreck on the bike to dethrone reigning champ Mike Pigg of the U.S.

2001: NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, then playing for the San Diego Chargers, battles leg cramps (and a lack of triathlon training) to finish the grueling event. “It was hard but it showed me what I was capable of,” he later says.

2004: Jones turns in her finest Alcatraz victory, shattering her course record of 2:14:23 set in 2002 to grab her eighth win in 2:08:54 over countrywoman Liz Blatchford. Lessing nabs his third (and final) Alcatraz win, crossing the line in 1:54:41 to break Australia’s Chris McCormack’s 2001 record of 2:00:29. (A swift tide in the typically choppy San Francisco Bay is acknowledged for netting speedy swim times, setting the athletes on a record-breaking pace.)

2005: Sarah Reinertsen becomes the first female amputee to complete the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, inspiring hundreds of paratriathletes to follow her lead in the years to come. A few months later, Reinertsten, whose left leg was amputated above the knee as a child, becomes the first woman to complete an Ironman using a prosthetic limb.

Athletes run along the beach during the 2006 race. Photo: Donald Miralle/Getty Images

2007: American Andy Potts notches his first Escape from Alcatraz win, but not his last: The pro goes on to win five more times, cementing his status as the event’s most successful male triathlete.

2013: The race is moved from June to March to avoid a conflict with the America’s Cup sailing race series, with competitors braving 51-degree water temperatures (slightly lower than average 55 degree temps) and six foot swells. Sadly, Ross Ehilinger, a 46-year-old father of three from Austin, Tex. passes away during the swim leg, becoming the first competitor in the 33-year-history of the race to die during the competition.

2015: The race sees one of its closest finishes ever among the top men, with first-time winner Eric Lagerstrom of the U.S. nipping Potts by just two seconds, denying the longtime champ his seventh victory. To mark the 35th anniversary of the event, several past champions return to the start list, including Lester Waddel (1984), Peter Lewandowsky (1988 and 1988), Scott Tinley (1989), and Matt Reed (2006). Four-time winner Leanda Cave, who last broke the tape in 2012, finishes fourth, more than three minutes behind the first female, Ashleigh Gentle of Australia. 

2017: High winds lead to the cancellation of the swim portion of the race for the first time in the event’s history. Some 2,000 athletes complete a modified 18-mile bike, 8-mile run format, with U.S. pros Ben Kanute and Lauren Goss taking the top spots.

2019: Kanute makes it three in a row with a decisive win in the men’s race, holding off 2016 winner (and fellow Rio Olympian) Joe Maloy to cross in 1:59:22. For the women, Gentle returns to the top spot after her 2015 win, beating Goss by a minute. Kanute will return to defend his title and go for his fourth-straight win this year.

swimmers dive in for the start of alcatraz triathlon
Who will win this weekend? Photo: Donald Miralle/Getty Images