THE GREAT ESCAPE by Ritch Viola
June 10, 2012
Team Every Man Jack made a big commitment to the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. We had eight guys racing – and the remainder of the team volunteered on race day. It is a race that attracts triathletes from all over the world – the course is challenging yet beautiful. And a trip to San Francisco is a huge bonus! I have personally spoken so highly of this race to friends, fellow triathletes, and even strangers. But this year was extra special for many reasons –
Our escape started on Thursday night when five of our racers, David Swift, Bruno Fritsch, Pierre Billa, Jeremy Devich and myself, all volunteered at the Sports Basement filling the awesome race bags – anyone get that tiny Subaru lip balm or mini-pack of O Organics Raisins??? Yep I personally put 2,000 of these babies into the race bags! Triathlons are a major production and as athletes I feel we need to do our part to help out when we can, especially if we like to complain about some of the events we race at! It was a great start to the weekend – we met several volunteers some who traveled to SF for the weekend from out of town just to volunteer for 3 straight days so that WE could race!!! Very humbling. We met the race director and his staff – one lady was so great – she looked for us on race day and found us at the finish and used her handheld device to give us our splits – great to meet her
Most people know about Oliver Ralph’s terrible crash the weekend before at Morgan Hill race – so it has to mentioned that I wasn’t feeling it – was worried about Ollie and just not 100% race ready. Friday was Ollie big appointment with the Pelvic Othro Surgeon at CPMC – I was with him on Thursday night at Lawton Healthcare center and just anxious to hear about the appointment. Dorothy called about 11am on Friday with great news from the Surgeon – no SURGERY!! Pat Lenaghan, Team EMJ resident ER doc, attended the appointment with Ollie and Dorothy – which was really cool. The prognosis for Ollie was great and good news all around – just need to make sure Ollie is PATIENT (you reading this, O?) with progress and he will return to 100%. I hung up the phone and just thought to myself, “It’s on bitches! Time to Escape!!!”. Later that morning, I picked up one of my best friends from college, David Lawson, who I told to enter the lottery after last years race (see comments above about me raving about EFA!). He got in and flew out from Philly to race with me and the rest of Team EMJ. We competed together at Cal all four years and hadn’t raced together since 1994. This was gonna be fun!
The team met at packet pick up at 12noon – the volunteering turned out to be huge as we scored some sweet parking passes for Sunday – and the EMJ booth also got us a couple exhibitor passes – so we definitely felt the VIP treatment was starting! That ended quickly though when we saw the crazy line for packet pick up – it was crazy. Although strategically wrapped right in front of the Every Man Jack booth…hmmmm…maybe not so bad after all. 😉
RACE DAY: Sundays’ 4:20 alarm came quickly – Dave and I were up and eating and ready to roll. We carpooled with my good friend and neighbor, Matt Hart, who races for the O Club. We rolled into Exhibitor parking like we owned the place…it was awesome. We make our way to transition and then magic continues…there is volunteer David Condon. David, “Ritch, Maureen is waiting for you guys on Scott. Virginie and Maureen will drive you guys over to the boat.” Well that is awesome! We all racked our bikes – very closely I might add. I decided that at 40 we are now so many rows from the bike out that it was time for the rubber band trick on the shoes – so set up the bike thinking “it might have been good to practice this first!”.
We saw a bunch of other EMJ volunteers – Yoni Doron-Peters, Adam Carlson, Niall Murray – the crew was out and ready to support. Ran into Pierre Billa and David Swift – and then we all headed to the VIP Chevy Tahoe for a ride to Pier whatever. Lawson, Swift, Billa and I went for a warm up run along the embarcadero while the women waited for us. We then gave them all our stuff (awesome!) and headed over to the boat. The weather was just amazing – sun was out – so many familiar faces at the Pier getting ready. Ran into Bruno Fritsch, Jeremy Devich, John Dahlz and Eric Byrnes (former major leaguer and Velo SF friend). We all made our way to the boat – they try to tell us old guys that we need to go on the top deck – but I was having none of that!
Once on the boat, it was so crowded – the big key is bring a cold liter of water, preferably 2 since your teammates don’t come prepared! J We find a spot near a guy that has some space around him and crowd in. He is in a Freak of Nature TYR wetsuit – and it looks SWEET! We make some chit chat, small talk – and then he gives Jeremy some advice. “Dude, just a quick tip…you might want to remove the protective stickers from the googles before you jump off this boat!”. We all had a good laugh – Jeremy played it cool as if he knew they were there. The guy gets up and wishes us luck on the race – and then David Swift, who is new to triathlon, asks “Who was that?”…..I reply, “The guy with the #1 on his arm…that is Andy Potts!”. We all figured this was good luck to hang with 4 time champ (now 5 time champ) pre-race.
The countdown begins…20 minutes, 15 minutes, 10 minutes…soon the Pros are lining up out on the deck – and the place is going nuts. The sun is shining down and we are about to Escape from Alcatraz. Team EMJ lines up in the front row outside the doors. A young kid is next to me…I ask, “Can you swim fast” – and he says “Yes I can swim”. He is 17 and from Mexico…I think, “We will see about that!”. More about this 17 year old badass below.
The Pros are off. And while I believe we are meant to wait a bit before we jump (or DIVE in Pierre’s case!) – with 2000 pushing from behind – we jump just seconds after the PRO’s go. And so it is on. We are swimming for the beach and the waves are crazy. Quickly I find myself with the pink caps (female Pro’s) – and I see the 17 year old in light blue and he is already up ahead…he wasn’t joking…he can swim! I didn’t see a lot of other people and felt I was swimming alone but just keep sighting and trying to catch the white caps in front of me (male Pro’s). The swim feels amazing – I borrowed David Condon’s medium sized TYR Hurricane – and the size is perfect – a great fit. So I just keep swimming as hard as I can – the waves seem to be doing a lot of the work – so just trying to keep a good line. I didn’t realize how powerful the waves and current was until I saw a HUGE metal ball/buoy up ahead – it was about 10 feet to my right – no problem, right? Well two strokes later, BAM! I hit my right hand hard against the bouy metal ball thingy. WTF. How did I just move 10 feet to the right in 2 strokes!!! Holy jesus – just get to the BEACH! As we get closer to the beach, I realize that I am sighting off of EMJ Pro Eric Clarkson – don’t ask me how I spotted him but I knew it was him.
And we finally get to the beach (5 minutes slower than prior years swim – tough swim) – and I see Eric just ahead ripping of the wetsuit. I pass him as he stops by the Pro VIP shoe area – but about 10 seconds later he passes me back with no wetsuit and just gliding in his shoes – while I run with my wetsuit on and bare feet! But getting out of the water with Eric told me the swim was solid and the line must have been pretty good.
As I run to transition I hear many Team EMJ volunteers yelling my name, I hear friends and family cheering, I hear Karen Jeffrey yelling “LANE 1!!!”. It feels awesome – just soaking it in. I get to T1 and grab my bike – more EMJ guys in transition cheering. As I go to exit and mount the bike, I see Bruno, Pierre and Lawson entering the grass part of T1. So I figure I am about 1.5 minutes up on those guys and don’t see a lot of other amateurs so figure this is a good sign. And I confidently mount my bike…and then quickly come to a screeching halt and almost hit two police motorcycles…the rubber band trick wasn’t such a trick after all. I stopped for maybe 20 seconds (note my loss to Pierre by 18 seconds – so rounding up here to 20! J) – a few pros, including Becky Lavelle, go by as I put on a little clinic on how NOT to utilize the rubber bands. Finally on the bike – disaster somewhat diverted. As I bike down Mason Street, I hear tons of cheers – many by first name, many “Go EMJ”, and then I see my family – that always feels great!
I set out on the bike – and just focused on powering up the hills, recovering on the downhills and pushing the flats. I pass a few other guys in the first few miles that are strong swimmers – so as I enter Legion on Honor I know I am in second because I haven’t seen the 17 year old yet. I see Maureen at Legion of Honor – and that gets me fired up. A few male Pro’s are passing me – but that feels good to know that I am up with them. As I exit Golden Gate Park, I see Jeremy Devich heading in – he looks good! Only a few more climbs – I end up riding most of the bike with Andrew Bauer, Personal Care buyer at Sports Basement and Pro Triathlete….I considered dropping a line on one of the climbs like, “So Andrew you gonna carry Every Man Jack products or what?!?!?”….But refrained. J As I started the final uphill on Lincoln Blvd, I passed the 17 year old phenom (humblebrag, I know!) – he looked like he crashed he was bleeding so bad around the neck – but later learned the poor kid didn’t put on body glide – none!!! Rookie. J
I make the final climb up Lincoln – and that is when I saw them. I felt a rush of emotion – energy, excitement, maybe a little choked up…maybe! There were Ollie and Dorothy – in his Team EMJ hat and sweatshirt with matching Pajama bottoms – Dorothy was jumping up and down like a crazy person – and Ollie is yelling what place I was in and told me “how awesome I was doing”….
I raced to T2 and see my family in the usually spot – gave some big waves and kisses there way – and was thrilled that for the first time ever racing EFA – no amateur passed me on the bike. I could see my pace was much faster than previous years so in and out and off on the run. As I exited T2 – I see Pierre entering – we literally must have biked the same time I thought (actually 51:05 Pierre, 51:08 Ritch – but see rubber band fiasco noted above! J).
Off on the run – I am not seeing a lot more amateurs biking in yet, so this allows me to relax and just focus on form and getting my legs. But I know Pierre is coming! I hear and see so many friends and teammates cheering – it just feels so awesome to be out there. I make way to the path to get to Chrissy Field and see Pat and Amanda Lenaghan – and then Emily, Abby and Zach – high fives and I keep going. As I approach the Warming Hut – the Pac West support at the aid station was just unreal – so many of them cheering, so many familiar faces – I see Ricardo, Chrissy, Angela, Jay – the water cups were cold and plentiful! As I start the climb, I am feeling it in my legs and just keep repeating to myself, “Run to Ollie. Just get to Ollie”. He was planted, in a wheelchair, so pun intended, at the perfect spot on the bike and run for us athletes. So I got to them and got another burst of energy – and made my way down to the beach.
When I hit the beach I saw Leanda Cave running on the packed sand…so hell, I followed her lead. They made us come up to the soft sand close to the turn around because that is where the cones were – I turned around and started to head to the Sand Ladder – and that is when I spotted that damn flying Frenchman! He was probably about 30 seconds back. I get to the sand ladder and walk the entire thing – as I get about half way up I look back – Pierre is f’ing running the Sand Ladder – are you kidding me???? He passes me at the top – but I figure he must be hurting a little after that effort – he isn’t a superhero – so I get behind him. And then pass him back on the uphill – we see Dave Lawson making his way to the beach (I think, I wonder if he is mad at me for telling him to Escape!), we get one last high five from Ollie and Dorothy – and now it is all downhill and flat – and so the fun begins! Pierre and I run one, two all the way down – it is best done in a pair as you are more visible and folks were getting out of our way.
We hit the bottom – 2 miles to go – the PacWest aid station again on FIRE – tons of water – so much so that I had an extra and throw it right back at Baby Towle (or at least at Chrissy Towle’s growing baby bump)! Pierre and I shake hands and he goes…I try to just to stay within striking distance…he pulls ahead quickly but then I hold his pace pretty well and figure I am about 10 seconds back. That seems pretty OK to me at this point in the race! As we make our way back to Mason/Beach – there is David Condon and Niall Murray, Adam Carlson, Erik Wilde – all the boys taking pictures and high fiving us. I follow Pierre to the finish – I see more teammates, Nick Handel and Yoni – and then right at the start to the finish chute I see Emily/Abby/Zach – feels great now!
Crossed the finish 18 seconds after Pierre. Feels amazing to be competing with such a great athlete, teammate, person. We hugged and hold each other up at the finish as we catch our breath.
Then we congratulate Leanda Cave – (beat me again!). And see Virginie, Pierre’s wife. Peter Mendes finishes shortly thereafter. Then the other EMJ guys cross…David Swift, Bruno, David Lawson, Jeremy. Then the party begins…we all soak up the sun, atmosphere, meet up with our families and all our other teammates that volunteered. We head off to the Every Man Jack tent and feast on some awesome Patxi’s Pizza (thanks Michelle Larson). We share stories of the race, the course, all rave about Ollie and Dorothy, open some beers, hang with our CAF neighbors. Pierre and I got some hardware. That 17 year old was the top amateur and ran a 46 minute run! Remember this name: Mauricio Mendez!!!
And 24 hours later as I look back at the experience – I have realized that it isn’t the course that I have raved about (the course is brutal!) – it is the views, the atmosphere, the magic that unfolds on race day, it is that HOME FIELD advantage….not for knowing the course…but the volunteers, families, teammates, spectators knowing us! The energy that you gain every time you hear someone cheer your name…a teammate, a friend, a coach, a wife, a teammates’ wife, my kids (!!!)…..it keeps you pushing, to give the course everything you have. And that is why it is the GREAT ESCAPE. I will be back next year and will be at least 18 seconds faster! 🙂
Special thanks to Emily and my kids for the support and being the best fans, to TEAM EMJ for the amazing year we are having as a group, to the incredible sponsors of TEAM EMJ (TYR, Rudy Project, Mike’s Bikes, Specialized, Paxti’s, Clean Bottle, Purplepatch Fitness, Saucony and Zensah). I am feeling very grateful to be part of this team. And grateful to live and train where we do – one of the most beautiful in the world!