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Christina Roberts, Brainerd High School grad and 2004 Female Athlete of the Year, stood at the top of the podium after placing first in the 26-29 women’s group of the challenging Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in June.

Recreation: Roberts escapes from Alcatraz

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Escape from Alcatraz might evoke memories of the 1979 movie starring Clint Eastwood for most people, but to triathlon athletes it is known as one of the most grueling triathlons in the country.

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Brainerd High School graduate Christina Roberts not only finished this year's Alcatraz tri in June, but finished first in her women's 26-29 age group and sixth overall among the amateur women. She also finished 111th among all amateurs in the 1,600-athlete field.

The race begins with a 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz Island in the cold, choppy waters of the bay followed by an 18-mile bike ride through the hilly Presidio. An eight-mile trail run through Golden Gate Park and sandy beaches, completes the course.

Roberts was Brainerd's 2004 Female Athlete of the Year competing in swimming, Nordic skiing and track. She continues to train and compete in about six triathlons a year and other races. She put her name into a lottery for the Alcatraz race last year and was selected to compete this year.

"There were 1,600 athletes on the boat that took us out next to the island and the pros went off in the first wave. For the rest of us, they opened a gate and it was a free for all. You just jumped in and it didn't matter what age group you were in, if you were closest to the gate you went. Once you jumped in you had to swim away fast because people behind you were going to be jumping in right away. I'm told that 1,600 athletes got off the boat in about six minutes."

One of the deterrents to prisoners escaping from Alcatraz was the water's cold temperatures, normally around 50 degrees, currents and sharks.

"I didn't really feel the temperature," said Roberts. "There was enough adrenaline leading up to the race that I never got cold. I was trying to figure out where I was going and just trying to conquer the waves. They were big enough in some cases that when I looked up, I couldn't see anyone around me. I could pretty much always see the shore although it was pretty foggy and tough to see the buildings they told us to sight on.

"They told us the big sharks stay out of the bay because of the brackish water, current and churning of the bay itself which produces the waves. You definitely want to be a strong swimmer because it takes a lot of strength pushing through that. But, it was fun and I really did enjoy that swim. It's so different from any other swim I've done."

Once on shore, the athletes shed their wetsuits for a half mile run to where the bikes were staged. Roberts chose to run the paved half mile barefoot.

"My feet were kind of cold so it hurt a little bit, but I'm glad I didn't take the time to put my shoes on because I don't think it would have felt any better. My feet felt like bricks anyway because of the temperature."

Roberts described the bike race as a technical course with quite a few sharp corners and high hills.

"It wasn't like the farmlands and rolling hills and straight runs like I'm used to in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities," she said. "You would be going up very steep hills, in some cases two or three miles an hour, but you're also going downhill 30 plus miles an hour, which can be pretty nerve wracking. You hope the road conditions allow you to get up that speed without popping a tire, falling or running into someone.

"At this point, I didn't feel fatigued. I did a lot of heavier training earlier in the season to get ready for this and I really felt well trained and prepared. Obviously it was challenging and going up the steep hills took a lot out of me. There were a number of climbs that were long, very long, a mile or so of just grinding up the hill."

Then came the run to the finish.

"It started out flat for about a mile and a half and then you started climbing up, basically to the top of the bluff. There were some staircases to run up and once we got to that part of the race it turned into trail running. It was a dirt path with roots in and out of the trails. Once we got to the top, we started going down to the beach and then ran in the sand for maybe three quarters of a mile while we made the turn around. At about mile four and a half is where we hit the sand ladder.

"That area is all sand going from the beach to the top of the bluff and the sand ladder was stairs that were logs connected by cables, but not set into the ground so that if I stepped on one side of the log but not the other, the log would move. Alongside the logs they had cables that you could use for hand rails and although not everyone used them, the pros did and so did I.

"At that point, I wasn't about to kill my legs and I hadn't used my arms since the swim so I thought I might as well take advantage of them being rested. If you were to run up the stairs without using the rails you would just burn out."

All of the race elements were timed for each runner and Roberts climbed the sand ladder in 2:52, best time in her age group. She also turned in the best times for her age group in the swim by nearly three minutes and run. She had the third fastest time for the bike in her age group and completed the race in 2:39:41 - 18 seconds faster than the closest amateur in her age group. The top female pro athlete finished in 2:17.42.

"Once we got past the sand ladder, we still had a half mile climb to the top, but after that it was pretty much downhill for the rest of the way," said Roberts. "I had felt pretty good throughout the entire race, but the last mile and a half was pretty tough. Fatigue sets in at some point and my legs started to feel like jello. But the crowd was huge and cheering and I also had family and friends there that helped keep me going."

Roberts said the Alcatraz race was the first of six triathlons she would do this year. She trains with a coach between seven and 12 hours a week. She does two-a-day workouts about four days a week, often swimming in the morning and running at night. On weekends, she might put in more time biking followed by a run.

Since Alcatraz, she had completed two other triathlons, finishing second for females in both races at Lake Minnetonka and Lake Waconia.

"They were both sprints. which is a different challenge," Roberts said. "At Alcatraz I was out there for two hours and 29 minutes. Lake Minnetonka was an hour and 11 minutes and Lake Waconia was about an hour and 37 minutes."

On June 14, Roberts also won the Zorbaz Gull Lake Challenge Peter Johnson Memorial Swim Race, finishing the 2.4-mile long course with a time of 52:19.4.

Of her Escape from Alcatraz experience, Roberts said, "It is definitely the most fun race I've ever done. It was an incredible experience and I would definitely like to do it again. Maybe not next year because there are some other races I want to try, but definitely again. It catered to my strength, which is a long swim and a long run."

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