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With the sounding of the horn, elite triathletes lead the charge into the chilly waters of the bay.

Is there a better way to start a day than with a 1.5-mile swim, followed by an 18-mile bike ride and an 8-mile run? Apparently not, if we are to believe the 2,000 men and women from 43 countries who hopped out of bed Sunday to compete in the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon.

They were so enthusiastic about the 32nd annual event -- yes, people have been doing this since Ronald Reagan was president -- they each ponied up a $400 entry fee to participate.

Technically, the race does not involve Alcatraz. Contestants leapt into the 55-degree water from the paddle-wheeler San Francisco Belle, which ferried them alongside the Rock, but the distance to shore was identical.

The competition began at 7:30 a.m. in staggered starts -- first the men and women pros, then age-group competitors and physically challenged athletes -- but every wet-suited body to hit the water experienced the bone-chilling sensation described by women's winner Leanda Cave, of Great Britain.

"It's a little like an electric shock," she said. "It certainly wakes you up."

You've never seen the bay until you've seen it dotted with 2,000 bobbing heads and 4,000 flailing arms. If you squinted, it looked like an invading navy of eggbeaters.

The frenzy of the race's early minutes reflects a combination of nervous energy and adrenaline rush. Andy Potts, of Colorado Springs, Colo., who won a record-setting fifth men's title in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 17 seconds, admitted that a sliver of fear creeps into every competitor's mind.


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"There's some trepidation," he said, "because it's so cold, and it's a little daunting because you're so far from the shore."

Well, there is that.

One of the reasons the federal government operated a prison on Alcatraz from 1934 to 1963 was the intimidating expanse of water confronting any escapee -- of the 36 who tried, the five who weren't shot or captured were presumed drowned -- but you never would have guessed that by Sunday's event.

The first to complete the distance, Dustin McLarty, of Irvine, reached the sand near St. Francis Yacht Club after 26 minutes, 49 seconds. His closest followers arrived only 24 seconds later.

But the swim is only the appetizer course. This event is won on land, during a grueling 18-mile bicycling course (through the Presidio to Golden Gate Park and back) and an 8-mile foot race (from the Marina Green to Baker Beach and back).

Geoffrey Cocks, who was on hand to cheer daughter Emily, of Napa, said the hilly terrain can come as nasty surprise to first-timers.

"If Emily hadn't followed the advice of a more experienced friend and added two lower gears to her bike," he said, "she would have been pushing it up the hills the first time she competed in this race."

Cave, a four-time women's winner, knows about that. "This is my sixth time here," she said, "and when I've lost this race, I've lost it on the bike race. It's kind of a survival test."

The overwhelming majority of Sunday's contestants were amateurs -- some had not yet begun the final leg when the winner crossed the finish line -- with ambitions only of proving they could go the distance. For that matter, even the pros' rewards were more about fulfillment than cash: $7,000 each to men's and women's winners out of $44,000 total prize money.

There must be something else that drives these athletes, swimming until their shoulders ache, running and pedaling until their lungs burn.

"I do it because I love it," said Potts. "I do it for the love of sport, and the longer I do it, the more I love it.

"You really should try it sometime."

Thanks for asking, but no. I'm not a morning person.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.