Winning any professional triathlon three times in a row is impressive, but Escape from Alcatraz Not just any triathlon. Participants plunge into the cool waters of San Francisco Bay for a 1.5-mile swim, then cycle 18 miles over winding hills, ending with an eight-mile run. The pièce de résistance: A rough set of cliff ladders called the sand ladder. Two thousand amateur and professional athletes from more than 50 countries will test their limits on August 15 – when the esteemed race celebrates its 40th anniversary – but the man to watch is Ben Canute.
The 28-year-old American athlete will try to swim on his bike in history as the first man to win an Alcatraz Triathlon escape for Four years in a row. After winning this race from 2017 to 2019, Kanute has been waiting two years for his chance to score after the 2020 race was canceled due to COVID-19. We caught up with the 2016 Olympian to learn more about this legendary race, his customized training schedule, and the mindset it takes to win a triathlon.
Men’s magazine: How do you prepare yourself to stay in the moment during a long and hard race?
Ben Canute: The mental aspect of sports is taken for granted. I go into every exercise with the goal of staying focused and trying to achieve goals – whether it’s within a workout, a set, or the entire exercise. As I train, I review my checklist and make sure my level is good, I get to my pace, I find the tempo, and I try to find the flow state where everything works. Once you’re in the race, you can access your signals, go through your checklist, and get the most out of yourself.
What kind of cross-training do you do throughout the year?
During the season I try not to branch out too much. My coach lives in San Diego, so I go there quite a bit. I enjoy the ocean and love skateboarding, but a lot of these sports are put to the back as you train as a professional athlete. It is risk management. These sports work completely different muscles, so the risk of injury increases. I work with a strength coach pendulum diedIt is very good at specific types of cross and strength training exercises that enhance swimming, cycling and running. Lots of mobility and strength-based strength training sessions to go along with my regular training. It was a nice supplement. It made me less prone to injury and improved my form in all three sports.
Despite being a shorter distance than other triathlons, Escape From Alcatraz features an intense swimming leg. How do you get around the frigid waters and strong current of the San Francisco Bay?
I love swimming Alcatraz. I think it’s a big challenge. It’s as much a physical challenge as it is a mental and tactical one with the way winds, waves, and currents. It sure changes your stroke. You can’t just put your head down and go. Escape from Alcatraz is about reading the water and knowing where to swim. Of course this is difficult to do – you have to adapt to being in the water, trying to deal with the current pushing you out of the bay. While the current helps you finish, if you don’t get close enough or cross that ‘river’, you may end up being pushed beyond the swim exit. I like to rely a lot on local knowledge and only ask questions about what the conditions were that day.
What is the transition to a bike leg? What are the biggest challenges?
Even when out of the water, another challenge is to run a thousand meters to get moving. Your feet are numb as you try to ride your bike. But you have to get rid of the cold to push it. The first few miles of the ride to the first hill is pretty flat, then from that point on, there’s really no flat section. Everything is very steep, and at the end of the course, there is a long and grinding climb. In total, I think there are about seven major ascents and the rest downhill, which can be technical.
Generally speaking, when we talk about the Alcatraz track – whether it’s swimming, bike or running – there is no stability. It’s a lot of cutting edge efforts for short periods of time. You get a little refreshed in the slopes or sections to the next hard part, you hit it again. But over the last few years of racing, I’ve found my rhythm.
It ends up being a relatively long sprint, although some distances vary. It’s an all-out effort, but you have to keep yourself in check because you can cross that red line if you’re not careful.
What’s the key to keeping your competitors behind in the final stage – and climbing the famous Sand Ladder ladder?
There are a few miles of flat at the front end and back end, but the rest is either uphill, downhill, or in the sand. I think this is the most tempo-breaking part of the entire course, because you’re running straight up the stairs. The sand ladder (400 degrees over the cliff) is always tricky. You really need to measure your effort and keep yourself in check for the first half of the run, then leave a little something for the sand ladder, and the last sprint at home.
The last few miles can change a lot depending on how stressed you are – especially with the guys I’m racing with. It’s all about leg rotation. You just need to trust that you will get your legs back, go up the hill, and then use those inclines as free speed and time to recover.
You said you “hate losing more than you love winning”. When you reach the end of a race, how much do you rely on that mindset to cross the finish line first?
It’s all about mind games – using the feeling of not winning to push you. But besides outcome goals, like winning, I always try to have practical goals. If I do my race as well as possible, I can still walk away happy even if I finish second or third. Results are often the only thing that is looked at throughout the season, but it’s also important to have practical goals and make sure things are done correctly. I feel like when I’m doing all my stuff, it’s hard to beat.
How about an Alcatraz escape that fits your racing style?
Escape from Alcatraz is a classic triathlon. It’s been around for 40 years, so basically it’s been around since the beginning of the sport. It’s an odd distance, going back to the roots where they didn’t care what was in the way. It’s like they designed the course to be as challenging as possible, and I love it. The race in the city is a scenic, and one of the most unique starts: jumping out of a boat in the middle of San Francisco Bay. I think if you go back and look at the many winners of Escape from Alcatraz, you’ll see people who have had great success in the sport. My goal is to win the race, but I also want to get out there feeling strong and having fun. If someone else is going to hit me, I want to have them bury themselves to do it.
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