The morning fog rolled across the San Francisco bay, shark infested waters hummed below, and 2000 of the best triathletes in the world tensed in anticipation to make the 6-foot dive. I asked myself, what am I doing here? The Fog Horn sounded!
Last year my son Austin began his battle with a rare type of blood cancer, APML Leukemia. Just weeks before his diagnosis Austin and I were watching the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon on TV. He got so excited watching the athletes swim, bike, and run. Austin said with a voice full of pride; “Dad you can do that!" I responded, “Sure I could buddy,” knowing deep down if I were ever going to accomplish something like that there were a few obstacles I would have to overcome.
I am no stranger to endurance events however they have all been foot races. I had not ridden a bike since boy scouts nor swam in over a decade. In regard to the swim the race director states, “Triathletes face the risks of strong currents, treacherous 55 degree waters and two-ton sea lions. This is for serious participants.”
The popularity of the race has grown such that getting an invitation is extremely difficult. The only way to get an invitation is to have a professional athlete status or place a top finisher in another high profile triathlon neither of which I could ever dream of accomplishing anytime soon. For everyone else it’s a lottery drawing where they guarantee two individuals from each state.
The moment Austin and I shared watching the event on TV played over and over in my mind as we spent months up at Primary Children’s Hospital. It was one of the last good moments I held on to and longed to experience again with my son. Austin responded incredibly well to the treatments, his cancer has gone into remission and we were able to return to our home in Eagle Mountain. I knew we would once again have the opportunity to play catch, tell bedtime stories, and watch Saturday morning sports. However after watching Austin summon strength beyond his years I wanted nothing more than to be a REAL hero for Austin as he had been for me. I put my name in the lottery to compete and hoped I would be one of the two names they would pick to come from Utah.
“Congratulations!” the e-mail stated. I had been accepted into the Escape from Alcatraz event. I couldn’t believe it!
The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon is the most popular triathlon in the United States. The race is extremely unique. Athletes jump off “The Rock,” the now vacant federal penitentiary (or the San Francisco Belle ferry boat close by the island depending on tides), and swim 1.5 miles in 55 Degree, shark infested water to San Francisco. After a short warm up jog individuals ride 18 miles through the hills of San Francisco to finish the race running 8 miles through the sandy beaches of the Bay Area.
It was time to train. My focus quickly became the bike and the swim. Epic Biking sponsored me a road bike, and Eagle Mountain’s own cycling club ‘Votex Cycling’ managed by David Hoffman immediately took me on as a project. Time in the saddle, technique, and fitness would all be crucial to conquering those killer hills. Gleaning swim technique from any place I could find it, time in the pool and open water swims in Utah Lake were all things that would prepare me for survival in the grueling escape.
The race would start with a foghorn, it sounded loud and clear, and reminded me of all my training. I remembered my son, I knew why I was there, and I jumped into the icy cold 55-degree water. Immediately I noticed two things; the cold, it took my breath away, and the salt, I should have closed my mouth. Without hesitation I began to stroke away from the San Francisco Belle ferry boat avoiding the hundreds of athletes jumping into the water.
About half way between Alcatraz Island and the water exit I thought about Austin and the rest of my family, I rotated over and took one last look back at the island and then turned to the south and saw the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge, a rush of excitement and gratitude filled within me … that I would be able to experience such an amazing moment seemingly miles from nowhere in an oceanic wasteland overwhelmed the senses. I did however experience fleeting moments of anxiety; mostly dealing with questions like, what lay beneath me in darkness? Would I return my head to the water from catching a breath and discover a shark in my face? Fortunately these thoughts led me to swim faster.
Thousands of cheering individuals lined the beach as I exited the water and made my way to transition. Helmet, glasses, water, Gu, bike. I was underway, 18 miles and a lot of sweat; the San Francisco hills had taken their toll. Would I have enough energy to finish the 8-mile run? Back in transition I imagined running down the finishing shoot knowing my family and Austin would be looking on. Of course I would continue. The most notable feature of the run came at Baker Beach where 400 log steps climb over 1000 vertical feet all in the sand. As I struggled up those steps there was an overwhelming pain in my muscles and burning in my lungs, this connected me with Austin in a very real way as I imagined the pain and burn he experienced through chemotherapy if he could conquered a feat of such grandeur then surely I could do something as simple as get up some steps, I pushed on for 8 miles. After which I turned the final corner and ran across the finish line throwing my arms in the air triumphantly.
When asked why I would do something so “crazy” more often than not I respond inside and think, "Why not?" I love the words that Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote in the book The Worst Journey in the World, which documented Sir Robert Falcon Scott's tragic expedition to the Antarctic. Those words are appropriate for this occasion. "What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. How much better has it been than lounging in too great comfort at home."
Austin showed me what it means to survive the most grueling test of human endurance and he did it all with a smile on his face and joy in his heart. This race was for Austin, I love you son.
Austin continues to enjoy complete and molecular remission from his APML Leukemia. To learn more about Austin’s courageous battle got to: www.spidermanfightscancer.com Aaron is currently co-owner and director for some of the states most popular triathlons; Salem Spring, Rock Cliff, Herriman, Utah Half, and Camp Yuba. For more information about the races go to: www.RaceTri.com
Photo Courtesy of www.racedayphoto.co photography by Matthew Ryan