Disabled triathletes Brian Cowie, who is legally blind, and Meyrick Jones, with only one leg - "Escape from Alcatraz"
The San Francisco Belle, a massive, old-time ferry boat, doesn't so much drop the 2,000 competitors in the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon into the cold water of San Francisco Bay as it regurgitates them, wave after wave, into the green swells.
It was breezy and chilly and overcast as the 2,000 took their leaps of faith off the ship's deck. Most of them were geared up mentally to battle the conditions and the aura of Alcatraz, steeling themselves to kick the Rock's ass. Brian Cowie and Meyrick Jones had a different approach.
"I've been dreaming about this swim since I watched Clint Eastwood in 'Escape From Alcatraz,' " Jones said at the finish line. "I wanted it to kick our ass."
It did. Sort of. Swimming with the ghost of Frank Lee Morris (the escaped prisoner who inspired Eastwood's character), Meyrick and Jones fought through the chop that makes it difficult to breathe, and to locate the landing beach. They battled the swirly currents that push hundreds of swimmers off-course in the 1.5-mile swim.
But Cowie and Jones had something the other 2,000 didn't have. They had each other.
Cowie, 61, is legally blind. Jones, 40, runs on a carbon-blade prosthesis, having lost his right leg below the knee in a 1995 cable car accident. For the swim and the finishing 8-mile run, the two men were tethered together, like escapees from a chain gang. For the 18-mile bike race, the two guys from Vancouver rode a tandem bike.
They finished in 3 hours and 31 minutes, somewhere in the great middle of the pack, almost an hour and a half behind the superstars. Andy Potts, a triathlon pro from Colorado Springs, won his sixth Escape in 2:04.21, 38 seconds ahead of Bevan Docherty. Sarah Haskins of Florida was the fastest woman, at 2:17.42.
"This is my favorite race," said Potts. "There is a mystique to it, for sure."
For sure it's a grand tour of San Francisco's northwest coast, from the Bay swim to the bike ride through Golden Gate park and the hills along El Camino del Mar, to a run on Baker Beach and up the killer 400-step sand ladder, to the finish at Marina Green.
The pros did less scenery-soaking, there was money to be made. Everyone else was there for the joy derived from beating your body like a government mule, and they had more time to enjoy the view.
It's a rough race. Superman, or a fellow competing in a killer Superman suit, took more than three hours. Some Superman.
"There's a lot of kryptonite in the air," he told me.
The elite men and women made the swim look easy, they hit the beach flat-out sprinting, led by Potts. As the middle folks and back-of-the-packers pulled themselves out of the water, many were staggering and reeling, and the Olympian physiques of Potts and Haskins and their elite friends give way to a vast array of body types, making you realize that iron will and guts come wrapped in a lot of odd packages.
Potts gives off a Buzz Lightyear vibe, and he offered me a working game plan for the Escape.
"Don't let the fear of the events overwhelm you," He said. "Be in the moment, embrace the fact that you're here."
Nobody followed that plan better than Meyrick and Jones. Nineteen years ago, Aug. 17 1995, Jones was a college student visiting San Francisco with his girlfriend. They wanted to tour Alcatraz first, but it was booked, so they hopped on a cable car.
They were on the way back from Fisherman's Wharf when a driverless cable car got loose and rolled silently out of the car barn, crashing into their cable car. Jones remembers he was gazing into the Bay when the cars collided with no warning.
As part of his rehab, he started working out a bit, and entered some mountain-bike races. He liked the idea of running, so he risked $15,000 on a runner's blade, "Even though I didn't know if I would run."
Jones became a fitness freak, and now he makes his living coaching coaches who coach runners and triathletes.
Jones met Cowie, a long-time Canadian paralympic cyclist, during training for a cross-country ski race. Cowie, who has only peripheral vision, needs a partner to compete, and what better partner than another challenged jock? Their first triathlon together, Jones was recovering from viral pneumonia. Their next, Cowie was recovering from the same.
"We kind of took turns dragging each other," Jones said.
Now they drag one another up and up. They are aware of being poster boys for can-do.
"Triathlons have a special place in disabled sports," Jones said. "There's an element of, 'If I can do this, I can do anything.' "
Jones hadn't been back to San Francisco since the accident that took his leg. As soon as he and Cowie hit town Friday they went to the site of the cable car crash. Jones said he thought he had long since rid himself of emotional baggage from the accident, but as they neared the scene it all rushed back, and he broke down in tears.
Saturday the two teammates toured Alcatraz, and Saturday night they watched a documentary about the island federal prison.
"We've been soaking it up," Jones said.
Sunday it soaked them up. And maybe 100 times during the race, other competitors, in various ways, expressed their admiration and support.
"I don't know if I would have had the power to inspire people had I not had the accident," Jones said.