Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon
By Lynn DeBruin
June 12, 2009 (San Francisco, CA) – From the decks of a grand stern-wheeler, they’ll jump together into the choppy, chilly waters of San Francisco Bay, a shock-to-the-system start to the heart-pounding Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, set to take place this Sunday, June 14.
But while survival is the ultimate goal Sunday, the event also should prove a unique bonding experience for half-brothers David Wagner and Todd Thompson, who until 15 years ago never knew each other existed.
One grew up in the jungles of western Africa, raised by adoptive-parent missionaries in the rainforest until the family had to flee a military-led coup. The other was raised in the Rocky Mountains and escaped from his own past by shedding more than 100 pounds in time for his 30th birthday.
When the opportunity to compete together in one of the most infamous and extreme sporting events arose this year, Wagner and Thompson jumped at the chance.
“This will be the first time we’ve done anything, just the two of us,” said Thompson, an engineer who works for a medical device company in San Jose, Calif. “I’m excited about that. (Until now) there hasn’t been a lot of opportunities for us to hang out, and be engaged.”
The only question is whether they’ll be able to finish together, something Wagner, who lives in Parker, Colo., saw his friends Jeff and Nathan Betschart do last year.
“They caught up to one another on the run and ran the rest of the race together, and took in all the shared moments. That would be the ultimate,” said Wagner, who never had an older brother to pal around with growing up.
As first-timers at Alcatraz, they know the 1.5-mile swim, 18-mile bike race and demanding 8-mile run won’t be easy. But they’ve dealt with tougher adjustments in life.
On July 18, 2005, Wagner, at 6-0, weighed in at 325 pounds and decided it was time to change his life.
“I said I want to be under 220 by the time my birthday rolls around (March 31). So I figured out on the calendar I needed to average (losing) 3 pounds per week. I started working out, eating right,” he said of giving up fast food, eating lean protein and working out twice a day, five or six days a week.
He also made it a goal to compete in a triathlon after seeing one on television.
“When I first started, I couldn’t run a mile. But I built up from there,” he said.
By June 2006, he was completing his first triathlon; then it was on to the 100-mile Lance Armstrong cancer ride and Boulder’s 5430 series sprint the following summer. Last year, he entered the Ford IRONMAN triathlon in Arizona, finishing just under the cutoff while battling heat stroke but finishing nonetheless.
“I (keep) a picture of me on my fridge,” he said of the guy with the 46-inch waist in jeans that now could cover his entire torso.
Now Wagner climbs 14ers and has biked up 14,000-foot Mount Evans Highway. He even went skydiving, something instructors refused to allow before because he was deemed too heavy.
“I’ve taken the ‘can’t’ out of my life,” said Wagner, a procurement specialist who hopes prospective employers also will see his drive as he tries to find new work after being let go earlier this year.
Thompson, 10 years older at age 43, says he’s been “blown away” by what Wagner has been able to accomplish.
“I’ve always been in reasonable shape…and for me to do something like this just requires that I spend a little more time exercising,” he said. “But David had a very different challenge to work through. Who knows what was going on in his head during those times, but for him to do what he’s done is just plain impressive to me.”
Of course Wagner is amazed at the life Thompson once led after their mother put him up for adoption when she was just a teen.
Thompson’s adoptive parents were missionaries, and shortly before his fifth birthday, they moved the family from Montana to Liberia, where his adoptive father would work as a linguist and language translator.
They’d start out in the capital city of Monrovia, which at the time was reasonably modern. But after a year, they moved to a tiny village of 17 houses, with no airport and the nearest road a three-day walk. After landing on a grass airstrip, they walked several hours through the jungle to the village.
They lived in a mud house, with no electricity but with modern amenities such as a kerosene refrigerator and propane stove.
“When you’re 5, you just go wherever you go,” Thompson said. “I don’t remember it being a big deal.”
He’d play in the jungle with his friends and hunt with a pellet gun from his bedroom window.
Though he remembers only a few phrases, his parents tell him he was fluent in the made-up language his father taught the natives.
In 1980, when a military-led coup overthrew the government, Thompson’s mother on several occasions hid him and his adoptive siblings in the closet.
“I was 14 at the time and probably didn’t fully appreciate the risk or danger we were in. My parents were afraid, especially my mom,” he said.
The biggest risks were drunken soldiers who suddenly had a lot of power and no one to rein them in. As they sought money, they frequently looked to the wallets of ex-patriots. To that end, Thompson’s father several times found himself at the door negotiating to keep his family safe.
They’d eventually be evacuated by the U.S. Embassy – the start of a new transition for a teenage Thompson.
“It was huge,” Thompson said of making the change from life in the jungle to school in San Jose, Calif. “It was (more of) a cultural thing. I grew up in the jungle, so I dressed somewhat like the natives.”
To paint a picture, he said, “I was wearing tie-dye when tie-dye wasn’t cool anymore.”
Plus, having never been exposed to TV and other things American teens saw, Thompson felt odd.
“I was a pretty shy kid. It took me quite a number of years – probably the end of high school and beginning of college – to where I was coming into my own,” he said.
At 27, when he prepared to marry, he sought out medical information from his birth mom, while his fiancée urged him to go a step further and contact her.
The adoption agency found her in Colorado, with just one phone call.
Still, Thompson remembers sitting on his couch, watching the clock tick away, inching closer to the time his birth mom was to call.
“I remember being very nervous and not sure what to say except, ‘Hello, how are you?'” he recalled.
Wagner, meanwhile, was seated in the family dining room with his older sister when their mom revealed the shock of his life – that he had a brother. He was 17 at the time.
“It was pretty crazy. I kind of always wished I had a brother growing up,” he said.
With Thompson so much older – living in another state and eventually married with young children – building on that relationship was tough.
“Maybe this will be the beginning where we’ll do more things together,” Thompson said. “I’m excited from that perspective. As you move on in life, it’s important to have those types of relationships. I’m very lucky to have two sets of parents.”
Though Thompson has a much smaller build (5-10, 165 pounds) than Wagner, there are similarities.
“We’re both bald,” he quipped, now shaving his head as Wagner has done for years.
That may not be enough for them to locate each other after the chaotic start with nearly 2,000 entrants splashing into the water from the decks of the San Francisco Belle. But the goal is simply to have both finish rather than necessarily hook up at the different stages.
“David has done more grueling races and has more experience,” Thompson said. “This is a reasonably big race for me. It’s a bit of a challenge and when you read about it – the run bringing pros to their knees and the swim start – it’s going to be interesting.”
Adding to Wagner’s worries are foot injuries that have slowed his training. Still, he’s excited about yet another challenge in his life.
“The Escape from Alcatraz is one of those bucket-list races. If you can get in and do it, it’s one of the best races out there,” Wagner said.
That’s where the final twist comes into play.
Wagner entered in December through a lottery system and secured a spot, then urged Thompson the next day to sign up for the February lottery.
When Thompson did, a computer glitch automatically secured his entry.
“He took it as maybe it was just meant to be,” Wagner said.
Taking the plunge together only adds to the thrill.
Lynn DeBruin, a former Rocky Mountain News sportswriter, is a freelance writer/photographer based in Denver.