JP athlete escapes from Alcatraz


Jeffrey Ferris is disappointed at how long it took him to escape from Alcatraz.

Fighting the raging currents surrounding the prison island in frigid San Francisco Bay cost him time. But at least the sharks turned out to be tiny.

Then there were the rugged trails on the shore under the Golden Gate Bridge. “I should have worn shoes,” he confesses.

Ferris, of course, is not an escapee from the former California prison known as The Rock. The 52-year-old Jamaica Plain resident and owner of the local Ferris Wheels Bike Shop was a contestant in the grueling June 8 Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.

And while Ferris believes he could have shaved a half-hour off his 3 hour 45 minute course time, most people would be impressed he did it at all. The 27.5-mile race—a combo of swimming, bicycling and running—follows a tougher course than any run by actual prison escapees who died in their attempts.

“I have to say, it’s one of the hardest things I ever did,” said Ferris in a Gazette interview.

That is saying something coming from a JP community activist known for energy and endurance. Ferris’ idea of fun includes climbing the tower of First Church in Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist to wind the historic clock. In summer, he can often be found cleaning up local parkland; in winter, his seasonal beard coated in icicles, he is a familiar presence around the neighborhood with his hands-on snow-shoveling business.

Ferris has had a far more serious challenge before, too. “I’ve been doing triathlons for a dozen years, with a couple of years in the middle for leukemia,” he says casually.

It was post-race fatigue in 2001 that was his first symptom of the cancer. “My recovery times were getting longer and longer,” he said.

Somewhat like champion bicyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, Ferris successfully battled the leukemia and returned to athletic competitions.

Ferris has been a bicyclist for decades. But for many years, his
bike was just a mode of transportation, not competition. When he turned 40 in 1995, he said, he realized that wasn’t enough exercise.

“My body was falling apart,” he said. So he began biking more seriously and mixing in other forms of exercise, too. That led to a realization: “I’m biking, running, swimming—I might as well do a triathlon.”

Triathlons are endurance races that combine all three of those activities. The most famous—and one of the longest and most brutal—is Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon. The most extreme version is the “double deca ironman,” a triathlon 20 times longer than the normal Ironman, covering hundreds of miles and lasting weeks. The world’s top “Ironman” is actually a woman, Germany’s Astrid Benohr, who holds the world-record time in the deca ironman.

Ferris competes in less extreme triathlons, but no version is ever a picnic. He recently won his age category in two in-state triathlons.

“I got a little overconfident,” Ferris said. That got him looking at higher-profile races, including Escape from Alcatraz. To his surprise, he won a lottery system that lets unranked triathletes join the race.

Despite its name, the San Francisco triathlon does not actually begin on Alcatraz Island. Instead, athletes leap from the deck of a boat near the prison island’s shore. They then swim 1.5 miles in the 55-degree waters to the San Francisco coast.

Like most competitors, Ferris wore a wetsuit for that part of the race, though three especially macho racers did not, he said.

Once on shore, the competitors bike 18 miles into Golden Gate Park. That is followed by an 8-mile run in the area of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The gravel paths of the running course took Ferris by surprise. That is because of his unusual practice of running barefoot.

“My knees used to hurt when I wore running shoes,” Ferris said, explaining that going without shoes was the obvious solution.

“It’s more fun. It’s tactile. You feel the earth move beneath your feet,” he said. “It’s different, too. That’s got appeal to it.”

The soles of his feet are now “like good leather,” he said.

But that wasn’t enough protection for the trails in Escape from Alcatraz. As the only barefoot runner, he was at a disadvantage and wound up trying to run on tiptoe.

While he wasn’t happy with his time in the race, he made the most of the trip. A native of the San Diego region, Ferris had the trip double as a family reunion. He said he also visited old friend Bill Taylor, the founder of the urban forestry organization EarthWorks, which is active in local tree-planting.

Ferris has run his bike shop for more than a quarter-century, and bicycling seems to be the activity still nearest his heart. He not only explains how he shipped his disassembled bike out to California, but eagerly gives the make and model: a 20-speed Fuji Aloha time-trial bike.

He plans to once again host his annual Tour de France bike race viewing party at the Jeanie Johnston Pub next month. Better still, he will see part of the race in person when he visits a friend in the Pyrenees mountain range, and will bike some of those challenging roads himself.

Ferris also plans to organize a community biking event in the fall to celebrate the repaved Centre/South streets—where the former, aging trolley tracks were an infamous bicycle hazard—and to encourage biking as alternative transportation.

“I’ve been waiting 26 years for the price of gas to hit four bucks a gallon,” he said.

More triathlons are in his future as well.

A few days after the California race, walking his dog on South Street and wearing his official Escape from Alcatraz shirt, Ferris still looked a bit worn out.

But the next weekend, he plunged right into another, makeshift triathlon. He started by biking with his wife, Anne McKinnon, to the Charles River, where he joined in a 1-mile swim. Then he hopped over to Charlestown for an 8-kilometer running race. He proudly noted that he averaged a 7.5-minute mile in that day’s activities.

Ferris also wants another shot at The Rock.

“I was a little overcome by this one,” he said. “I hope to go back and overcome it.”

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