DANVILLE -- Creighton Wong had not ridden a bike, or even really run, well into his adult years because of a congenital defect that leaves him with a right leg that ends mid-thigh and digits missing from both hands.

Ron Brown's appetite for fast food and, before that, booze and drugs left him barely able to tie his shoe without breaking a sweat a few years ago. "I couldn't even run around the block," he said.

Both will be doing a lot more than running around the block Sunday. Wong, a 37-year-old Oakland native now living in Danville, and Brown, a 53-year-old former drug addict from Oakley, will swim 1.5 miles in the frigid San Francisco Bay, bike 18 miles, and then run eight miles through the city as part of the 31st annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.

Wong, an insurance broker, learned to ride a bike a few years ago after setting his goal to become a triathlete. "The idea of running a mile continuously, I'd never come close."

Five of the 2,000 expected Alcatraz Triathlon participants have physical disabilities, including one who is blind, according to race organizers.

Brown, meanwhile, has overcome adversity of a different sort. He spent about two decades in the grips of alcohol and harder drugs before coming clean 16 years ago.

But that didn't mean he was fit. Goaded by his doctor's pronouncement that he was borderline obese and with a friend's encouragement, Brown joined a gym and bought a 30-speed road bike.

"When I first started, five miles felt like a lot. That's how out of shape I was," Brown said.


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But that didn't stop the then-49-year-old barber from bicycling four to five times a week right off the bat, and by year's end he ramped up his workouts to include 100 miles of cycling on weekends to train for the Death Ride, the 129-mile race in the Sierra Nevada that he has completed the past three years.

Sunday's Escape from Alcatraz course starts with a 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz Island to the Marina Green. Participants will next run a half-mile warm-up before an 18-mile bike ride that weaves through Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach before returning to the Marina.

Triathletes will then run an eight-mile course crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, taking on the sand of Baker Beach and returning to the Marina.

Wong said he played such sports as basketball and baseball as a kid, but those did not demand the skills needed for a triathlon. What inspired him to join the sport? Seeing Sarah Reinertsen, who in 2005 became the first woman with a prosthetic leg to complete the Ironman World Championship.

Though Wong started working toward the goal years ago, he did not start the competitions until about three years ago, first participating in some of the activities individually. He said this is the first year he has felt ready for the challenge.

This will be his first time participating in Escape from Alcatraz, and he hopes to qualify for the International Triathlon Union World Championship in Beijing.

The sport has presented financial, as well as physical, challenges for Wong.

Bike modifications, such as the placement of gear shifters and brakes to accommodate having two digits on his left hand and three on his right, can cost $500 to $1,000. He said he would not be able to compete without prosthetics specifically designed for the activities. A prosthetic leg for biking can run from $2,000 to $8,000, while one for running can cost $10,000 to $15,000.

While those are all custom-tailored, there are also constant adjustments when certain muscles develop and alter the fit.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "It's a constant struggle back and forth."

He wants to inspire young people with disabilities to pursue their interests in sports.

"The best way to deliver that message is to get out there," Wong said. "It's a little bit of a labor of love, to create these opportunities for the next generation."

Brown has done the Alcatraz swim twice and run the course of the foot race once, where he thinks the hardest part of the entire event will be making it up the 400 steps on the bluffs of Baker Beach.

"At my age, I'm just doing it for my own satisfaction," said Brown, a soft-spoken man with a small ponytail and a full sleeve of Christian-themed tattoos on both arms.

In January 2010, Brown added swimming to his regimen, began running around the same time, and at the suggestion of his swim instructor entered a mini-triathlon.

"I was hooked. Once you've done one, you get addicted," Brown said.

Contact Eric Louie at 925-847-2123. Contact Rowena Coetsee at rcoetsee@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-779-1741.

If you go
The 31st annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon will be Saturday and Sunday. There will be a free fitness festival and expo at the Marina Green near Marina Boulevard and Fillmore Street. The race will be Sunday, with the first swimmers hitting the water at 7:30 a.m.
For details, go to www.escapefromalcatraztriathlon.com or call 424-653-1900.