Diving into the bone-chilling, shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay to start the “Escape from Alcatraz’’ Triathlon might sound daunting, but not for someone like Derek Fitzgerald and what he’s been through.
The 46-year-old Doylestown resident has already survived a heart transplant operation and a bout with cancer, so what’s a little teeth-chattering swim with a “Jaws’’ soundtrack thrown in?
To be honest, Fitzgerald has already completed numerous Ironman competitions which are longer than this one, so he’s not a novice when it comes to grueling endurance tests.
But he will be the first to tell you that this Sunday’s “Alcatraz’’ has a special allure for athletes around the world.
Completing this one will add another gold star to a remarkable resume which would seem improbable at best, given his medical adversity.
His health trouble goes back to 2003 when he began to feel effects from digestive tract issues.
When doctors operated on him, they removed a grapefruit-sized tumor lodged in his intestines, confirming a non-Hodgkins lymphoma diagnosis.
He went through five rounds of chemotherapy in 2004 and was declared in remission.
One problem: His heart was adversely affected by the treatments and began to fail.
“Seven years later, I was propped up in a hospital bed, sleeping 23 out of 24 hours a day,’’ the Warminster native says.
Fortunately, a new heart was available. The transplant operation went well but the post-op didn’t. He contracted Type-II diabetes.
“But I was alive and grateful,’’ he says. “I figured I knew nothing about my donor but I wanted to take the opportunity to take care of myself and that was the least I could do to repay the gift of life that I had been given.’’
He started his comeback by running, first a 5K just eight months after surgery, followed by a half-marathon only two months later.
Soon, he took on the ultimate test and became the only heart transplant/cancer survivor ever to complete the Ironman.
“I bounced back from 128 pounds to about 170 and kicked diabetes in a few months,’’ he says. “That first race was rough but I finished.’’
He’s done more than 100 races now and events like Alcatraz add new challenges.
“Escape from Alcatraz is something I’ve been trying to get into for quite some time,’’ he says. “It’s such a popular race that it’s run through lottery.
“I just haven’t made the cut the last several years. But I was out there (vacationing in San Francisco) and I had just proposed to my fiancé, Erin, in Halfmoon Bay. That’s when I got the email saying I was in. It just seemed like it was meant to be.’’
Fitzgerald didn’t show any signs of becoming an Ironman athlete in his formative years.
He played soccer first at William Tennent High School and later North Penn High School. The whole swim-bike-run thing didn’t manifest itself until he reached age 30.
“I was one of those kids who couldn’t get above 145 pounds in high school and college,’’ he explains. “Then I started my career (he operates a firm whose mission statement is to improve quality of life through technology) and slowly crept up to above 200 pounds.
“Around then I felt pretty awful and I figured it was because of my weight. That’s when I started having issues with my stomach.’’
But he’s experienced good health now for nearly a decade and there’s no looking back.
“Everything that I did is just a phenomenon to me,’’ he says. “Now it’s just a matter of testing myself and seeing how far I can go. It’s just a complete attitude of gratitude.’’
He’s been to the top of the mountain (the World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii) and now it’s just a matter of perfecting his craft.
His company, Recycled Man (www.recycledman.com), is a cause dear to his heart and something with which he has had great experience.
“What we do is we try to help people who have gone through significant health challenges,’’ he says, “to improve their quality of life by helping them become more active.’’
He says he draws inspiration from his five-year-old daughter, Emma.
“When somebody asks, ‘why me?’ Why go through all this, all I have to do is look at my daughter,’’ he says. “And know I was meant to survive because she’s here.’’
Escape from Alcatraz consists of a 1.5-mile swim, an 18-mile bike and an eight-mile run.
There’s a good reason no jailbird ever escaped “The Rock’’ as the former maximum security prison was nicknamed – the cold water and rip currents (not to mention a few hungry Great Whites) made it virtually impossible without proper training and a wetsuit.
“Any time you get to jump off a boat into water that’s probably mid-50s (degrees), sharks in the water. . .they’re there. I just hope I don’t look like a tasty snack,’’ he says with a chuckle.
“Then you bike and run through the hills of San Francisco. What masochistic triathlete wouldn’t want to do all those things?’’
Certainly Fitzgerald wants to.
He’s been given a second chance in life and he’s making the most of it.
Dairy Air 10K/5K, 9 a.m., Doylestown. Contact www.scoogieevents.com
RunWalkBark4Dreams 5K, 9 a.m., Tyler State Park, Richboro. Contact www.runtheday.com
CB South Run 5K, 8 a.m., Warrington. Contact www.runsignup.com
No BULLying 5-Miler, 9 a.m., Doylestown Contact www.runsignup.com