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Alcatraz triathlon on Bemidji man's bucket list

BEMIDJI - On Sunday, a Bemidji man will attempt to do something that many prisoners likely contemplated during the 1950s: escape Alcatraz.

Ryan Welle, 31, has been training for the ESCAPE Alcatraz Triathlon, a iconic race that throws athletes from a ferry off the shore of the island for a 1.5 mile swim through the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay, a 18-mile bike ride along the California coast and a eight-mile run through the trails of the Golden Gate Recreational Area.

Why is he racing such a physically taxing race?

Because he ran his first triathlon a few years ago and since has become addicted to the sport.

"You kind of have those bucket list races that you would like to do one day," Welle said. "This is one that myself and my brother (Scott) kind of picked out in hopes of doing it together one day."

Welle, a Bemidji State University football player from 2000 to 2002, started competing in triathlons about four years ago because he was looking for a competitive outlet and a way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. He stumbled into triathlons because it is a unique individual sport that does not require a team and it allows him to train on his own time.

Since running his first, triathlons have become part of life for Welle, who competes in several different races each year. He trains for an average of 10-12 hours per week while balancing his job at First National Bank Bemidji and spending time with wife and daughter (with another child on the way).

"I have to keep this stuff into perspective," Welle said. "I am not getting my pro-card anytime soon. Everything else still has to take precedence over my training as much as sometimes I don't want it to."

He may not be getting his pro-card, competing with the defending ESCAPE Alcatraz Triathlon champion Andy Potts and the rest of the professional athletes, but he has competed well in local triathlons, including finishing second in the 2010 Paul Bunyan Triathlon. Welle said he has never been to San Francisco and does not know how he is going to handle the elements, but he is hoping to finish the race in less than 2 hours and 30 minutes, excluding the transition times between the disciplines.

The most daunting part of the race is the swim, which at a mile and a half, is nearly a half mile longer than the Olympic distance triathlon he is used to, Welle said. With more than 2,500 athletes entering the bitter 50-degree water within five minutes, navigating through the traffic while coping with numb limbs is going to be a challenge, he said.

"When you swim in a pool for however long, say you swim a mile straight, you always have that black line underneath you and you always know where you are going," Welle said. "When you get in the open water you have to figure out how you can sight through while moving with people all around you. It is like anything, the more you do it the easier it becomes."

As part of Welle's training, he swims twice a week at Bemidji High School's morning lap swim. He said there is really no way to prepare for the elements of the San Francisco Bay, but he planned a few open water swims locally to try to expose himself to the colder water temperatures.

Welle said triathlon training requires attention to all three of the disciplines, and since he has no formal background in any of them he tries to bike, run and swim two to three times a week.

He also does brick workouts, which focus on two of the three disciplines, going from swimming to biking or from biking to running, simulating the transitions of the race.

Long term, Welle said he would like to compete at the World Championship Triathlon in Kailua-Kuna, Hawaii, but he knows it is a huge commitment.

With family responsibilities, Welle said he does not have to time to dedicate himself to compete at the level he would want to. But he has a few more races on his bucket list, including the New York City Triathlon, which he said could be next year's big race.

getting started

Welle has a number of triathlons under his belt, each of which has been equally as exciting for him as the last.

While he likes high-tech equipment and gear, Welle said people who want to run a triathlon for the first time do not need anything special.

"When I first started I didn't have a special bike, I didn't have special shoes," Welle said. "I looked like a walking yard sale basically out there to compete. I had just as much fun then as I do now with more of the gadgets."

He said it is an easy sport to get into, just takes a little work and dedication to train.

"I would just say that it is not as bad as people kind of play in their mind," Welle said. "That first step is always the most difficult thing but once you make the commitment to it every time you get into the pool and it becomes part of your routine it is easier to stick with and you get addicted to it."

Bemidji resident Christel Kippenhan, and Neil King, a certified triathlon coach and finisher of the Hawaii Ironman, helped start the Headwaters Triathlon group.

The group is comprised of triathletes in the area. It was formed to promote the sport and help triathletes with their training. Kippenhan said the group is open to anyone.

To join the group, athletes of any skill level can contact or find the group on Facebook at