Alcatraz. The island which once housed the nation’s most secure federal prison, home to many dangerous criminals. During the prison’s years of operation, no criminal ever successfully completed the plunge into the frigid waters surrounding Alcatraz to escape. However, around two decades after the prison shut down, athletes received the opportunity to undertake this daunting task through the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon — proving that it is indeed possible to swim from Alcatraz and survive.
In this grueling race, not only do athletes swim the freezing one and a half miles to shore, but also endure an 18 mile bike ride through Golden Gate Park and on The Great Highway, then finishing off with an eight mile run to the Marina Green in San Francisco.
Sophomore William Dougall gained interest and participated in this race for the first time last year at the young age of 14. Dougall had spent a lot of time swimming as a member of Palo Alto High School’s junior varsity water polo team, but did not have much experience with triathlons otherwise.
“I was swimming a lot as a member of the Paly JV water polo team, but had never even thought of a triathlon,” Dougall said. “This was going to be a challenge. At 14, I became their youngest participant and the youngest athlete in the whole triathlon.”
Dougall put in countless hours of exhausting preparation and training in the months leading up to the triathlon. However, he was not in the race for the physical aspect alone. By the time Dougall wanted to participate in the race, the period to register for the normal lottery selection had passed and the only way to get in was to have a charity sponsor him. He ended up selecting a charity that raises money for cancer research, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) to be his sponsor.
“After thorough research, I concluded the MMRF was the best group out of the candidates,” Dougall said. “The MMRF would pay half of my $400 entrance fee if I pledged to complete the triathlon and raise a minimum of $1500 for their charity.”
Founded in 1998, the MMRF is now the world’s leading funding organization for various types of blood cancer. Since then, the MMRF has raised over $210 million. They use over 90 percent of their funds to spearhead innovative treatments to prolong the lives of those living with blood cancers, which will hopefully lead the way to potential cures.
The mission of the MMRF hit home with Dougall, as his grandfather suffers from three types of cancer, including blood cancer.
“[My grandfather] has faced countless rounds of chemotherapy, surgeries and radiation,” Dougall said. “We all know there is no cure for cancer, but there are private nonprofits like the MMRF that dedicate themselves to raising money for research to help find new treatments and drugs to fight cancer. The MMRF specializes in blood cancer, which is one of the three cancers that is destroying my grandfather’s life.”
As a result, Dougall put in twice the amount of work the average athlete would put into this triathlon — he did not just prepare physically, but also spent long hours volunteering with the MMRF to solicit donations, educate others and gain attention for the MMRF’s mission as well.
“I spent my hours educating people about the mission of the MMRF, what they do, why they do it and their successes. I reached out, made calls, made myself vocal… [I] created a fundraising website and posted training updates on Facebook, and sent solicitation emails,” Dougall said.
Fundraising was no easy task and turned out to be quite the learning experience for Dougall.
“I had to work for every dollar,” Dougall said. “Soliciting funds was much harder than I had anticipated. While most people were willing to listen to me evangelize about the charity and why the MMRF did important, life changing work, not so many were willing to donate. I learned that while my grandfather’s story is tragic, almost everyone is facing some struggle, personal or health related.”
Once the day of the race came, Dougall was ready not to just race for himself, but to race to raise money for the MMRF and in honor of his grandfather. That day, not only was Dougall the youngest competitor, but he also won his age group, raised around $6000 for the MMRF and got the opportunity to speak to fellow athletes about the work of the MMRF.
“It was a very rewarding experience,” Dougall said. “Working with the MMRF and competing alongside Olympians and weekend warriors of all ages from all over the world, it felt great.”
Due to complications, Dougall’s grandfather was not able to stay at the triathlon and watch him. Regardless, Dougall knew his grandfather was rooting for him and that he was proud of him.
“I could feel him cheering me on,” Dougall said. “I wore a belt with a phone [that] used a chip to track my progress realtime so he could watch me on a map on a laptop from the hospital.”
Nearly a year later, Dougall’s plans are still the same. This year, with the triathlon set to take place in June, he will again be the youngest competitor in the race and is still working with the MMRF to raise funds. He encourages everyone to donate to the MMRF, and has recently set up a webpage where people can donate directly to his campaign.
This year, Dougall aims to raise at least $5000 for the MMRF, if not more. He hopes to keep contributing to groups and charities such as the MMRF that impact the world in a positive way and help those who are less fortunate continuing to search for a cure.
“I’m so happy I get to do my part and help other people in need,” Dougall said. “To me every penny counts and every person that cares makes a huge difference.”

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