SIXTEEN AND A HALF HOURS of gut-wrenching physical, mental and emotional depletion culminated in one triumphant moment on the shores of Kona, Hawaii, in 2005. Jon Blais log-rolled across the Ironman World Championship finish line and heard the immortalizing words “You are an Ironman!”
Relatively few complete the grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run to earn such distinction. Accomplishing the feat while suffering the early debilitating symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is practically unthinkable.
The 35-year-old Blais tackles the seemingly impossible every day. After overcoming his own battles with learning disabilities, he became a special-education teacher and taught for 10 years, five years at Aseltine School in San Diego. The obstacle of low self-esteem was stomped out on mountain climbs, where Blais empowered students to experience the satisfaction of accomplishment. Learning disabilities evolved into opportunities to break down poetry and connect with universal, transcendent human themes.
So when Blais noticed his arms, shoulders and chest twitching in 2004, he shrugged it off, blaming pinched nerves from endless training hours. By January 2005, significant muscular wasting in these regions convinced him something more was happening.
The diagnosis: ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The insidious progressive neurodegenerative disease affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, slowly shutting down the body's muscular and neurological functioning, while cruelly keeping the mind intact.
"It's tragic that my doctors gave me the same prognosis they gave Lou Gehrig 70 years ago: 'Go home and get ready to die,'" says Blais.
Realizing the implications of his disease, Blais left his beloved students at Aseltine and moved in with his parents, Bob and Maryann. Determined to fight to the end, however, he quickly set his sights on the Ironman championship that October.
Between May and October, Blais' symptoms worsened so much that his body would not let him train for the race. But on October 15, he stepped to the start line, physically lacking yet completely prepared. Blais won another incredible personal battle that day and become the only athlete with ALS to complete an Ironman race. He established a Web site to document his journey, alswarriorpoet.com, named for a line in his favorite movie, Braveheart: "Today, we fought like warrior poets!"
Aseltine School executive director Hayden Thomas attests to that fighting spirit. "He's a legend around here," he says. "Many other people would have folded, but he leads by example with such strength. We're loyal soldiers in Jon's army."
Blais' battalion marches nationwide February 10 with the second annual ALS Spin-a-Thon (see home.comcast. net/~banjodoggy/spinforals.html for details). Individuals, groups and teams gather in gyms across the country to cycle for 161.2 hours (Blais' Ironman finish time) to raise money and awareness for ALS research.
He will also be recognized as the Competitor of the Year at the 15th annual Competitor Endurance Awards dinner on February 3.
Bob Babbitt, publisher of the Solana Beach.based magazine, says, "The spirit of Competitor is competing with yourself and never giving up; no one exemplifies it like Jon. He is the epitome of patience, perseverance and class."