What’s pushing 2,000-plus athletes from over 50 countries to San Francisco for the 40th annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon (EFAT) on Aug. 15—one of the most unique and grueling swim-bike-run races on the pro triathlon tour?
The usual healthy mix of spirit, grit, and determination with a dollop of straight-up masochism.
But only one competitor in the crowd (that we know of) has also been curiously drawn to this event—which begins with a cold, current-churned, 1.5-mile swim across San Francisco Bay from the famous former offshore prison—to finish what his suspected Alcatraz inmate ancestor started.
“According to my mom and my grandmother, I’m a direct descendant of Arthur Barker, a convicted criminal who tried to escape from Alcatraz back in the 1930s,” says triathlete Ronnie Troyn, who felt a faint familial tug when first hearing about the race on Instagram. “It just immediately struck me as this incredible challenge—but also a very cool opportunity to get back into family stuff that I’d heard about and really didn’t pay much attention to when I was younger. As a kid playing water polo, I had no idea who Arthur Barker was—or even who his mother was.”
Arthur Barker’s mother was infamous, Depression-era crime figure Ma Barker, often described as the ruthless matriarch of the Barker-Karpis gang (which included two of her sons) and one of the most notorious public enemies of her time.
Not everyone in the Troyn family was so eager to revisit this Barker link—which the triathlete admits gets a little fuzzy in a family tree gnarled into a series of cryptic name changes. Curiously, right at the top of Troyn’s tree sits Captain James Ketchum, a famous 19th-century Native American chief from the Delaware tribe.
“I think my grandma was always embarrassed about the Barker end of the family name and all those movies out there about her, like Bloody Mama,” says the 46-year-old, Southern California-based retired military veteran, who explains the connection to us this way: “According to family papers handed down to me, my grandmother Elizabeth’s mother Neva Farrington was Arthur Barker’s daughter…and therefore Ma Barker’s granddaughter.”
Troyn didn’t expect to be talking to Men’s Journal about his suspected ties to Ma Barker (killed in a hail of FBI bullets at an Ocklawaha, Florida, hideout in 1935) or Arthur Barker (killed by Alcatraz guards while attempting to escape the prison in 1939) when he happened to mention this genealogical tidbit still in the process of being fleshed out to race organizers.
“I’ve just made my first payment for $16.50 to Ancestry.com,” he laughs. “Now I guess it’s time to do more digging and fill in some facts. These family lines that go back to the mid-1800s…they can spin you in circles.”
Troyn pushed himself to complete three qualifying events leading up to EFAT—including Ironman Arizona 70.3, which he calls both therapeutic and the second-most exhausting experience of his life.
“Iraq was the first. That’s the most tired I’ve ever been—and the hottest” says Troyn, whose 20-year army career includes five deployments after 9/11, including time spent in Kuwait and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan. “But I would say a very, very, very close second was doing a half-Ironman.”
How’s Troyn feeling about Sunday’s race in San Francisco—the Alcatraz-to-Marina dip in particular?
“Honestly, man, I’m looking forward to that swim,” says Troyn, who’s slimmed down from a beefy 230 pounds to a lean, muscled 180 since entering the triathlon world, and is open about being in “a very dark place” after some traumatic and heartbreaking military experiences overseas. “A lot of my friends are like, ‘Dude, aren’t you worried about the sharks and currents that move at the speed of Michael Phelps?’ I’m like, well I volunteered to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, so not that much.”
Troyn’s race goal is to crack four hours. His real goal though is just to take it all in—even if it costs him a few precious seconds.
“The real thing is, man—I’m alive. So during my swim, I’m gonna stop in the middle of the bay. I’m just gonna eggbeater and tread water for a little bit. I’m gonna look around in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Who in the world gets the chance to do that? I’m gonna honor that. Hopefully I won’t get in anyone’s way.”
Will Arthur Barker cross his mind when Ronnie Troyn makes his own historic crossing?
“Maybe,” he laughs. “I’m thinking about him a lot more than I was all of a sudden. I guess we’ll see.”
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