Amy Donaldson: Inspired by a friend with ALS, Colorado dad carries on the work of a stranger
Chris Stewart, AP
OGDEN — If you’re going to do something no one has ever done, you might as well do it to raise awareness about a disease that no one has ever beaten.
Brent Bieshaar never met Jon “Blazeman” Blais. But the Colorado man has carried on the work that Blais started in 2005, just a few months after the 33-year-old lifelong triathlete was diagnosed with ALS, a deadly, debilitating disease known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Bieshaar first heard Blais’ story during the 2005 Ironman world championships. It had been the Blazeman’s dream to compete at the world championships in Kona, Hawaii. That year, he was awarded a spot based on his inspiring story, and on Oct. 15, he became the first athlete to complete an Ironman with ALS.
The disease had already started to rob his body of strength and agility, and Blais couldn’t even grip a water bottle to hydrate himself. Instead, he drank through straws and wore hand grips. When asked what he might do if he couldn’t reach the end of the course, Blais said to just roll him across the finish line.
Blais finished the Kona course in a little more than 16 hours and 28 minutes, and instead of sprinting across the finish, he laid down and rolled across the timing mat. Other triathletes have performed this roll, including one who competed in his honor the following year, as a sign of solidarity, hope and to raise awareness about ALS.
Bieshar was so moved by Blais’ perseverance and determination that the first-year high school wrestling coach showed the video to his student-athletes. They loved it so much, they chose to wear a quote from Blais on their team T-shirts: “Face your fears. Live your dreams.”
Bieshaar didn’t start competing in off-road triathlons, XTERRA races, until 2010. It was during the 2012 season that he decided he might want to do something so difficult, no one had ever accomplished it.
“I decided to do a race every weekend of the entire season,” said the 48-year-old father of two. “Once I figured it out, I started looking for a reason to do it.”
He approached a couple of charities, but nothing moved him until he went to his 30-year high school reunion. He found out that one of his high school football and wrestling teammates, Don Young, had been diagnosed with ALS.
“I thought maybe this is what I should do it for,” he said.
It wasn’t until Dec. 27 that he tried calling the Blazeman Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for ALS research.
“The person who answered said, ‘Hello,'” said Bieshaar, who blogged with his wife about his experiences at xterraacrossamerica.com. “And I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I was trying to reach the Blazeman Foundation. I must have dialed the wrong number.’ And she said, ‘No, this is Jon’s mom.‘”
The family-run foundation was thrilled to have Bieshaar compete in support of Blazeman. He had his cause; he had his plan; and he had his first race in March.
Unfortunately, it was cancelled. The following week, March 24, he flew to North Carolina, where 51-degree water temperatures welcomed him.
“We got out of the water and it was 46-degree air temperature and pouring rain,” said Bieshaar. “It was miserable, miserable conditions.”
Another race was cancelled after a forest fire destroyed the wooden bridges on the trails, but after that his schedule went off pretty much as planned. He competed his 23rd race in 24 weeks with the XTERRA national championships at Snowbasin Resort this weekend, where he was also named 2013 Mr. XTERRA for his accomplishment.
There have been many special moments for Bieshaar this season, but one stands out among the others. The third race of the season, April 6, he competed in Southern California and Young came out to cheer him on.
When he got to the finish line, he pinned his bib number on Young and they both crossed the finish line with the Blazeman Roll.
“Today, less than six months later, he is completely confined to a wheelchair and can’t move,” said Bieshaar. “It just shows how fast this disease moves. He’s 49 years old.”
Bieshaar only has one more race this season, the XTERRA world championships in Hawaii in a few weeks. He said it has been immensely rewarding and educational.
“I learned that your limits are in your mind,” he said. “You can do anything you want. I always believed that. I always looked at why not rather than why. I learned that there are genuinely good people out there.”
In achieving his goal, Bieshaar proved that just because something hasn't been done, doesn't mean it's impossible. And the way Blais lived the final years of his life prove that beating a disease is as much about how you fight, as it is about finding a cure.
Blais was an athlete, a teacher and a poet, and his foundation’s website said he believed in ending a story with a quote. So in honor of Bieshaar’s accomplishment and generosity and the Blazeman’s fighting spirit, here are some final thoughts from Blais about the joy of living:
“Live more than your neighbors. Unleash yourself upon the world and go places. Go now, giggle, know and laugh. Bark at the moon like the wild dog you are. Understand this is not a dress rehearsal. This is it. Live your life. Face your fears and live your dreams.”
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