Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Ironman: Rob’s journey out of the lava fields

Fireman Rob (Photo courtesy of Ironman)

By Carrie Barrett | Ironman

“Your strength is in your passion,” says firefighter Rob Verhelst.

He should know. His passion for helping families of firefighters has certainly been his strength.

A 23-year-old Madison, Wisc. firefighter, Verhelst responded to a call immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. He went to New York City following the event and spent eight days at Ground Zero aiding in the recovery and clean up of the devastation. Needless to say, the impact was life-long and profound.

“It was a moment of time when people put their egos and viewpoints aside to work for the common good,” he recalls. “The positive I can take away is to always move forward. No matter what obstacle you are faced with, no matter what mountains seem insurmountable,” he says.

This is the lesson that stuck with Verholst as the 10 year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks approached last year. He wanted to come up with a way to not only commemorate the anniversary, but also raise awareness and funds for “Code 3 for a Cure,” a non-profit founded by his friend Lorenzo Abundiz to support families of firefighters affected by cancer.

“A lot of people wear race kits to support and showcase their charity, but I wanted to go beyond. I wanted to push past my own limits,” he says.

Verholst competed in the 2011 Ironman Wisconsin just like 2000-plus other athletes.

For the marathon leg, however, he wore his full firefighter gear including helmet, jacket and tanks. This gesture of honor for the victims of 9/11 not only raised awareness- it raised more than $8,000 for “Code 3 for a Cure.”

Spectators were amazed and inspired by his symbolic act at such
an already grueling event. From that day forward, Verholst became known as “Fireman Rob.”

Verholst says that the sport is an amazing stage on which to promote his cause, because so many athletes and spectators already believe the Ironman mantra, “anything is possible.”

“These races bring out compassion and excitement in people that you can’t find anywhere else,” he says.

Verholst also loves Ironman because anyone can participate. People come from all walks of life, but are there for the same reason–to push their own limits and do something greater than themselves.

As a father of three, Verholst also believes that his mission is a good lesson for his children. “You can only tell them so many things, but take them to an Ironman, and there they can actually see what they can accomplish.”

This approach inspired Fireman Rob to make 2012 even bigger. This year alone, he has completed seven full Ironman distance races and two 70.3s, wearing the full firefighter gear for the run portion. He says that there have been some rough patches along the way, like when his asthma or bronchitis, from fighting fires all day, flares up during a race.

When the Kona Inspired contest was announced, Verholst had to throw his hat in the ring for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to spotlight his charity on Ironman’s biggest stage. Contest officials agreed and awarded him one of the slots.

Now, Fireman Rob is faced with the task of training for another kind of heat: the relentless Kona lava fields. As if fighting fires isn’t training enough, he does many of his workouts in weighted vests and plastic sweat suits to simulate the water loss he’ll experience.

He also cranks up the heat when he trains indoors. Clearly, it won’t be easy, but racing in Kona will be the highlight of his charitable endeavor so far, at least until 2013 when he sets his sights on motivational speaking and even more races.

“Being selected to race in Kona is affirmation that I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’m doing the right thing,” he says. “I also have a wonderful family support system and this event is to show them how much I love them and how much their support has meant to me.”

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