Firefighter Rob Verhelst ran the marathon of the 2011 Ironman Wisconsin in full gear and has since repeated that awareness effort in 9 other full distance events and a few Halfs. But Fireman Rob is not yet done.
Slowtwitch: It is good to chat with you Rob.
Rob Verhelst: Thanks for the platform to spread the message.
ST: Most of us in the triathlon world have now either seen you in action live or in pictures, or at the very least heard of you, and that is something many professionals can't claim. Is that a bit strange to you?
Rob: It is a bit strange and humbling to have this wide reach through such a vast and amazing community. The triathlon world is an eclectic group of individuals and I am very proud that the message of inspiration has traveled through many different avenues to reach all of these people.
ST: When you first set out to participate in Ironman Wisconsin and decided to handle the marathon in your firefighter kit, we assume that you meant that as a one-time effort.
Rob: That is very true. I did it in July 2011 in Racine for the 70.3 to test it out for Ironman Wisconsin in September 2011. These were going to be the two times and then I was to be done. Although, after 2011 IM Wisconsin, the mission and message was so well received that we had to reassess that idea. This affected so many people that day that there was an opportunity to create a buzz and inspire others to do the same and be part of something bigger than themselves.
Thus, the Fireman Rob persona was created and manifested into not just a mission but a mantra or symbol of what is possible when your strength is in your passion.
ST: Who actually first coined the term Fireman Rob?
Rob: That is a great question and I think it came about after the 2011 Ironman Wisconsin when my last name, Verhelst, is not the easiest to pronounce. Someone, I can’t remember who, suggested Fireman Rob and I stuck.
ST: Do you still work as a fire fighter?
Rob: I still work as a full time firefighter for the City of Madison, Wisconsin Fire Department. I have been with the department since October 2000 as a firefighter/EMT.
ST: Have you inspired any of your co-workers to try triathlon, in regular running gear of course?
Rob: It has been amazing the number of firefighter, police officers, and military members that I have talked with about their efforts in being part of something bigger by doing 5k to marathons to Ironman. There are many doing it in gear or doing it to support a cause. This is the most rewarding part of the past two years is being able to inspire and motivate others, along with being a part of this bigger brother and sisterhood of the civil service community.
ST: We know you were inspired by the events of 09-11, but what made you think that you ought to run/walk in full gear?
Rob: A lot of times people try to talk and tell you what is important or how things should be. Our family’s philosophy is different, in that, actions speak louder than words. This is what was behind the wearing of the full gear for the marathon portion of the Ironman races. It symbolizes the service, the strength and the pride that the fire service is about and I am yet one person of this great service with the honor of showing others in these competitions what is possible in this challenging world. The fire gear and symbolism of it brings up many different emotions to each individual and for that moment during the race, everything has a deeper meaning.
ST: By know, how many triathlons and stand alone runs have you done like that?
Rob: To date, I have done ten Ironman distance and three 70.3 distance races in full fire gear for the run portion. In 2013, there are seven Ironmans and three 70.3 distance races on the schedule.
ST: Was there any encounter before, during or after one of these events that touched you more?
Rob: Throughout this journey I have been moved by many different moments, people and experiences. Each race provides different challenges, different highs/lows, and different experiences. Through all these moments in times, there are memories made and character built. My favorite part of every race is not the finish but the last 10 miles of the marathon. I meet the most amazing people and get to hear their stories. This is also the time that I have to dig deep and I remember the support of my family and reasons for doing this. Your mind is the most valuable tool in your Ironman bag.
ST: Do you have an example of such an amazing last 10-mile person?
Rob: It’s hard to pick one that stands out, but one of the most memorable and critically helpful was Bonner Paddock. Bonner has cerebral palsy and is the founder of the OM Foundation. Bonner was doing the Ironman World Championships last year to raise funds and awareness to the foundation and prove to others with disabilities and those without that anything is possible.
Well, with about 3 miles to go from the finish of the race I was spent and knew I hadn’t seen Bonner yet. Lone behold right before the final hill on the Queen K, Bonner comes shuffling by me saying, “Rob, we’re going to do it…I’m sorry but I can’t stop or won’t be able to start again.” That made me laugh and smile in a time when I was feeling the pain. It gave me the start to get going and finish for those who can’t.
ST: With the heat and humidity in Kona, how much weight do you think you added in sweat and were able to keep yourself well hydrated?
Rob: Kona is a very challenging environment and the heat and humidity truly play games with you mentally. I was able to stay ahead of the hydration curve, yet the fire suit doesn’t have much wicking qualities. I actually don’t know how much the sweat and water from sponges adds to the suit, but one thing I do notice is the spots that start to become pressure points from the sweat drying and rubbing. The extra weight I can usually handle, as most triathletes know, it is the little irritations that cause the most problems. Water in the shoes, rubbing of the gear and other like things, thus you must be able to displace yourself from the environment to a better place mentally to keep going.
ST: How many raw spots did you have post race?
Rob: It is all dependent on the temperature and conditions of the race. Usually I have some raw spots on the hips and shoulders from the weight of the pack. Also, depending on the heat of the day, my feet swell throughout the race and also take a beating from the weight. I weight around 210 lbs on a normal day and with the gear I am carrying around about 260 lbs.
ST: Was Kona everything you had imagined?
Rob: I went into Kona with a realistic idea that this would challenge every part of my family, my mission and myself. Kona lived up to that and the rewards of the day and memories made from the whole experienced have created a greater drive and passion to continue. My family was amazing in the support and strength they showed throughout the week and race day. This makes the effort worth more and makes the pain and agony not as debilitating. Kona is a race that provides you with the most beautiful venue you can imagine, yet the course wants to make sure you appreciate the history and become part of it by challenging you at every turn. I believe Kona was not a culmination of the belief of the mission that your strength is in your passion, yet it was a loud and poignant affirmation.
ST: Did your family travel with you to Kona and are they along your side at most events?
Rob: My family is a critical component of the success of this mission. They are my rock of strength and love. When you set out to do something that others have never done or think is crazy, and the only response from your family when you tell them what you are doing is “we are behind you and will be there” you know you can do anything. Life is about surrounding yourself with positive, loving and supportive people that set you up for success, yet are there if you fall.
Fireman Rob is made of many different components and the biggest component is the family (TEAM) that creates the positive, inspiring message to everyone that we meet.
ST: Going to all these events is quite an expensive enterprise. How do you manage all that and do you get help?
Rob: The past two years have been very tough financially since in attempting something many don’t understand, the financial sponsorship was not available. I was working off of help from friend and family, as well as personal funds to facilitate this season. We all took a risk together with the thought that it is for a bigger purpose and that was it. This mission has transcended the true meaning of caring without limits from Code 3 for a Cure to close friends supporting me mentally and physically to finding my soulmate in Nicole to having the kids be a part of the mission to making my parents proud at every race. I feel like this is an Oscar speech were I will forget to thank people, but truly this is not an easy thing to do financially, physically or emotionally and without my support group I have, I couldn’t do it.
This year has been better with help in covering costs and we will continue to move forward to inspire others.
ST: We assume that folks don’t mind providing you with product, but that doesn’t pay for your entry fee, travel, lodging or food.
Rob: Very true. I work as a firefighter and just starting motivational speaking. I love supporting great companies with wearing product, but the costs of races are very high. The previous year’s were very challenging and left a mark. This year I have had some amazing companies help with providing support in covering some costs. I want to thank the follow companies for believing in the mission and message:
Power Test, Team Refuel, Endurance House Middleton, Quintana Roo, Newton Running, Scott Safety, Skin Strong, Cirrus Fitness, SBR Coaching, and the Ironman Foundation.
Every little bit helps and each company has done that. We are still looking for others who want to be part of this amazing mission if anyone is interested.
ST: Anything else we should know?
Rob: I just want everyone to know that in whatever you do from business to personal to fitness, make it a priority to enjoy and make the most what you do. Life is always challenging and with each day you choose whether it will be good or not. Every single person has something great in them, and it takes time and effort to find this greatness. When you find it, make it your passion, derive strength from it to accomplish and achieve your dreams while making others see what is possible.
You can contact Fireman Rob through his site firemanrob.com