Wis. firefighter out to break triathlon record

Attempting to break record for most Ironman distance triathlons completed in 1 year will raise awareness for firefighters battling cancer

By Carol Joseph
The Naples Daily News

NAPLES, Fla. — Robert Verhelst certainly knows how to attract attention. Last September, on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, he completed the 26-mile running portion of an Ironman triathlon wearing 50 pounds of full firefighter gear, including air tank and helmet.

This year, the 33-year-old Madison, Wisc., firefighter is hoping to attract even more attention for firefighters battling cancer by attempting to break the Guinness World Record for most Ironman distance triathlons completed in a single year, starting with the HITS Triathlon in Naples on Sunday.

The current Guinness World Record is 20 triathlons; Verhelst's goal is to complete 27 Ironman distance triathlons throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and possibly New Zealand. An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26-mile run.

"The record is neat, but it's not my ultimate goal," said Verhelst in a recent phone interview. "My ultimate goal is to raise awareness and to raise funds so that we can help more and more firefighters out there."

Verhelst, an 11-year firefighter, is undertaking this herculean feat on behalf of Code 3 for a Cure, a nonprofit public charity organization that provides emotional and financial support to firefighters who are stricken with cancer and their families.

Founded in 2008 by Lorenzo Abundiz, a 27-year veteran of the Santa Ana, Calif., fire department who has been diagnosed with cancer three times, Code 3 for a Cure also seeks to unite firefighters, and all people, in the fight against cancer by stressing the importance of early cancer screenings.

"The key to fighting cancer is to catch the enemy early," said Abundiz, the 58-year old president of Code 3 for a Cure.

According to the Code 3 for a Cure website, the risk of being diagnosed with cancer is higher among firefighters than the general population due to their high exposure to dangerous toxins. Yet proving their cancer is job-related and getting timely and proper medical care can be an uphill battle.

Abundiz explained that, for firefighters, Code 3 is the highest level of response to an emergency situation; thus the organization's name.

Verhelst, who spent eight straight days working at ground zero after the September 11 terrorist attacks, got involved with Code 3 for a Cure because he was looking for a foundation that had the same ideals that he had in terms of helping firefighters and individuals on the smallest of levels.

"It's a foundation that truly deals with the individual," said Verhelst. "When a loved one is lost, a lot of times research money doesn't help them with their immediate needs."

Code 3 for a Cure does things like handing out Christmas presents to children who have lost a firefighter parent to cancer, helping out with medical bills, and offering emotional support.

However, because they are strictly volunteer and not fully functional yet, much of their work so far has involved raising awareness through their annual Mission of Hope and Honor in which active and retired firefighters diagnosed with cancer drive a fire truck across the country to visit local fire departments and share their stories.

"Firefighters are a special breed and even to their last days on earth, they want to help," said Abundiz, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and forced into an early medical disability retirement in 2001.

Since meeting Abundiz and getting involved with Code 3 for a Cure, Verhelst says that this is now part of his life's mission. "This is my calling. This is something that I'm supposed to do."

He hopes to raise $650,000 for the foundation this year as he attempts to complete all 27 Ironman triathlons, most of them in firefighter turnout gear, and set a new Guinness World Record. Self-described as a guy who "likes to shoot really high," Verhelst feels confident that he'll reach his goals.

"I think I have more of an advantage than any other triathlete because it's not just myself that I'm trying to do this for. I'm trying to do this for a lot of different firefighters and I can't let them down," Verhelst explained. "It's not an option."

Abundiz, who called Verhelst a "walking symbol of strength, courage and determination," is grateful for all that he is doing for Code 3 For a Cure. "Thank God that we've got Robert on board. I think his efforts are going to save lives."

Not only is Verhelst bringing awareness and attention to the cause, but he's also traveling and competing at his own expense, along with some help from some close friends and supporters.

"I like this foundation because it's a family," Verhelst explained. "Everybody gives."

Verhelst said he also appreciates the support that the North Naples fire department has given Code 3 for a Cure in getting ready for this weekend. "It really shows the true brother and sisterhood that the fire department has."

To learn more about Code 3 for a Cure or to follow Verhelst in his quest to set a new world record, visit code3foracure.org.

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