(CNN) — Joe Van Veldhuizen was 19 miles into his first Ironman. He had two hours left to complete the race, and only three miles to go in the 26.2-mile marathon.
Every muscle in his body ached, and the blisters on his feet were the size of a half-dollar. But Van Veldhuizen was determined to finish.
Completing the 2013 Ironman Coeur D’Alene would be the culmination of everything he had worked for.
Van Veldhuizen changed careers — from farmer to firefighter — 10 years ago when the dairy industry took a significant downturn. Being a firefighter meant spending a lot of time sitting around and eating while waiting for the alarm to sound. The 6-foot-tall Albany, Oregon, resident slowly began to put on weight.
By 2007, Van Veldhuizen tipped the scales at 250 pounds, which translated to a body mass index of 35. (Anything over 30 is considered obese.)
He knew he needed to get that number down. He felt he didn’t have the aerobic stamina to do his job well.
“The things that kill firefighters are cancer and heart attacks,” said Van Veldhuizen, now 45. “A lot of those heart attacks happen because people aren’t in as good of shape as they might be able to be.”
Losing weight wasn’t an easy thing for him, but he refused to take shortcuts. His mantra: take it slow and steady through incremental lifestyle changes — by cutting his portions and exercising more, instead of trying fad diets or using supplements advertised on TV.
For Van Veldhuizen, eating less was a big challenge. His solution? Record everything he ate on a nutrition tracking-app on his smartphone. That way he would also know how much time he’d have to spend at the gym that day.
His first weight loss regimen was modest: 20 minutes of cardio on the elliptical machine. He found the rotational motion was easier on his joints, especially in the knees and ankles. Slowly, he increased the length and intesity of his workout. A year later, he could do an hour on the elliptical nonstop. He did it at the highest resistance and incline setting two to three times a week. That helped him lose his first 15 pounds, and he felt like he was in much better shape.
After mastering that machine, he felt his joints could take it so he started running. That was in 2008.
A year later, Van Veldhuizen entered a 5K run, followed soon after by a 10K. Then a friend suggested he try a triathlon. He had been running, but he didn’t even own a bike. So he borrowed one and he also started going to the pool once a week. Eventually he was swimming every day.
By December of 2012, Van Veldhuizen had lost 40 pounds.
He says he couldn’t have reached his goals without the help of friends like Josh Gum. Gum encouraged Van Veldhuizen and trained alongside him. Gum was an Ironman veteran; for those uninitiated, an Ironman race consists of a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bicycle race, topped by a 26.2-mile run — all done in under 17 hours. Gum left impressed by Van Veldhuizen’s dedication.
“It was a remarkable experience for me seeing (Van Veldhuizen’s) progress,” Gum says.
Van Veldhuizen ran a half-Ironman in Sun River, Oregon, and then signed up for the Ironman in Idaho in 2013.
A true Ironman
“It took me 10 hours to do the bike and swim and get my clothes changed and those kinds of things. So I had 7 hours to do a marathon,” Van Veldhuizen says.
He felt good, but near the end of the race he encountered a serious bump in the road — or rather, a bump in his foot. Van Veldhuizen soon realized that what he thought was an irritating pebble in his shoe was actually a big red blister on his heel.
But he didn’t panic. Instead, he calculated the miles to go and the time left on the clock.
With seven miles to run before the finish line and three hours left, he decided to proceed the same way he tackled his weight loss journey — with caution.
“You don’t know what the next step brings,” says Van Veldhuizen. “All of a sudden you step a little funny on a pebble or you step into a pothole and now you’ve got a twisted ankle.”
Step after step, Van Veldhuizen moved toward his goal. Sixteen hours after he began, he completed his maiden Ironman.
“My whole goal wasn’t to set any records, it was to finish the thing,” says Van Veldhuizen. His friend Gum had been in the race too. He managed to catch up with Van Veldhuizen midway through the second lap of the one-loop, 56-mile bike course. That helped a lot. “It’s very much about friends and the support that you can glean off of each other. You don’t do these things alone, you do them together. The experience itself for me is a once in a lifetime.”
Van Veldhuizen believes anyone who puts his or her mind to it can do the same thing he did. All you have to do, he says, is figure out what you want and then put in the work to get there.
These days, Van Veldhuizen says he feels better prepared to tackle the life-saving challenges in his job. His Ironman training gave him more energy and makes him better prepared to jump into action during his 24-hour shifts as a firefighter.
This winter, he says he and his family plan to run trails near his home in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. He, his wife, and his 13-year-old have already entered some 5Ks together. And yes, next summer he plans to do another Ironman in Canada. Only this time, he has a new goal. This time he wants to complete it and beat his old time.
This time he doesn’t want to do anything slowly.