Rob Verhelst on service, family, and pushing your limits
Rob Verhelst had been a Wisconsin firefighter for less than a year when he watched the World Trade Center fall on live TV. 48 hours later, he’d packed up his car and driven to the city, and spent eight days working alongside first responders at Ground Zero.
Rob has since forged himself into an inspiring figure for firefighters, first responders, endurance athletes, and the families who support them. Under the persona of Fireman Rob, he participates in IRONMAN and other triathlon races, finishing the final leg wearing 50 pounds of fireman’s gear. A father of three and a philanthropist by nature, his current fundraising goal through the Fireman Rob Foundation is to deliver stuffed bears to children’s hospitals around the world.
From the lava-scorched Kona fields to the brutal Utah switchbacks, spectators are intrigued and inspired by the sight of Fireman Rob, geared up in a full reflective Nomex jacket and 10-pound helmet, spreading his message of youth empowerment, philanthropy, and the pursuit of your passions with every mile.
Meet Fireman Rob in Part 1 of our blog series, and come back for Part 2 when Rob gears up for his next IRONMAN in Oceanside, from the cool waters of the harbor to the challenging hills of Camp Pendleton.
You were only 23 years old when you served at Ground Zero. Having spent less than a year in the fire service, how did that impact you?
I’d just got back from a house fire in Madison when I saw the second tower get hit. I didn’t understand it. I felt displaced by it. But the same obligation which drove me to become a firefighter in the first place got me in the car the next day. I’d packed up my Saturn and started driving, since there were no flights in the air.
Because I was such a new firefighter, I admit I didn’t have the experience that many of the veterans could rely on to handle a tragedy of this level. I worked to the best of my abilities, but it affected me for many years and still affects me today. But I have to be grateful for that opportunity to help, because it affected my life and made me who I am today.
What was the hardest race you’ve done so far, and what made it so tough?
One that stands out was the 2012 IRONMAN in St. George, Utah. I started swimming in Hurricane Lake, and I’ve got this glassy, still water that’s keeping me moving. But then I realized why they named it that. I started to feel this chop, and I thought there was a boat next to me. But I looked up and saw no boat, just huge winds and four-foot waves. I had to decide, do I swim to the top of this wave, or duck under and pray to get a breath before the next one hits me? When I finally got out of the swim, I threw up twice, and staggered all the way through getting changed into my bike gear. I got through these brutal switchbacks, feeling seasick the whole time, and then when I was finally done I had about ten minutes to get into my fireman’s gear before they closed the course for the day.
I started striding, but eventually the fatigue caught up with me. If you want an idea of what it felt like that day in the heat, put on three layers of sweats and strap a ten-pound weight to your head. Now go walk around in 90-degree weather. I stopped and thought about quitting. But then people started coming up to me as I was catching my breath and they asked if they could go with me. Folks came up to me in flip flops, spectators just sitting on their lawns came up to me and gave me this energy. So I started moving again. I rounded this one corner, and this mother and her son came up and she said she wanted her son to meet me. She said the boy’s father, her husband, died of cancer, and that there were people out there doing things for them. That year I was doing the race for Code 3 for a Cure, which helps firefighters with cancer.
So she and her son joined the crowd walking with me. I finished the race at 1 in the morning with a fire truck behind me, a police car in front, and about fifteen people along with my wife and my friends walking me to the finish line. That was the most impactful race finish I’ve ever had.
Any other memorable race moments that stand out?
Here’s a great story. I was doing a tri over in Naples, FL, and I’m on my bike on this bumpy road and saw something you hardly ever see in Florida: A bald eagle. Seeing that bird made me so emotional, I started belting out Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” Just me on my bike with no one around, a bald eagle flying overhead, and I’m singing out loud “… and I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m freeee …”.
That got me through the next ten miles.
Aside from your fireman’s gear, what are some other things you carry during your races?
Well, I don’t wear boots. I wear running shoes. They’re more practical and comfortable. Also, underneath the fire gear I wear compression tech shirts and leggings, because Nomex chafes like crazy if you don’t have anything underneath it.
On a personal note, I also keep something I found in the rubble at Ground Zero: One night I was walking off The Pile and saw a baby blanket. I went down and pulled it up and brought it home. I had it made into a blanket that my son now sleeps with every night, and I keep a piece with me in my fire jacket every time I race. I carry it because, while I’m realizing my passion, I remind myself that there are a lot of people who didn’t get the chance to realize theirs. I carry it for them.
How many more races do you think you’ve got left?
All I know is I love going out there and being a positive influencer. I’ve seen other guys in fire gear, and I’ve seen guys in military fatigues running those races. My life doesn’t have a preset path. I love going out where my life takes me, and I’ll do this as long as I possibly can. If I can, I’ll still be out there at age 90 in full gear at Kona. That’ll be an interesting day, but I’m going to do it.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into firefighting?
You have to ask yourself, “Do I have a passion for service? Do I care about the safety of my community?” When you go to work as a firefighter, you are giving yourself to your community every day. It’s not just about doing the job, it’s about the passion for it. Talk to other firefighters. Understand what the mission is. If your heart and your body are in it, go forth.
I remember one structure fire early in my career, we were first on the scene at about 2 in the morning. The fire had already blown out every window and was venting through the roof and we stacked up at the door. Right before we went in I had this moment where I realized I was putting my trust in my fellow firefighters. It’s about brotherhood. I think that’s a huge aspect of what’s developed my character. You just instinctually do, and you trust and rely on the people who support you.
The people in the fire station I work with, and the people who visit GovX … they all chose to serve and protect. If we can be passionate about this service, we can bring that to our communities, and this idea of service and positive influencing will spread. There’s a sense of healing, belonging, and solace that comes from helping our communities, and I see it every day.