The Positive Side

Spring/Summer 2009 

Living for the Tomorrow

For Ironman Joseph van Veen, the finish line was just the beginning!

By Jennifer McPhee

AS JOSEPH VAN VEEN SPRINTED toward the finish line, he began to cry. His friends, parents and future husband, Bruce Edwards, were cheering wildly from the sidelines. The dance hit “You’re a Superstar!” blared from the loudspeakers. It all felt overwhelming, and no wonder — van Veen wasn’t even supposed to be alive. But 17 years after testing positive for HIV, he was on the verge of conquering the 2003 Ironman Triathlon in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the longest and most challenging triathlons in the world.

Van Veen was just 21 years old and living in Toronto when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. His doctors gave him three to five years to live. Seeing no point in getting an education, he dropped out of school and began spending money like Paris Hilton. By the time his 35th birthday rolled around, debt collectors were hounding him so often that he ended up declaring bankruptcy. At the same time, he was out of shape and roughly 20 pounds overweight. By day, he survived on caffeine and nicotine. By night, he ate fast food in bed while watching television. Looking back, he realizes he was depressed.

In 2000, van Veen stumbled across a fitness website geared toward a general audience and full of “before and after” photographs that looked too good to be true. He was skeptical, but decided to commit to the 12-week program designed by U.S. fitness guru Bill Phillips. It opened him up to the idea of taking care of himself and completely transformed his body. “For the first time in my life, I set a goal and finished it,” he says. “That was a huge ego boost.”

 

NOT LONG AFTER, he began dating someone — his future husband Bruce Edwards. Edwards wanted to mark his own 40th birthday with an Ironman Triathlon. Van Veen started training with him and soon realized he was capable of taking on the race too. He signed up for the 2003 Ironman in Wisconsin and began selling kilometres to raise money for Casey House, a Toronto hospice for people with HIV/AIDS (he raised almost $15,000).

Despite pouring rain and Toronto’s notoriously hot and humid summer weather, van Veen trained every day during the 13 weeks leading up to the September race, increasing his distances on weekends. “You never actually do the full race distance, but you build your stamina and strength so you are able to do it,” he says. “It’s about tricking your body into expecting something more the next time.”

The hardest part was sticking to his gruelling training schedule. Compared to that, the actual race was easy. Well, maybe not easy. The Ironman begins with a 3.8-km swim, followed by a 180-km bike ride, and finally a 42.2-km run. “I got stung in the armpit by a wasp during the bicycle ride,” he says. “I grabbed it with my first, clenched it and squeezed it to death. And I said, ‘This is an Ironman. I’m in pain and I just keep going.’”

Van Veen’s goal was to finish the triathlon in 15 hours. But at the beginning of the run, he realized his heart rate was dangerously high and so he began alternating between running and walking. His goal seemed out of reach.

But then, a kilometre before the finish line, he realized he still had seven minutes to spare. “I don’t know where it came from, but I sprinted through the last kilometre,” he recalls. His final time was 14 hours, 58 minutes and 14 seconds.

 

THE TORONTO STAR ran a half-page story about him in the sports section on the day of the race. “I didn’t even know there was a sports section,” he quips. “I go from the Living section to the Entertainment section.” Soon after, the Canada Africa Partnership on AIDS (CAP AIDS) asked him to raise more money by cycling across Africa. Van Veen said yes, and cycled 6,600 kilometres from Nairobi to Cape Town (roughly the equivalent of cycling from Halifax to Vancouver), helping to raise $25,000. But that’s another story.

These days, van Veen remains focused on his future, not on death. He got married two years ago and recently bought a condo. “You know the expression: Live each day as if it was your last?” he says. “I did that. I spent all my money. I did everything that I wanted to do. And I was out of shape. I’ve decided that expression is not good enough for me. I need to live each day as if there is a tomorrow.”

Now 43, van Veen isn’t ruling out another Ironman, but he’s not committing to one either. “If I make it to my 50th birthday, I will need to mark it with something that screams ‘I’m alive,’” he says. “But that could mean an all-night party on a beach in Greece — who knows?”

Photograph: Jacob Peters

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