3 min

An invigorating 226km jaunt

Ironman challenge prompts fundraiser

Credit: Dean Tomlinson

Almost a year ago, Joseph van Veen dished out more than $600 from his savings to register for the most challenging event of his life, the Ironman competition in Wisconsin.

The Ironman is the longest and most challenging standard triathlon in the world and the Wisconsin competition is one of only five in continental North America. It takes place Sun, Sep 7, starting at 7am with a 4km swim, then an 180km bike ride and finally a 42km run. Van Veen hopes to finish in a respectable 15 consecutive hours – and wants to raise $22,600 for Casey House to boot, $100 for each kilometre he traverses.

Van Veen, 37, would have never thought he’d be in the kind of shape to do even a fraction of an Ironman. He didn’t even think he’d still be alive in 2003.

“I’ve been [HIV-] positive for 17 years. I was supposed to be dead 12 years ago. I proved the doctors wrong. I outlived the statistics. To be healthy enough to do what I’m doing now is incredible. I’m doing this because I can – and for those who can’t.”

Van Veen decided to make his personal challenge a fundraising one, with proceeds going to Casey House, a hospice which provides palliative and supportive care for people living with HIV/AIDS. Van Veen has set up an adopt-a-kilometre program, an idea he lifted from adopt-a-highway campaigns.

Van Veen tested positive for HIV in 1986, when he was only 21 and had been out for less than a year. He was dating a guy at the time who said that he wouldn’t continue to date him if he was HIV-positive. Van Veen got tested, not expecting the results to come back positive.

For the first 14 years after being diagnosed, van Veen hated his life. He was eating poorly, was overweight, inactive and “surviving on caffeine and nicotine.”

In Jan 2000, he was surfing the Internet during a slow day at work and came across the Body For Life website, a health and fitness program by US guru Bill Phillips. Realizing that he was out of shape, van Veen was especially taken by the before-and-after pictures of the people who had done the Body For Life challenge.

“I looked like a pear,” says van Veen. It made him realize he didn’t want to continue living the way he was, and that, after all the years since his diagnosis, death wasn’t hanging over him.

“I woke up one morning and realized that HIV isn’t a death sentence. I said to myself, ‘I’m not dead, and I’m not going to die anytime soon. What am I going to do with the rest of my life?'”

Three and half years later and four waist-sizes smaller (now a 30-inch waist), van Veen has shaped up both physically and emotionally. He has participated in several races, as well as a marathon and a triathlon, but nothing as rigorous as an Ironman.

He decided to try one after watching his partner Bruce compete last year; van Veen was inspired after seeing people in all sorts of physical conditions cross the finish line, including a man with no legs.

Having a chronic illness has made van Veen look at life differently and live one day at a time.

“Testing positive was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. The disease is a blessing in disguise. For me it was a good thing. But I wish I could be living the life I’m living now as an HIV-negative man.”

Van Veen’s choice of Casey House as the recipient of his efforts also shows his recent change of heart. Until the last couple of years, he purposely didn’t establish relationships with HIV/AIDS-related organizations, and didn’t associate with many HIV-positive people. He wasn’t ready to face the facts.

“Raising money for Casey House is a way for me to connect with the reality of the disease.”

* For more information about van Veen or Casey House, or to support his challenge, visit or contact Todd Minerson, at (416) 962-7600 ext 244 or at