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Light at the end of a dark tunnel: Heldt sees Ironman challenge as a way to work through PTSD

Josh Heldt thought taking on the Ironman challenge would help him get through his post traumatic stress disorder. The challenge of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a full marathon of 26.2 miles all in a single day with nearly 3,00...

Josh Heldt thought taking on the Ironman challenge would help him get through his post traumatic stress disorder.

The challenge of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a full marathon of 26.2 miles all in a single day with nearly 3,000 other people is surely a goal that can focus the mind and wear out a body. Heldt also hoped to raise awareness of veterans suffering from PTSD and potentially encourage them to seek help. When he started, Heldt had never run more than 10 miles but felt he had to challenge himself with the Ironman.

"I'm just an average guy trying to do above average stuff with PTSD," Heldt said. He thought of the Ironman as the light at the end of the tunnel, a break-through event to help him find parts of his life before the deployment to Iraq. By getting through it, he said, he can see a big weight being lifted off his shoulders.

In an Ironman, Heldt said the stories are in the top finishers and the people at the back of the marathon coming in just before midnight after starting with swimming in the morning.

Heldt said there are about 20 people in the Brainerd area training for the Ironman in Wisconsin so there is an entire subculture of people who are challenging their physical and mental abilities.

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When Heldt and Gary Walters, who is taking on the Ironman for his annual Kinship Partners challenge, would see them on the bike trails this summer, sometimes the others were incredulous they were training for the Ironman in Arizona. Heldt and Walters would talk and text each other, sharing miles run or laps in the pool.

"I couldn't do this if Gary wasn't with me," Heldt said just days before the event. "Just knowing there is someone there kind of doing it with me - it gives me more motivation.

"I don't know if he knows that but he helped me through this."

Heldt first approached Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, when he wanted to talk to Walters about training for the Ironman. Heldt kept up on Walters Wacky Adventures, his challenges to raise awareness, mentors and money for Kinship Partners. The nonprofit organization matches adult mentors with children who are often in single parent households and who are looking for someone to do even mundane daily events with. Heldt said since he didn't personally know Walters he thought an introduction would make his proposal seem like less of a crazy idea. The idea was for them both to go to Ironman in Arizona and finish. For Heldt it was a goal he could focus on and set as a benchmark in his PTSD. He thought it would help him interact socially. Heldt said at first a big part of himself hoped Walters would say no.

"I'm actually honored he followed my little Kinship things and thought enough of me to ask me to go with him on the Ironman," Walters said. "He experienced something few people have experienced - the constant fear that any day could be your last. I look at him and I have no idea what he went through. I think he is doing pretty good for what he is exposed to. Josh was outside the wire everyday."

Walters understands Iraq from another angle as well. His son spent two tours there in Balad.

While training together, from swimming laps to riding along the area bike trails, Heldt and Walters had time to talk. Walters said Heldt is fighting his way through the bouts of depression and PTSD symptoms.

"If running helps him get through his issues then I'm happy to run with him," Walters said. "I think this Ironman thing helps get him back on track outside of his own inner demons and gives him something to focus on. I think that's been really good for him."

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For Walters, who has taken on a lot of painful challenges, saying yes to a demanding and daunting one was the only option.

"How do you say no to a hero? You don't. You say yes. I hope I don't disappoint him.

"I bet he finishes a couple of hours ahead of me."

Heldt is hoping to be the last man across the finish line in time to be called an Ironman.

"I think I really am going to get last place," Heldt said.

Walters said that will only happen if Heldt gets to the finish line and stops and stands there.

If both men make the swim within the time limit, they had until midnight Sunday to finish in order to be called Ironmen. The Dispatch will have final story of their journey in Tuesday's paper.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz .

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Related Topics: VETERANSBRAINERD
Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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