At age 15, Steven Holshouser was around 230 pounds. He was obese, failed a physical education class because he couldn’t complete a mile and was relentlessly made fun of by his peers.
At 23, Holshouser doesn’t focus on his weight anymore. He lost 87 pounds one summer during high school and is now training for the IRONMAN World Championship in October in Hawaii.
Holshouser, a Ph.D. candidate at the Medical University of South Carolina, qualified for the grueling 140.6-mile race – a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run — on a 92-degree day in Panama City, Fla., last summer.
He knew that in order to qualify for the world championship, he’d have to finish first in his age group, which had 40–60 competitors. Only a certain number of racers would qualify, and it’s based on how many people are in each age group.
“I had to be first. That’s what I was gunning for,” Holshouser said. “I had a 30-minute lead after I got off the bike, but then a guy ended up passing me around mile 21 of the run.”
On pace for a 10-hour IRONMAN, Holshouser was demoralized. He even stopped running after he failed to keep up with the other racer.
“When I started doing IRONMAN races, my goal was to qualify for the world championships,” he said. “I decided right there to stop and pick up racing again after I graduated from MUSC.”
The heat and his girlfriend had other plans for Holshouser, though. When he was passed, Holshouser was close to finishing his second lap of the course. His girlfriend yelled from the sideline that the runner who passed him was only on his first lap.
“I started sprinting the final five miles, finished right over 10 hours and thought I had won the whole thing,” he said. “When I finished, she said, ‘You’re going to hate me, but you didn’t win.’ I don’t blame her, but I was devastated all over again.”
The next morning, Holshouser watched the news and found out that due to the extreme heat nearly 500 people dropped out of the race, reducing the size of the field.
“They were dropping left and right, people cramping up everywhere,” he said. “All of the young people finished, which made our percentage increase.”
When his age group’s portion of the total number of participants went up, that meant the top two winners would advance to Hawaii.
“It was literally the happiest day of my life. Everybody was crying and laughing. It was ridiculous,” Holshouser said.
In order to prepare for Hawaii, Holshouser is completing a triathlon almost every day. In addition, he works in a lab in the Drug Discovery Building at MUSC that focuses on developing medicinal compounds for an enzyme that plays a key role in cancer and diabetes.
Each day, Holshouser bikes to campus from his home in Mount Pleasant near the Isle of Palms Connector, swims at the gym during his lunch break, bikes back home and takes an evening run with his German shepherd and black lab mix, Jake. In the summer, he’ll take the long route to work, biking around 60 miles in the morning, or he’ll swim 5,000 meters in the pool before class.
On the weekends, his schedule is even more intense.
“I’m up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays, and I’ll bike 112 miles until around noon. Then, I’ll get off the bike and run about 20 miles from noon until 3 p.m. After that, I’ll go to the gym and swim to cool down. The next day I’ll do a 100-mile ride,” he said. “When you’re in full-blown training, you don’t really have a life.”
The main thing Holshouser focuses on is incorporating exercise into his daily schedule. Instead of taking a car to work, the bike gets him there without paying for gas, dealing with stalled traffic or having to find a parking spot.
“In reality, you can kind of work out anytime just by doing everyday things,” he said. “I run to run my errands. I’ll run to the store to pick up bananas and food, then just put them in my book bag and run back home.”
He tries to get that message across to children who he spends time with at the Jerry Zucker Middle School of Science in North Charleston through Louie’s Kids, an after-school program that is designed to help obese children get healthy.
“I came from being obese and couldn’t even complete a mile to competing in the world championship – essentially the Olympics of triathlons,” he said. “As long as you really want something and really want to change, anybody can do it.”
He volunteers at the school a few times a month and tries to give the students fun activities that will get them moving. When the students complete an activity or choose a healthy item to eat, they earn points that they can cash in for new shoes, bicycles or workout equipment. The program also offers support to overweight children, something Holshouser leaned on his older brother for when he was losing his weight.
“You couldn’t pass gym class unless you could run a mile, and in ninth grade, I couldn’t do it,” said Holshouser, who had to retake the class in 10th grade. “My brother said, ‘Let’s just try to run a half mile.’ Then we ran 3/4 a mile, and eventually we worked up to a full mile.”
The following year, Holshouser passed his gym class, joined the cross country team and was hooked on endurance sports. “I had never pushed myself to actually feel endorphins, to feel my muscles recovering and the feeling of being fit. When you get to the point of feeling better, you relate exercise to making yourself feel better,” he said. “Stuff like that drives you.”
The IRONMAN World Championship, Oct. 12, will determine the Mount Pleasant native’s future. Holshouser could earn his pro card, get sponsorships and put his Ph.D. on hold to do races around the world. If he doesn’t go pro, he will return to MUSC and focus on his research while getting faster on short-distance races, like 5Ks and half marathons.
“It’s all up in the air,” he said. “My whole goal in life was to qualify. I don’t know what will happen now that I’ve met that goal. We’ll just have to see.”
Editor’s Note: This story was first published in The Catalyst, the newspaper of the Medical University of South Carolina, on April 18. You can find that article here.