Plumber's incredible story leads him to adventure of a lifetime
After nearly dying in 2009, Joshua Strahl prepares to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for charity.
Call Joshua Strahl on the phone and you'll likely get his voicemail. He's a busy man these days. After the dot-com crash left him unemployed, the Brooklyn-born Strahl wanted a new career that was recession-proof. He chose plumbing. And he named his company Royal Flush.
"Whether the market goes up, or the market goes down, plumbers are always going to be in demand," he told From The Grapevine during a recent interview. "If the toilet's not flushing, you're going to find the money for it."
And now a third career of sorts has emerged. In between toilet emergencies and clogged sewers, the 55-year-old has transformed into an extreme sports junkie. He's traipsed through volcanoes in Iceland, ran marathons in Hawaii and wants to spend three months hiking the Appalachian Trail. The day we spoke with him he was practicing for a 100-mile run in Israel, a 32-hour journey with only small breaks and no sleep.
Most incredibly, this new passion – to challenge the human body beyond what anyone thought capable – was almost never possible for Strahl. Just a few years ago, he nearly died.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves ...
In 1996, life was still run-of-the-mill for Strahl. He moved to Israel with his wife and two daughters, a 2-year-old and a newborn. The plumbing company took off; he hired employees. Life was good.
But everything changed in the winter of 2009. Strahl was feeling exhausted. He couldn't handle his usual workload. He felt sick, but was too busy running the company to visit a doctor. A month went by and it wasn't getting any better. He eventually sought medical attention. It turned out he had a massive infection; he was rushed to Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem. He spent 17 days there hooked up to an IV.
The infection eventually reached his heart. Strahl knew it was bad when the hospital's chief of medicine walked into his room with a dozen medical students behind him. "Can they please listen to your heart?" he asked Strahl. "Because you have the best-sounding failing heart for them to hear."
Strahl didn't want surgery, his chest cracked open, months of rehab. But he also wanted to live to see the day when his grandchild would sit on his lap. So surgery it was.
And then, afterwards, came the long journey of recovery. "I got into rehab and whatever they told me to do, I did 20% more than when they weren't looking," he recalled. "They told me to do 20 minutes, I'd do 24 minutes. When I was stronger, I'd walk faster, carry weights or bottles of water." After rehab, at night, he would walk the hills of his comfortable bedroom community located about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Strahl made a promise to himself. He would live life more to the fullest.
He asked his doctor if he could run the Jerusalem half marathon, even though Strahl had never participated in such a race. He got the green light, and the hospital even sponsored his run.
Half marathons led to full marathons which, stunningly, led to ultra marathons. He said he doesn't listen to music while he runs; he enjoys the quiet and solitude. Sometimes he gets a mantra in his mind – "give me strength one more time" – and repeats it over and over, as if the phrase itself is circling a racetrack.
Earlier this year, when picking up his race forms for the Jerusalem marathon, Strahl saw posters for two extreme sports competitions. One was called the "Fire and Ice Ultra," and is known as Iceland's toughest foot race. Racers run past volcanos toward the Arctic Circle, through ash and snow, through barren deserts and ice-cold rivers, in a two-week test of their survival skills. The other was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
He signed up for both trips, but on one condition: he would do it for charity. "If I can do it and raise money for charity, then it's a whole different value to it," he said. "It isn't just me climbing a mountain. No, I'm doing something larger than me. I'm trying to give back."
Overcoming odds, recovering from near death, giving to charity – these are the same tenets of another man Strahl knows: Michael Pasikov, a cancer survivor and concert pianist who vowed to give 100 concerts for charity. Turns out the two men are neighbors; they live in the same apartment building in Israel.
Strahl completed the Iceland trip this summer. His Kilimanjaro expedition is scheduled for February. He's been training by walking up and down Mount Hermon, a snow-capped mountain in northern Israel. As for the extreme altitudes he'll encounter while in Africa, he's relying on the more than 50 skydives he's done to help him acclimate. His wife, a former Austrian ski instructor, doesn't bat an eyelash.
The Kilimanjaro trip – like the one in Iceland – is being organized by Shalva, an Israeli nonprofit that helps kids with disabilities. The funds raised from these events goes to support their work with local children – one of whom holds a special place in Strahl's heart. His little cousin is a boy with Down syndrome who benefits from many of Shalva's programming. "These kids have their own mountains to climb every single day," he said.
In addition to his charity work, Strahl is giving back in other ways. He often returns to the hospital that saved his life. The doctors ask him to visit with other heart surgery patients, to assuage their fears, to counsel them, to show them that it will get better.
"No, it's not over," he tells them. "We'll get you exercising, you'll get your life back."
He also wants to speak to student groups and at other organizations about his experience. He just enrolled in Israel's Bar-Ilan University to get a master's degree in coaching psychology.
Always looking ahead to the next challenge, he reveals a secret, his goal for the future. "One of my dreams is to run across the United States," he told us. Forrest Gump would be proud. Strahl envisions running a marathon each day in a different city, stopping to give motivational speeches at schools along the way.
But for now, other needs are calling. Our interview ended when Strahl got a call on his office line. The services of Royal Flush were needed, and Strahl was ready to save the day.
"I love what I do in plumbing. I really love it, because I'm helping people all day long," he told us before hanging up. "I still enjoy plumbing a lot, but how much do I still want to shimmy into manholes?"
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