The US Bank building in downtown Boise boasts 22 flights of stairs spanning the distance from the basement to the rooftop, making it the tallest building in Idaho. A reasonably fit, motivated and properly attired individual might spend about five minutes hiking up those steps, if done without stopping. That's how long it took me. I was gasping when I reached the emergency exit door that opens up to bright blue sky, and I thought to myself, "Whew. That's a lot of stairs!"
Boise firefighter Rich Brown doesn't think so. In fact, on the day that I joined him midway through a training session in the building, his goal was to complete not one, but 10 sets of 22 flights of stairs. Brown is training for the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb, a national event that takes place at the Columbia Center in Seattle, the fourth-tallest building west of the Mississippi.
More than 1,500 firefighters will converge in the heart of the city on March 11 to race their way up 69 flights of stairs, totaling 1,311 steps and 788 feet of elevation.
For those who spend several hours a week at the YMCA, sculpting quads and calves on Stairmasters, climbing 69 flights of stairs might not seem like such a big deal. But add 25 pounds of full structural firefighting gear and the mission becomes decidedly more challenging. The heft of turnouts alone is significant, but the wide-brimmed helmet and steel-tipped leather boots exaggerate the force of gravity with every step. A 30-pound airpack worn like a backpack further compromises the effort.
One more element raises the stakes another notch. A regulator and mouthpiece connected to an air hose are clicked onto the user's facemask, so he huffs and puffs with a sensation of confined respirations, sucking down a limited supply of compressed air. During the competition, each participant uses a bottle designed to hold 45 minutes of breathable air under normal circumstances. However, the anticipated exertion during the stairclimb is so extreme that there's one opportunity for an air bottle exchange on the 40th floor. Almost every participant will breathe hard enough to require an exchange to successfully complete the challenge. The fastest contestants will finish in as little as 11 minutes, but the majority will take longer than 20 minutes.
While most Americans are searching for reasons to exercise, Brown and his fellow competitors have more motivation than they need. For starters, a well built aerobic engine translates into less suffering during the official stairclimb event. Also it's difficult to imagine a more practical form of fitness for a firefighter.
Anyone can hoist dumbbells in a gym or zone out with an iPod to get the doctor-recommended 30 minutes of a cardio each day. Firefighters, on the other hand, don't always have a choice: When a high-rise is ablaze, people's lives--maybe even their own--will depend on their fitness. Furthermore, nothing builds cohesion and camaraderie among a fire captain and his crew more than working up a sweat together.
"It's fun ... when you're finished," Brown said.
Most important, however, is that the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb isn't just about hauling firefighting gear up tall buildings. Instead, the event's sponsorship, entry fees and participant fund-raising benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which supports blood cancer research and patient services.
In fact, at press time, Brown was leading the nation in fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
"Without Rich Brown, our department team wouldn't even have half the money raised that we have. We wouldn't have half the speed either," said team captain and fellow Boise firefighter Tom Compton.
Compton explained that teams participating in the competition are ranked in the results in two categories: combined speed of the top three stairclimbers and total dollars raised.
"Last year, Boise Fire was third for speed, and sixth in fundraising, but we made more money than the two teams that were faster than us, and we were faster than the five teams that made more money than us. So effectively, we had the best combined result. Our goal this year is to maintain that position," said Compton.
Brown's cause is even more personal. Nearly a decade ago, his father-in-law was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow. He and his wife were firsthand witnesses to the arduous treatment path taken by blood cancer patients, including bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy and radiation.
While Brown's father-in-law survived and is now in good health, a close friend wasn't so fortunate. In October 2011, Brown's longtime cycling buddy and teammate Jason Werst died from acute myeloid leukemia during his third and final battle with the disease. This year, Brown is dedicating his race to Werst and his family.
As a conditioned athlete, Brown is no stranger to the physical rigors he will endure in the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb, but he admits there might be moments when he wants to quit.
"The thing is, even when the going got tough, Jason didn't quit. He fought until the very end," said Brown.
And that's all the inspiration he needs.