Pittsfield Fire Department members compete in Josh Billings RunAground in honor of former colleague battling ALS

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LENOX — Nate Backer wasn't happy with the way he finished the running leg of the 41st Josh Billings RunAground. Sunday heated up at an inopportune time for most runners, with the sun breaking through and temperatures rising near 80 degrees just as they began the triathlon's six-mile finale.

A few minutes after the eight-year Pittsfield firefighter crossed under the arch at Tanglewood, though, his time, place and cramping legs meant little.

Backer was a member of The Iron Mikes with fellow Pittsfield firefighters Tom Sammons, David Sinopoli and Jarrett Robitaille. The team raced Sunday in honor of retired Deputy Chief Mike Polidoro, a long-time Josh Billings competitor who, despite a bout with ALS, made it out to celebrate with his former crew and family members.

Polidoro was a part of a great many Josh teams, more than he can remember. The original Pittsfield Fire Department team included Kurt Johnson, Chip Tart and Mike Sawicki, and eventually expanded to Bob Fitch, Matt Noyes and others.

Saturday evening, Johnson picked up Polidoro and brought him to Port Smitts under the guise of a torch-passing celebration with the new-look PFD team, racing for the Pittsfield Permanent Firefighters Benefit Association. What he saw upon his arrival was nearly overwhelming.

"They surprised me. I was told yesterday that they were going to get together at Port Smitts; the new crew and have the old crew there," said Polidoro. "Kurt came and picked me up, brought me down and I walked in and there had to be 100 guys there with wives and families. And this is what they did for me [holding up his honorary captain shirt]. It was overwhelming. I was touched by the support the fire department has given me, and they keep giving. It's hard to accept because we're so used to doing it the other way around. These guys have been phenomenal."

"The original plan was for it to be a surprise and for Kurt to get him there, he was coming to show support and we told him it was sort of a passing of the torch thing," said Backer. "I thought we should honor him as he's retired and not able to do it anymore. He was always big into fitness and his nickname was always Iron Mike."

Polidoro's health forced him to retire last July, and he had to hang up his Billings canoe paddle. The featherweight, carbon fiber paddle didn't sit idle long, though, as it was offered to Sammons and Sinopoli for use Sunday during their five-mile trip around Stockbridge Bowl.

"He was an outstanding deputy chief," said Sammons, a captain and 22-year PFD veteran who used to compete in the Josh in the early 1990s. "We were just talking about it in the kitchen one day and Nate said 'let's throw a team together.' We knew [Robitaille] was a biker and that's the hard part. Dave and I would paddle and Nate was the runner."

Robitaille, the youngest member of the crew, was hired by the department last September and was starting drill school the morning after the 40th Josh, so he opted out to not risk getting hurt. Now he is working through his probationary period and recently had his pumping job the day of his exam.

"I knew I was going to do it a year later and given how hard we worked out that week, I'm glad I passed," said Robitaille. "I've done Ironman a couple years and I've always rode in it. I started right at the front, told these guys to be ready around an hour and 10 minutes. I got with the front pack and stayed with those guys."

All Iron Mikes work together on D group at headquarters, and the transitions Sunday showed that strong connection. The squad placed No. 122 overall in a time of 3:12.37.

"He was right on the money," said Sinopoli, a 10-year veteran who serves as a bridge on the team, taking Johnson's spot paddling with Polidoro a few years back.

As for pointers from the former Deputy Chief to the new crew, he jokingly warned the paddlers not to tip over, and that if they didn't beat his team's time, the department would be looking to find a new crew. Mostly, Polidoro told the team to have fun, "because that's what this is all about.

"These guys haven't forgotten me. Its a brotherhood and it doesn't stop when you retire. These guys have been phenomenal taking over, and to do what they did yesterday, it was a total surprise. I had no clue, and it was a very touching moment for me."

Reach sports writer Mike Walsh at 413-496-6240 or @CLNS_Walsh.

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