STEPHANIE ZOLLSHAN - THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE

Firefighter Combat Challenge 'a brutal race' that tests personal limits

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PITTSFIELD — Firefighting is hard work, and Pittsfield Deputy Fire Chief Dan Garner wants to be as fit as possible for the challenges of the job.

Thirteen years ago, he signed up for his first Firefighter Combat Challenge, an international competition in which participants wear all their gear, including breathing apparatus, and race through a five-part obstacle course to "rescue" a 175-pound dummy.

The competitions have since taken him around the country to participate in 53 other races, including the event's Berkshire County debut this weekend.

"I got into it just to be better prepared for the job," Garner, also a high school football coach, said Thursday. "I think I'm in better shape now at 45 than I was at 32."

Garner was one of nearly 80 American and Canadian firefighters who gathered at Berkshire Crossing on Friday night to kick off the two-day competition.

Spectators filled bleachers in the plaza parking lot to cheer on the men and women as they trudged through the course.

With more than 40 pounds of gear on their backs, firefighters raced up and down a five-story scaffolding, sprinted through a weaving course, swung a sledgehammer at a forced-entry simulator and "dragged" the mannequin, "Rescue Randy," to safety.

"It's a brutal race," Garner said. "They call it the toughest two minutes in sports."

A team of seven Pittsfield firefighters was one of six Berkshire County departments represented in the individual races Friday.

Danielle Clairmont, a 27-year-old Berkshire Bank employee who is training to be a member of the city Fire Department, competed in her first challenge Friday.

Even though she works out five times a week as a bodybuilder and is a former powerlifter, her goal for the night was simply to make it through the trying event.

"I would be proud of myself if I just finished," she said while suiting up for her race against Brittaney Doane of the Southborough Fire Department.

The first few obstacles were a slow start for Clairmont, but she eventually pulled in front of Doane, winning the race in a time of 5 minutes, 4 seconds.

Paul Davis, president of the Firefighter Combat Challenge and a former firefighter, is responsible for the physical fitness research upon which the course was created.

He said Friday that firefighters who are taller and heavier have to expend less energy to finish the course than do those who are smaller.

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"We have women who are at a severe disadvantage," Davis said. Female firefighters compensate for that by being extremely fit, he said.

While there was no easy part of Friday's race, competitors looked to be most fatigued in the final leg.

"I think the hardest part is going to be the dummy drag there at the end," said Hinsdale Assistant Fire Chief Doug Olds, who was also new to the challenge.

Olds ended up finishing the race is 4 minutes, 5 seconds.

The Pittsfield competition is a regional qualifier for the world finals. The "best of the best" will compete in the national event, which is broadcast on ESPN, Garner said.

There also is a world championship in which all the participating countries compete against each other.

The Pittsfield Fire Department team already is eligible for the nationals, Garner said.

"I've done the last nine world finals," Garner said. "I brought the team to Virginia Beach about a month ago. They already qualified in Virginia, but they're competing tomorrow to represent Berkshire County."

Garner was one of the last firefighters to compete Friday, as he is one of the most experienced.

"I just wanted to work out and train with a purpose," he said of staying in shape. "And, I'm competitive."

Like Garner, the Firefighter Combat Challenge also has taken Dean Morrow of the Hamilton (Ontario) Fire Department around the world.

For 18 years, he has followed the competition to events in Europe, the Middle East and several U.S. World Championships, he said.

In more than two decades of firefighting, he has experienced only a few days on the job that were nearly as physically rigorous as the competition, he said.

"Your worst day at work is this course," he said while sitting in a tent with other Canadian firefighters. "You don't want to feel like this at work."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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