After issues we had with false starts and the new system, we have altered the start to eliminate these problems. While the old system was well intentioned, it resulted in competitors trying to anticipate the exact start-time down to the hundredths of a second. It's no surprise that in many cases, this meant the competitor was slightly early, triggering a 5 second false start penalty. The penalty was extreme, especially for the top competitors and teams, who certainly don't have 5 seconds to give. To alleviate this problem, we have altered the start system to eliminate the slow countdown. This current protocol is for each competitor to first adjust the pack (although if it is bunched up too high, the official may press it down to appropriate height), and to stand on the footpads. The electronic system will begin the race at a random time somewhere around a second or two after both competitors are staged. The siren will signal the start to the competitors, and because of the randomization, anticipating the siren is impossible. The only false start now, is if a competitor clearly touches the pack before the siren sounds. In over 700 individual races at WCXXII, we only had 2 false starts.
As long as you're standing on the pads, you can be bent down or standing upright, as you desire. Think about what will be the first thing you'll do when you hear the siren. Think about which shoulder the hose load will go on. Think about what your normal rhythm for taking the stairs will be. Visualize where you will be placing your feet, since the tower stairs are more likely than not at a different angle and tread height than the tower you're used to. Think about your free hand and how far up the handrail you'll be making your first grab. Think about on which foot you'll make the first turn. Obviously, there's a whole lot of other stuff to think about besides wasting valuable time trying to play mind games at the start.
There are many techniques that allow you to polish your skills in running the course- things that can have a huge difference in your total time; where the guy in the lane next to you ends up is a function of what he's doing, not what you're doing.
Finishing On Your Feet
Running the Challenge is tough. Most firefighters can probably finish the events in five to seven minutes. The trick in the Firefighter Combat Challenge is to do it as fast as possible. For many years we wondered if that elusive 2 minute barrier could be broken. Now, sub two minutes has almost become the standard for most of our regular competitors.
However, in my observation of about 20,000 runs over the past 15 years, I can tell you that nothing's more tragic than having a great personal record working and a crash at the finish line that leaves you short by inches because you turned to see where you were. We've been similarly annoyed and have been attempting to coach, cajole and otherwise intervene to the extent that we can to ensure that every competitor has a clean run and maximizes their potential.
So, just a couple of things to keep in mind when you're pushing the envelope: we don't move the finish line. We all know that this is the longest 100' in the world. Time seems to expand. Your peripheral vision begins to close in. Breathing is labored. Legs start to turn to concrete. You're stepping in tar. And then, to see where you are, you turn to look- and tragically- boom: down you go.
It's common knowledge in sport that your body goes where you look. In mountain biking, you look where you want your front wheel to go: not that rock or pot hole; in skiing, tracking through the mogul fields, you plot your course. Why? Because you go where your eyes are focused. So, it's no great surprise that I can calmly predict who's going to take a tumble. Just watch where the eyes are focused. You're already precariously balanced, with your center of gravity pushing to that balancing point where you're trying to keep the base of support just at the forward edge. The simple turn of the head is all it takes to upset the equilibrium.
Some competitors are of the mistaken impression that a lunge at the end will somehow get them home faster. Wrong. Think of baseball for an analogy. Leaping to get to first base to beat the throw has been scientifically proven to be slower than running across the bag. Plus, you have this huge risk of misjudging when to lunge. Many times, the competitor comes up short; and now that death-defying struggle to pull Rescue Randy across the line. This collisions are painful to watch. I can only imagine what it must feel like to flail around on your hands and knees trying to find body parts when you're already wasted. Plus, this lunge results in the feet of the dummy outside of the field effect of the magnets on the threshold/finish line.
We want you to finish on your feet, in control, with your best time. To that end, read on.
A couple of tips here:
If you have the presence of mind to look at the clock, that's a pretty good place to focus. Some guys find it demoralizing as it seems to speed up towards the end. There are markers along the way: at the half-way point and three-quarters are "buoys" that provide a reference point. We've also added a 10' stripped pole connected to the overhead of the finish line apparatus.
As you're no doubt aware, John Tillett completely overhauled the switch platform that stops the clock. What used to be a screen door threshold of three quarters of an inch tall and 5" wide has been lowered by a quarter of an inch, but more importantly, the inclined plane is now about four times wider. In fact, it's pretty difficult to even tell when you're over. This problem is being addressed a couple of ways. We've been reticent to put a stripe on the carpet since it stretches. Each time we lay out the course, we re-measure the distance. We've found that gaffer's tape is a superior solution to duct tape since it does not leave a residue. Of course, you can't see your feet, much less the finish line. So that's why Jay Staeden is working on some other triggers to tell you that you're done. Of course the first clue is the clock stops.
It is exactly 100' from line to line. There's nothing abstract about this distance. Electronic timing has saved our bacon a whole bunch of times. With hundredths of a second precision, there has been to my recollection only one time that we had a tie. And that was, fortunately, not at a point that we needed to calculate a winner of an event.
The threshold contains a whole bunch of reed switches that are activated by the ceramic magnets in Rescue Randy's feet that exert 35 pounds of pull. The previously mentioned LED will be right in your line of vision. In addition to letting you know that you're over the line, it also alerts the pit crew that they can begin the process of getting your Air-Pak off and your bunker gear removed.
After a lot of experimentation, we believe that we've pretty well bracketed where to put the 1" closed cell pad for those few competitors who do fall down. Those old cheese mats are a thing of the past and were responsible for causing falls in just about everyone, whether you wanted to go down or not.
Think through the act of finishing: drive until you see the clock stop. As soon as you know you're done, just let go of Rescue Randy and keep moving backwards, letting him hit the dirt. Clean, quick and very professional. You do your part and we'll attempt to do ours: keeping you in the vertical position with a new PR.
Life at the Top
Propelling oneself to the top of the Challenge tower has been computed to be in the range of 1.5 HP, based upon the competitor's total body weight and loads typically encountered. Anything under 14 seconds is expected if you're hoping to go sub 90 seconds. But the transition from event to event is highly critical as valuable time is lost if you're not thinking ahead.
You should be eyeballing that hose box when you make the final turn at the top of the tower. The size of the opening is reasonably generous and staying focused is critical to avoiding a 2-second penalty for misplacement. Line up the hose to ensure that it fits in the box.
Pulling up the donut roll is pretty straight forward, but some technique can go a long way in avoiding a catastrophe- like losing control, or having the roll hang up on the railing. Some of our Challenge competitors have a huge wingspan. They take a big bite and can make that donut roll flat out fly. This comes as a consequence of lots of practice. You can add the strength by doing a number of exercises like dumbbell flys with 50 pounds in each hand. But that does not automatically convert to power. Ultimately your gym-based training has to translate to skill by doing two things: making certain that you do not lose contact with the rope and maintaining control at the top.
One of the hoisting styles is to take the unloaded hand and follow the rope to the next bite. This ensures that you don't miss a pull. It's a very positive and proven method for keeping control. Smoothness pays big dividends since you minimize the swing that can cause the donut roll to get hung up on the balcony. Races have been lost when a competitor grabbed air where he thought there was rope.
Occasionally, a competitor will start to leave the top before the donut roll clears the top railing. Generally, this only has to happen once in your life before you remember your football coach's lesson: the proverbial "start to run before catching the ball." This momentary lapse of consciousness has cost some of the top competitors a number of valuable seconds. That really cool flick of the wrist that accompanies record fast times comes with a lot of practice. But, it's also dangerous if you misjudge your timing.
Like most of the top guns at the Challenge, they practice these maneuvers in their sleep. If you're looking to run with the big dogs, you've got to have the entire package: the power to go fast and the skills to cut the corners. For the rest of us, concentrating on each evolution to ensure that you've successfully completed the task before moving on is a solid way of producing a personal record.
When Easy is Hard
There are two places on the Challenge course where you can pick up a huge amount of time. And, believe it or not, they're the easiest part of the course. Don't believe it? Well, think about this: the hardest part of negotiating the course is when it's the easiest: descending the tower and the transition from the Keiser to the hose advance. That's where you can go the fastest, but your body is saying, "hey, this is a pretty good time to recover." Overcoming inertia is hard on the mind.
When we first designed the Combat Test for applicant selection in 1976, it was our thought that these events would be great transition points, allowing applicants a slight breather. But, when we investigated the underpinnings of the metabolic demands of structural firefighting, there's very little that's actually aerobic-based since the weights of the apparel and equipment put a pretty good stress on the body.
So, for the purposes of getting the job done, the best approach is go like hell and rest later. Without getting into the dynamics of energy substrate metabolism- that's the subject of another yet-to-be written article, keep this in mind: you can make up a lot more time on the course by running between the events than you can by doing the events faster. Said another way, you can take a second or two off a couple of events, but nothing saves time faster than by shaving a bunch of seconds off the walk/run and the tower descent.
What you have to do is tell your body, "now is not the time to rest. I will rest when I get this whole damn thing done." If you look at the Relay, you'll notice that most of the events are done at the same rate as in the individual competition. It's the blazing speed negotiating the hydrants and traversing the hose advance that makes a huge difference.
Getting down the stairs is another art form. Taking the weight off the legs by using the railings is a way of going fast. Of course, you must think, think, think of hitting that last step as you exit the tower.
So, push, push the envelope by resisting the urge to coast through the hydrants or cruise down the tower stairs. You're going to hurt anyway; might as well hurry to the finish line. Reminds me of our latest tee shirt: "The faster I run, the quicker I'm done.