Monday, June 5, 2017

Surviving the WCT

I toed the line (a piece of flagging) feeling the way I used to in my racing days: a combination of tummy upset and wanting to throw up. The other recruits, all laden with the same forty-five pound vest that I was unhappily wearing, looked, and probably were, about twenty years old. I noticed that just putting the cumbersome vest on caused me to gasp for breath and I regretted the 14 mile day hike I had done a couple of days before. I had climbed a few thousand feet to snowline on one trail, hiked down, and climbed another trail to snowline. Maybe I should have tapered?

Here I was, doing the work capacity test for firefighting once again. I first got a "red card" in 1986, when it was still the mile and a half run. You had to complete it in eleven minutes, forty-five seconds, which at the time seemed laughably slow, but now would represent more of a challenge. After the run came the step test, where you inexplicably stepped up and down on a box, accompanied by a metronome, for five minutes (I think) and then  your pulse was taken to see how quickly it returned to a level that was measured on a scale. If your heart had too many beats, you failed.

Now we walk for three miles with forty-five pounds and have forty-five minutes to complete it. Which sounds easy, but for littler, shorter people it's not easy. I realized as we started out on our first half mile lap that while I have been hiking fast a lot, I haven't been hiking fast with a lot of weight. If I carry a forty-five pound pack these days, it can only be in winter when I need extra snow gear. Usually my pack for a week tops about 25 pounds.

This is not the vest I had. Look! Weight on the hips. A revolutionary idea!
When the first guys passed me, I knew this wasn't going to be my day. I just didn't feel great. Usually I am in the lead and after the first bit, I generally feel unstoppable. Not today. I knew this was going to be a ride on the struggle bus.

I wondered why I was taking the test anyway. When most people think of firefighters, they think of people swinging tools on the fireline. I am still qualified to do that, but haven't in awhile. I usually work at the helibase, directing the helicopters. It's not all that glamorous, but it's still a part of a world I really used to love. It's not my world anymore, but I like to visit it now and then.

This is the vest I was wearing. Look comfortable? Think again. It is still a vast improvement over the forerunners, which hung past my waist and caused terrible gouges in my skin.

The weight sat heavily on my shoulders. The vests are an improvement over the days we loaded up ancient backpacks with sand, but your shoulders still take the brunt (there are allegedly "women specific vests, and vests in the shape of a V that are supposed to be more forgiving, but we don't have those). A couple more guys passed me.

I was still doing OK, though, with miles in the high thirteens. Then it happened. Three girls who had been back a ways started a slow run shuffle (you aren't supposed to run, but some people get away with a flat-footed jog) and passed me right in the last eighth of a mile. I snarled to myself. I hated this in races and I guess I still hate it now, people who let you set the pace the whole way and then sprint past you at the very end.

I refused to run after them, and ended up finishing in 41 minutes. I stomped back to my car, remembering the days of 36, 38, 39. It really doesn't matter--you pass whether you finish in 31 minutes (which a guy questionably did one year that the course went behind some buildings, we suspected him of running) or 45 minutes. It's stupid to care, but I do. The WCT brought back my racing days, when I was young and fast and could win races, or at least place. That also is a world I don't live in anymore, and don't really want to visit.

So I have a red card, again, year 31. I don't know if I will go on any fires or in what capacity. It's hard to fit them in, two weeks in a summer that's short enough already. This is probably my last WCT, and I am coming around to being OK with it. There are plenty of other worlds to visit.

11 comments:

  1. The NWR I was on didn't have vests the first years I took the pack test... we would fill our packs up with sandbags. Then they got the vests - the male ones - and I opted for the pack, as it wasn't my breasts taking the brunt of the weight! Either way, it always seemed to be that first 95+ degree day, or pouring rain. I'll take 41 minutes.

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    1. Yes those vests are chest crushers all right. Today was pretty nice...70 degrees or so. So there was that.

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  2. I was fortunate this year and got the women's design weight vest. I trained ahead of time this year, unlike last year when I'd just gotten back from Alaska and hadn't been in a gym in 4 months (that was Not pretty). I was happy to take 43:49 but it's discouraging to remember 39:41 that was only a few years ago (and how easy breezy that test felt that year).
    Oh well, can't dwell on it. I've passed for another year and something about that accomplishment pleases me. It also means I can go out on prescribed burns (last year I ended up testing at the moderate level, which is good for most activities I do, but not for prescribed burning).

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    1. That's the thing is I feel I was pretty fit. I guess it was just an off day. I am hoping that if I want, there might be more opportunities in Central Oregon than there are here.

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  3. "I hated this in races and I guess I still hate it now, people who let you set the pace the whole way and then sprint past you at the very end."

    Ugh, I hate that too. I had someone try to do it to me at my last race. It provided me some motivation to finally drop her. :)

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    1. I know it's not personal but it kind of feels like it!

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  4. I'm trying to envision a 12-minute-mile walking pace, even without a heavy pack. Sounds downright painful compared to a 12-minute-mile jog. But perhaps more energy efficient? I may have to try it sometime.

    I'm really hoping this will be a boring fire season. Here in Colorado, at least we're having a fairly wet spring.

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    1. I would find it much easier to run at that pace than to walk. That's what makes it so hard. I don't find it very energy efficient. The guys with long legs just kind of stroll along though.
      I hear you on the fire season, after having my house under evacuation order and someone telling me, "Get the dogs out NOW" I just don't see it the same way that I used to. It is supposed to snow here this weekend!

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  6. Your job always sounds so exciting, but I know it's different when you are the one doing it, not just reading about it!!

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  7. Now, I get it! I was out riding my mountain bike the other day, and I saw a volunteer fire fighter hiking like he was on a mission (with a backpack). I asked what he was doing - and he was training for the WCT but he was so out of breath that I didn't completely understand what the WCT was (now I know!). He asked me if I'd mind riding at a certain pace next to him for a while so that he could be sure that he was fast enough. I did, and it was obviously a really hard workout for him (he's probably 65).

    I cannot imagine wearing a backpack that weighs 45 lbs, period, much less hiking so fast with it. Way to go, passing the test. All of us out west are indebted to people like you who give their time to fight our fires.

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