Climbing 69 floors a different kind of stress for firefighters - Island team finishes first in stairclimb for second year

By Ruth Longoria

``Five -- four -- three -- two -- one -- start.''

As another yellow-coated figure rushed through the swinging glass doors ahead of him, 36-year-old Mercer Island firefighter Barry Collier stepped to the front of the line and adjusted his face mask.

``Five -- four -- three -- two -- one -- start,'' an official said, eyeing his stopwatch and making sure to stay out of the way of the next contestant, in this case, Collier.

The second in a line of more than 900 firefighters, Collier took a deep breath, shifted the weight on his air tank and took a last tug on his gloves in preparation to ascend the 1,311 steps of Seattle's Bank of America Tower.

Collier was one of 10 Mercer Island firefighters who took part in Sunday's 14th annual Scott Firefighter Stairclimb, an event that raises money to benefit The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Firefighters from across the country, as well as far as Canada and New Zealand, participated in the event, which is the world's largest individual firefighting competition.

After collecting sponsors for the event, firefighters -- in full gear -- race to the top of 69 flights of stairs attempting to make the best time, beat their previous record, or at least accomplish the feat. The competition leaves even those in the best of shape, sweaty, out-of-breath and pushed to their limit.

``I'm tired and I just need a minute to -- breathe,'' Collier said, as he wiped sweat from his face after climbing the last stair.

Collier earned his second-place spot in line by finishing second in last year's event with a time of 11 minutes and 14 seconds. This year, he retained his second-place title with a time of 11:18.

Four Mercer Island firefighters placed in the top 20 in the 2004 climb, earning them the right to participate in the first battalion -- group of 50 firefighters each -- in Sunday's event.

Last year, Island competitors dedicated their climb to the memory of Marianne Barden, the wife of Lt. Bob Barden. She died of cancer last year. This year, some of the firefighters again carried her picture, as a memorial.

Mercer Island -- which has one of the smallest fire departments in the state, with only 28 firefighters -- finished first as a team in last year's event, and managed to retain their first-place standing in Sunday's event, with four firefighters placing within the top 10.

``We're pretty proud,'' said Jason Cook, 34, who has been a firefighter with Mercer Island for seven years.

``That's a testament to the extremely good shape our guys are in,'' Cook said. ``And, we have an extremely competitive edge.''

Island firefighters take the climb seriously and most began preparing for the event at about Christmas-time, he said.

``We all get together and start pushing each other. We find the longest stairs or longest stretch of hill, Queen Anne is a good one,'' Cook said.

Cook, who injured his back recently on the job, wasn't able to compete in this year's event, but he placed fourth in last year's event.

``I'm just here to cheer our guys on,'' he said.

Also on hand to lend moral support was Collier's wife, Lisa, and their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter Annie.

Annie -- who came dressed in a blue Mercer Island firefighter shirt -- helps her dad train for the yearly event, Lisa Collier said.

``Oh yeah, I carry her in a backpack while I work out,'' Barry Collier said.

The 30-pound child is just slightly lighter than the 40-to-50-pounds of gear carried in the event, he said.

Collier also prepares with various cardio workouts and a lot of jumping jacks prior to the event, he said.

Though the climb is an exhilarating experience, participating in the event is somewhat different than rushing to put out a fire, said Mercer Island firefighter Trever Kessel.

``I've never been in a fire that felt like this,'' 31-year-old Kessel said.

``This is a different kind of stress,'' he said. ``You get really hot and it's hard on your legs and your breathing. This is harder in some ways than real firefighting.''

Island firefighter Mike Peters, 30, isn't so sure about that.

``There's definitely some similarities, but this is different as there's no actual stress,'' he said.

``I mean, what's the worst that can happen? In a fire I can get myself killed, or someone else killed. But, on the flip side, in a fire situation there's the adrenaline rush,'' Peters said.

But, both activities offer challenges that appeal to Peters and Kessel.

``Most firefighters have a lot of competitiveness and adventure seeker in them,'' Kessel said. ``This is yet another example of a way that we can challenge ourselves and help people.''

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