A sound resembling a hyperventilating Darth Vader comes wheezing down the stairs at Firehall No. 7 in the Tilbury Industrial Park.
Reed Taylor, a 26-year-old Delta firefighter from Mission, has just finished running up four flights of stairs at the firefighter training centre with full gear on—breathing apparatus, a 45-lb. weight on his shoulders, and has hauled a hefty load tied to a rope up from the ground.
Every step must be touched on the way down, before Reed runs to the “kaiser” and wields a sledgehammer to simulate busting down a door to a blazing building.
He then sprints through an obstacle of pylons, grabs a charged hose with 300-lbs. of drag, and hits a fixed target with a stream of water. Finally, he grabs “Rescue Randy,” a 175-lb. dummy simulating an unconscious body, and drags him 100 feet to the finish line.
Exhausted, Reed tears the respirator from his face, and checks his time. He’s disappointed, and sheepishly suggests the number not be shared publicly. In truth, the time is likely to place him in the top 10 in Canadian firefighters vying for the prestigious National Scott FireFit Championships, taking place in Quebec’s Baie-Comeau on Sept. 1 and 2.
Delta’s Team Westshore has six members on their team, but four will go to the nationals this year. Reed was rookie of the year in 2011.
Jamie McGarva, 38, from Surrey, has been competing for six years and currently holds Canada’s top time of 1:17. Although 12 years older than Reed and pushing 40, Jamie is at the elite level of firefighter competition.
Jamie has been tops in B.C. for two years running, finished second in Canada last year, and fourth in the world.
“It’s nice for me, but I couldn’t do it without the support of the team and the sponsors,” he says humbly, adding it’s the team that really pushes him to achieve his goals.
It’s also his family who help do that. His mother, wife and sisters come out and cheer him on at local events.
So, how does he manage to pull off such Herculean feats at 38? That’s a question better asked of Mark Millward, 48, from Vancouver, who is tops in Canada in the 45-plus category.
“It’s one of those sports where it’s an all-around athlete kind of thing,” he says, adding it isn’t just strength or speed that wins the day.
Mark’s been at the competition since he began firefighting 16 years ago, originally as a fitness test to get into the department. Once a British soldier who immigrated from London, England, he first thought about joining the RCMP. But after meeting some friends who were firefighters, that career plan changed.
“The more I talked to them about their job, the more I realized it was something I wanted to do,” he says.
Mark came second in Canada in 1999 during the nationals in Penticton, an early achievement for Delta’s fire department.
“For me to come out and get second in Canada so early in our development was definitely surprising,” he says with a touch of pride in his voice. “We had a few beers that night.”
Reed says Jamie and Mark are great guys to learn from, and they demonstrate it’s more about technique than brute strength. And although each firefighter has an individual challenge ahead of them, there are also team trials where the times of the top three competitors are added up.
“You don’t want to let your team down by running poorly,” he says.
The team trains from May to September, meeting once a week on the course. Part of the motivation of not falling behind is ensuring the team isn’t let down, says Jamie.
Ryan Rickards, 36, from Langley, has been training for 12 years, but has had to take the last couple of years off for surgery on his arm from an injury sustained during renovations.
Another elite member of the team, Ryan finished seventh in the world in his second year of competition. Although the injury could have forced him into competitive retirement, he came back.
“I don’t know if it’s a motivation so much as an addiction,” he says, adding friendly rivalry and a little “one-upmanship” with other fire departments keeps him hungry.
“I want to stop, but I can’t,” he says, laughing.
Ryan’s not sure why the older guys tend to perform so much better than the younger ones, but speculates it’s about nerves and poise.
“Guys train nine months for this. If you trip on the stairs, all that training is for naught.”
“As you get older it seems you can push harder and longer,” he says.
Ryan doesn’t think Mark will ever quit competing, because he loves the training.
“He’ll keep going and going until one day he keels over on the course and dies. And he’ll die happy.”