Kent firefighters join big field in difficult climb for others

Poised and ready: From left, Art Weichbrodt, Erin Rhead, Capt. Ian Bird, Capt. Rick Cox and Joel Willits are five of the 13 Kent firefighters who will climb the 69-floor Columbia Center on Sunday.  - Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter
Poised and ready: From left, Art Weichbrodt, Erin Rhead, Capt. Ian Bird, Capt. Rick Cox and Joel Willits are five of the 13 Kent firefighters who will climb the 69-floor Columbia Center on Sunday.
— image credit: Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter

Come Sunday, Kent firefighters will join almost 1,800 firefighters from the U.S., Canada and overseas for the 23rd Scott Firefighter Stairclimb up the Seattle Columbia Center.

They'll throw on all their 70 pounds of bunker gear and an oxygen tank and race to see who can climb 70 floors the fastest. That's 1,311 steps, a swift vertical elevation gain of 788 feet.

Last year's winner, 31-year-old Andrew Drobeck of Missoula (Mont.) City Fire, conquered the climb and the overall field in 10 minutes, 48 seconds.

Like a pink ribbon marathon, the stairclimb is a friendly competition that combines a firefighters "race" with the chance to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

The Kent Fire Department plans to send 13 firefighters to the climb from various stations around the area. To be eligible to compete in the climb, they must raise a minimum of $300 in donations although many raise more. So far the Kent Fire Department has raised more than $13,000 and will be accepting donations until the end of March.

As firefighters make connections for fundraising they find other victims and survivors of cancer. After he registered for his first stairclimb three years ago, firefighter Art Weichbrodt discovered a classmate whose daughter had died from leukemia and another acquaintance whose son, Jackson Fitzgerald, was battling the disease.

"The more you dig into it the more you find people," Weichbrodt said.

Some of the team's honorees don't even have explicitly leukemia or lymphoma, "but cancer is cancer," Weichbrodt said.

For Kent firefighters, leukemia hits close to home. Cancer has claimed the lives of two firefighters in the district, and two more are in remission from the disease.

The firefighters train for the climb in several different ways: some do crossfit workouts, others lift weights, run and cycle. But often it comes back to just getting out and seeing how much vertical ground you can cover with the most weight in as short a time as possible.

Those who have attempted the climb before say maintaining the physical endurance isn't the most difficult part of the climb.

"It's mostly mental, and it's hard to train for that," said Capt. Rick Cox, who is making his third climb Sunday.

Firefighter Joel Willits is preparing for his first climb.

"It would be nice if I ... knew what I'm getting myself into, but since I don't, I'm just going to put my head down," he said.

The year between climbs gives firefighters a chance to recover from the aches and pains, but only just enough time to remember why they did it.

"As miserable as you are in the stairwell," Cox said, "the mental challenge, within five to 10 minutes you're done you're thinking I'll do it again. Your body forgets so quickly the misery you just went through."

It's a grueling climb, but firefighters say it's worth it.

"I think when you get back to the motivation of being in the stairwell and it's hot and uncomfortable and you look up and you see your honorees, that's the motivation," Weichbrodt said.

Other firefighters, like Nate Strobel, carry lists of names. In Strobel's case, it was a sweat-stained paper with the names of his 69 sponsors that he kept taped to his uniform. At every floor he pulled it off and read a name from the list.

Ultimately, the motivation comes from knowing the difference that they can make in someone's life.

When Weichbrodt reached the end of the course last year, he found Jackson Fitzgerald waiting for him. The 4-year-old handed him a Batman sticker and a Spider-Man sticker.

"He handed those to me because they were superhero stickers and he thought I was a superhero," Weichbrodt said.

Now, when the Fitzgeralds pass the Columbia Center, Jackson calls it "Art's Building."

"That's what makes this very personal," Weichbrodt said.


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