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A firefighter's marathon, the stairclimb | SLIDESHOW

Jesse Wise, with the Kent Fire Department, looks into his mask after completing the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb at Seattle’s Columbia Center last Sunday.  - Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter
Jesse Wise, with the Kent Fire Department, looks into his mask after completing the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb at Seattle’s Columbia Center last Sunday.
— image credit: Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter

Every March, the first three floors of Seattle's Columbia Center are transformed from a sophisticated shopping mall to a mixture of hobo camp and refugee center exclusively for firefighters.

They gather each year for the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb, a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and a grueling competition to see who can ascend the 1,311-step, 69-flight building the fastest.

The Kent Fire Department sent 13 firefighters to the 23rd annual event last Sunday, raising more than $13,000. Firefighters must raise a minimum of $300 to be eligible to compete.

The stairclimb attracted more than 1,500 firefighters from throughout the country, Canada and the world.

Kent firefighter Jessi Nemens, 33, placed second among 138 women with a time of 16 minutes, 22 seconds – 20 seconds faster than her time last year and just nine seconds behind the winner, Jacqueline Palmer of Las Vegas (Nev.) Fire and Rescue.

Andrew Drobeck, 32, of Missoula (Mont.) was the overall men's winner with a time of 11:05. The top Kent firefighter finisher was Drew Maenhout, 26, who was 175th in a time of 16:52.

Before the climb, firefighters spent the mornings relaxing in alcoves of the Columbia Center, surrounded by piles of turnout jackets, helmets and oxygen tanks. Some lounged on camp chairs and snacked on carbs and protein bars while others mingled and prepared for their climbs by talking to cancer honorees present.

The challenge of the climb, according to Kent firefighter Jesse Wise, comes less from muscle fatigue and more from worn joints. Wise, who runs two marathons a year, says that the stress from the weight bears down on his hips, which is much more difficult than his thighs.

"At the end of the climb it's not my quads that hurt from pushing off, but my hip flexors," Wise said.

At the 40th floor, firefighters have the option of changing out their air tanks for a second bottle, but many choose to make the climb on a single tank.

"It's just like a NASCAR pitstop," said Brandon Bumpus, who was attempting his first single-tank climb.

While it's a safer bet than running out of oxygen near the end of the climb – some firefighters simply dash the last three or four floors to the finish line – it also interrupts the rhythm that a firefighter builds during his ascent.

The competition is very real, as is the purpose of the fundraiser, but that doesn't stop the day from feeling like a giant reunion among professionals. Firefighters stop by to visit each other and check in with old friends.

"It's neat for me in that I've never done this, but I'm seeing people that I worked with, trained with and grew up with," Bumpus said.

Most firefighters agree that the best part of the day is knowing that they're benefiting a cause.

"It's cool knowing that the money you raise goes for research for real people," Wise said. "That and the elevator ride down, 'cause I was done."

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Kent firefighter top finishers

Jessi Nemens, 138 overall, 16:22

Drew Maenhout, 180, 16:52

Art Weichbrodt, 217, 17:09

Brandon Bumpus, 247, 17:28

Rick Cox, 357, 18:25

Jesse Wise, 465, 18:16

Ian Bird, 675, 20:54

Rudy Figel, 719, 21:18

Nate Strobel, 1,090, 25:26

Joel Willits, 1,126, 25:58

Erin Rhead, 1,475, 36:29

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