How doth I test thy fitness? Let me count the ways:
I will push you to the depth and breadth and height,
Thy body can reach. Tests of endurance and might,
That will leave you crawling, leave you falling on your face.
Getting on with the premier contracting fire fighting service in the Kootenays was no small feat. A gruelling fitness test has to be passed before you could even try on a baggy Nomex fire suit. A 5km timed run, push-ups, sit-ups and a 3.6km pack test are par for the course. The pack test is a strange variation on speed-walking. It involves a backpack loaded down with rocks, a strange, gyrating, heel-toe power stride, and enduring the searing pain of lactic-acid saturation.
Fortunately, the contracter with the highest fitness standard, also has the highest pay rate in the area. And high pay really adds up in firefighting, where weekly hours tend to drift into time and a half, and then double time on the fire line.
It wasn’t all that hard, and myself and some fellow ex-treeplanting friends made a day of it. Competitive waddling and un-necessary wipe-outs became staples that nourished us through the tougher moments of the test.
We all passed, except for Billy. Not that Billy isn’t fit. Well, Billy wasn’t fit on the day of the test. He was far from it. But it wasn’t for want of effort or cardiovascular fitness level that he ended up collapsing part way through the run. You see, Billy had thoughtlessly pushed the limits of his endurance the night before. He is the type of individual, the type of drinker, whose heart bursts with sentimentality. Its hard to call it alcoholism, because he comes up with such convincing reasons to celebrate life. To the death of a legendary pop star! Salud! To our last day of planting! Banzai! To our first night in Nelson! Chukbae! To the anniversary of the death of an obscure swedish Christian existentialist thinker of the early twentieth century! Bottoms up!
Billly came around the corner on the boss’s bike five minutes after the time limit had evaporated. A shameless grin of self-deprecation cut through the puffy red of his cheeks, his eyes sparkled conspiratorially for the shade of their sunken foxholes. His posture spoke of that paradoxical pride of a man who failed so spectacularily, he somehow succeeded.
He stumbled off the bike and took a swashbuckling swig of water before speaking. “Well,” he chuckled, “I guess my day is over.” Then he went on to describe the series of unfortunate events that unfolded during his 5k: un gros gueule de bois, extreme cramping and dehydration, and a desperate, unfortunately timed mid-run bowel movement.
He gladly took over the vacant position of group photographer and vowed to live to fight again, sober, another day.
During the pack-test, Branden and I butted our competitive heads. We powered up the final hill, each with our peculiar style of power walking, each neck and neck. He preferred a loose, flailing stride, a distant cousin of the belly dance, that suited his lanky frame. I leaned into the hill, and through my arms and my everything into a compact power stride. We were both howling in manic agony as we approached the finish line driveway. As I started to pull ahead Branden half-tripped, half-dove across the imaginary finish line. It was a feat so accidental, so sacrificial, so brave and stupid that I slowed to a complete halt. He rolled over on the concrete, his forearms bleeding, his legs trembling with weakness. He blinked twice, as if in shock and then smiled gloatingly up at me as if to say: “I win.”
I am almost ready to strut out, Polaski hung arrogantly over my shoulder, to the fireline. All the paperwork has been pushed through the hungry, bureaucratic machine. Now, I wait, with that strange anticipation that perhaps a small town doctor feels: an innocent desire to put one’s training and enthusiasm to the test that creaks on the hinges necessarily on disaster. Is it wrong for the young surgeon to pray for severe injuries, the firefighter to secretly pray for lightning storms and arson?
I suppose my complicity depends on the power of my prayers.
And whether or not, I’m holding the arson’s lighter…