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Juliet Draper stands at the bottom of a five-story tower constructed of steel girders, a spectator...for now. She's wearing the bottom half of the protective gear she uses at work as a firefighter in Colorado Springs. Counting the air canister worn on her back, the heavy boots and the insulated, heavy-duty pants and jacket -- known in the trade as "bunker gear" -- her clothes alone weigh fifty pounds.
Big, impressive numbers are all around her. To begin with, it's pushing ninety degrees in the Jumbo Sports parking lot. As the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge begins, two men from different fire departments take off in their fifty-pound outfits, carrying 45 pounds of hose up a five-story (that's 41-foot) tower, taking the steps two at a time. Once at the summit, they begin hauling up a 75-foot section of rope, to which another 45-pound roll of hose is attached. Finishing this task seconds apart from each other, the men race back down the tower steps, touching each one, grab their sledgehammers and begin swinging them at a heavy metal sled, driving it back five feet. You can hear their hoarse breathing through the scuba gear they're required to wear. Next they walk 140 feet between orange safety cones, grab a hose loaded with water and run 75 feet back the way they came, the hose getting heavier with every step. As the clock ticks on, they perform the final move -- grabbing a 175-pound dummy (whose official name is Rescue Randy) and dragging him backward 106 feet, after which the men collapse into the arms of paramedics, who strip off the bunker gear and usher them, limping and gasping, into a tent where mists of cool water rain down.
On ESPN and in the far-flung suburban parking lots where the first-round contests are run, the Combat Challenge is known as "the toughest two minutes in sports." No serious competitor finishes in anything less than a state of medical exhaustion. As endurance contests go, it's quick -- about eight hours shorter, for instance, than an Ironman triathlon. But the Challenge is rooted in a practical application of which Ironman hardbodies can only dream: Each of its five stages simulates a fireman's working conditions during a structure fire.
Spectators can easily imagine being Rescue Randy, unconscious and very, very hot, dragged from a dangerous place by a fireman who is not just tougher than tough, but buffer than buff.
Juliet Draper has performed all of these moves countless times in her years fighting fires with the United States Army at Fort Carson and now with the Colorado Springs Fire Department. But you don't usually get cheering crowds at a structure fire, she observes.
"You don't even think about what's happening yourself until days later. You're just sitting at the dinner table, and the danger hits you," she says. "When it's all coming down, you don't have time."
Today, there's time. Juliet will need just three and a half minutes to do the course. Only six women have shown up to compete today, as opposed to more than 100 men, some of them running in relay teams of three. Two of the six women drop out less than one minute into the contest. Juliet waits her turn, calm yet pumped.
A few minutes later she has beat the remaining three women handily, even after taking several seconds to wave to the crowd during the safety-cone run. Just before lying down to pass out briefly on the cool linoleum floor of Jumbo Sports, she allows as to how she will win the world championship this year in Las Vegas. "I just feel sure," she says, "and now I think I'd better just put my feet up and my head down. Blood pooling in the legs. You know."
Juliet's been training all summer -- running up and down the stairs of a Colorado Springs parking garage in her bunker gear, running intervals, lifting thousands of pounds of free weights. Even in severe distress, her body looks like something carved from the finest marble. Complete strangers approach to take her picture with disposable cameras bought across the street at a convenience store.
"Stand back," one woman orders. "I need to get your entire physique in the frame."
Juliet flexes obligingly. Five minutes have passed since her fainting spell, and she looks, once again, like the fittest woman on earth you've never heard of.
At my side, my husband, a volunteer firefighter and Challenge competitor, sums it up. "I'd let her rescue me," he says.
I know the feeling -- or its role reversal -- and I might as well confess it right here. When it comes to firemen, I have no objectivity. There is something about the sight of them that pleases me deeply, and so far, knock on wood, there has never been a real fire involved. Not even a spark, unless you count the emanations coming from me and my female co-workers, who hang around trying to look endangered whenever the fire department comes by to check out a false alarm.
Luckily, this happens a lot in downtown office buildings. The department usually arrives in one or two trucks with a pounding of big boots. All those men, all that gear -- it adds up to the most pleasant and macho of all still lifes: black T-shirts, knotty triceps, big suspenders, big bunker pants with a big zipper done up in haste, the tent-like sweep of a bunker jacket and the kindest faces in all of law enforcement. I've heard it said that the only security firefighters have is the knowledge that everyone's always happy to see them. It's true! It's true!