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!
I am not alone in my admiration of the fireguy. Standing around outside during the fire drill, I've made it a habit to take an informal survey among my female (and gay male) co-workers: Who is the bigger babe, a fireman or a cop? The firemen have always come out so far ahead that I can only remember one woman who preferred a police officer. (A few years later she became one and then married one, so I'm not sure her vote even counts.) The rest of us continue to allot our loyalty and regard to the scenic Denver Fire Department, as well as all of the other fire departments out there. You never know when you'll run into one.
"I did a fashion shoot in Manhattan about eight years ago," says an art director acquaintance of mine, "and we used those fake steam pellets, and the smoke came boiling out of the windows, and of course the New York City Fire Department showed up. I was the lowly assistant, but the firemen kept saying: 'Do you understand how serious this is? Do you understand?' -- and the whole time I was thinking, well, maybe I don't. Maybe you have to show me."
Right, right. I've had this vision myself -- a comfy little interrogation room where fire-safety scofflaws are taken by firemen when they need a little... discipline. Or did I get this unintentionally racy notion during my 400th read-aloud of the Curious George episode that contains this sentence: "You're a naughty little monkey. You fooled the fire department"?
To cut to the chase, I recently found myself in the enviable position of being married to a rookie volunteer fireman. Eat your heart out, Calvin Klein: My husband is "bunkered up," as they say, and his conversation is peppered with phrases like "incident command" and "wildfire containment." Whatever benefits the local fire department, I've decided, is in my own best interest.
So when he decided to enter last Saturday's local running of the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge in a relay team with two fellow officers, I went along to add to my base of knowledge. Here's what I found out:
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But wait a minute! Could it be that the biggest firebabe of them all is a woman?
Juliet Draper, now 32, became a military firefighter at Fort Carson in 1990 and joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department seven years later, when her tour of duty ended. "I loved the Army, but I wanted a regular life," she recalls. "I got tired of hearing, 'You're going to Cuba. Pack your shit.'"
It never occurred to her to leave Colorado Springs. People there, she says, are athletic-minded, a pleasant change from her hometown of Cleveland. "In some cities, people are too sophisticated to sweat," she says. "But I have always wanted to go and do and be. The first sentence I ever said to my Dad was, 'Julie run, Daddy, Julie run fast.' I'm extreme and addictive about it. I admit it."
Two years ago Juliet abandoned the bodybuilding and powerlifting contests she used to enter and win and began to concentrate seriously on the Firefighter Combat Challenge. Last year, on her first trip to the nationals, she came in second. (The first-place finisher is rumored to have retired from this year's contest.) After ten days off, Juliet changed her training philosophy and started back to work. "The key is speed, although you gotta have a little ass to lift that dummy," she says. "So I run a lot and I do big things only -- squats, pull-ups, big compound muscles. There's no fine-motor anything in this sport.
"Also," she adds, "I'm eating more this year. Last year I ate hummingbird wings and granola all the time, and it made me pissy. So now I eat crap every weekend and I feel great. This is not life and death. There's more."
In Juliet's case, that more is the regular life she longed for when she left the Army. Home comes complete with a longtime partner, personal trainer Pamela Jones, and Pamela's teenage daughter, "who is not athletic but is my baby," Juliet says. Together Juliet and Pamela have just released their first dance-music CD, appropriately titled Rogue Amazon.
"You hear a lot of loud right-wing voices coming out of Colorado Springs lately," Pamela says. "Our plan is to promote the hell out of this CD and change that. Juliet has the talent; I have the entertainment experience."
In fact, during the 1980s, Pamela worked for her sister, singer Grace Jones. "I guess that's one of my claims to fame," she says. "Not the only one -- I come from a long line of Pentecostal ministers, and my parents always expected a lot of us."
Much as she expects a lot from her live-in relationship. There will be more CDs, she says, and a feature-length movie. You can already buy a poster of Juliet, posing in little but muscle mass, at www.rogueamazon.com. Which is fine, as long as it doesn't interfere with firefighting.
"It's a wonderful place she works, with wonderful men," Pamela says. "I go down there whenever I get the chance. They love to play, they all have motorcycles, they can cook. They're the kind of guys who stay fit into their fifties. And they're the rescuer type, not the control-freak type. And they know how to do everything. Creative, you know?
"I love firemen."