SEATTLE — On Sunday, 2,000 firefighters from around the country, including six from Longview, converged in Seattle to have a “miserable” time together.
Starting at 8 a.m., firefighters in full gear raced to the top of Seattle’s 69-floor Columbia Center to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
This year was Longview firefighter Mike Mann’s ninth time in the stairwell.
“It’s the same miserable time,” he said early Sunday morning as he pulled on his gear. “It’s all fun and games until the 50th floor. Then it gets ugly. You can’t breathe. Your legs get tired.”
Mike Lewis, who has been a full firefighter with Longview for about 18 months, said mental toughness would be crucial for his first time climbing the 933-foot Columbia Tower.
He competed in his first stairclimb in Portland last fall.
“The last 10 floors will be the hardest to have my mind pushing my body to keep going,” said Lewis, 31. “It will be amazing when I finish because I will realize I was doubting myself the whole time, but you can do it.”
As of Sunday morning, organizers said the event had already raised a record $2.36 million. Since its inception in 1991, the event has raised more than $17 million for leukemia and lymphoma research.
The Longview Fire Department has raised almost $31,500 so far for this year’s campaign, ranking fourth of 340 departments for fundraising per capita. Mann raised more than $23,000 of that alone, making him the second-highest individual fundraiser for this year’s event.
Last year, the team raised almost $18,000.
For many, leukemia hits close to home: Mann’s cousin; Lewis’s uncle; Battalion Chief Troy Buzalsky’s high school best friend; and firefighter Graham Lasee’s cousin’s wife all died from it.
“We’re doing our part to find a cure,” said Lasee, who was on his 11th climb. “And there’s the secondary benefit that it keeps you in shape.”
Mann, 53, estimated that he has climbed 10,000 floors since Thanksgiving in an effort to beat his record of 20 minutes.
“Mike has been training his butt off,” Buzalsky said. “I hope he beats me this year, and I don’t say that about anyone else on my team.”
The competitors are released into the stairwell one at a time every few seconds until well past noon. As they twist their way up, their boots, pants, coat and compressed air tank trap heat and perspiration and add about 50 pounds. There’s just enough room in the “claustrophobic” stairwell for faster firefighters to pass slower ones. By the 20th floor, there are vomit buckets on the landings.
On the 40th floor, after about 10 minutes, the competitors take a pit stop to swap their compressed air bottles, which are supposed to last 30 minutes but have been drained from the exertion.
The 50th floor is the “make or break” point, Lasee said. “You just want to survive. You’re panicked.”
“It’s the hardest 20 minutes of my life,” Buzalsky added.
Throughout the stairwell, there are photos of victims and survivors of leukemia and lymphoma. Buzalsky said he saw photos of two people he knew as he was climbing this year.
“It keeps you going,” he said. “After all, that’s what we do this for.”
Lewis said the pictures in the stairwell help him push to go farther.
“When you put on all this gear and start climbing, it’s like you’re trying to embody a small fraction of what it would feel like to go through (cancer treatment) on a daily basis,” Lewis said.
In addition to photos of people all over his turnouts and helmet, Mann listens to Rage Against the Machine and Linkin Park for motivation. It seems to have worked. He burst through the finish line at 17 minutes and 46 seconds, wiping more than two minutes off his best time.
“I felt good throughout the climb,” he said immediately after finishing. “I didn’t hit the wall at the 50th floor like usual. I hit the wall right when I hit the top stop and flung the mask off of me.”
Buzalsky, 56, and Lasee, 37, also beat their best times, but 28-year-old Zach Hutton got the fastest time with 16 minutes and 48 seconds, finishing 217th out of the 2,000 competitors. (This year’s best time was 11 minutes and 3 seconds.) Dan Jones also participated and Dan Rennells signed up, but he was sick with the flu.
Waiting for Mann at the top were two survivors: A childhood friend and Kaylee Rankin, a 13-year-old Hodgkins lymphoma survivor from Auburn, Wash., who had been paired with Mann.
“It was cool,” she said of witnessing her first stairclimb. “I had to go through (cancer), so helping other people not to go through it would be amazing.”
Mann’s childhood friend James Piper was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in 2013. At almost the last minute, he connected with a sister he didn’t know he had and received a bone-marrow transplant. Piper and his wife, Gina, traveled from Idaho to support Mann on Sunday.
“The support and dedication that these guys have is amazing,” Piper said. “It means more than I can say.”