It was a cool morning in March when 17 folks gathered to test their endurance at the Houston Mesa Horse Camp.
As a group, we would be walking three miles in 45 minutes carrying 45-pounds in a pack or a weighted vest. This is the test that all firefighters must pass in order to be "red carded" or "line certified" -- in other words, to be able to come face-to-face with the a forest fire.
Checking in with Bob Rick of the Forest Service, we weighed our vests and packs making sure we are carrying 45 pounds, not over and not under.
"The course is on level ground," Rick said to us at a safety meeting. He and his wife, Denise Ryan, mapped out the course we would walk. Four and three-quarters times around the track, and we would be done. We get an additional 45 seconds to complete the course because we are at 5,000 feet above sea level.
Ryan would be timing us -- we should complete each lap in 9:10 minutes to finish on time.
"This is a power walk," Rick said. "You must have one foot on the ground at all times."
He also warned his jovial audience of fatigue and tight chins.
"I'll be fresh as a daisy," Ed Armenta, district ranger said as some of us groaned about the course.
Some stretched, others jogged a bit as everyone put on their 45 pounds and prepared to walk.
Denise started us off and within five minutes the group was spread out, I was near the back. Engine Supervisor Mark Tiffany, and Payson Hot Shot Supervisor Fred Schoeffler kept pace with me and we had light conversation for the first lap.
By the second lap, my breathing was more labored and I was listening more than speaking. About two-thirds into the second lap, I realized I could not finish, I was not in shape for this. I dropped out and rested. Leaving the vest behind, I picked up the pace again with the group as they rounded for the third lap and finished.
Imagine finding out you were not in shape while facing a fire.
I was disappointed, but I was also challenged. The test is held at least two more times. Rick assured me, with better training and focus, I will pass.
As the last groups neared the finish line, two of the Payson Hot Shots, who had already crossed the finish line, came back and picked up the pace with the last person in line to encourage them across. That is the teamwork for which this crew is known. The first walkers crossed the finish line at 40:12 with the last coming in at 44:32. It's not a race, Rick told us in the beginning, we want you to finish in the right time.
"I don't smell fresh as a daisy," Armenta joked, "but my calves never seized up."
The firefighters are done for this year. I am not.
I begin training in earnest to take on the pack test again in two weeks.