Lt. Sean Sullivan paces and bounces up and down, waiting for the signal to run up the stairs.
He’s dressed in his firefighter uniform, prepared to run into a burning building. His helmet is secured, air pack is on his back, and his boots are tied. The gear weighs between 45 and 60 pounds.
But he’s not going into a fire.
He takes off up the five-story tower carrying a 42-pound high-rise pack. At the top, he drops the weight, snatches the dangling rope with a 42-pound rolled up hose attached and pulls it up.
As the rope and weight fall to the floor, Sean races back down the stairs.
Knocking a 9-pound sledgehammer against a 160-pound steel beam, he slides it 5 feet and is on to the next challenge.
He jogs down the rest of the course and grabs the hose, and he’s hauling about 210 pounds by the time he reaches the other side of the course.
The last part of the race is his strongest. He lifts a 175-pound dummy and sprints backward about 100 feet to the finish line.
He didn’t beat the firefighter running against him, but his time is one of his best, and he just finished what firefighters call “the toughest two minutes in sports.”
Sean, 38, a Frankfort Fire Department firefighter and paramedic, tried the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge in 2007 on a whim.
He went with another Frankfort firefighter to the challenge in Lexington without much preparation.
“We didn’t know what we were in for,” Sean said. “Not at all.”
The challenge, which started in 1991 in Virginia, consists of five events designed to train firefighters for tasks they might face in a real fire – high-rise pack carry, hose hoist, forcible entry, hose advance and victim rescue.
Only firefighters are allowed to compete, and they wear their entire uniform during the race. The challenge travels across the country and has stops in New Mexico, Alabama, West Virginia and Nevada, to name a few.
The winners don’t receive prize money, just medals for the top three in each category.
Sean quickly learned he wasn’t ready for the 2007 competition.
“It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do physically in my life,” he said.
He knew he could do better, so two years later he tried again but finished about 13 seconds slower.
So, Sean kept trying. He started training, asked veterans for advice and made his gear lighter.
In his third challenge he finished around two minutes and 40 seconds. In late 2010, he reached two minutes and 30 seconds.
He’s participated in 13 challenges now, individually and in tandem races with his partner Mark Bennett, 28, from the Stamping Ground City Fire Department.
Mark and Sean met a few years ago at the challenge in Lexington. After racing against each other, they talked and eventually decided to try tandem racing. In tandem races, one participant does the first half, the other the second.
Mark creates their training schedule, which gradually gets harder as they get closer to events.
“As the season gets closer and closer, we’ll change up the program so we’re doing more explosive work, more movement specific,” Mark said.
They want to break 1:30 as a tandem team. Last season their best time was 1:33.
Mark runs the first half of the course, and Sean runs the second half, where is he is stronger.
“That’s pretty much where we train – he works a lot on the back half of the course,” Mark said. “He is just a rocket when he picks up the dummy and gets going.”
This season, Sean finished the individual race on a personal best time of 1:59.51. His slowest time this year was 2:11.
“I honestly didn’t think I would break two minutes this year,” Sean said.
Sean is one of the fastest competitors in Kentucky, but he won’t brag about it.
“He works hard at this, and nobody gives him recognition for it,” Chris Dorsey, president of Freds 2 the Rescue, said. “He does this silently.”
Frankfort’s Freds 2 the Rescue repairs, cleans and does alterations on turnout gear for firefighters. Chris started sponsoring Sean in 2010 when Sean approached him about making his gear lighter.
Chris does the job for free.
“We get nothing in return, but that’s OK,” Chris said. “We enjoy watching him.”
Chris went to Pikeville and Lexington to support Sean and got hooked.
He said seeing firefighters cheer others on, even though they are technically competing against each other, surprised him.
“There is a firefighter bond, and in this competition it really shows up,” Chris said. “They know this is making a fitter firefighter, and that’s going to save lives.”
Sean and Mark are easy to find in a crowd at the challenges. They’re the only ones that look like NASCAR drivers.
After Chris helped find more sponsors, he added sponsor names and logos to the helmet, pants and jacket.
“We wanted to take the traditional gear and put silk screening on it to make it look like NASCAR,” Chris said.
In addition to corporate sponsors, Sean said the Frankfort Fire Department financially supports him with travel costs and registration fees.
“They’ve supported me 100 percent,” Sean said. “I couldn’t ask for more from them. They’ve been fantastic.”
A big motivation for Sean is his family. He schedules everything around them.
He trains before his kids and wife, Carri, wake up or after they go to sleep, including naps. He avoids signing up for competitions on weekends when there’s T-ball, baseball or soccer games.
“Other than being gone a day to do a competition, making sure I’m not neglecting my family is the most important thing,” Sean said.
One of the reasons he likes doing the competitions is showing his boys, 3-year-old Kaleb and 6-year-old Jaiden, that you can stay in shape even as you get older.
“I like showing my kids that you don’t have to just get old and accept it,” he said.
Chris said Sean is always with his sons if he’s not working at the fire station.
“He is a family man first,” Chris said.
Mark said Sean’s dedication to his family, while still being a tough competitor, is motivating.
“It’s cool that he’s able to train and be able to drive himself and push himself,” Mark said. “That is some of the biggest motivation for me.”
ENDING THE SEASON
Running at the same pace down the tower, Sean is tied with his competitor from Charleston, W.Va.
But the other man is faster with the sledgehammer and takes the lead.
It’s the last race of the season for Sean, and he recorded his personal best, 2:01, at his last challenge in Lexington.
It looks like he’s going to lose until the last leg of the race.
Once Sean grabs the dummy, he’s off. He quickly sprints past the other guy and makes it look easy as he pulls the 175-pound dummy past the finish line.
“I smoked him.”
Sean ends the day and the season with a new personal record of 1:59.51. It is his first time breaking two minutes, making him 45 seconds faster than he was when he started.
“You don’t make the same mistakes twice,” Sean said. “You give it everything you have out there.”