Firefighters will test their skills at the North Little Rock competition

FIREFIGHTER CHALLENGE

Admission: Free

Thursday

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free practice day

Friday

Elementary excursion day

9 a.m.: Relay race for children from North Little Rock School

5 p.m.: Opening ceremony

Solo competition

Saturday

8:00 a.m.: Charity challenge

10:30 a.m.: Opening ceremony

Tandem races and relays

Argenta Dogtown Throwdown after the races, Main Street from Broadway to Fifth Street

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It took Captain Dustin Free, fire assistant and information officer for the North Little Rock Fire Department, about two minutes recently to describe the grueling journey that is the firefighters’ challenge.

In no time he needed to explain the circuit and its five “evolutions” – the High Rise Pack Carry, the Hose Hoist, the Force Machine, the Hose Advance and the Victim Rescue – some of the fastest firefighters and the fittest, decked out in all their firefighting gear, would have already completed the climbing, hoisting, hammering and hauling and crossed the finish line.

All of this action will take place in North Little Rock as Firefighter Challenge competitors from across the country test their strength and speed against the course, which will be set up Thursday through Saturday in the parking lot across from Dickey-Stephens Park, 400 W. Broadway.

After a practice on Thursday open to spectators, the competition takes place on Friday and Saturday, with divisions for solo, tandem and team competitors. There will be food trucks and other attractions for those who come to watch the challenge, Free says.

This is the third time North Little Rock has hosted the event; in 2016 it used the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum parking lot and in 2019 it moved to the McCain Mall parking lot.

“It’s not only great for the firefighters and the camaraderie, but it also brings revenue to the city,” says Free, who served on a North Little Rock Fire Department crew in Memphis in 2000, when the he event, which began in 1991, was called the Fire Fighter Challenge.

The name may have changed, but the challenge part remains.

Competitors begin by climbing a five-story tower carrying a 42-pound pipe. At the top, they pull a “donut roll” of 42-pound pipe before descending to grab a 9.6-pound hammer and drive a 160-pound steel beam over 5 feet. From there, they race a 140-foot slalom course, zigzagging between a row of delineators before pulling a hose 75 feet and using it to spray water at a target. The final evolution involves the firefighter dragging a 175-pound dummy 106 feet to the finish line.

“All [on the course] is part of a firefighter’s job,” says Melissa Shelton, engagement lead with the challenge. “It is organized in a course that allows them to work on their skills, test themselves, have fun and compete and camaraderie with other firefighters.

Shelton says she expects about 80 competitors to compete in North Little Rock, which is the last event before the Sept. 22-24 Nationals in Fort Pierce, Fla., followed by the World Championships in Sandy, Florida. Utah, October 10-15.

In addition to adult firefighters seeking glory from the challenge, area fifth-graders will have the chance to participate, Free says. Races are being held at elementary schools in North Little Rock, and the fastest boy and girl from each school will compete on a kid’s version of the challenge course on Friday during the elementary school field day.

“We really want to get the kids involved and hopefully come back Friday night to watch the firefighters,” Free said.

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Two of those firefighters will be Doug Welter of the North Little Rock Fire Department and Steve Kotch, who retired from the Little Rock department and works with the Camp Robinson Fire Department.

[GALLERY: Click here to see photos of the 2019 competition at McCain Mall: arkansasonline.com/95strong/]

It’s safe to say Kotch, 62, of Conway, is a legend in the sport. He’s been on the challenge since 1997 and is a member of the Sub 2:00 Club, meaning he completed the course in less than two minutes.

In 1998, he was inducted into the Lion’s Den, which rewards elite competitors; and in 2001 he finished second at the world championships in the over-40 division. In August 2015, Kotch set a world record in the over-55 division when he completed the circuit in a record time of 1:43.

Welter, 31, has been with North Little Rock since 2016. His friendship with Kotch dates further back to when Welter worked at the Conway Regional Fitness Center, where Kotch trained.

“He’s been a really good mentor to me,” said Welter, who first competed in the challenge in 2016. “When I got really serious, we trained together every day. That’s a very good leader who is always willing to give advice and knowledge. I just try to absorb as much as I can.”

Kotch, who has four sons and three granddaughters, grew up in southern Maryland and was drafted for the University of Central Arkansas track team, where he majored in music education.

“After I graduated, I loved this place too much to leave,” he says one August morning after a training session with Welter. He gave up his initial career plans to be a band manager and in 1987 joined the Little Rock Fire Department, where he worked on several specialty teams, including the bomb squad. He retired in 2016, but six months later was hired as a fire chief with the Camp Robinson department and now works there as a firefighter.

Alongside his job was his lifelong passion for fitness and competition, and the challenge scratched that itch nicely.

“Being in the fire department, some guys introduced me to a local competition, and we did pretty well,” he says. “We went to Dallas for our first Firefighter Challenge and qualified for ‘worlds’ and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Challenge training pays off in his job, Kotch says. “The stronger you are, the more fit you are, which makes all your tasks easier, especially at the scene of a fire.”

Kotch and Welter train on a course owned by the Conway Fire Department that simulates the challenge course.

Kotch says he likes to focus his training on the tower.

“My view is that you train as hard as you can for the tower. The fitter you are to climb the tower, by the time you come out of the tower, the more you will have left in the tank.”

Strategy also plays a part, as in the slalom race through the delineators, which is perhaps the easiest of all evolutions, but it’s a place where time can be made up or lost.

“Ironically, that’s where most people waste time,” Kotch says. “They tend to relax when they run.”

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Welter says his first experience at the competition in 2016 was difficult.

“Steve groomed me for the mental aspect, but until you perform it yourself, you really have no idea what it’s costing you. You’re exhausted, you feel like not being able to breathe.”

He has competed in several since then and set a personal best of 1:58 in his last meet in 2019 in North Little Rock.

His favorite segments of the challenge, he says, are the tower and the winch. He hopes to improve his time in the last part of the course.

“Dummy drag, it’s just grueling. It’s been the focus of my training to prepare for this one, working on the back half of the competition.”

Kotch, who plans to compete at national and world championships, has faith in Welter.

“I think he’s going to smoke his best time pretty well,” he said. “He’s much stronger now than the last time he ran it. His energy system capacity is much higher and I expect him to go faster” than 1:58.

As for his own goals, Kotch, who last raced at the nationals in 2018 in Branson, where he finished second, is keeping expectations modest.

“Firstly, I don’t want to embarrass myself or my department or the fire department. That means finishing the course. However, having this competition gene, I want to do my best. To finish it, maybe run a 2h30, I can’t be disappointed with that.”

Free hopes for a strong turnout from supporters and supporters and to establish the challenge as a regular event in the city.

“The more people who come, the better. [chance] we have to get it again. We want this to be an event that people look forward to coming to North Little Rock. My goal is to one day have world competition here in North Little Rock.”

Doug Welter will compete in the Firefighter Challenge September 8-10. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
Photo North Little Rock firefighter Daniel Butler competes in the event then called the Firefighter Combat Challenge Sept. 14, 2019, at the McCain Mall in North Little Rock. (Democrat-Gazette File Photo/Thomas Metthe)
Photo Beau Gunter (right) of Tuscaloosa, Alabama hoists 42 pounds of coiled fire hose during the event, then called the Firefighter Combat Challenge Sept. 14, 2019, at the McCain Mall in North Little Rock. (Democrat-Gazette File Photo/Thomas Metthe)

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