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Keeping Mental Limits From Setting Physical Limits

Posted Oct 06 2010 9:54pm

A few years ago I applied for a job with a fire department near our home. Like most bureaucratic jobs, there was a written test and a pre-qualifying drug screening. But there was also a brutal physical test—a 10-minute obstacle course simulating common firefighting tasks.


Among the obstacles: Dragging a 165-pound dummy 70 feet around a turn. Carrying heavy equipment to and from a simulated fire truck. Forceable entry with a 10-pound sledgehammer.

Although these tasks aren't difficult, they come after the test's hardest challenge: Three minutes and 20 seconds on a stair simulator wearing 75 pounds of weights. More than 75 percent of candidates fail the stair test and never get to the other obstacles.

According to chief of the state fire training facility, it isn't the physical part that causes most people to fail. It's the mental part.

Candidates are disqualified for falling or dismounting, and you're not allowed to grasp the railings for balance. Worse, the tester only speaks when you start the test and 10 seconds before the test is over. You have no idea how long you've been on the apparatus.

I prepped for six months for my test, spending a substantial amount of time on a Stairmaster at my local YMCA. I ran, I lifted weights, I swam, I crosstrained. I wasn't in the best shape in my life, but I was close.

Still, standing in line waiting for the test to begin, I knew I was going to fail. I was one of the oldest and portliest candidates in line. The guy immediately in front of me looked like an NFL linebacker—all muscle. He lasted less than two minutes before falling off.

In fact no one made it past the stair test before I put my first step down. As the machine cranked stair after stair underneath me, doubt overwhelmed me. I was not strong enough. I was too old. My mind fought a pitched battle between what should have known—three minutes wasn't that long considering all my training—and what was certain—I can't do this. I was losing the battle and started to step off.

"You have 10 seconds left," the tester announced.

Suddenly the argument in my head was over and I knew I could finish—I could do 10 seconds on one leg. In fact, once the stair test was over I flew through the rest of the obstacles. I got the job.

Even though I didn't accept the position, I learned something valuable from the application process: Many of the physical challenges in my life are actually mental. A steep hill, an achy muscle or a cold morning can throw me off my exercise routine and keep me from achieving my goals.

But every time I come across those challenges, I ignore the argument in my head and hear, instead, "You have ten seconds left." I smile and move on.

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