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Why SaltStick Partner Brian Hackenburg Races Marathons in 46 Pounds of Firefighter Gear to Raise Fitness Awareness

Brian Hackenburg

We at SaltStick are privileged to support the amazing efforts of many endurance athletes. Every now and then, we like to share their stories with you, in the hopes that you can learn from them and become inspired to pursue your own fitness journey.

For other blog posts about our athletes, click any of the links below:

This week’s post is not about a professional endurance athlete; rather it is about a firefighter named Brian Hackenburg, who has completed more than 54 races — 11 of them full-length marathons — dressed head-to-toe in firefighter gear. Brian originally started competing in endurance events 50 pounds overweight and at risk for heart disease. Today, he is “in the best shape of his life,” and he continues to pursue fitness as a way to promote health and raise funds for the Fireman Rob Foundation. His story is one of passion and pursuing fitness for a cause greater than ourselves.

We are grateful to be able to support Brian and his efforts, and we hope you can gain inspiration from his daily mission to promote fitness among firefighters.

Brian’s journey into fitness:

While you may think firefighters are among the fittest people on the planet, reality is much different. In fact, a University of Illinois study found that nearly 75 percent of firefighters are overweight. Obesity is a significant risk factor in heart disease, and each year, nearly 50 percent of in-the-line-of-duty deaths result from heart attack or stroke.

As Brian’s story illustrates, a physically-oriented job doesn’t always result in physical fitness. When he first began running, Brian was 50 pounds overweight and out of shape, despite his job as a firefighter. His moment of truth came when he signed up for a local 5k race, “almost passed out” after crossing the finish line.

“I knew right then it was time to make a lifestyle change,” Brian says.

Although it took him a full year to prepare for his next race — a half marathon — Brian lost the extra weight and today, he says he is in the best shape of his life.

Indeed, Brian is quite fit — As of this blog post’s publish date, Brian has run 54 races, 11 of which were full-length marathons, in head-to-toe firefighter gear. This is no easy feat, as the dark-colored suit adds an extra 46 pounds to his frame! However, Brian says the added difficulty is worth it because he knows he is raising awareness for firefighter fitness.

The gear has a deeper meaning as well. Four years ago, a fellow firefighter named Jamie Dickman accompanied Brian in a 5k. In early 2014, Jamie was killed in the line of duty fighting an apartment fire. Since then, Brian has run every race in full gear as a way to honor Jamie.

“My motivation is to keep my brother firefighter’s memory alive and honor his life, staying in the best shape possible for the community I serve,” Brian says. “The pain and weight of the firefighter gear is nothing compared to the loss of [Jamie]. Anytime I feel like I want to quit, I think about some of the things he would be saying to me and keep moving forward.”

Fitness as a pursuit of a greater cause:

In addition to honoring his friend, Brian also runs to support the Fireman Rob Foundation, a Baltimore-based organization which provides free Gund Teddy Bears to children in hospitals suffering from illness or depression. The Foundation was started by another firefighter, Rob Verhelst, who also completes races in full fireman gear. For the past three years, Brian has served as the National Ambassador for the Foundation.

“Being part of something bigger has been inspirational as an athlete and firefighter,” Brian says.

*If you’re interested in learning more about the Fireman Rob Foundation or would like to donate to the cause, visit www.firemanrobfoundation.com.

Brian Hackenburg 2

Brian’s hydration strategy:

In addition to adding 46 pounds to his frame, the gear traps most of Brian’s body heat, which means he has to take extra precautions to stay hydrated. While his exact nutrition strategy changes from race to race, Brian makes sure he has a plan before toeing the starting line.

“I always have a different plan for each specific race and distance I compete,” Brian says. “Most races include SaltStick Caps PLUS, energy gels, and Cola during the run.”

How SaltStick helps Brian:

“I ran my first Ironman 70.3 (Muncie) four years ago,” Brian says. “I did not take my nutrition serious enough and end up cramping severely during the half marathon run. After that race, I started adding SaltStick Caps PLUS for every race and have never had any cramping since that race.”

Beyond fueling his fitness efforts, SaltStick also helps Brian when he is on the job. In addition to the extraordinarily hot temperatures he must deal with, Brian’s suit traps in his body heat, effectively eliminating the effectiveness of sweat’s cooling effects.

This causes his body to attempt to compensate by releasing dramatically large amounts of sweat. According to one study, firefighters lose up to five times as much water as athletes in a given period of time.

Of course, as readers of the SaltStick blog know, sweat is made of more than just water, and Brian has to replace a spectrum of electrolytes as well, including sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. SaltStick is designed to replace all of these lost electrolytes, in a form the body can easily absorb, which makes it easier for Brian to stay hydrated and — more importantly — to stay safe.

“The daily heat stress firefighters endure put them as risk heat exhaustion,” Brian says. “I always keep a SaltStick Dispenser in my firefighter gear to incorporate with water and energy drinks.”

How Brian stays motivated:

Brian says he loves sharing his stories when he is competing in races.

“As an age group athlete, the best part of being an endurance athlete are the other athletes I am able to meet and talk with at the marathons and triathlons I compete in,” Brian says.

Brian also advises anyone new to endurance sports to “start slow and run your own race.” The most important thing is to have fun, he says, and to not miss out on what is in front of us.

“Remember to live inspired and that your strength is in your passion,” he says.

Thank you to Brian!

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