Being 'Toughest' Is a Painful Experience for Titlist

Times Staff Writer

After nearly five months of extensive physical and mental conditioning, Ron Ungar can relax. There will be no more early mornings spent working out and running before heading to work in the afternoon. No more nights sleeping in a parking lot in the back of his truck. No more late nights or painful conditioning.

At least for a while.

Ungar's job is complete. He finished the task he had been painstakingly training for when he claimed the crown as the toughest policeman or firemen in the world in the first "Toughest Competitor Alive" event in San Jose in early August.

But four weeks later, Ungar, a 29-year-old Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy in Marina del Rey, is still paying the price for victory.

The day after the competition, Ungar became sick for the first time in years. He has just recently been able to jog short distances again. He's even gotten up enough strength to go surfing twice.

"The day after I competed, I got up and could barely walk. I think my whole body was trying to say, 'Hey, I'm done.'

"I'm starting to come around. I'm starting to recover."

Derived from the "Toughest Cop Alive" competition, which is sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Department every October, the "Toughest Competitor Alive" is the ultimate physical test for police and firemen. The competition consists of a 5-kilometer run, 16-pound shot put, 100-yard dash and swim, 20-foot rope climb, bench press, pullups and obstacle course spaced over about seven hours.

'Extremely Competitive'

"I ran college track, and it's nothing like (the Toughest Competitor)," said Ungar, who was on the Point Loma College track team in San Diego and swam competitively at San Diego State. "It's not like the decathlon, which mainly tests track ability or power lifting or gymnastic agility. It combines it all."

The events are tough, and the competition is even tougher, Ungar said. About 5,000 police and firemen from 22 countries were in this year's competition.

"It's extremely competitive," Ungar said. "Even from a college athletics point of view, it's as competitive or more than that."

Adding to the competitive pressure on Ungar was the longstanding rivalry between police and firemen.

"There's always been a constant battle between policemen and firemen to see who is in better shape," said Ungar, who has been stationed in Marina del Rey for six weeks since transferring from the County Jail downtown, where he was stationed for 18 months.

For Ungar, staying in shape is the name of the game.

"I like to keep this thing in perspective. I wanted to make it something that would motivate me to keep myself in top physical shape as a police officer. I found it in this. I wanted to remember that whether I finished first, second, third or fourth, the whole idea of this was to keep in top physical shape."

Ungar began training in April. Soon training became a way of life. Some nights after getting off work at 2 a.m., Ungar, instead of driving to his home in Covina, would drive to a local parking lot and sleep in his pickup so he could get an early start training in the morning.

"I got really burned out with sleeping in my truck and having to get up and not being able to go home at night," he said.

On workdays, Ungar would get up at 5:30 a.m. and complete his workout before reporting to work in the afternoon. One day he would run, swim and throw the shot put. The next he would do rope climbing, pullups and weightlifting.

On days off, workouts were more intensive. Most included swimming 5,000 meters and an eight-mile run.

Impress the Public

"I've been training for four or five years now and I'm not a big person," said Ungar, who is 5-10 and weighs 175 pounds, "but the better shape I'm in and the stronger I am, that's going to pay off when I'm in a hand-to-hand combat situation when my life is on the line.

"Sure, I'm not going to need to be in excellent shape, but one of those times, a life will depend on me to be in shape. As a policeman, you may go a career and may not be in a physical altercation. But I could go into work today and be fighting for my life. That's when it counts."

Ungar said he would also like to see some people's views of police change. He's trying to set an example.

"Being physically fit is important to me. I don't like the image people give us--that police officers are the ones sitting around the doughnut shop, drinking coffee, smoking and drinking, being overweight.

"I guess I have high enough ideals to think society looks upon us in a certain way, and it's our obligation to look like that and be in shape. The better shape we're in, the better we're able to serve the public.

"I have no doubt that the athletic part helps me adjust to my job. Because of the nature of the job, you could be sitting there drinking a cup of coffee at zero adrenalin, and all of a sudden, somebody could walk up to you and say a shooting just occurred down the street. Now you're operating, and your heart rate is probably about 140, and your adrenalin is pumping. This puts a lot of stress on your body if you're not physically fit."

Most of Ungar's training now centers around his aspiration to join the county's emergency services detail and the trauma paramedic helicopter patrol.

"That would be a dream of mine, just to go into a situation where somebody's life is hanging on the line, and depending on how you react to that situation can make a difference as to whether the person lives or dies. There are not many jobs like that where you have that responsibility."

Emergencies are nothing new to Ungar. Before joining the Sheriff's Department, he was a lifeguard in San Diego for eight years.

"In lifeguarding, I was in that (emergency) position time and time again," said Ungar, who also teaches lifesaving and water safety classes at Azusa Pacific University. "I just seemed to key on that. It was a thrill to go in and try to do the rescue and get the person out. I enjoy helping people."

But while Ungar may do well in situations with others' lives in jeopardy, he has failed to win the "Toughest Cop Alive" competition.

In the 1983 "Toughest Cop Alive" competition, held for California police officers, FBI and Secret Service agents and district attorneys, Ungar led by 70 points before the final event--the obstacle course. He lost.

This year, Ungar was in a similar position. Entering the obstacle course, Ungar led a West Covina fireman by 100 points.

"I had several guys come up and say, 'Don't let that fireman beat you' or 'Don't let happen to you what happened in '83.' So I had a lot of pressure on me," said Ungar, who has finished second in the "Toughest Cop Alive" competition the past two years.

So how did he do?

"Not real well. But I held on."

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