United States Strongman Nationals fell on June 30 this year, right between my last two clinicals of physical therapy school. On the surface, this sounded like perfect timing, and since I am unable to make long-term plans for most of the rest of this year due to school and then boards, I figured I would start focusing my training to try and compete. The reality though, was this meant I had to pack up from my clinical in Norfolk, Virginia, move back home to Maryland, unpack, immediately re-pack for nationals and drive to New York, compete, then drive back home to Maryland, unpack, and immediately repack to move across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to my short-term apartment in College Park for my last clinical in Rockville, Maryland. In case reading that didn’t convey the point, this was horrible timing.
I didn’t know if I would compete as a heavyweight or a middleweight, so I trained for both — same events, but heavier weights for the big guns. Thanks to working my butt off to finish up my last semester of classes, and then working my butt off again at my clinical in Norfolk, my bodyweight was down to an embarrassing 223 pounds. After careful consideration of my long and distinguished history of totally crapping the bed on at least one event at nationals (despite placing well more than half the time), and given my current diminutive stature, I decided to compete as a middleweight. The fact that I felt fairly unprepared to compete also played a big factor. My apartment in Norfolk was very small, but pretty nice for the price, except that it had the most uncomfortable bed I’ve ever slept on in my life and there was nowhere else to sleep except for the wood floor. I was regularly waking up well before my alarm set for 5:00 AM, often as early as 3:00 AM. This would go on for several days and then I would crash and “sleep in” until 6:00 or so. Finally, thankfully, things started to click about two weeks out from the competition. I actually felt pretty good on most of the events except for the seated arm-over-arm truck pull.
My girlfriend and I drove up Thursday night and Friday morning was weigh-ins. I showed up about an hour early, thinking I would have a spot near the front of the line. False. Once things began to move and I went around the corner, I was at least 50 people back. Thankfully, the line moved fast and multiple people were being weighed in at once. One other factor that contributed to my competing at middleweight 220 instead of heavyweight 242 was that I didn’t have to cut for it. If I had, I wouldn’t have done it. All I did to make weight was postpone eating breakfast that morning until after I stepped on the scale at 219.4 pounds. No starvation, no water cut, no diuretics, no hot showers or baths or saunas to sweat it out. I was feeling uncertain enough about my readiness to compete without putting that evil on my body this time around.
Saturday morning it was go time. Five events to determine the national champ for men and women from teens through masters.
Circus Dumbbell Clean and Press for Reps
The weight was 170 pounds. We used a Bigg Dogg Dumbbell, which I had been able to train with at home since I have one, and also at Brute Strength Gym while I was living down in Norfolk since they have two of them. I was feeling good based on my training. I had hit eight reps recently at Brute and my all-time record was nine reps in competition on the Bigg Dogg Dumbbell with the same weight. I did the same dynamic warm-up I usually do and that went fine, but all my warm-up sets with the circus dumbbell felt like total crap, regardless of if they were light or heavy.
I had entered pretty close to the deadline so I was fourth in the lineup and would be all day. This is actually how I prefer it anyway, so I have less standing around waiting to go. The best score so far when I was up was five reps, so I knew if I could perform like I had in training I would be more than good to beat that. The judge gave me the call to start and away I went. The first three reps went okay, but I could vaguely tell they were shaky. The fourth rep I had locked out and held forever, but it turned out that my left foot wasn’t flat on the ground. After holding the damn thing up for what felt like a year, I finally heard the judge yelling, “FOOT! FOOT!” at me. I realized what was going on and looked down at my foot and put it down flat, but then I lost the dumbbell so no rep there for all that work.
My right arm was fried after that, so I switched to lefty for a couple of soul-rending reps. The fifth rep was an act of sheer will with my whole body working to hold lockout. I got it and knew I had to switch back to my right arm, but after cleaning it I felt like my whole right side was made of grape jelly. I tried to get as tight as possible to get the rep I knew I needed to take the lead and heaved the circus dumbbell up with everything I had left. My arm hit lockout, but it was a little bit away from my body to the side and it instantly came back down. I finished with five reps, which put me in a four-way tie for third in the 220s and a five-way tie for sixth in the overall middleweight division on this event.
Car Deadlift for Reps
The men’s divisions had a Chevy Equinox SUV with varying amounts of additional weight added to the car deadlift frame. For middleweight, we had the car plus 110 pounds. I pulled a couple reps one of the women’s cars, a Chevy Cruze, to warm up, which felt pretty good. Then I moved over to the Equinox with no weight on the frame and it felt a lot heavier but still very doable. That was all for warm-ups and then I was getting Andrew Pepiot, my training partner for this competition while I had been down at Brute, to tighten the living hell out of my Jack Deadlift Suit straps. It was go time. I should note here that even though you can’t see it in the video (below) because we had to wear our competition shirts over our deadlift suits, I was definitely sporting my Orangeman suit underneath. I wasn’t really paying attention to how many reps people had gotten because I was gear-whoring up for my turn to step onto the platform.
I am inconsistent on deadlift in competition, usually either pretty good or pretty bad, so my plan was to go all-in and pull every single rep I could within the 60-second time limit. The first three reps did not go well, because every time I locked it out I felt myself getting a little closer to passing out. I put down the third reps and rested a few seconds, trying to force air into my lungs and blood into my head. I reset and started pulling again and things went much more smoothly. Reps three through six came up pretty well and then I started to slow down on number seven. Rep eight was enough of a grinder that I had to reset and rest again. I had time left for one more rep and I knew I would need it so I sacked up and pulled the snot out of the bar. I got to just above my knees and stalled out, so I leaned back and set the bar on my thighs for a second before hitching for all I was worth. I finally humped it into submission and got the good call from the judge with only a few seconds to spare. I ended up with nine reps, which was good for third place in both the 220s and the overall middleweight division on this event all by myself. If I hadn’t gotten the last rep I would have been tied for third in both and had to share points instead.
Tire Flip and Sled Drag Medley
This event was a question mark for me since I was feeling strong but slow on tire flipping and fast on backwards drags. But the weights and sizes of the tire and sled were not set in stone, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Our tire weight was 675 and our sled weight was in excess of 800 pounds, since the sled itself was well over 200 pounds and we had six stall mats stacked on top at a little over 100 pounds each. I had been training tire mostly on the 700 at Brute, which is an awesome tire with amazing grip, but which also I felt slower on than some other similar weight tires like the 720 at Colosseum.
The tire flip rules were changed from five flips to 30 feet. This meant that there could be a variable number of flips to reach the distance, depending on if it was flipped straight or rolled and if the athlete was able to get a good forward drive on it during each flip. Also, the sled was proving to be a bit of a sticky wicket for most of the athletes due to a combination of the heavy weight, somewhat slick flooring (wood basketball court), and poor choice of footwear (a lot of people were just wearing running shoes or some old beat-up sneakers). I had just gotten a brand new pair of wrestling shoes with the grippy gum rubber soles, so I wasn’t worried about the shoes, but after about half of the 198s had gone there was still no one who had finished the event yet, which was somewhat worrying.
Then some genius shortened the Spud strap we were using for the drag and was able to do the whole drag and get the sled across the finish line. Lightbulb! Fun physics fact: if you shorten the straps on a heavy drag, you’re pulling more vertically and less horizontally, so you have fewer issues with friction on lack thereof from both the sled and your shoes. The men’s middleweight division was the biggest in the competition and the 220s were the biggest weight class, but finally, my turn came up and I got set to go full potato. I worked hard to drive forward on all of my tire flips and was able to get it across the line in three versus four flips. I turned around and hauled ass back to the sled, grabbed the middle of the straps, and spun them through the air to wrap them around my hands and started moving my feet as fast as I possibly could. The downside to shortening the straps was that I had to take much smaller steps than usual to avoid tripping and falling back or running the sled into my foot, which would have also caused me to fall back and totally lose my momentum. It was the most off-balance I’ve ever been for a backward drag ever, and I defined the condition of running being a “controlled fall” by just barely managing to get the sled over the line without incident. My time was 25.46 seconds, which was good for second place on this event in the 220s and the overall middleweight division.
Seated Arm-Over-Arm Sled Pull
This was initially supposed to be a truck pull, and it was for everyone besides the middleweight men. The logistics of getting seven box trucks lined up straight and pulled straight inside on the basketball court looked good in theory, but ended up being a SNAFU once things got going, so they shut down our lane to avoid risk of damage. We had to wait until the other classes all finished up and then all the middleweights had a seated arm-over-arm sled pull. The distance was shortened from 75 feet to 30 feet, but unlike vehicles, sleds do not continue to roll after you get them moving.
The weight on the sled was over 700 pounds, with one stall mat less than we had used for the backwards drag in the medley. I actually felt better about this than I had about the truck pull, since I had trained for the event almost exclusively with a Prowler at my storage unit, at Iron Strong CrossFit, and also at Brute Strength Gym. The whistle blew, I started to pull, and the sled didn’t move much. I pulled out the slack, set my legs, pulled harder, and it moved better. This was the event I felt least prepared for and it was the biggest question mark for me in terms of how I would finish, so I kept trying to reset faster (still not very fast) and pull harder (I did do that part) on each pull until I got the sled over the line, winning my heat of five athletes. It’s probably a good thing it was only 30 feet, because my eyeballs started to feel like they were bugging out on my last couple pulls. My time here was 20.56 seconds, which was only good for 10th place on this event in the 220s and 16th place in the overall middleweight division.
Atlas Stone Series to 48-Inch Platform
Four events down and one to go. The height of the platform had changed from 52 inches to 50 inches and finally down to 48 inches due to consideration of mats for floor protection and the height of the rollback wreckers we were loading to. Our weights were 275, 315, 360, and 390. No one had been able to load the 390 by the time I was up. I knew I was good for the first three stones, especially at the lower height. I also knew I could definitely do the fourth stone, but it was a matter of tacky and how dirty the stones were. Fortunately, the 390 stone was smooth and clean, with just a few old tacky spots on it.
The first stone I one-motioned since it was an 18-inch diameter and I had been training specifically to do this. I wanted to try to one-motion the 315 since the platform height was lowered, but I hadn’t trained for that and I wasn’t about to try something new and screw the pooch in the final event at nationals. I lapped and loaded the second and third stones, though there may have been a miscommunication about the weight of the third stone, since it felt a little lighter than 360. Regardless of this, all the athletes had the same four-stone series, so in terms of scoring it did not make any difference.
I got to the last stone and re-tacked both hands and forearms with globs of Spider Tack I had stuck there for just such an occasion. I started my pull and had a solid grip around the belly of the stone. This stone belonged to Matt Mills, and some people who had trained at his gym—Lightning Fitness in Connecticut—said it was a 21-inch or 22-inch diameter instead of 20 inches. It definitely felt more difficult than a 20-inch stone of that weight would have, but I was able to grind out the pull up to my knees where I could sit back down and roll it into my lap. I pulled the sucker in as tight as I possibly could and tried to drive my hips into it as hard and fast as I could. Sadly, this wasn’t very fast at all, but the stone did creep up slowly toward the lip of the flatbed on the wrecker. After pulling up and leaning back and driving with my hips and legs for about a year, it finally felt high enough for the final pop, so I launched it off my chest in what my friend, long-time training compadre, and fellow Meat Head Dream Team member, Steve Mattheu, calls “The Unibeam,” and ripped my arms off the stone to signal the judge to stop the time. I was the first, but not the last, to complete all four stones with a time of 30.3 seconds. I had hopes that this might hold on for an event win since only one other person had finished all four and had done so in a slower time than me, when I headed back to the hotel to shower and wash off 12 hours of swamp shorts funk. But I ended up in second place on this event in the 220s and overall middleweight division.
My score totals were 208.5 points in the 220 class and 304 points in the overall middleweight division, which was good enough to secure me the win in my weight class out of 45 athletes and make me the Overall Open Men’s Middleweight National Champion out of 66 athletes. However, I knew about none of this on the day of the competition. Since I had been going near the beginning of the rotation for the 220s, I was changing or eating or warming up for the next event during the time when a lot of the other athletes in my class were going, so I didn’t see how they did most of the time. I also was not glued to my phone waiting for the score updates that were posted throughout the day, because I was there to compete and leave it all out on the platform, not play mental games about how many points I needed to beat so-and-so or what place I needed to secure a spot on the podium. I would have liked to stick around for the awards banquet following the competition, but since things ran a little late and I had to drive home for all the stuff I mentioned at the beginning of this and to get ready to move to a new temporary apartment the next day and start my last clinical on Monday morning, my girlfriend and I packed up and hit the road for Maryland. I had a general impression that I had done fairly well, but no clue that I might have made podium. We got home around 1:30 in the morning and I had calls and texts and messages asking how I did, but no info on my placing, so I just ignored them or told people I didn’t know yet.
The next morning when I woke up, I had a couple messages saying I had won. The score sheets weren’t posted yet and I didn’t want to make any premature announcements without being able to actually see the results for myself in case there was a scoring error, so I held off on saying anything to anyone. As the morning went on, I had more people contacting me and congratulating me, but I was still holding out some skepticism until the results were posted and I was finally able to see for myself that I had, in fact, won it all the day before. Shortly following this, Willie Wessels, the president of the US Strongman federation, contacted me to let me know I had won and that along with the win came an invite to 105-kilogram World’s Strongest Man in Finland at the beginning of August.
My mind was blown. After three years of physical therapy school and what usually felt like awful training where I was just trying to maintain some semblance of strength and minimize how much I was losing, to be able to put together a solid two months of training at Brute Strength Gym while working at my next-to-last clinical affiliation and come away with my first national championship title and an invite to World’s Strongest Man still feels surreal. I’ve competed at nine different national championships now across four different weight classes and three different divisions, including both amateur and pro, and I’ve placed from 12th up to second but never been able to come away with the win.
I also have to add that, despite winning it all this year, I still did not meet my goal of making it through nationals without crapping the bed on any events. The circus dumbbell this year was a poor enough performance that it definitely fits the bill for leaving fecal matter on, about, and among the proverbial sheets. I think it’s also important to point out that I won this in the same style as I won my pro card: with no event wins. Strongman is five or more events where you are scored on each one individually, so being the best deadlifter or overhead presser in the country is certainly an awesome accomplishment, but in competition it’s better to be damn good at everything than it is to be the best at one thing and suck donkey huevos on something else. I am pointing this out to encourage all strongmen and strongwomen to train the events you suck at more and harder than you train the ones you are already awesome at if your goals include moving up in the sport.
Without further ranting, I would like to thank the following people and places: My amazing girlfriend Michelle for always supporting me in my strongman vision quest for stupidity, and putting up with my pre, during, and post-competition nonsense. Dave Tate and elitefts for sponsoring me and providing the best resource for training information and equipment in the world. Andrew Pepiot for being a solid training partner and tightening my deadlift suit straps until I could feel my cacahuates in the back of my throat. Stella, Dave, Liz, Dickhut, Curry, Fish, Phoebe, Big Cam, and everyone at Brute Strength Gym. Dave, Lisa, Dustin, and everyone at Iron Strong CrossFit. Todd, Willie, John, Barkely, Gregg, Jeff, Cronin, and all the judges, spotters, loaders, weight-testers, set-uppers, clean-uppers, and everyone who helped run nationals. My fellow 105-kilogram pros who were there watching or helping out, Johnny, James, and Jeff. MDLP, who I finally got to meet and who gives warm hugs, great encouragement, and has a beard you could curl up and take a nap in. Damian, Bob, Sean, Paul, Ty, Corey, and all the athletes. All the sponsors for the competition, elitefts teammates, fellow 105-kilogram pro Matt Mills, and everyone who made or loaned equipment for the competition. Kristy, for letting me work out my schedule so I could go to the competition. Chelsea for her recommendation of Lucio’s Pizzeria in Pleasantville, New York. Bar-Q for making the best, tastiest, and finest of the smoked meats. And all my friends and family who have supported me and helped me as I traveled this long and twisted road for the last 12 years toward winning a national championship.