This past Saturday I competed in the April Fools Strongman Challenge at Brute Strength Gym, sanctioned by the new United States Strongman federation. US Strongman is run by two former lightweight pros, Willie Wessels and Mike Johnston, who have been involved in every aspect of strongman, from training and competing to running competitions and running federations (NAS and ASC). They've been around since before the start of organized strongman in the United States and with whom I have had nothing but positive dealings since I first met them.
Brute Strength Gym is located in Norfolk, VA and is a mecca for strength sports including strongman, powerlifting, CrossFit, bodybuilding, highland games, grip competitions, and anything else you can think of. Every time I go to Brute, it is an awesome experience, whether training or competing. This is thanks to the facilities, equipment, staff, management, ownership, and members who make it a truly unique and top-notch place to be. I have said it before, but if you live anywhere within a three-hour drive of Brute, you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t train there occasionally. If you live farther away, plan a vacation to Virginia and get yourself there as soon as possible. The combination of a strong new federation run by qualified and experienced athletes and promoters and one of the top venues for strongman in the country did not disappoint. As expected, I had an awesome time at this competition.
To make things even better, two of my training partners, Nick O’Brien and Mike Inman, were competing with me. I love competing and (hopefully) seeing weeks or months of training come together for a performance that surpasses anything done in preparation for the event. It is always that much more enjoyable when I have one or more of the guys who have shared in the grueling work leading up to the competition also putting all their hard work to the test alongside me. Inman competed in the Men’s Novice division, Nick in the LW Open division, and myself in the HW Open division. As is often the case with strongman, there were changes made to the weight classes and competition weights between the announcement of the show and the actual competition. This occurs due to the rules in place for qualifying athletes for nationals. While it is not an ideal situation, it is necessary from the standpoint of the promoter and the federation. There has been a huge increase in the number of entrants in many strongman competitions within the last few years, but most of the increase is in the men’s and women’s novice and women’s open classes, rather than the LW or HW men’s open. This is not a bad thing by any means, as growth of the sports is a positive indicator for future expansion and higher caliber athletes. But if you look at the registration of most competitions, there is still a core of only about 20-30 competitors combined between the LW and HW open men’s divisions, with usually more LW than HW. I have rarely competed in a contest as a HW where the signups were sufficient to allow for two or more weight classes rather than just one combined HW class. Back to the matter at hand: the competition.
The April Fools Strongman Challenge consisted of four events rather than the usual five. However, since all the events were medleys (i.e. either multiple implements and/or multiple events combined), I actually had to train for 10 distinct movements. The first event was a press/deadlift medley consisting of one clean and press with a 165-pound circus DB, one deadlift with a 600-pound frame, one clean and press with a 260-pound keg, and one deadlift with a pair of 340-pound suitcase-style farmer’s handles. The weights for this were not particularly awful when taken by themselves, but doing them all together as fast as possible was another story. On top of this, I had only ever been able to clean and press the 260-pound keg at Brute once in my life and that was back in July of 2012 at their Star Spangled Strongman competition. Good news is that I have gotten much stronger on keg clean and press since I have been training it so much within the last six months, due first to pro nationals and then to this competition. I was able to hit it for a solo rep in warmups which was a significant confidence boost. I had also been training to do this medley with a 700-pound frame, but the weight got lowered when the HW and SHW classes were combined so this meant I was able to go even faster than I had been doing it in training. I ended up going through the four implements quickly enough to win this event.
The second event was a medley consisting of a 305-pound per hand farmer’s walk for 40 feet, prowler push with 230-pound for 40 feet, and one flip on a 347-pound fingal finger. The farmer’s walk I was not worried about, but since the prowler push was on rubber flooring, I knew it would be a grinder. The fingal finger wasn’t awful, but I had only ever trained for it once so my inexperience left significant room for me to screw up. I was fastest through the farmer’s, but lost time on the prowler push and then Murphy intervened on my fingal finger flip and made me misstep on the initial lift off the floor, which then led to me doing a sexy, loosey-goosey, runway model walk as I flipped it over, rather than just driving forward and powering it over. I was only good enough for second place on this event.
Medley number three was one lap on the Conan’s Wheel with 650-pound followed by 40 feet with a wheelbarrow loaded up with 700 pounds in kegs. Conan’s Wheel is an event I have been inconsistent with over the course of my strongman career, either doing very well or blacking out and doing very poorly. I felt confident going into it based on my training, but training is never where I have had a problem so I was aware that I needed to be ready to go fast on this. The wheelbarrow was heavy, but the weight was not the problem so much as the balance since it was a single wheel model rather than a double wheeled one like I have used in previous competitions. To put it in the words of MC Jayme Campbell, “That wheelbarrow’s like a big girl – you know she’s gonna turn on ya!”
The key was to start slow and make sure the balance and stability were there before going balls out for the finish line and many people ended up failing to finish because they started too fast or didn’t make sure they were steady on the pick, since there were no drops allowed. From my view point, the other athletes in my weight class were all flying on the Conan’s Wheel so I knew I needed to have one of my better performances. No pressure. I was tied for first place after two events so I was going last. I picked it up and took a couple steps and that’s about all I remember until the judge, Mark Kimener, was in my face signaling that I finished the lap and to move on to the wheelbarrow. I ran over and picked it up as fast as I could while still trying to make sure everything was stable and balanced. It felt like I was going way too slow, but I knew if I tipped over or dropped it I was done, so I kept going at what felt like a snail’s pace, fighting to increase speed with every step. Somewhere toward the end I realized I was going quite a bit faster, so much so that I was losing control and was in significant danger of tipping over. I was able to fight through to the finish line and somehow go fast enough to edge out another event win.
Going into the last event I was in first place by one point. Unfortunately, the last event was an odd stone clean and press medley with five stones of increasing weight. I say unfortunately because this is an event I have always struggled with the couple of times I have had it in a competition in the past, so much so that I have actually not been able to finish an overhead medley before when it has had one or more odd objects. I had trained on the competition stones at Brute twice in preparation for this event. The first time I had cleaned and pressed all of them except for the heaviest stone, 208 pounds. This is also the last stone I had in my medley. I cleaned it many times trying to figure out how to get it into a rack position from which I could press it, but I didn’t get anywhere close. The second time I trained with the stones I had been able to successfully clean and press it by itself, but by the time I got to it at the end of the medley I had been too gassed to press it out after cleaning it.
I credit most of my improvement in strength and ability on this event to doing sandbag clean and presses on my event training days. The sandbag is easier to hold than a natural stone and all the weight always settles to the bottom, which makes it easier, but the weight also shifts on you, which makes it harder. While it is not a perfect analog for a stone of fixed dimensions, I was able to get noticeable improvements to this event by training with it. Since I was winning by one point, I was again the last to go on this event. Strategically, this would let me know if I needed to get the last stone or not and how fast I needed to go. Much to my chagrin, two out of the three athletes I was competing against in the HW class got all five stones. The possibility of getting four stones faster to win went up in smoke. I was now placed in a position where I would have to do something I had as of yet been unable to do in order to hold on to first place. On top of this, Jayme called me out on the mic while I was getting ready and personally challenged me to get all five stones or he was going to take my keys and not let me leave until I finished the medley. Nothing like a little love from my friends at Brute!
I had taken notes as to how I wanted the stones positioned on the floor in order to be in what was, for me, the most balanced rack position from which to press after cleaning them. I set up accordingly. The first two stones, 130 pounds and 137 pounds, I was able to pick from the floor to overhead in one motion due to their similar shape and weight distributions. The third stone, 155 pounds, was more awkwardly shaped and I had to clean it, adjust my hands, and then press it. No problem; same thing with the 170 pounds stone. Now I was on to the last stone, all 208 pounds of misery left between me and a PR — and any chance at winning.
I deliberately stopped to catch my breath for a few seconds before going for it. I had a moment of panic on the initial part of the clean as the stone tipped forward and I almost dropped it back to the floor, but I caught it and continued the clean. Once I had it up to my shoulders, I knew instantly I was out of position from where I had been in training because a significant bulk of the weight was cutting into my throat and choking me out. My breathing was sharp and ragged and I was gagging from the pressure on my windpipe, but I knew the 60 second time limit was rapidly running out and if I missed I would probably not get another chance, not to mention that I would be so fatigued that even if time allowed, my chances of success were diminished to almost nothing. I don’t remember much besides struggling to breathe and get my hands positioned for the press, but I finally got to where I had to go for it or drop it and give up so I dipped for a little leg drive and pushed up with everything I had left. Somehow I made both arms go up and hold the lockout until I got the good call from the judge.
I had finished the event and gotten all five stones for a PR on the medley. Unfortunately, my time was only good enough for third on the event, dropping me into second place overall by one point to Chris Hutchenson. Tomas Urbonas and David Forest finished in third and fourth, respectively. Competing in a smaller field of athletes can be helpful in that you don’t lose as many points if you screw up, but it also makes it difficult to gain points to advance if you do poorly on an event, since there are less total points to be had.
My training partners did very well themselves, which made the day even better. Nick had a rough start on the press/deadlift medley, but overcame this and fought back to finish in third place in the LW class. Inman turned in absolutely beastly performances on all four events and finished up in second place in the Novice division for his first strongman competition. There were some incredible performances from all athletes, male and female, across all weight classes and divisions, especially the women on the odd stone clean and press medley.
Many, many thanks go out to all the athletes who made this a great experience. Thanks as well, of course, to everyone at Brute – judges, scorekeepers, spotters, loaders, MC, everyone who helped with setup, cleanup, planning, and execution. You are all outstanding and you make Brute a one of a kind place to go to train and compete. Thanks to Inman and his family for letting us crash their house and feeding us a record setting all-you-can-eat sushi dinner the night before the comp. Thanks to all the family and friends of the athletes who came to watch, especially my friends Mike and Kim who drove down from Salisbury. And of course, thank you to everyone at elitefts and all my teammates who are part of the best damn company ever. Elitefts has contributed so much to making me the athlete that I am and has done the same for thousands of other athletes around the world.