Strength Heaven

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The New Yorker doesn’t publish pieces on strongman competitions every day:

Early in March, I went to see [Brian] Shaw defend his title at the Arnold Strongman Classic, the heaviest competition of its kind in the world. The Classic is held every year in Columbus, Ohio, as part of a sports festival that was founded by Arnold Schwarzenegger and a promoter named Jim Lorimer, in 1989. Like its namesake, the festival is a hybrid beast — part sporting event and part sideshow — that has ballooned to unprecedented size. It’s now billed as the largest athletic festival in the world, with eighteen thousand competitors in forty-five categories. (The London Olympics will have ten thousand five hundred athletes in twenty-six sports.) Lorimer calls it Strength Heaven.

At the Greater Columbus Convention Center, that Friday morning, the main hall felt like a circus tent. Black belts in judo tumbled next to archers, arm wrestlers, and Bulgarian hand-balancers. A thousand ballroom dancers mixed with more than four thousand cheerleaders. In the atrium, a group of oil painters were dabbing furiously at canvases, vying to produce a gold-medal-winning sports portrait. The only unifying theme seemed to be competition, in any form; the only problem was telling the athletes from the audience. A hundred and seventy-five thousand visitors were expected at the festival that weekend, and half of them seemed to be bodybuilders. In the main hall, they made their way from booth to booth, chewing on protein bars and stocking up on free samples. “Yes, I can lift heavy things,” one T-shirt read. “No, I won’t help you move.”

Up the street, at the hotel where most of the strongmen were staying, the breakfast buffet was provisioned like a bomb shelter. One side was lined with steel troughs filled with bacon, potatoes, scrambled eggs, and pancakes. The other side held specialty rations: boiled pasta and rubbery egg whites, white rice, brown rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. This was “clean food,” as strength athletes call it — protein and carbohydrates unadulterated by fat or flavoring. The most competitive bodybuilders eliminate virtually all liquids and salt from their diet in the final days of the contest, to get rid of the water beneath their skin and give their muscles the maximum “cut.” “What do you think I’m doing here, having fun?” I heard one man shout into his cell phone in the lobby. “This is work. This isn’t playing around. My dad died, and I was lifting weights three days later. What am I supposed to do, go home and drop everything to take care of my girlfriend?”

If bodybuilders were the ascetics of the festival, the strongmen were its mead-swigging friars, lumbering by with plates piled high. “It’s a March of the Elephants kind of thing,” Terry Todd told me. “You expect that music to start playing in the background.” Todd and his wife, Jan, have designed the lifts and overseen the judging at the Arnold since 2002. (Like Terry, Jan works at the University of Texas and had an illustrious athletic career: in 1977, she was profiled by Sports Illustrated as “the world’s strongest woman.”) They take unabashed delight in the strongmen and their feats, but as educators and advocates for their sport they have found themselves in an increasingly troubling position. The Arnold, like most strongmen contests, doesn’t test for performance-enhancing drugs, and it’s widely assumed that most of the top competitors take them. (In 2004, when Mariusz Pudzianowski, the dominant strongman at the time, was asked when he’d last taken anabolic steroids, he answered, “What time is it now?”) The result has been an unending drive for more muscle and mass — an arms race unlimited by weight class.

“It’s a little frightening,” Todd told me. “The strength gains dictate that we make the weights higher, but at what point does the shoulder start to separate, or the wrist, or you get a compression fracture? We really don’t know how strong people can be.” Gaining weight has become an occupational necessity for strongmen. The things they lift are so inhumanly heavy that they have no choice but to turn their bodies into massive counterweights. “Centrifugal force is the killer,” Mark Henry, a professional wrestler and one of the greatest of former Arnold champions, told me. “Once the weight starts to move, it’s not going to stop.” Fat is a strongman’s shock absorber, like the bumper on a Volkswagen — his belly’s buffer against the weights that continually slam into it. “I wouldn’t want to be too lean,” Shaw said. When I asked about steroids, he hesitated, then said that he preferred not to talk about them. “I really do wish that there was more drug testing,” he added. “I would be the first one in line.” The same is true for most of the strongmen, Todd told me, but they feel that they have little choice: “You don’t want to take a knife to a gunfight.”

In the past five years, Shaw has added more than a hundred pounds to the svelte three hundred that he weighed at his first contest. “It gets old, it really does,” he said. “Sometimes you’re not hungry, but you have to eat anyway. Training is easy compared to that.” Pudzianowski once told an interviewer that his typical breakfast consisted of ten eggs and two to three pounds of bacon. “Between meals, I eat lots of candy,” he said. Shaw prefers to eat smaller portions every two hours or so, for maximum absorption, supplemented by “gainer shakes” of concentrated protein. (“His one shake is twelve hundred calories,” his girlfriend, a former model for Abercrombie & Fitch, told me. “That’s my intake for the entire day.”) Until he renewed his driver’s license last year, Shaw often got hassled at airports: the guards couldn’t recognize his ten-year-old picture because his face had fleshed out so much. “He’s grown into his ears,” one of his lifting partners, Andy Shaddeau, told me. “Those were not three-hundred-pound ears.”

Leave a Reply