Friday, June 27, 2008

The Strongman and the Kid

For as long as I can remember I've been fascinated by strength. When I was little, I knew my father was strong, with biceps like baseballs, and there was something awesome about this to me. He lifted weights in the garage, ran at the junior high track, and did his Army calisthenics routine on the backyard swing set he had built out of thick pipes. These things were all part of being a father, my father, and I wanted to be like him. When I was old enough I followed his ways, and he taught me how.

But I was naturally small, very small, and I felt my difference, my invisibility. Running cross-country and track taught me how to work hard, and to like it, but only amplified the inherited ectomorphic situation. Chronic overuse injuries from running allowed the weight training I was already doing to actually work, and eventually I traded one obsessive-compulsive regime for another.

But disciplines have a way of working on you when you do the work they demand. You can’t hold out forever, and eventually what was rooted in anxiety and adolescent fantasy grew into a method of knowing something of myself. Little by little I became more process-oriented in my gym pursuits, less concerned with the minutiae of routines and macronutrient ratios. This process took another big step forward when, several months ago, I began training 13-year-old Zack, the son of one of Jenifer’s yoga clients. “The Kid” is naturally big, very big, and feels his difference, his conspicuousness. We hit it off very well, and supervising his workouts while conducting my own necessarily took much of the focus off myself. And that’s a good thing.

I was really pleased, then, to be able to invite him to a strongman competition, the World’s Strongest Man Super Series. It was to be held in Madison Square Garden and my friend Jouko would be there as a referee. Perfect.

With the Kid working his GPS, I got us through the Lincoln Tunnel just fine, though in the jam leading up to it the Prius’s energy level had dropped down to purple. I tried not to sweat it, but to be honest I still haven’t read the manual and I didn’t know what would happen if even the two remaining purple bars disappeared from the screen: either the car would stop dead in its tracks and the Kid and I would be at the front end of an impromptu anaerobic training session all the way to the Hotel Pennsylvania, or a cadre of Homeland Security agents would descend from the sky and whisk us into an underground vault beneath the New Jersey Turnpike, where we would be debriefed on a new revision to the Threat Advisory System.

We ran into Jouko in the lobby of the Hotel. His hair was long, his beard unruly, and he looked every bit a Finnish Jesus. He noted that I was not the first person to mention this, and I knew that the disguise was in preparation for his upcoming role as a washed-up Olympic wrestler in Álvaro Brechner’s Bad Day to Go Fishing, based on the short story “Jacob and the Other” by Juan Carlos Onetti. With Jouko was the great Phil Pfister, 2006 World’s Strongest Man and at 6’6” and 375 pounds quite possibly the largest human I have ever met. Shaking his hand was like being enveloped in a gauntlet of bear flesh, and a tremendous honor.

The show wouldn’t start until 7 pm, so the Kid and I hung out in the WaMu Theater as Jouko and Phil (one of the emcees) and the competitors prepared for the show. It seemed to me that these strongmen, each physically exceptional, were more a band of brothers, chieftains from far-flung districts, than a disjointed collection of adversaries. Running the whole affair was the affable, energetic producer, Colin Bryce, who was also once an Olympic bobsleigher.

Jouko is quiet by nature, but here he was in his element, among friends, and it was clear that he was held in high esteem. (Later, while ordering dinner in an archetypical New York deli, Phil turned to me and said simply, “He’s a good guy.”) Even though Jouko retired from competition years ago, this event in particular held special meaning for him. The last time Madison Square Garden hosted a strongman competition, one of the competitors was the Polish strongman Siegmund (Zishe) Breitbart, whom Jouko portrayed in Werner Herzog’s Invincible.

If you’ve ever seen a strongman event on TV, you know that these guys do some pretty crazy stuff: pressing logs overhead, pulling tractor trailers, carrying cars. Stuff that takes a little more oomph than squeaking out one more rep on your triceps kickbacks. The competition began with the Power Medley, or Flip & Carry, in which each man flips a 900-pound tire four or five times, and then hauls a 385-pound weight 50 feet to the finish line.

The next event was probably the most exciting, perhaps because it reminded me of a sick version of Musical Chairs; only there’s no music, you don’t ever get to sit down, and you’re pulling some monster poundages. Enter the Last Man Standing Deadlift, wherein each contestant takes a turn deadlifting a barbell that gets heavier with each round. Jouko pointed out that an Olympic bar, which is more flexible than a powerlifting bar, was being used because it was more dramatic for television (the event—edited down to about 43 minutes—will be broadcast on FOX Sports later this year). Starting weight was 320 kilograms; the last man standing pulled 405 kg, nearly 900 pounds.

Two other highlights included the Húsafell Stone Carry and the Axle Lift. The Húsafell Stone takes its name from an Icelandic testing stone: Snorri Björnsson, an Icelandic pastor and playwright, used the 418-pound, triangle-shaped stone as a gate to his goat pen (by Björnsson’s day, Iceland was pretty much short on wood). If you could lift the stone and carry it the 50 meters around the pen, you achieved fullsterkur, or “fully strong” status. The Axle Lift demands that you clean an axle—complete with oversized tires—to your shoulders and then press it. You do that as many times as you can in a minute. Before the show, I could hardly get my hands around the axle and was humbled to learn that it weighed 135 kg, about what I deadlifted in Jouko's gym in Hämenlinna.

It was easy to caught up in the excitement, and while we may not have been as vocal and persistent as the astonishing number of Polish-Americans fans (cheering on Jarek Dymek), the Kid and I were both thrilled by the performances, the camaderie, and the satisfaction of a full day. At one point the Kid told me he felt better about himself after seeing all these big men. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience for him.

Afterwards, feeling like zombies, we said our farewells to Jouko, escaped the streets of New York, and made our way home again on the New Jersey turnpike feeling a little grander: a little less invisible, a little less conspicuous; somewhere, perhaps, between awkwardness and fullsterkur.

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Anonymous Eric said...

Phil! At a diner? Please expound upon this event.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Brian Sibley said...

You've been tagged! Sorry...

7:36 PM  
Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I lifted a car once. Sure, I used jack which was operated by a AAA tow guy, but the very firmly worded "please help me" motivated him appropriately.

11:02 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

What film is the first pic from?

9:52 AM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

Eric: That shot is from Invincible--not the football movie starring Mark Wahlberg!

10:06 AM  

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