Having completed five tough weeks of strongman training, it was finally time to test my progress at England’s Strongest Man Under 80kg Novice competition.
A few weeks before, I learned that my Ghost Squad amigo, Hakon Fram Stokka, was flying from Norway to Edinburgh to do a 50+ km Spartan Ultra Beast obstacle race the day before my strongman event. All thoughts of resting up beforehand immediately went out the window and The Guild flew to Scotland to support our brother, as he claimed third place in the open division of a race that fewer than 30% of entrants completed.
We arrived in Scotland on Friday and feasted on haggis burgers, beer and whisky. Then the four of us crashed in an undersized hotel room until 04:30, when we roused ourselves and drove out to the race for a 06:15 start. While Hakon was crushing it, Mark, Simon and I hiked through the mountains and hills in an attempt to catch him and the water stops and bellow encouragement.
We flew back to England that very night, to snatch a few hours of rest before the big day. Here’s how it went down.
At 09:15 I weighed in at 77.2kg, whereupon I immediately drank as much water as physically possible – having drunk nothing but mead and whiskey for the previous 40 hours. After a super brief warm-up, we jumped straight into the events:
170kg Deadlift for 60 seconds:
This was always going to be my strongest event. I have been deadlifting for some time and, although my training hit a blip over June, I was confident in my ability to throw 170kg around. Doing it constantly for 60 seconds would be a challenge, but that’s the whole point of doing an event.
The round started with a couple of sets of six, one of seven and one of nine. That was as expected. Then came a unexpected and terrifying set of 14 from the machinelike Paul Stevenson, followed by an enormous set of 17 from Lewis Blackwood – the great guy who I saw lifting Atlas Stones at Genesis Gym, who told me about under 80kg strongman.
Then it was my turn. I joked, honestly, “How the hell do I follow that?” to which one of the event organisers said simply, “Do 18.”
So I did.
I’m not entirely sure how, except that years of deadlifting experience combined to set me straight into auto-pilot. It was as if I’d done it thousands of times before, because I had. The spectators didn’t bother me either because my decade of live performance meant I could tune them out and focus on the work. I don’t know if that was the same for the others.
It was a tough event and the last rep was a grinder, but I think I could have done more – it was the time that finished me off, not my own levels of fatigue. I think 20 reps would have been achievable, which is pretty solid for 170kg. As it was, 18 reps in 60 seconds was one every 3.33 seconds – including waiting at the top for the down signal and resetting between reps. I was happy with that!
70kg Overhead Log Press for 60 seconds:
Five weeks before the event, I could manage about five reps on comfortably slim 70kg log. I decided to aim for eight on the day. I then proceeded to train on an uncomfortably fat 40kg log with two 15kg plates on it, based on the assumption that it was better to learn the hard with than the easy.
Thank God I did because, on the day, we got given a horribly small 30kg log with two 20kg plates on it. It was a bastard to clean because it didn’t roll up your body the same way and the weight distribution was very different.
A log press is typically two or three movements. First you hoist it up into your lap. Secondly, you clean it to your chest. Some people combine those two into one nice fluid bouncing movement. Finally, you drive your legs underneath you and push press the log above your head. From my five weeks of training I knew that my clean was fairly good but my leg drive was still quite poor. I also knew that resting a 70kg log on my chest tended to leave me short of breath and with a pounding heart – which is a killer when you’re going for a full minute. So I took a risk.
I decided to avoid the push press part altogether and go straight from my lap all the way over my head in one movement, using the momentum of my clean. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would shave precious time off each rep and let me keep better control over my breathing.
So that’s what I did. I’m not 100% sure it was worth it, but hey – it seemed to go alright. When it finally stopped working, I switched back to the normal method but idiotically forgot to use my legs – so simply shoulder pressed it overhead. That slowed me down and cost me at least one rep if not two. Even so I drew second first place with 10 reps (Paul got 11) which was twice as many as I could manage the month before and two more than I had even hoped for.
200kg Yoke Over 40m:
The yoke was always going to be my nemesis. I had only practised it two or three times before the event and only once ever at contest weight of 200kg.Despite having a decent squat, I still desperately needed to practise the art of building and moving with the momentum of the yoke and not letting it bump on the ground.
My first mistake was not setting the height appropriately for me. I left the crossbar at the height that it was for the guy before me, who was a little taller. That meant that, for me, the yoke was barely off the ground when I was running with it – which became a huge problem.
You see, where I train there is a concrete floor. If the yoke touches the ground, it slides along. Not so at Progressive Training Systems where their rubber floor stops it dead. So when the yoke accidentally touched the floor, it stopped dead, caught me, pulled me backwards then smashed me in the back of the head.
Luckily the sheer anger made me fly into a rage and do the second length twice as fast as the first, to clock in at a poor 30.81 seconds – fifth place. Damien Langkamer, with whom I had been training for five weeks, smashed it in just over 19 seconds!
180kg Farmer’s Walk for 40m
This event was meant to be a 7.5 ton truck pull. However, the rainfall of the night before meant the ground outside was too wet for a truck pull – so the truck was cancelled and replaced by a farmer’s walk – something I had never practised let alone attempted with 90kg in each hand.
Nevertheless, after a little advice from my fellow competitors – especially from Damien – I grabbed the bastards and completed the event in 17.25 seconds for second place. Judging by the photos it was pure fury that got me through. Damien won this event as well!
Much more exciting was watching Hakon do his farmer’s walk after running a 50km Ultra Beast race less than 24 hours before. Never have I seen such a showcase of grit and determination: it will live with me forever!
90kg Atlas Stone:
It all came down to this final event. I was in the lead with 25.5 points, but there was just 1.5 points between the top three. Anybody from the top four could win it based on how the stones fell…
I’d practised Atlas Stones more than any other event simply because they are the most fun and both gyms I attend have them (although I had to make my own makeshift platform out of a skip and a pallet at Muscle Zone, and nobody knows how much their stones weigh).
Quite simply, Atlas Stones are the best. They’re the most iconic strongman event: huge hunks of rock that weigh a lot more than you do, sitting on the floor. You have to pick ‘em off the ground and get them onto a platform or over a beam. It’s as simple as lifting gets and it is utterly PRIMAL.
On this day we had to heft the 90kg stone as many times as possible in a minute. Whoever did the most reps would probably win the whole contest. It was all to play for. The only limiting factor was the guy who had to roll the stone back to us after every rep. When I watched the video back, I couldn’t help but notice the majority of my minute was spent waiting for the stone…
Still, everybody in the contest had the same obstacle and they all did incredibly well. Nobody achieved fewer than six reps in the minute they were given, which was about as many as I would have guessed possible. Then eventually it was my turn: the final set of the final event of the day.
If there was pressure, I couldn’t feel it – as soon as I started, I was in my flow state: the Guild Fugue. I was working as hard as physically possible, but without even feeling it. Maybe it was the adrenaline of the final event with everything to win or lose. Maybe it was having my Guild brother sitting next to me bellowing in my ear. Maybe it was knowing my family were watching from the other side of the room. Maybe it was the feel of cold stone against my skin summoning some kind of ancestral wrath – whatever it was, I couldn’t stop. The poor man rolling the stone back simply couldn’t go fast enough, and I found myself bellowing for MORE! After 45 seconds I felt even more powerful than I had at the beginning.
If they had doubled the time, I would have doubled the reps: every rep made me stronger and as fast as I moved I just wasn’t slowing down or getting tired. For the first time – perhaps in my life – I felt like I was doing exactly what I have trained to do, as well as I possibly could.
By the end I had completed 12 reps in 60 seconds, making me the overall winner with 33 points. Lewis rocked into second with 30.5, Danny Richardson in third with 29 and Damien in fourth with 28.5.
I learned a LOT from my first strongman competition. Three of the events went as well as or better than could be expected, and I’m proud of what I achieved in a few weeks of training. It bugs me that simply adjusting the yoke and using my legs properly in the log would have helped me do a lot better, but perhaps then I wouldn’t have been as driven in the other events – so who knows how it wold have worked out.
I was lucky to win with such a tight spread of points, but I know I did as well as possible on the day.
I’m happy to say that the training, build-up, company and experience made it one of the best days I can remember.
Thanks to everybody who supported me. It was one hell of a ride!