The strongman and his girlfriend flew out from Seattle on Tuesday and spent a few days with the strongman’s parents in Burbank, Ohio. It was all right, but now the strongman is thinking about a night’s sleep on something that isn’t a twin bed.
The strongman and his girlfriend are driving from Burbank to Martinsville, Indiana, in the strongman’s mother’s Honda CR-V. Toward the end of the drive, the strongman starts to worry that his weight has done something to the seat of his mother’s car. The springs have started making this sound. Later, when the strongman’s parents come to watch him compete in Martinsville, his mother will tell him not to worry. It’s been doing that. It’s a preexisting sound. But you get self-conscious, at this size, about the wear and tear you inflict on things. The strongman weighs a hard-packed 385 pounds and stands 6-foot-5. (He was 6-foot-2 in the sixth grade.) Travel can be rough. Except at the sport’s very pinnacle, there is little money to be made as a professional strongman, so the strongman flies coach, sitting in airplane seats even normal-size people find punitive. Never does a drink cart go down the aisle without hitting some part of the strongman on its way.
The strongman and his girlfriend are driving to Martinsville for the ninth annual Mid-American Strongman competition at the Morgan County Fair. Saturday is actually the very last day of the Morgan County Fair. On Friday, as the strongman and his girlfriend are checking into their room at the Super 8 in Martinsville, the state fair has already started in Indianapolis, 45 minutes away. A Beatles tribute band plays there that night, bumped up from the free stage to the Coliseum after Robin Thicke’s cancellation. There’s no way the brand-new state fair hasn’t stolen some potential fairgoers away from the winding-down county fair, along with some thunder.
But the last day of the fair is still a day at the fair. Dole whips and elephant ears. Booths in the shade of the Merchants’ Pavilion, where you can learn more about Dish Network service or hapkido or Jesus or new advances in rain-gutter filtration. Fat bunnies in the Rabbit & Poultry Pavilion. The sound of screams from the Gravitron and the Wipeout and the Fireball and the Zipper.
At 7 p.m. there’s going to be a demolition derby. Right now, in a parking lot at the corner of Hospital and John R Wooden drives, rows of amateur strength athletes — strutting would-be pros, awkwardly shaped older dudes in superhero-ish compression shirts, women with no-nonsense bob haircuts, growth-spurting area teens with chin acne and weight belts cinched around Baby Huey bellies — deadlift Hummer-tire barbells while JBL loudspeakers on tripods blast “Du Hast” by Rammstein and “Chokechain” by 3OH!3 and “Superbeast” by Rob Zombie and “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.
The music is trying to assert that this is a badass action sport, like mixed martial arts or big-air BMX or something. It feels wrong. Strongmen don’t thrash. Strongmen barely even grunt. They’re putting that energy into the work. (Anyway, these songs are not what the strongman would be listening to, if the strongman had a choice. “I get irritated at my gym because they’re always listening to death metal,” the strongman says. “I would rather listen to fuckin’ disco. If nobody’s in the gym, I’m playing the Scissor Sisters. I lift better when I’m happy.”)
Today’s sponsors include Greendell Mulch & Mix, Citizens Bank, Big John’s Auto Sales & Repair, Monster Energy, Carlisle Branson Funeral Service & Crematory, Big O Tires, and a company called Black Legion Athletic Gear, whose motto is “ONLY STRONGER & WEAKER EXIST” and whose logo is a furious-looking gorilla. The amateurs will split $2,250 in prize money, plus two of them will qualify to compete at nationals, which take place in October at Circus Circus in Reno. The pros will split $14,000. They will lift tire barbells like the ones the amateurs are lifting right now, except heavier. They will also lift or press or carry 220-pound dumbbells, a 340-pound metal log, and an unwieldy 300-pound hunk of I-beam the contestants can’t quite figure out how to get their arms around. They will toss sand-filled beer kegs of increasing heft — 35 pounds at first, all the way up to 70 — up and over a high bar between goalposts adorned with the flags of Indiana and the United States. They will drag a 700-pound metal chain you could use to bind a kraken.
Animation by Damien Weighill
The events have names like the Farmer’s Walk and the Atlas Stones, which allude to roots in traditions older than professional sport, to agrarian and mythic pasts that aren’t really past. If the urge to watch human beings lifting everyday objects of unusual size without assistance isn’t biologically innate, it’s culturally innate. Every strongman contest is a historical reenactment, even a strongman contest held on a sunny day in 2014, across the street from a National Guard armory in Indiana, with an iTunes playlist of motivationally bellicose rap and metal bawitdaba-ing through the PA.
In Greece in the sixth century B.C., wrestler Milo of Croton carries a calf around town on his shoulders until it grows into a full-size bull. Twenty-five-hundred years later, at Universal Studios Hollywood in 1977, Lou Ferrigno runs a footrace with a refrigerator strapped to his back. This is filmed and broadcast on the first season of CBS’s World’s Strongest Man, produced by the sports-management company IMG. The show, which moved back to CBS in 2013 after two decades on ESPN, has been the sport’s lifeline to the culture at large ever since. The TV exposure means World’s, as it’s colloquially known, is still The Big Show for these guys; there’s also the strongman contest at the Schwarzenegger-branded Arnold Sports Festival, held yearly in Columbus, Ohio, and roughly competitive in terms of prestige.
In 1997, a power-lifting-contest promoter named Bill Holland puts on a strongman competition in a horse arena in Texas, and this is how North American Strongman Inc. starts. Holland spends a few years building the company, promoting shows in Texas and around the country — Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri. He approaches IMG more than once about making NAS events official qualifiers for World’s Strongest Man and is turned down. Disheartened, weary of travel, he sells the company to Dione Wessels, a former strongman competitor who’s been helping him promote shows in St. Louis. Wessels pays him $500 for it. At the time, there are about 250 athletes in the NAS database; as of today, it contains about 10,000 names, 10 percent of them card-carrying pros. If you ask her what it was like to build this brand in a sport dominated athletically and behind the scenes by men, Wessels will say, “It was kind of a steep, icy, windblown hill for me to climb,” and then laugh.
In many respects, it’s still a grassroots business. Lay hands on some equipment, put together a few grand for the purse, and someone will show up. You never quite know the situation until you get there, Wessels says. A contest may turn out to be taking place in a field or in the loading dock behind a gym. The strongman from Seattle has done shows in parking lots and beer gardens. He once went to Siberia and competed in a stadium in front of 7,000 people; he once went to Charlotte for what was to be an outdoor show, until a thunderstorm forced the event to relocate to a nearby country-western bar full of exuberant drinkers. You go where the weights are.
Strongmen lift heavy, awkward objects and develop thick utilitarian bodies that are themselves heavy, awkward objects. The strongman from Seattle has a sea captain’s beard and a hard, round muscle-gut. Sometimes in the middle of a lift, he’ll roll a log or a stone onto the top of his stomach and rest it there, like it’s the TV remote or a can of beer. He’s big, but he’s also fast, which is an asset in being a strongman, where you’re not just lifting absurd weights, but hustling them from one spot to another more quickly than the next guy. You’re often doing two very different things at once. A man trying to keep a 1,000-pound yoke steady on his back is all red-faced exertion up above, twinkle toes down below, like he’s trying to smuggle a stolen bridge past a snoring night watchman.
I first met the strongman, whose name is Andrew Palmer, at a different strongman contest, held almost a year ago in Las Vegas. What I noticed right away about him and all the other strongmen was their aura of preternatural calm, the meditative way they walked around before they picked up a weight, as if to sneak up on it, catch it by surprise. This strongman contest was happening as part of an enormous bodybuilding expo, in one corner of an exhibit hall full of noise and advertising. Dickishly handsome pitchbros stood in fancy booths, speaking into headsets, hawking substances that promised deliverance from puniness. They were selling products with names like Dark Matter and Sweet Sweat and Conquer and Come Ready and Nano Vapor and Nuke and Napalm. They were selling protein powders and fat burners and stimulants and vitamins and amino acids and myostatin inhibitors and nitric-oxide vaso-muscular matrices and nutrient-rich sports drinks in every imaginable color except those found in nature and something that was just called Oh Yeah! that came in an ominous-looking black jar and carried the endorsement of a scowling Albert Pujols.
Strongman as a sport is not free from the influence of the supplement industry. Some strongmen make a point of competing without chemical assistance, but there’s no mandatory drug testing at any level, so you can basically take what you want. The Vegas show was sponsored by the New Jersey supplement company MHP, the makers of Dark Matter as well as Dark Rage and A-Bomb and No-Bomb and T-Bomb and Dopamite. The strongmen wore T-shirts bearing the MHP logo. But what they were actually doing over in their little corner of the exhibit hall felt entirely separate from the aggro doings out on the floor. The strongmen didn’t flex or pose or scream. Later, by the rooftop pool at the LVH Hotel, I asked Palmer about this. He’d changed into a striped tank top and sunglasses, which made him look like a young Santa Claus on the way to Coachella.
In his booth across the water, the DJ dropped Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and tried to talk a trio of sloshed girls into twerking. Palmer’s girlfriend, Becky, and a few friends from Seattle who’d come for the contest and a weekend in Vegas were catching the last of the sun. A friend of Becky’s had gone to sleep on a pool chair, and later there would be discussion of Palmer transporting her back to her room on his shoulder, although she came to before such gallantry was required. This is one advantage of passing out in the company of a professional strongman; in Seattle, Palmer is often called upon to ferry home the overserved, like a designated driver without the car.
I’d asked about the strongmen’s demeanor, why none of them ever bellowed like Ogre cursing nerds. Palmer said, “Usually, if you see somebody screaming, they’re failing a lift. That’s the truth of it. You’re screaming because you’re pissed and you’re struggling. I don’t know — at our level, we just don’t do that much. You’ve learned that you only scream when you’re failing. You don’t want to fail, so you don’t scream.”
Animation by Damien Weighill
At the contest the day before, I’d watched a strongman from Colorado named Mike Burke nearly sever the tip of his middle finger while loading kegs into a modified wheelbarrow. Later I’d see pictures of the finger online, weeping blood, like a wolf had been at it. But when it happened, you almost wouldn’t have known. Burke just stopped and held up his hand; his wife was in the audience, and it was as if he wanted her to know that it wasn’t serious, that the finger was still attached. Then he finished the event. He loaded the rest of the kegs into the wheelbarrow and rolled it down the course and beat the time of the guy who’d done it before him by three seconds. “That’s the kind of crazy you win at strongman with,” Palmer told me.
And isn’t that really the key to everything? What we’re all trying to pull off? You find the thing that compels you to the point that the compulsion is indistinguishable from madness, and then you find a place for that thing inside what’s hopefully a larger and more complex life, and the one feeds the other. Ideally, anyway.
There are no typical strongmen. Michael Caruso is also a microbiologist. The Bulgarian Dimitar Savatinov came to the sport after a stint as an actual strongman with Ringling Brothers, where his act, according to the web site Rogue Fitness, involved “laying [sic] on broken glass while a board on his chest had twelve performers dancing on it, bending iron bars, [and] holding and spinning seven girls on a human carousel[.]” Five days a week, Andrew Palmer works as a software engineer at a startup in Seattle. Before that he worked for Microsoft. He played high school football and was briefly the only 300-pound forward on the school soccer team. After college, he slowed down, gained desk-job weight. He started training for his first strongman contest — the 2008 NorCal Winter Strongman Challenge, in Concord, California — the way you might set your sights on a half-marathon. It was a reason to go to the gym. He figured he’d do it and go to the contest and get his ass kicked. Instead he came in second, just behind a more experienced strongman named Chris Grantano. That was how it started.
Palmer had some issues with depression when he was younger, and the lifting helps with that. It helps him sleep. It’s almost like meditation. It does what meditation is supposed to do — it takes him off the wheel of thought and experience for a little while. “When you’re grinding out reps,” he told me in Vegas, “you fall into a tunnel vision where there’s literally nothing but the movement. You’re doing that movement over and over, and then it stops, and you come back, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m back. I remember who I am again.'”
The trick is having an existence to come back to. Palmer likes having a circle of friends who don’t do what he does. In recent months, his Instagram feed has included blurry concert photos of Echo & the Bunnymen at the Showbox and Erasure at the 9:30 Club and EMA at a music festival in Portland. Palmer goes to a lot of rock festivals, even though whenever he’s in a crowded place with alcohol flowing, drunks invariably run up to grab his beard without asking, the way strangers feel entitled to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. Palmer likes a few beers, Palmer likes a hang. “I know guys who would never drink a beer except for the night after a contest,” he says. “More power to you, but I’m gonna drink beer more often than that. And if that means I don’t ever take top three at World’s Strongest Man, I’ll deal with that, because otherwise I could go crazy.”
America’s Strongest Man is at the Martinsville contest, too. America’s Strongest Man is Brian Shaw, from Fort Lupton, Colorado. Brian Shaw is built like something you’d point at the gates of a castle during a siege. Shaw is also a two-time World’s Strongest Man, but at this year’s World’s Strongest contest in Los Angeles, he came in third, behind Lithuania’s Zydrunas Savickas, and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, who’s from Iceland, and whom you may have seen on Game of Thrones this year, crushing a man’s skull with his bare hands. Shaw is, at the time of the Martinsville contest, still the world’s strongest American.1 It’s said that he gets paid a little extra to come to things like this and compete, because everyone wants to see America’s Strongest Man. (Aaron Molin, promoter of the Martinsville show, says he made individual arrangements with each athlete and declined to discuss how they were compensated.) Local competitors from the amateur contest held earlier in the day are still milling around. They all want pictures with America’s Strongest Man. Shaw obliges, smiles, drapes arms like legs of lamb over people’s tiny shoulders.
The Martinsville contest takes place in August. At the end of October, in Phoenix, Dimitar Savatinov — the Ringing Brothers alum — will take first place at America’s Strongest Man 2014. Palmer comes in seventh, a middle-of-the-pack result he’ll describe as disappointing; Brian Shaw slips to second.
In Martinsville there’s a small tent for athletes who need to change, but there’s no real locker room. This is also pretty standard. The strongmen bring their gear to the contest in beat-up wheeled suitcases, which sit open on the grass, the strongmen’s things spilling out. Weight belts, sneakers. Store-brand Cool & Heat roll-on pain reliever. A family-size squeeze bottle of Welch’s grape jelly, a family-size box of Nerds. Have Nerds, will travel. The lack of enclosed locker-room space meant that private moments were not necessarily private. At one point early in the afternoon, I looked up and saw Shaw, sitting maybe 50 feet from the crowd around the parking lot. He was sitting on a comically small folding chair in front of a little one-story prefab house. A sign on a post in front of the house said “Grounds Keepers Residents.” Around the house, some rosebushes were trying to grow and two little American flags flapped in the dirt. Shaw was changing from high-top Nikes into Converses, doing the old Mr. Rogers. There was no one else around, and he looked — well, “lonely” would be an inference too far, but he looked grim.
He went on to win the day, of course. What you start to figure out about strongman is that the difference between third place and sixth place is practically a margin of error, a point and a half, but there’s a gulf between this class of strongman and the top-tier guys. It was as if you tried your hand against an absurdly dominant athlete like Shaw not so much to beat him, but just to see where you stood in relation to a fixture of the landscape. Shaw has it in the bag on points long before the sun goes down and the bugs come out and the announcer calling the contest says, “Here come the lights!” and an anticlimactic pop pulls your eye to the single streetlight that has just come on.
In the purple dusk, the people of Martinsville slap mosquitos off their necks and ankles and close in tighter, climbing over the guardrail around the parking lot for the final event of the day, the Atlas Stones. The Atlas Stones are massive globes of concrete you lift up and over something. In Martinsville it’s a long flatbed trailer parked at one end of the lot, with a wooden platform on top, tiered like a staircase. The promoter of today’s show, Molin, built the platform in his barn. Its tiers range in height from 54 down to 46 inches; the stones are lined up along the trailer so that they get heavier as the platform gets lower. This is the strongman event that always feels the most atavistic, the most like a throwback to premodernity, and the fact that it’s happening in purple dusk intensifies that sensation. We are cave people with cell phones, gathered around a fire. The strongmen coat their hands with sticky pine resin; sometimes it glues their T-shirts to the stones.
“Every culture has a stones thing,” Palmer will tell me later. “There are Irish villages where you couldn’t be considered a man until you’d walked these stones around the village, even if you’re 40 years old.” By then it was over and Palmer had come in sixth. But he was happy. He’d done better in the press medley than he’d ever done in an event like that. He felt good, except that his abs felt like someone had driven nails into them. His mother and father and his girlfriend and the strongman Robert Oberst from Fresno and Palmer’s old college roommate Denis from Columbus were all waiting for him when the show was over. They drove out to the Texas Corral Grill & Saloon on State Road 37, where Palmer drank beer from glasses the size of human heads, and the people he’d brought with him just barely fit in one booth.