Those two times I competed in Strongman: And What I learned.


Here's a little-known fact about little ole me. In 2014, I competed in two strongman competitions. Typically, when folks look at my short stature, generally bubbly composure, dimples, and chicken nugget-like body, the last thing they think is "She does strongman." But I did. And I learned a great deal of valuable lessons because of it. 

For those of us who aren't familiar, Strongman is a sport/activity/cult (kidding, not a cult) in which you lift and move super heavy items. Do not confuse Strongman and Crossfit, because Crossfit IS a cult (again, kidding). Strongman is way dirtier than Crossfit, nothing matches, and typically there aren't neon socks involved. The strongman guys have big ole beards, and some of them, big ole bellies. The women are fierce and determined, and also are covered in dirt. But like Crossfit, anyone who competes in strongman has a strong, passionate heart and really really likes to lift heavy things.

So, why me? Why did little ole Leslie put herself in this world? Well, it started as most things do for me, with my mike. 

I consider my husband to be a glutton for pain. As long as I've known him (and WAY longer) he's been driven to training heavy and consistently in the gym. It's more than a habit for him, it's a way he functions in life. This is something I will never understand. Maybe you don't either. Let's be confused together. 

One fated day, Mike met a stranger (who has become a good friend) at the downtown Nashville YMCA who was wearing the same brand shirt and using the same belt. This stranger had been competing in strongman for some time and their friendship sparked an interest in my husband. Soon, our tiny little crawlspace was filled with sandbags and kegs loaded with gravel. He would go out in the street and pick up the kegs and run up and down the road. It was weird. But he had fun. 

This is him pulling a heavy thing!!!!

This is him pulling a heavy thing!!!!

The first few of his competitions were a BLAST for me. It's like when you go see your dad run a 5k. You get there early, it's cold, you're in layers, and he does all the work while you sit in a lawn chair and kick back watching the activity. These events were filled with spouses and girlfriends and boyfriends and families. And they were all SO kind and focused on their events. I would occasionally catch myself feeling out of place, but the feeling quickly subsided as I joined with the folks next to me screaming for the current competitor pulling the firetruck behind him that he only has "5 MORE FEET UNTIL THE FINISH LINE!!!"

One of the events is a log press. The big world competitions use actual MASSIVE logs, but in training and on the amateur level they use metal pipes fashioned with handles and pegs for weights. As if I wasn't already amazed at the women who competed in this sport, I became enamored with watching them press the logs. It's a terrifying thing to behold. Deadlifts aren't so bad - if you can't pick it up, you can't pick it up. Most other lifts have safety bars in the power racks. Not so with the log press. That puppy is ABOVE YOUR HEAD and the only thing keeping it there are your tiny little fragile arms. It could so quickly go wrong. And yet, I saw these amazing women (and men) using their bodies to "ooft" (a technical term which means to thrust) the thing up on their chest, and then PRESS it overhead. Terrifying. 

Mike and his longtime training partner at one of their Saturday training sessions. He appears to be so happy to have put that over his head.

Mike and his longtime training partner at one of their Saturday training sessions. He appears to be so happy to have put that over his head.

Typically, an empty women's competition-size log is 70 pounds. At one of my husband's competitions I tried to lift the thing and I was able to get it off the ground but as I was wearing Birkenstocks I decided it would be best to keep it as close to earth as possible. When I put it back down I said to Mike, OBVIOUSLY without thinking, "I'll compete when I can lift 90lbs overhead." And he made me stick to my word. He went out and bought a competition-sized log for me (9 inches instead of the 12 inches he uses), which ended up being a VERY high end piece of equipment that some Craigslist guy was trying to get rid of. It was kind of ironic that my one piece of gym equipment was valued at more than all of Mike's combined! 

So I started training and much to my surprise and sheer disbelief, I was able to lift the little 70lb log loaded with 2 10lb plates over my head. It was only once. And it was thrilling and terrifying. But once was all it took. I had to keep my word. That was in May, and it just so happened that our friend's annual competition was in August. Had to do it. Husband became my coach, and in the weeks leading up to the day he would set up deadlift courses and haul out all the plates and stones for me to practice with. He was my #1 fan.

So the day came, and I was more nervous than I've ever been in my entire life. I'm a performer (on and off stage) so the idea of people's eyes being on me isn't just familiar, its usually welcomed. Except today. Today I had no idea what I was doing and I was going to fail. I was going to die, basically. It's similar to the shared reoccurring dream all theatrical and musical performers have: You're suddenly told you're starting in a production TONIGHT and there's been no rehearsal and you don't know your lines but it's time to GET ON STAGE. 

Coach, me, and my birkenstocks at my first competition

Coach, me, and my birkenstocks at my first competition

It was just like that. Except this time it was a physical task I had to do: And I'm terrible at it. As a lifelong musician and entertainer, I have often used humor to make gym class more enjoyable. Instead of people laughing at me because I couldn't throw the basketball far enough to make a basket, I would intentionally "travel" (is this the right term?) with the ball, singing and dancing the whole way. This does 2 things: First, it distracts from the fact that if I tried to dribble I would somehow die, and second, it insures that no one will ever pass the ball to me again. And I was happy with this. 

There's a great deal of insecurity from childhood that follows us quietly through the years, suddenly jumping out at the strangest times and scaring us half to death. This was one of those times, and I really didn't have a choice but to do the thing: I paid an entry fee! These people know my husband! I can't just stand under the yoke and sing "Look Down" from Les Mis and expect a standing ovation! 

So I did the thing. And in the middle of all of it, my deep-seeded competitive spirit woke up (having been left to hibernate since my last bit of competitive activity, high school speech team) and rattled my insides. I ENJOYED myself! I got PASSIONATE. I CARED. Scary things to feel when you're in a room full of loud and strong folks throwing hundreds of pounds over their heads. Husband didn't compete that day: he was my devoted coach and paparazzi, and I will forever remember how proud he was to see me try my hardest at something that was so utterly foreign to me. 

Unfortunately, I didn't perform as well as I wished that day. So I decided I would endue more anguish and enter myself into a second competition a few months later that would serve as my last before starting rehearsals for a musical. This was in a much larger location, with other power sports happening in the same hall. I believe we were sandwiched between arm wrestling and body about a cultural experience. It was like there were tall oompa-loompas prancing about in their panties on one side, and then really angry stocky folks doing grip and forearm exercises on the other. Very odd.


A couple of things went wrong that day. For one, I forgot my contacts. How I managed this was an absolute mystery to me. I'm not blind, but if I am about to lift 2x my body weight I would prefer to be able to see the wall to focus myself. In addition to this, I defied all laws of long-haired life and forgot a hair tie. I didn't even have an extra in my car. As you can imagine, the day didn't go well. I was unprepared and unfocused, and I left discouraged. But I quickly moved onto rehearsals for the show and just as quickly as it began, my strongman career ended. 


I'll never know why I actually went through with it, and while I still join my husband in doing some of the events in our driveway in the summers, I don't think I'll ever compete again. Despite how short this blip on the "Leslie's Sport Participation" chart was, I learned several life lessons that I'd love to share with my fellow rogue creatives:

  1. Don't ever forget your contacts or hair ties. Just a good protip.
  2. It's a good thing to try something you're bad at. I'm not good at this. No one's good at this. Who wants to try thing you're not good at? What an insane concept. I'm not saying we should all be failing and in the wrong place all the time, but every now and again, we need some grounding. We need to feel what it's like to not succeed. We need to know what failure feels like. I had to watch every other girl in my class load three stones on the platforms when I barely got two. Remember this: not every situation can be a win for the republic. Not every year can be a "banner year" for the rebellion. Sometimes the force isn't with you. So you're forced to watch someone else win, and then you suddenly have a greater appreciation for the gifts we've all been given and how much work it takes to develop them.
  3. You can better appreciate those who are talented at something when you try it yourself and then step back to let them handle it. I am sill a fan of the sport of Strongman. In fact, the only planned vacation we have this year so far is to go to the booming city of Columbus, Ohio to watch the Arnold Strongman Classic (yes, Schwarzenegger). We just watched a movie documenting the training and competition of several top competitors at the 2016 Arnold. I adored it. Maybe I would still be into it if I hadn't competed myself, but it certainly helped to have a very tiny, minuscule idea of their thought progression leading up to an event. I've learned that while there are tasks and things I can do and have done, it's better to hand them off to someone who can handle it far better than I can. Everyone is better served by the right person doing the right job.
  4. Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. The first few training sessions with my husband were a lot like an SNL sketch. I was so utterly uncomfortable and scared that I had to make fun of myself or I felt like others would. This is obviously a learned behavior and survival tactic (that works super well, btw), but not super helpful when it comes to focusing and getting a task done. Don't be afraid to take a foreign concept seriously. Yes, you might not be so great at it...but approach the situation with a courageous and humble heart, willing to be wrong. 
  5. Some things are better left in the past. We don't have to pick one thing and keep on it for the rest of our lives. Sometimes hobbies come and go, or sometimes they stay around a while. Don't let your current activities define the rest of your life.

I love to tell people that I do strongman, and it's typically the second thing I say in those dumb ice breaker games (the first is that my high school mascot is the pretzel - true story) because it's a little hard to imagine. It's STILL a little hard for me to imagine. But, doesn't it make sense that the most unimaginable of circumstances can teach us the greatest things about ourselves? 

So here's to you, Rogue One. Try something new and fail. I reckon you'll be glad you did! 



Log Press

Farmers Handles

Atlas Stone Load

Yoke Run

Deadlift Medley

Training with the 12 inch log