“Is the Competitor Ready?”: Charm City Strongwoman Competition 2017

“I don’t mean to be rude, but why are you doing that anyway?”  Probably a reasonable question for many people to ask.  Strongwoman and Strongman competitions are still a bit outside the mainstream, and a fair number of people have never even heard of the sport.  The question came after an explanation of the Charm City Strongwoman Competition, so I think really, the question was more a general wondering about why someone would voluntarily participate in something that sounded like so much work.  To be honest there were moments when I wondered the same thing, not because it sounded like work, but because some of that work kinda scared me.  So in answer to the question and to keep myself on track, I reminded myself of my two biggest reasons for participating: community and personal development.

Fivex 3 Training Strongwoman Team

Training regularly at Fivex 3, I know that I am a part of a special community, a unique group of individuals that support and encourage each other in our training.  The specialness of this group was obvious the day of the competition.

The Volunteers

The overwhelming number of gym members who volunteered a huge chunk of their day to help run the event coupled with the number of gym members who, despite busy schedules, still came out to watch and support their friends for part of the morning attested to the close knit feel of our gym family.  That support and encouragement filled the street outside Fivex 3 on Sunday morning, as spectators and competitors alike cheered.  A competitor I’d never met before called out cues to me mid-event as I attempted to get the heaviest weighted ball over the 10 foot marker.  Another competitor I had met at Fivex 3 a few weeks prior, thanked me for coaching her on the log press, saying that my feedback was what had allowed her to press the 85# log in practice the previous week. The Charm City Strongwoman Competiton was a place of abundant strength, encouragement, and support.  Same team – different team.  Self – competitor.  Didn’t make a difference.  Everyone genuinely rooted for each other’s success.  As our coach Emily said, “This was our 6th contest and I have never seen so much cheering and support and love as I saw yesterday. … Women who had NEVER met before until yesterday, encouraging and coaching each other, pushing each other…regardless of what team they were on. It was incredible. THIS is what Strongwoman/Strongman is all about. Family.”

2017 Charm City Strongwoman Competitors

That feeling of community and support extended beyond the time and place of the competition itself, since the overarching purpose was to raise funds for the Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation Susie’s Cause, in honor of Emily’s sister Charlotte who died two years ago after a three and a half year battle against colon cancer.  This year we raised over $18,000 for the cause.  A sense of community that lends itself to community service – really amazing stuff.

After all that the question still remains. Clearly I could have participated in this event (volunteer, spectator, donor) without actually being a competitor.  So why try to throw increasingly heavy balls ten feet in the air?  Why spend 60 seconds repeatedly shouldering a 95# atlas stone or pressing an 85# log?  Why try to pull a bakery truck?  Or carry a 300# yoke for 50 feet in as little time as possible?  Why do that work?  Especially if, as I’ve said, some of the events scared me?  The simple answer is because I can.  I don’t mean that in an arrogant or an “I want to demonstrate my badassery to everyone” kind of way.  The fact that I can surprises me.  It surprises me more than it seems to surprise anyone I train with.  So a more complete answer is that I can but that I frequently lack confidence, and I feel like it is important sometimes to do things that scare me, because overcoming fears is ultimately what builds confidence.  So this competition was an opportunity for me to practice getting out of my own way, an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and manage the accompanying anxiety.

Competing in strength events is fairly different than competing in any of the endurance races I’ve done in the past. In those situations pre-race jitters often have resulted in faster race times for me. My experience with strength events though is that nervous jitters result in a loss of total body tension and failed lifts. For example, during the run-through the week before the competition, between the people watching, the official commands being spoken, and the timer going, I was completely unable to lap the atlas stone, something I could do easily even though I struggled to shoulder it.

So the week before the competition as the physical aspect of the training tapered, I strategized about how to tame my nerves, how to manage my “monkey brain”. One of the biggest pieces for me was remembering that the physiological markers for anxiety and excitement are the same – the “fight or flight response”.  The difference is the narrative we create for ourselves around those sensations.  So I worked on re-framing the situation as excitement rather than fear.  Another piece was staying in the moment, not worrying about the next event, but instead enjoying the time with friends, celebrating the success of other competitors, encouraging and coaching those who were struggling.

And in the midst of all the people watching and the official commands being spoken and the timers starting, it worked. I found the zone and everything else faded away. I matched or exceeded my training bests on nearly every event. And somehow, in the moment, that didn’t really surprise me.  Only later did it occur to me that I was prouder of myself than I had ever been. It wasn’t just pride in my performance, although I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a piece of it. It was the pride that comes from facing a fear and overcoming it, of using the mental space that a fear used to occupy and instead filling it with confidence, courage, strength, and gratitude. So in the end, the answer to the question is that I competed to be part of something bigger than myself and to attempt to create a better version of myself.