I've been trying to get to this for a few days, it's a bit about what-all went on over the weekend in Philadelphia at the USAPL Meet.
After a simple dinner Friday night, my wife S. and I just went back to the hotel to relax. It was an up-and-out early plan ahead of us for the next morning. We half-watched a shitty movie with Vince Vaughn. I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep. I fell asleep pretty early – by my standards – and was out straight through the night. I woke up about twenty minutes before the alarm was set for, and started what I thought would be a routine. Really, it was just getting dressed, doing some brief myofascial work with a foam roller, munching a couple granola bars, and downing some supplements (Beta-7, BCAAs). Not exactly the morning routine of the world-class athlete, but this was the part of the undertaking of which I have very little knowledge: day of meet stuff.
I must have been pretty nerved up, because I remember so very little about that morning, just four days ago. I definitely remember S, from bed, saying “What are you eating?” I was crunching the granola and sitting at the desk in the total black-out darkness of the room.
The next thing I remember is walking down the long hotel hallway and out into the parking lot to the bitter cold of dusk.
An email earlier in the week informed us that lifter weigh-ins were to be held in a ballroom attached to a hotel that’s attached to the Expo/Contest site, and we found that no problem. In fact, there was a handwritten sign in the lobby, directing me to the bathroom past the ballroom. I bumped into the promoter, Niko, an easily recognizable man-mountain of muscle and affability, who told me I was very early and “Glad you’re here! We’re gonna have fun today.”
After some coffee, it was time for me to head to the men’s bathroom for weigh-in. Awfully strange, lining up along the restroom sinks behind other men in various stages of undress. In socks and underwear,* I tipped in at 205.5 pounds. Very low weight for my 220-weight class. In fact, just seven pounds less would have dropped me a class.
I cared very little about the low-weight thing; it’s my first meet, I just want to see if I can do what I think I can do. I’m not here, I’m not in this, to compete against the others today, but to compete against myself from yesterday. (Musashi, right?) Before I left the bathroom, Niko needed me to declare my opening lift numbers for the bench and deadlift. I consulted the pounds-to-kilos chart and gave two considerably low numbers.
After a brief, well, briefing in one of the nearby ballrooms, Niko led the competitors (and friends and family) out of the room, down stairs, through hallways, and into the contest site. The main stage area (where the lifting platform was) and the adjoining warmup room looked fresh and clean, and even with my limited knowledge of these things, I knew that many hours later these spaces would be messy, crowded, and slightly foul-smelling. True, true, and yup!
S secured a seat in one of the spectator rows and I made a beeline for the warmup room. I knew that the sooner I was able to do a set or two, the sooner I’d be able to gauge my strength and calm my nerves. Also true. I did a set on one of the benches with a warmup weight, and it felt good. I tried convincing myself this was just a day in the gym.
Sixty lifters didn’t look like a lot on paper. It feels like two-hundred sixty when you are all crowded into the same 25’x50’ space, with your gear and your bags and your coaches.
I should say that everyone was real cool. Good people. Some more intense than others, some extremely intense, but either way… kind, considerate, and easy to exist near for the duration of the meet. There was a strong camaraderie in the room as well, and that trickled down from Niko and his staff and judges to the lifters. People sincerely rooted for the man or woman on the platform, and helpful pointers were getting offered around “backstage.” (stuck in my idiotic head, of course, was a single-word line from the previous night’s hotel room movie, in which an overzealous, handsy yoga instructor shouted “Encouragement!” to his yoga class. But that’s me. I’m an assclown.)
Speaking of encouragement, most mind-bogglingly cool was my pal Dennis, who boarded a bus from northern New Jersey to Philly ‘round about 0600 hrs., then transferred at the 30th Street Station to a SEPTA bus to King of Prussia. He got to the contest venue before the very first lifter hit the platform, and sat with my wife for the entire five- or six-hour duration of the meet.
I was zoned-in before my lifts, but when I watched the videos later I could hear Dennis yelling “Tah-MEEEE” every time I walked onto the platform. That’s an officer of good will, a gentleman, and a devoted friend.
Comprising about a third of the lifters was a powerlifting team from Pennridge High School somewhere in Pennsylvania. (Pennridge, maybe?) About a dozen of these kids were girls. Wow. Imagine that? Imagine a school system so rocking that the local high school has a competitive powerlifting team! I was mightily impressed. They were all outfitted with gear in their team colors and logo, and they wore bench shirts and deadlift suits for the associated lifts. Serious stuff. They were all easy to cheer for, especially the smallest of the 14-, 15-, and 16-year old girls. I’ll admit, I was silently thankful that none of them lifted my planned amount of weight.
The boys were funny. All were strong, and they had great form on the lifts, but they were all awfully hung up on slapping each other.
At some levels of competition, and in serious training, a coach or fellow trainee will sometimes slap the lifter in the face or the head seconds before a lift. The thinking behind this is simple: the slap is a stimulus that fires neurons and gets the person into an immediate state of hyperarousal. It’s fight or flight. Catecholamine hormones start flowing and the lifter’s heart accelerates, blood vessels in the muscles dilate, necessary fats and glucose rush into the muscle tissue, and the body is ready for combat.
But these guys, these high school boys, were slapping the living shit out of each other’s faces, necks, and backs long before any of them were due to lift. Not one minute or two… sometimes ten or fifteen minutes beforehand. I think there was something more to it for them, all these singlet-clad boys, surrounded by singlet-clad teen girls; comparing the red hand prints each was leaving on each other. There had to be something exquisitely hormonal about it, in a way that teens cannot explain and grownups can’t understand.
Bench press was first, and as per protocol all lifters get three tries; the best weight they lift, according to technique requirements deemed by three judges – that’s the weight that goes next to their name in the final “standings.”
By the time I went out for my first bench, I was already warming up backstage with more weight, so I knew I could hit it. Since all of your numbers are given before the lifts, that’s the general approach to your “opener”: choose something easy. If you never get a first lift, you’re out. My approach was: choose something easy, then subtract weight to allow for nerves. Good approach.
There are three steps to the bench. That is, the main judge will give you three commands. (Wow. It seems powerlifting has even more “threes” than Christianity.) First, you have to hold the weight still at the top and wait for a “go” command. Then, you must come to a deliberate stop with the bar on your chest, and wait for the “press” command. Finally, if you can lock it out at the top, you wait for the “rack” command before putting the bar back on the hooks.
My very first competition bench: took the bar off the hook and saw my elbows quivering. Pure nervousness. The main judge saw it, too, because he made me stay in that position until I got the bar motionless. I lay there, just trying to calm down for what felt like at least the duration of a Ramones song, as the bar grew heavier in my grip. I began to think, “Holy crap, this is taking forever! I am really screwing up. When will he say ‘go’? Are people laughing at me?”
I finally got the go, waited at the bottom for the “press,” and remembered to hold my lockout for “rack” at the end. Good. Done. The first lift was in the can. I walked off the platform and back into the warmup area, but had to get called back onstage because I forgot to declare the weight for my next lift.
(After watching video of this first lift, I couldn’t see any shaking in my elbows. It was there – I saw it and the judge saw it, but we were the only ones. And that long-ass wait for the go, that felt like three verses of “Blitzkrieg Bop”? In reality, it was about one and a half seconds.)
Watch for yourself...
The second bench was a misadventure. I’d added weight. It was slightly more than I was warming up with backstage. I hit the platform, got into position on the bench, got the wait up, down, and back up again without a hitch. Nailed it! No problem. Except for the minor detail of the regulations. Idiot Boy forgot to wait for the judge’s commands. I was in my own beautiful, clueless world up there. It was called “no lift.”
Watching the video later, I can see myself shake my head while I’m pressing the weight up, depicting the exact moment I realized I’d fucked up.
I jacked up the weight slightly for bench #3, but still not near what I’d expected to finish with. I was too conservative. I should have declared my training max for lift three.The missed lift really got in my head.
I got the lift and it was time to start focusing on the deadlift half of the event.
The minute-by-minute details are unimportant. The gist is: I felt very strong in the DL. I nailed the first two attempts easily, and the announcer even mentioned that I lifted using a double-overhand grip. (Generally, people are weaker in the deadlift using double-overhand, or pronated, grip. I use it all the time, except for my heaviest attempts.)
Mentally and physically, I was feeling good. I was having fun. And I was enjoying being announced to the platform before each of my lifts; it’s been a long time since I’ve been announced to a stage.
I sensed I was in a race to beat an empty stomach, however, since all I’d eaten to that point was granola, half of a protein bar, and a carb drink.
For deadlift three, I went with poundage I hadn’t achieved at any point in my training. I had, in fact, failed once or twice trying to lift about seven pounds less. I got to the platform and, using an alternating grip this time, felt a slight struggle but made it. I was really happy about that. I felt like I’d gone six-for-six with an asterisk.
Believe it or not, I got medals. Two first places. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t expect it by a long shot. A lot of people moved a lot of weight that day, and though it’s hard to tell who’s competing against whom at times, I was certain I wasn’t first in anything. Turned out, the divisions for awards were pretty narrowly defined, and because I was an “out-of-state” lifter, I got the benefit of being among an extremely small sample of the crowd. It was slightly embarrassing. I was just happy to accomplish my lifts.
I walked off the stage and took the medals off my neck as I sat down with S and Dennis to watch the rest of the awards get handed out. I thought about how unselfish and well-meaning it was for the promoter and his team to put the event together, and get these medals to some of the competitors. I felt like maybe I was acting disrespectful, so I put the medals back around my neck like everyone else. I’m not embarrassed about them now. Yes, the competitors were divided up into many different segments and subdivisions, but not even half of the people got anything; and what the fuck… I lifted the weight.
* The underwear deserves its own discussion. My personal preference is boxer-briefs. However, the USAPL rules, and the rules of most other powerlifting federations state: “A standard commercial ‘athletic supporter’ or standard commercial briefs (not boxer shorts) of any mixture of cotton, nylon or polyester shall be worn under the lifting suit.”
You know them as “tighty-whiteys,” and I know them as something I haven’t worn since Phnom Penh fell to insurgents. Really. (Don’t ask.) I had to make a special trip to Target last month to buy a packet of these cottony implements of genital torture. I hope I never have to wear these things again. (The one positive by-product of this particular undergear is they made me remember that cool line from the Bloodhound Gang song – “I’m mighty tighty-whitey and I’m smuggling plums.”).