07 Dec MDLP: Seven Hundred and Thirty Days
I’ll start off by saying I hate to lose. I hate losing more than I like winning and I won’t sugar coat this write up by telling you I competed to just show up. I show up to every competitive field with the absolute drive to not only win, but absolutely smash my goals. I show up to have people chant my name, bathe in glory and win the crowd. I show up to compete alongside warriors, to watch the sun set on a day covered in blood, sweat and tears. I show up for my clan, my family, and my loved ones. I show up to fucking win and although first place was not in my cards and as hallmark card as it may sound, I have never felt like more of a champion in my entire LIFE.
I didn’t show up to prove anyone wrong, to smash haters, or to empower doubters by pointing them out after the day was done. I didn’t set out on this two year journey to empower weakness by giving it a voice but rather to prove myself right. I wanted to echo the words of so many believers, supporters and people in my corner. I showed up to prove to myself that 730 days of work was going to become a reality. Every, single, fucking, day imagining a moment, a lift, a yell and a scream. Seven hundred and thirty days of doubt, struggle, mental battles coinciding and smashing into the insane belief of a man who could not give or let go. If my heart and soul had flesh then I had been torn asunder for 730 days and nights. I imagined this day so vividly I could taste the air, I could imagine the callous ripping from my hand as viscerally as I could tell you when the tears would fall from my face. I practiced speeches in the shower, not only because I am an adult child, but because I needed to… I NEEDED to. When the pain would spike or my nerves would make my leg go numb I needed these moments. These private snippets of back room emotional conversations with my best friend as I would tussle my dog tag between my fingers. Countless nights alone at The Battle Axe listening to the same exact motivational speeches over and over and over again as sweat and tears of doubts dripped all over the gym floor.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result but what happens when on the one thousandth and one time the wall you’ve been slamming your soul into finally chips? What happens when you feel the crumble of stone trickling down your bloody and beaten brow? What do you do when it’s just going to take another one thousand times to break just a little bit more, and then a little bit more. You remember Shawshank Redemption ? God I love that movie. Remember the scene where Andy is trying to carve his name into the wall and suddenly the wall chips off a big block? That very moment echoed in my brain for years. There under all hope lost in moments of despair but a consistent action to keep his spirit alive if even by a simple childlike carving of his name, he was able to find hope… just a small block at a time. If my soul had a name it was Andy Dufresne! Bit by bit chipping away during endless nights hoping to find that exit only to be served another tunnel of shit when he thought he made it. You’ll never see that movie the same again, huh? I hope you don’t, because hope is found in the divots and cracks of things we have over looked during better times in our lives. When our emotions are spoiled and our success has not been stained with hardships we are blind to the underlying messages that are waiting to be found. But here we are aren’t we?
I went into this competition with the drive of 730 days perseverance. I use that word only because a true warrior needs to feel fear, doubt, loss, and the absolute bottom. The knight in shining armor is a child’s tale made to give the illusion that the winner has a prestige finish and is decorated with life glories when in reality it’s the opposite. The warrior that takes the harder path to victory is riddled with pain, loss, permanent scars and damage. They have been tested beyond the human capacity and their armor no longer shines in morning sun as years of work have dulled it. Instead this warrior has given his best years to attain a concept beyond 99% of this world and often looked at as the path on insanity. They have given their bodies, family, souls and their very fucking essence for Glory. For the cheer of the crowd, for the chance to fight for their dreams, for the tearing of muscle sinew to attain physical expression of the courage that runs in their blood. If this concept makes you cringe, laugh with doubt, or shake your head then this write up is not for you nor is the man writing it. This blog favors the bold and those willing to sacrifice everything to attain it by any means necessary. In my world it is expressed in the sport of Strongman and acts of human strength limit and using this as an avenue to walk amongst the gods. For some of you that might be farfetched but the message remains the same and if your courage holds you will be able to see that one man’s small story might apply to the world around you. Read, enjoy, criticize, doubt or embrace… all things are welcomed but what will not change is that one man stood for something and alongside came with him the beauty of human hearts standing at his side.
Chapter 1: The Journey
I had a conversation with Dan Green many years ago over the topic of injuries pre-competition. Despite the day being flooded with lifting celebrities, this conversation hit home. He mentioned to me that he never talks about injuries (unless they pull him off the platform) pre-competition because it takes away the glory from his rivals and competitors. It was a statement I never forgot and one I try to not only instill in myself but also my clan. Now that all is said and done I mentioned my journey to states only to fill the story with facts and by no means are these excuses or cries for help, they are simple… life.
Injuries, travel, work, stress and all these factors are very real endeavors for all of us, unfortunately for myself I was swimming in a perfect storm of all three. In mid-August I suffered a grade two calf tear that sidelined all my moving events six weeks out from competition as well as limiting my push press abilities. This was closely followed by 17 days of travel to coach, vacation and coach again leaving me with two event training days in 19 days which included getting home to recover my spine before attempting to train heavy. During this trip to California, I would suffer another injury during a bad log press catch that almost tore my tricep off the bone. What I thought would heal in a few weeks is still aching as I type this but such is the life of a rolling stone. Travel takes a lot out of the system and the fine tuning of both training and habits during prep. As I returned from travel, both physically and mentally tired, I would travel one more weekend also giving me the chance to train events at Iron House. Unfortunately the road and being worn out would show its ugly head as I tweaked my left bicep muscle which I did not know would come later to really bite me in the ass.
Did you get that? Good because let’s leave that in the past where it belongs and more of a fuel source to ignite a good start that builds character. No, traveling and getting beat up was not ideal but both of these are very real factors in my life. I am first and foremost a coach and being a leader is the most fulfilling job in my life and I would never look back at traveling for coaching as a burden. Injuries, pain and getting your ass kicked during training is the reason why I started strongman in the first place. No it is not ok but what needs to be observed is the ability one over comes these hurdles and keeps their eye on the horizon. As the Gods would I have it, I would survive competition prep in one piece and leave me hungrier than ever to compete.
Chapter 2: One more day…
Dieting down from a bloated 260 to a pre bath tub weight of 241 in 2.5 weeks was not the easiest process but one that was not as horrible as it sounds. Proper dieting, no trash food and dialing in my fitness left me feeling good and as my sleep apnea settled some due to weight loss, I was able to get quality sleep leading into this contest. I decided to use the bath tub to cut the last 8-10 pounds as I am getting to old to sit in the sauna and its consistent heating process does more damage to the system. Last few pounds shed off rather easily and making weight the following morning was an easy task. I have been cutting weight for almost 13 years and although the process is never easy, it was one I was happy to be doing again. Sitting in the bath rub this time around would see me smiling, singling to music and laughing at how shitty I felt. I tried to smother the feelings of hunger and thirst with the very real appreciation that this self-made “suffering” was not even supposed to happen. Dieting down, being grumpy at life and sweating my life force away in some hotel bathroom sounds like a bad invitation on Backpage.com but in reality is a stepping stone to what would be one of the greatest days of my life.
As I got off the scale and began my refeeding process the next day, I began to balance the killer instincts and general happiness I was feeling. One can’t simply smile your way into wanting to destroying your rivals and smashing head first into weights above your human limit. Despite this fact I found myself coming in and out of moments of extreme focus to appreciate the day. The weather was perfect to me, nothing more beautiful than the stack of food waiting for me at the hotel and as my body began to come to life again, I could feel the surge of desire. Truth be told I am not very chatty the day before competition and I give all the credit in the world to Megan as handling a baby rhino is beyond most people’s pay grades. As the day ended and my eyes began to get heavy with the massive amounts of food in my stomach I began to visualize my events. Seven hundred and thirty days of visualizing, the last week adding one thousand more specific images and now, the night before, I replayed every single second. As the fog of sleep began to crash into my beating heart and over worked brain, I fell easily to sleep. I had never had trouble falling asleep before fights rugby matches and competitions and this time was no different. “Why should it be?”, I asked myself. This is what I fucking do, what I was born to do. The comfort of this idea let me walk into my dreams and prepare for the WAR that tomorrow would bring.
Chapter 3: War Drums, Battle and a Reason to Live
I felt it the moment I woke up. It all hit me: the wave of nerves, anxiety and absolute exhilaration flooding my system as if nostalgia had a new name. My body had become a weapon of war and although my mind would occasionally invade my spirit with unease, I was beside myself with happiness. The morning was gray, cloudy, with a cool breeze and it couldn’t be more picturesque. In proper Strongman fashion, we had taken over a parking lot by the Iron House gym and slowly people began to arrive. I like to arrive to competitions early to not only set up and take that stress away but to check the battlefield. Only a fool steps on the battlefield without analyzing it. The dips in the road, the cracks, the grating, pebbles and distances. I get there early to touch the implements quietly, figuring them out one last time and whispering to them as if they would respond. These are my rituals. Maybe a thousand years ago I would be splattering my face with the blood of my enemies but for today, this is what needed to be done.
People began to arrive in bigger numbers and tents began to flood the parking lot. Cars began to pull in and the clatter and muster of people at work began to fill the air. Conversations began to spark and I could see familiar faces begin to warm up. I was caught up in the moment saying hello to old rivals, old teammates and new faces alike. There was a buzz in the air and the familiar spiritual war drums began to beat harder than ever. My head erupted with emotions as I knew the day had finally come and more importantly I was surrounded by my clan. No more sobering feeling than the national anthem. The quintessential feeling and song that lets you know you are about to start a sporting event is the single most emotional moment for me right before competition. Aside from it’s personal meanings in my life, this was an EXACT moment I had envisioned thousands of times before. No longer behind the mic or on the sideline wishing people good luck. No, this time I was there to battle and as the anthem neared its end I was ready. Not just ready to work, but FUCKING ready. The clouds thickened and the strongman logs were prepared… this was my moment.
Chapter 4: The Events
I wanted this event. No let me rephrase that. I NEEDED this event. Historically my weakest event, pressing has always set the pace for me. It took me years to get above the cut and this year’s training had brought with it some great pressing training days. With 20 pound jumps and Wessels rules, I had chosen my numbers to be 275, 295, 315. As the log began to climb and eyes began to shift to the heavy log we inched closer to the opener. My elbow was far from 100%, but who’s is? My opener went as planned and 275 flew up with no issues. My second attempt was given to me and I lost a little balance but was fortunate enough to have gotten down command at the same time as I was given the lift. The log was on a slant and as the weight climb, the small decline began to become much more evident and something I would not forget going into my last event. Look, it’s not that I wasn’t happy about hitting 275 and 295 on this day but that wasn’t the goal. Aside from finishing the day, hitting this 315 log would be a competition PR but importantly would stamp the “ I AM BACK MOTHERFUCKERS” all across the field. As my turn came around, I couldn’t take my eyes of this log. It signified everything to me. If 730 days of vengeance and work had a face and form it was this 315 log. If my emotions had a physical form, it was right in front of me. As I approached the log I could feel the crowd, I could feeling a million and one eyes on my very being. I could almost hear heart beats and sucked in breaths. The pressure climbed to an unbelievable high and it was euphoric. I was there to perform and that feeling of glory is the addiction we all have but many hate to admit. As the iron bit into my hands and then lap, that log might as well have been 100 pounds. I executed exactly what needed to be done and what signified the weight of 730 days, flew up with an inexplicable ease. I could have pressed a thousand pounds that day because the only other alternative in my mind was to die before I missed it. I roared, I screamed at the top of my lungs, the rage of a million pains soaring through the sky and erupting from my fucking soul as if was on fire. I could have destroyed the world, I could set fire to fields of flowers, I could have torn asunder a village brick by brick. If there was a moment where I felt like an indestructible force, it was that very second. For a single moment in time I walked amongst the gods only driven by years of smothered vengeance. I was Fenrir reborn and I had shattered my chains to be loose upon the world. I was Ragnarok. I was rage. I was vengeance.
After the rush of madness from the log settled, the long reality that this was going to be a war set in. I had to let that high settle and the “look at me I am back” bullshit had to slip out of my mind as the rest of the events would be absolutely crushing to me. As I mentioned above, all moving events were going to be a journey for me as I was barely to train above 80-85% for them and at times not at all. An 850 yoke is no joke and one I was approaching with the utmost respect despite having confidence I would finish one way or the other. As the “athlete ready, get your grip” cadence belted over the mic, I picked the crushing weight to travel 50ft. Within my first five steps I was hit with the harsh reality that I was blacking out. Some of you may not know what that feels like but it’s akin to your body betraying you and leaving you behind. The lights around you begin to fades as your eyes take on a yellowish filter. Your limbs begin to weaken and there’s a sinking and crushing feeling in your head and gut. Your body is screaming at you to stop whatever abuse it is your causing as it send code blues all over your body. And right as your realizing this your body goes to sleep. Experience, will, madness, spirit, talking to Odin… whatever it was would not let me go down. As I sat there, hanging on to the yoke getting my lights back, I had to hold myself up from falling face forward. I tried my best not to show this loss of energy to the crows as public displays of weakness is a sure way to die on the battle field. With 45 feet to go the sense of true urgency hit me. For the next few attempts to move would bring upon its own wave of blacking out but each time a few feet closer. In competition as in life, the weight upon your back should be seen as a gift that hardens the spirit and only helps appreciate the momentum forward. Five picks with 850 pounds would cost me dearly on the day and maybe the later years of my life but I had been depositing money in my athletic bank and today was time to spend it. As I took my last pick with six feet to go I misunderstood the time I was told and thought I only had five seconds to finish. I knew finishing this event would have major points and position and with inexplicable surge of energy, I sprinted the last few feet to finish in what was later confirmed to be 48 seconds. Absolutely my worst yoke time of my life but I couldn’t have been happier. My spine had held together, I had finished and more importantly, I had overcome.
Nothing is more satisfying than the deadlift event. It is a true sign of strength and fitness and although it’s not the say all be all, it really creates a statement. Historically one of my best events was going to be a much harder challenge due to time off and well… spinal. I wanted to accomplish a set number but most of all keep my form pristine. I was going to exactly play by every single spine rule but I wasn’t going to undo years of work with silly mistakes. Going second to last was very beneficial and it allowed me to set my number at 5-6 reps knowing this would be a PR and keep me in second. My friend and old rival Reed was going after me and after two great events I knew he would set a high number on the dead, so I knew my job and I said the course. As the straps slapped against the iron and I prepared, I almost smiled. It was so hard not to. The pain that this would bring was so exciting, the challenge that awaited and the fear that was going to be crushed. Each rep felt and looked like that last. In classic MDLP fashion I went 0 to 100 real quick and then back down just as fast haha. After a small grind and hitting six reps my body was spent. The five picks on the yoke had taken its toll on my spine and posterior chain and my body had enough to break the 7th rep off the floor, but almost doesn’t count on deadlifts. Despite the roar of the crowd, six reps is all I had in me. Strongman is a war of attrition and there is no way around it. I wanted 7-8 reps but 6 would give me a solid second place when it was said and done. I was proud of my form and honestly… those were the best deadlifts I’ve ever done in competition. Each rep with purpose and looked pretty good. I finished the dead with my head held high, securing major points for second place going into the wheel barrow medley, and having a damn good time.
As I mentioned above, I had very little chances to train moving events and I knew it would show. I was strategically placing high on the first three events to give me some leeway going into my weaker events. We had limited time to warm up during this event and a long wait time due to one lane running. There was some stellar performances in the medley with lightning times set by Richard and Jo and the pressure to maintain a top performance was set. I was excited to test my body on this event and the confidence in my calf was high but strongman has such a fun way of fucking your expectations. As I picked my farmers on the “GO” command I felt an immediate tear in my left bicep muscle and small one in the right. That old tweak had reared its ugly head again this time taking more muscle fibers with it. Short warm up, dehydration, old age, 290 pounds or unlucky… either way it happened. The muscle was still attached and the tendons were fine so it was no excuse to quit or drop the implement. Instead, as I had mentioned in previous articles, my experience would have to fill in the hole that my body could not fill. I squeezed my triceps as hard as I could during the wheel barrow pick, let it settle and began to pick up the pace as I felt the muscles holding together. The strain, pull and pain of muscle sinew holding on for dear life can be a powerful motivator!! I finished with a decent time that would keep me in the top four but cost me some points. I finished the event in one piece and negated to show any issues with my body and began to count points to see what needed to be one on the next event. Pain is presence and I wanted to be nowhere else in the world.
The Keg Run:
The last event of the day and one we all knew would push us. The kegs would be 250 pounds each with a total of 200 feet carried, 200 feet ran and 4 picks of the keg. I sat down keeping my bicep warm as much as possible. Plenty of liniment and band curls kept my bicep warm but the reality that it was torn was there. As I said before, pain is presence, and the baby wound in my bicep allowed me to start game planning. I practiced picking the empty kegs with an opposite grip. Tilting it with me left arm was causing pain so using my leg to adjust and tilt it was a major option. Small minor adjustments had to be made but it didn’t escape the fact that not finishing this event would drop me too far in points and cost me my second place finish. With the top two lifters going to Nationals in West Palm next year, not finishing was not an option. This is when you have to make that decision into what normal society calls madness but strength athletes consider another Saturday. After securing major points in the previous four events, I would have to have come in 5-6 place to maybe lose my placing but I did not want to give myself that option.
As my turn came up I could not help but grab my dog tag. If I was a praying man I would say this was the time to speak to the gods but all my words, pain and tears had drenched the earth for two years. I felt those events culminating into one single moment ahead of me and it would be a journey of grit. I was fueled by the memory of 730 days of work. As the I heard “GO” I could feel my body and mind straining against the weight of the Keg. The years off and rust was climaxing as my forearm muscle tore on the pick. I could feel that familiar strain and sound ripping jeans echo in my body. It was a minor muscle tear, I have this. There was no dropping the keg and every step demanded extreme focus and passion. I screamed “one more mother fucker!”. My screams and roars were smothered by the scream of the crowd and as much as that fueled me, I had to keep talking to myself. I grabbed the second keg, I felt my bicep trying to go but she held. “One more Mike, c’mon!” I had to. I don’t know how many of you have conversations with yourself during hard times but I’ve been chatting with myself since I played with X-Men toys in my living room. Word by word, step by step. The bellows of the crowd growing stronger as both me and the competitor next to me battled with the kegs. I picked the third keg. I could feel my joints and my back screaming at me but it felt lighter than ever. I picked up the pace. “One more, one more!!” I screamed louder than ever because this time it was true. I had one left, one more obstacle in my was as if two years of patience and emotional pain was being defined by one object. I picked the last keg. I grabbed it as if it were the last battle of my life. It felt like a feather. There might as well have been a thousand pounds in the keg and it would not have mattered. The only thing that mattered was the distance to be made and to finish. I started the first 40 ft of the last track with an exhilarated pace. The echoes of my own mantras and the crowd ringing in my ears as I hit the classic keg carry wall with 8 ft to go. Every step a beautiful struggle of bone and sinew ripping apart as you try with all your might not to drop the keg or black out. My face flush of color and screaming at myself for every step I took with the mat a couple of feet away. As my body start to turn sideways I had one step to go as I dropped the keg on the mat and took my hands off for time.
If I could put into words the feeling of what it felt like to finish in a better fashion I would but I am going to try my best, deal? You remember your first kiss? Hearing your favorite song on the radio randomly? Christmas morning? Posting an A+ test score on your test fridge? Every single second of that moment erupting in an emotional avalanche of feelings crushing into my body at a million miles per hour. The world was silent for a moment. I only heard the sound of my beating heart and my memories. As I picked my head up and looked around me I felt the second wave of emotions. If I had felt the climax of happiness it was quickly followed by a visceral taste of reality and as much as I fought it, sadness. The shores had been walked on, the Normandy of my fight had been won and I would not be getting the congratulations from Abeku. I was overwhelmed with every positive message I had received alone the way, the belief from my family, the love of my clan, the memories of long lost nights writhing in despair all cascading through my body. As I walked back to my tent I felt like a man reborn. The physical pain of competition had disappeared as emotions stuffed them into the back of my mind. I’ll be honest with you, I had to fight back tears. I had to fight back 730 days of battle trying to break free through tears of happiness and overwhelming feeling of falling to my knees.
If there was a mixture of exhaustion and elation then I was the perfect cocktail. As I said above, moments of personal “greatness” are often a mixing pot of hundreds of feelings and despite what people portray on TV or speeches, the happiness they feel is sitting on a bedrock of long lost feelings of sadness. It was over, the fight was over and as much as I understood this was the first day of the rest of my “new life”; I could finally let down the armor. I was an old warrior on the hill of battle finally getting to unbuckle his armor, setting down the axe that had weighed down his body and taking a seat on the cool earth. With the sun in my face I could finally set down my shield because it was getting heavy on my soul. I could take my helmet it off because I finally could face the world with a beaten and scared face that resonated pride but most of all, completion. On that hill, on that competitive field, on that Strongman Saturday I could finally rest and give myself a chance to see the world with new eyes.
I had done my job and I had executed what many could not have. I was filled with absolute pride and the sobering realization of just how much this journey had taken. I hugged my woman as hard as I could as my chest quivered continuously fighting back tears and emotions and walked away to steal a second to myself away from the crowd and the world. There in those single seconds away from the world with only my thoughts I finally smiled. A smile that hurt my cheeks and felt as if I would never smile again. It was a distant feeling but one I had felt a few times in my life. If there is pure sorrow and loss then its complete opposite counterpart exists and I know it because I felt it, both of them. There in that single second under evening sunset I felt true HAPPINESS.
If you’re reading this and you are this far into my story then you understand what I mean by this and I sit here thanking you. I am thanking you for walking with me along the way on both my darkest days and this very day I am trying my best to describe. The point of this story is not to isolate my journey into some ego driven journey but to tell a tale that anything is possible. I don’t know who some of you are but we have come kindred spirits of hope, perseverance and The Way. As I finish this story I understand this to be a stepping stone into a journey that will never end. As I have said before, a warrior does not simply pick up the blade because he expects to lay it down one day. A warrior picks up the blade hoping to die with it or by it. I’ll see you all in Valhalla… but not yet… not yet.
NEVER STRAY FROM THE WAY
Michael De La Pava