Grunt work

By Kathy Sweeney

Mariusz Zbigniew of Poland. Photo / Getty Images
Mariusz Zbigniew of Poland. Photo / Getty Images

Mariusz Pudz-ianowski looks like he might accidentally kill small animals he's trying to pet because he doesn't know his own strength. At more than 1.8m tall, 140kg and with a chest measurement of 147cm, he's the lug of the moment, and causing quite a stir as he lurches through the hotel reception. His gargantuan presence is attracting double-takes from the new arrivals at the reception desk - weaklings who pull their luggage along on wheels. He orders a beer at the bar and his huge paw makes it look like he's palming a thimble.

Pudzianowski is a strongman. He flips 270kg tractor tyres. He pulls 45-tonne planes. He lifts 145kg Atlas Stones. He's in Malta with an international team of Goliaths, to battle it out for the title of World's Strongest Man.

For the next week, the Excelsior Hotel is home to super-sized athletes, super-sized meals and super-sized egos. At times it feels like they're haunting the place; every time you get in the lift (which breaks after a few days; they really need a freight elevator), or turn a corner, a strongman looms into view.

It's like a superheroes' convention.

At mealtimes - a sight like no other - heads turn as the implausibly large men, some of them shirtless, grab whole jugs of orange juice and milk (they pay the hotel a supplement, understandably, as most of them eat more than a horse; around 10,000 calories a day keeps them ticking over).

WSM has been running for 31 years - the final is broadcast each New Year's Day in America and Britain - and remains compulsive viewing; there's nothing quite like watching strongmen lifting comically oversized objects. It's the combination of the elemental and the strange; you're not going to switch channels when you see someone deadlifting a Mercedes.

"Lifting things people can relate to puts it into focus," explains contestant Travis Ortmayer. "Wow. You're lifting up a car. That's ridiculous." We join this year's contenders on the beach, where fans and astonished onlookers have gathered to gawp; nobody is going to kick sand in the faces of these hulking giants. Today's events are the Keg Toss (hurling 23kg weights over a 4m wall), and the Atlas Stones (lifting increasingly heavy stones on to plinths).

Surprisingly enough, the strongmen are generally supportive of each other, with lots of vigorous high-fiving, hearty back-slapping and the odd handshake. Of the camaraderie, Phil Pfister, 2006 winner and an ex-firefighter says, "There are several guys who've formed friendships over the years.

Some are more worthy than others." He means Pudzianowski, all-round bad-ass and not the most sporting contestant. "Ha!" he sneers, right on cue, "Too heavy for you?" as his opponent drops a weight. He is, as competition founder Barry Franks notes, "conceited as hell". Are you nervous, Pudzianowski? "I have too much power to be nervous," he shrugs, in a heavy Polish accent, checking his arm muscles.

Who do you think will win? "Myself." It's fair to say humility is not his watchword. Pfister is not impressed. "Marius is a guy you have to respect, but not too much. Quite a few guys are enjoying him not winning any events so far in the qualifying rounds. I mean, his self-branded name is The Dominator. We're polar opposites."

Pudzianowski affects indifference. He can take it or leave it, he's not bothered about trinkets. "Now I have five times the World's Strongest Man. A long time ago I wanted to beat the guy who had won it four times [Iceland's Magnus Ver Magnusson]. Last year, I beat him. That was my goal. Now I am only for fun. Now when I go to event I give 100 per cent, not 120 per cent because 120 per cent is impossible all the time."

Although he is a dynamic performer - is there anyone who can pull off the Farmer's Walk, carrying heavy weights in each hand, with such flair? - you can see how he might become a tad annoying. Time for lunch in a beach restaurant and it's a surreal sight, a trestle table of of Mr Incredibles with gargantuan plates of food.

Eating is a serious business; so much so that nobody breaks off to help tiny presenter Zoe Salmon as she struggles to carry chairs across the room. Salmon's job is to ask questions before and after events, as the panting contestants discuss the finer points of hoisting gigantic rocks on to plinths. "Stone ... It's heavy ..."

So what makes a great strongman? "They just like to lift," says Barry Frank, "and they have a great pain threshold." A lot of bodybuilders were bullied at school. Is this the case with strongmen? "I don't think it's that. Anyway, bodybuilding is about appearance, strongman is about function." At present, the Eastern Europeans are dominating.

Pfister adds: "It's a young sport, everything goes in cycles. It's an incredibly insane and miserable discipline. So if you take it too seriously, you become insane and miserable. I've seen it too many times, you have to take it with a grain of salt."

Time to board the testosterone-filled bus, one strongman to each double seat, to travel to the next event. The Farmer's Walk is a test of agility and speed as well as strength. Phil Pfister - who, incidentally, is 2m tall and 156kg, with fists bigger than his head - carries two 160kg weights in each hand (the equivalent of four washing machines) with the same ease most people carry a briefcase.

Afterwards, he bolts down a quick snack - a bucket of muesli with yoghurt. "I like to eat early. The plane pull is a good event to puke on. The sheer physical effort makes you reject your food, and I don't want that." Nobody wants that. Terry from Dartford is so far on great form, but missed out by a grunt as he tore the callouses off his hands. He holds them out, raw and bleeding and the strongman doctor, Richard Smith (there are five medics on hand), patches him up for the next event.

Smith has his work cut out. Ask any of the strongmen about their injuries and you get a litany of broken tendons, ligaments and muscles. Pudzianowski popped a bicep in April, and it was sewn back on with metal stitches. Ex-strongman Bill Kazmaier or "Kaz", who now commentates on the show for ESPN, explains: "We say the measure of a man is how you react and all these guys are iron warriors. Some guys go to hospital, the tough guys go to the next event. It's a different breed."

In short, nothing stops these men. They train for around four hours a day, five days a week, but the hotel gym is of no use to them. There are no stairmasters or elliptical machines, no Pilates classes in strongman gyms. And there's no room for lurking self-doubt. "The impossible exists only in the mind of the already defeated," muses a philosophical Kaz. The music of choice for training seems to be metal (the WSM soundtrack features the likes of Korn, Slipknot and Seether).

The hours spent training make it difficult for them to hold down a regular job, apart from perhaps security, although there are a few exceptions. Pfister is a PR for an energy company, Derek Poundstone is a policeman - his colleagues must breathe a sigh of relief when he shows up for backup - and Marshall White is a mortician.

Interestingly, there are various body types among them: uniformly massive of course, but some look more like bodybuilders, all billowing muscles and power-glares, while others are well ... a bit fat, although you wouldn't say that to their faces, obviously.

Finally, it's time for the Plane Pull. Man versus plane, the truest test of strength. As the behemoths stare at the plane, it feels like a Mexican stand-off, although all the Airbus A320 has to do is sit there and weigh 45 tonnes. The strongmen do all the work. They psych each other up ("C'mon man, you can do it"), and address the plane, with eyebrow-knitted seriousness: "I own you. You are mine!"

Huffs become grunts, sinews are strained, faces are contorted... The contestants grunt it out to decide who is the World's Strongest Man. Suddenly the world seems a smaller place ...

What it takes

Loading race

Five heavy objects weighing between 100-160kg are loaded onto a truck bed or a similar platform over a 15m course.

Atlas Stones

Five heavy round stones increasing in weight from 100-160kg are placed on top of high platforms. The course tends to be about 5-10m long. In competitions this is typically the final event.

Truck/plane pull

Vehicles such as transport trucks, trams, boxcars, buses or planes are pulled across a 30m course by hand as fast as possible. The vehicles may be pulled with a harness around the shoulders.

Fingal fingers

A series of progressively heavier, hinged polesare lifted, starting from a horizontal resting position and flipped over to the other side. The event is named for Fingal, a mythological Gaelic hunter-warrior.

Car carry

Standing inside a roofless, bottomless car supported by a harness, competitors must carry the car for the maximum distance or shortest time for 25m.

Duck walk

A 180kg pot with a handle is carried, suspended between the legs, over a set course.

Dead lift

Lifting weights or vehicles up to about 500kg straight off the ground until knees lock in a standing position. Lift is for either maximum weight or maximum repetitions with a fixed weight.


Squatting large weights, such as 400kg of bricks, a car, or people on a platform. Power stairs A series of three Duck Walk implements ranging from 180-270kg are lifted, step by step, to the top of a flight of stairs.

Yoke walk

A yoke, composed of a crossbar and two weighted uprights (normally fridges) weighing about 400kg, is carried across the shoulders for a set distance Crucifix: Weights are held straight out at each side for as long a time as possible.

Carry & drag

Two weights are carried to the end of a set distance. An anchor and chain must then be dragged back the same distance. Farmer's walk Competitors carry heavy objects weighing from 125-170kg in each hand for a set distance, and compete for the fastest time.

Log/Caber toss

A 5m log is thrown for distance or for height over a bar. Hercules hold The athlete stands between two hinged pillars, gripping handles that prevent the pillars from falling to the side. The pillars are held for the longest possible time.

Keg toss

Competitors must throw 10 25kg kegs over a 4.5m high steel wall.


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