It's basically two people fighting over a stick. But Mas-wrestling is a pure measure of strength, and its popularity is growing worldwide. Paul Williams meets a Levin man travelling to Russia to represent New Zealand in Mas-wrestling.
Stephen Burnell paces the gym with his headphones on, but he's paying no attention to the music. He's talking to himself. There's a couple of other people there at 5.30am, but he's in his own world now.
He dips his hands in a bucket of chalk, claps them together, and heads over to where a 210kg barbell waits for him. He assaults his senses with a sniff of smelling salts, and another sniff, and a swift rattle of his head suggests he's well and truly awake.
He spreads some chalk on the bar. He bends over and grabs it one hand facing one way, one hand the other way. He looks forward. There is a big inhale, then an exhale, then an almighty lift. He stands tall with arms straight, the thick bar bending under the strain.
Although the burden was more than twice his own body weight, it looked easy enough. He circles for a few seconds, regaining composure and focus, before heading over to grab more weights.
At intervals of less than a minute, Burnell adds more weight, and repeats the drill...230kg...250kg...260kg...270kg...each time pushing himself harder than before, the focus become more intense. The self-talk has risen above a whisper now. Each effort demanding his complete attention.
But that's Burnell. Quiet, unassuming, focused, and driven by the constant pursuit of more.
"I'm never really satisfied. I can always do better," he said.
As some who is constantly pushing himself, he goes for one more lift...280kg. But he's found his limit. Wisely, he stops there. The constant quest to push himself further had to be tempered with common sense. It would invite the risk of injury.
He's been there before, with an injury that had him sidelined for a year. At a strongman competition in June 2017 he was lifting a huge rock. It was wet, and one of the rocks' edges pressed hard into his stomach. He knew something was wrong.
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The result was every strongman's worst fear. A hernia, requiring surgery.
"I didn't tell anybody. I carried on and came second. But I had a long time off after that...it took a while to get my strength and confidence back," he said.
He didn't compete again until October 2018. There was always the worry with a hernia that could end the career of a Strongman with the possibility of it reoccurring.
For Burnell, it was so far, so good, and although it could play up from time to time. In the last year he managed to bring home a swag of medals including a gold medal at the under 105kg division at the Arnold Classic in Australia last year, earning the right to compete in Russia.
Burnell found he had an affinity for one particular discipline in the Strongman competition that had only recently been introduced. While there were the usual tyre flips, truck pulls and stone lifts, this time there was Mas-wrestling.
The World Strongman Federation started including Mas-wrestling as an event only in the last decade. Originally it was a common hobby among sailors and variations of the sport could be found throughout Alaska and Northern Europe.
Its popularity was growing and there were calls for it to become an Olympic sport. A recent championship in Kyrgyzstan attracted 192 athletes from 42 countries, both men and women, in different weight divisions.
Mas-wrestling is best described as a tug-of-war, but with a stick instead of a rope. Contestants sit opposite each other, holding a stick, with their feet resting on the board.
Boiled down, it is two people fighting over a stick, but a prefect test of strength, and in a sport where individual strength was measured by individual feats of power, it provided an element of man-on-man combat.
The contestant who manages to pull his opponent over the board and keep the stick in his hands is the winner. The average round is over in 30 seconds.
It demands dynamic strength. It looks like a seated dead lift, but a degree of tactics were required where smaller athletes could leverage themselves to beat larger opponents with speed and agility.
Burnell's strength was his ability to move the board.
"I was just naturally good at it. I don't really train at it, I'm just good at it," he said.
He credits Palmerston North strongman Carl Waitoa for introducing him to the sport and helping him with advice and techniques that he said were invaluable.
Leading into the Russian event in Vladivostok, Burnell had used two men to train with, sitting opposite him and pulling against him, and also trained on his own with resistance bands fixed to the wall.
He usually wakes at 4.30am. He trains on an empty stomach. He knows that is not ideal, but said it generally took a person four hours to gain strength after waking up. He knew if he could lift 270kg in the morning, it would translate into "about 280kg" in the afternoon.
"It's not optimal. You are definitely weaker in the morning. It's just the time of the day I can train," he said.
He eats six meals each day, every three hours, that usually has red meat, eggs, rice and oats, and vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, tomatoes and "lots of salad". He doesn't eat bread.
"It's flexible though," he said.
"When I get ready for competition I cut out all the crap, not that I eat a lot of crap. I had pizza last night though, but I was just trying to get extra carbs in."
Looking around the gym, there seemed no escape. There were heavy weights everywhere, huge concrete balls, gigantic tractor tyres, massive thick ropes and resistance bands.
But don't be fooled. While he himself also ran Strongman classes, there was also a space for yoga, Pilates and massage therapy.
The 28-year-old started off his working life as a dairy farmer. He enjoyed the outdoors. But in 2012 he wanted a change and pursued his love of exercise by completing a Bachelor in Exercise and Sports Science in Levin in 2012.
"I got bored with farming, not that I didn't like it and being outside. But what did I really want to do? Be a farmer, or be involved in sport?" he said.
From there he started the Horowhenua Strength Club, and it led to him competing in Strongman events and developing a love for it.
"It's an extreme strength sport, doing things that a normal person can't do, really fast," he said.
Burnell attended Waiopehu College and Palmerston North Boys' High School. He loved his rugby and rugby league, playing hooker, but enjoyed playing any sport and tried his hand at most, including canoe polo and even badminton.
On his return from Russia there was two months to prepare for the Wellington Strongman competition, and then three weeks after that was the New Zealand competition in Auckland.
After that, he is going to take a break, he said.