The Beach Diaries 2012 – #13
* Some things are so vividly associated with Christmas that they’ll fill your belly with a cosy festive warmth whatever the month; the opening bars of a favourite carol, Bill Murray in a top hat with some holly on it. This bright afternoon on the last day of June, I get a flush of that Christmas feeling myself.
I’ve always been a World’s Strongest Man nerd; Nordic superman Magnus Samuelsson, melon-armed Austrian, Manfred Hoeberl, or Gerrit Badenhorst, the jovial South African with an aura of being a friend’s fun dad; I knew their names and their skills like other boys knew footballers. There’s no Christmas without strongman events on the TV, and today, there’s a strongman contest down by the river. Jingle fuckin’ Bells.
* Behind the barriers lurk big men with bigger belts around their waists, and each with that muscle-guy stance where their arms float up by their sides. All the strongman types are represented; tall ones, squat ones, an oldschool fat one, a guy with a mohawk, a guy who looks like Brock Lesnar — and a short, skinny chap who’s smaller than half the spectators. Amid the knee straps and gym-branded shirts and shorts, he’s wearing actual plimsolls and grey jogging bottoms, giving the impression of someone who not only forgot his kit, but forgot to weigh about 100lbs more before turning up.
* A ripped guy with a mohawk paces past, psyching himself up for the first event, where they must carry a huge weighted yoke across their backs, before flipping a gigantic tire three times. Mohawk Guy hoofs back a noseful of smelling salts, leaving him wide-eyed and psychotic-looking. Another strongman, a younger bloke of towering height, barks out primal screams, “Raaaa! Raaaa!”
* An old man walks by with a push bike, glancing over at the contest briefly before moving on. He’s wearing luminous green shorts with slits in the legs right up to the hipbone.
* In a break, I stroll over to the common, which is a mass of obnoxious Armed Forces Day military fetishism. I spoke last year of my loathing for this post-911 bombardment of the idea that the greatest thing we can aspire to is combat. It’s there, and only there, that man is at their most noble and brave; there, and only there, that heroes are made. So they say.
* A phrase sits on the edge of my sarcastic lips all day, unsaid to a thousand different uniformed types, walking among us like Gods wandering down from Olympus to mingle with the mortals.
“I like your little beret.”
* The Farmer’s Walk. The strongmen have to complete a running course while heaving two torpedo-shaped weights that stretch their arms to the floor. There’s a comical disparity to the tiny, mincing stutter-steps these big men take. One finishes by violently staggering sideways into the concrete before hobbling away.
“He says he felt something in his foot ping,” says the MC. As I lean on the barrier, red faces and necks thick with strain jerk past. It’s fantastic.
* A short, ripped looking official barks aggressive encouragement as he walks beside the competitors.
“Pump it, pump it!”
Meanwhile, the main referee looks exactly like a white D’Angelo Barksdale.
* Inbetween events, they quaff power bars and sup on thick, grey-coloured protein shakes. Some warm their muscles on lighter weights that would crush a normal man. The guy with the pinging foot limps around. A few of then go into the funfair. 300lb men with sweat drenched backs, among the hoop games and claw machines. A guy who’s 6’4” and hewn from iron walks a really, really long way to find a bin to put his apple core in.
* There’s a genuine camaraderie to strongman unlike what I’ve seen in any other sport or competition. Truly, they clap and yell each other on, thrilled to see competitors finish, to see rivals top a personal best, even if it beats the score they almost popped an artery to accomplish themselves. Everything about the football system that turns 99% of players into prickish oafs – special treatment in school, reading frowned upon as “a poof’s folly,” a prevailing sense of entitlement – doesn’t exist in strongman. It’s a sport driven by the support and encouragement of the fellow competitors, and it’s a joy to see.
* Two planes, daubed in jingoistic red, white & blue, buzz overhead, looping, banking, and leaving blue-white fart trails of smoke across the sky. Necks as thick as King Kong’s cock turn and look.
“Someone always dies at these things,” I think, watching the planes scream low and loud over the shore, almost hand in hand.
* A man in his 40s clocks the weights as he passes.
“Look!” he says to his wife, excitedly, “It’s the world’s strongest man in the world!”
* As with old British wrestling, the most excited spectators are the old ladies. Throughout the day, the MC yells at us to show our support, to be louder, gibing with emotional blackmail of “Come on Littlehampton, you promised me you were going to be a loud crowd!” But the elderly need no such prodding.
“Go on…” yells a lady leaning over the barrier as a contorted face on a bus of a body thunders past. “…lift that weight! That’s it, keep lifting that weight!”
* The day’s events have a strange honesty about them. The faces and noises that come out of these men are those most people wouldn’t be willing to share. More than an o-face, the uncontrollable splutters, grunts, and gurns that come out of you when you’re at the absolute limit of physical strain your body can cope with is something I don’t think I’d want to the world to see. It’s bad enough when someone catches me unconsciously biting my bottom lip when I’m doing a hard bit on a videogame.
* The guy who screams requires a greater level of psyching up as we get to the later stages. A snort of smelling salts, a roar, and violent two-handed slaps of the face. He gets one rep.
* Back at Armed Forces Day, and the biggest crowds by far are those swamping the tent for a charity that supports young men and their families who joined the army and got blown up, or came home in flag-draped coffins. The soldiers running the stall thrill small children by putting battered camouflage helmets on their heads, so big that they cover their noses, and by showing them real life rifles that can turn a man’s head to pulp. The children’s eyes are alive with exciting dreams of war, as their parents drop notes into the collection tins.
* A lone bagpiper in full military regalia screeches a tune outside the crazy golf, like an archaic ghost in a stately home nobody will ever believe you saw.
* The deadlift event is an enormous tire with a middle-aged woman sat on the inner rim. She judders every time a strongman bumps it back down to Earth for another rep. A beast of a man powers out sixteen with a violent efficiency, and each time, her breasts nearly hit her in the chin.
* While the truck-pull is setting up, Brock Lesnar Guy, the current leader, sits nearby for a breather. He’s plum-coloured from effort, and devours another protein bar. Next to him sits another strong gentleman, with a smiley face drawn onto his enormous back with the chalk they use for grip. The soft spoken, polite voices that come out of both are almost a cliché, but a pleasing one.
* The truck-pull is the trademark of strongmen contests, and today’s is five full tonnes, with a harness leashed to the grill with a heavy chain. The lighter guys who can’t get the truck to move thrash and flail against the chain like teased dogs, while the men who do heave it up the course do so in prancy miniature footsteps, a red-faced Nutcracker Suite, with an effort that leaves them face-down and flat out.
* In the break before the final event, I take the opportunity to empty some urine out of my penis. By the toilets, twenty yards downwind of three strongmen, the smell of Deep Heat that comes my way is literally incredible.
* The final event involves carrying various heavy and awkward objects over to the truck, and depositing them up onto the back. The skinny guy goes first, as he’s in last place by some distance, having often finished events with a shrug, after trying, and failing, to get a single lift. All eyes are on him, a big crowd for the finale. He might not have the muscles, I think, but this guy’s got balls you could knock down a house with. Slowly, but resolutely, he works his way through the objects; a metal barrel that bends his back in two, a pair of sandbags almost as tall as he is, and finally, the big torpedo. He grips it with both hands, walking it over between his legs. He waddles in a way that would be undignified, but the determination gifts him a dignity that would shout it down, even if he was wearing nothing but a sagging nappy.
As the last big weight clangs onto the truck, an exhausted man, half the size of his competitors, takes his ragged breaths beneath the biggest cheer of the day.
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