"I can't believe I am actually going through with this," I thought to myself as I walked into a church basement that would serve as the site for the 1997 Washington State American Drug Free Powerlifting Association meet.
Here I was, in my mid-40s, entering my first powerlifting meet. Though I had been a recreational lifter for 15 years, it was only in the last two that--with the help of my workout partner--I became more serious about lifting. Now, instead of just thinking or talking about competing--I would actually put my strength skills to the ultimate test.
I had all sorts of excuses why I shouldn't be in that church basement. I hadn't competed in any sport since my college dorm's soccer team, about 27 years ago! Growing up, I never was that good at the traditional team sports--baseball, basketball or football--so as an adult I stayed away from any competitions, even fun runs and company softball games. I wasn't sure that I could really handle the pressure of losing--even though the only other person I would know in the room was my lifting partner.
For other excuses, there were the nagging injuries I had all summer, especially inflammation in my upper biceps. Then there was the long interruption in my workouts just as I should have tried to peak. First came a backpacking trip to Yellowstone in late August. As soon as I came back, I got hit hard with the flu. This was two weeks out from the contest. So by the time I recovered sufficiently to work out again, it was a week away from the meet.
But here I was on a sunny Seattle morning in September, registering at 8 a.m. for a contest that was supposed to start at 9 (much more about that later). What finally made me do it? Well, there was the financial commitment. I had already paid a $50 entry fee and bought a new lifting belt and wraps. There was a lot of encouragement from lifters I met on the Net. I didn't want to abandon my lifting partner, Tom Price, who wanted to compete as much as I did. (It was his first meet too.) And, of course, I wanted to prove something to myself. I needed to see if I could succeed, meet my goals and not be a total washout as a lifter.
I have to admit that there came a point when I was one lift away from being a total washout. Somehow I overcame near defeat, met my goals, and achieved a personal success that I am still trying to analyze. Sharing these events is part of that process.
Here are the hard facts. I lifted in the master's category in the 181 pound class. I did not use any squat suits or bench shirts, just a belt and knee wraps. By the meet's end, I had hit two personal bests. My final totals were 303 for the squat, 242 for the bench and 407 for the deadlift--a grand total of 952 pounds. What follows is a rough account of how I did it. I hope other novices can benefit from my mistakes and my success.
A week before the meet, despite both of us recovering from the flu, Tom and I practiced our lifts. Some folks just try their openers, but Tom and I tried all three attempts in all three lifts in one marathon session. We did it in a strange gym wearing all the gear we planned to wear at the meet. I was surprised by how much I could still lift despite the illness and the backpacking break.
We went to the weigh-in the night before. Having lost seven pounds in three weeks (backpacking took off 3 pounds and the flu took off 4), I had no doubt I would make my class. Nevertheless, I didn't have dinner until after the weigh-in. It didn't matter--I came in at 176, just two pounds higher than my home scale.
It is a maxim that a novice will have a bad night before a meet, and I was no exception. I woke up at least twice and laid in bed thinking about the competition. Tom told me he was awake at 12:30 a.m. and another lifter confessed he was up at 3 a.m. At least I had packed all my gear and food the night before. I had bagels, bananas, an apple, yogurt, rice, Power Bars and a carbo sports drink ready. It was a lot of food, but by the end of the meet I had eaten almost all of it. Besides the usual gear, I packed a towel, a water bottle, paper and pen, band-aids, coffee, No Doz and a camera. I was prepared for the long haul.
The meet was supposed to start at nine. Having watched one PL meet and listening to other lifters, I knew that these meets never start on time. I got there about 8:15. With all the last-minute set up, trying to figure out the opening flights, waiting for the judges, the briefings, etc., the first lifts didn't start until 11. It was going to be a long, long day.
In fact, the waiting took a little of the edge off my nerves. It was such a long ordeal that I grew frustrated. "Hurry up and let me do my lifts," I grumbled. I also had the pleasure of meeting Mike Trupiano, with whom I had corresponded on the Net but never met in person. A guy looked at me pretty intensely while we were waiting in line, and I thought, "What's his problem?" He quietly said hello and I said hi back and then he asked if I was Tom Griffin. He introduced himself and we had one of those typical 1990s conversations where you feel like you know someone pretty well even though you have only "met" on the Net.
There were about 40 lifters divided into four flights. The 181 masters had four lifters--including one incredible guy who must have just turned 40. He was huge and was also lifting in the men's open.
I watched the women's flight to see how the judging was going for the squat. In case you are not familiar with a powerlifting contest, I want to explain that squatting is pretty strict. You are supposed to unrack the bar without help and get yourself in a stable position with knees locked. You nod to the judge, who then issues the command "Squat." Then you must drop down so that the top of your thighs are lower than the top of your knees. There are three judges looking at your depth. They also want to make sure you don't move your feet while squatting. You have to come up on your own and lock your knees. Then the judge says "rack" and you have to make at least one step on your own towards actually racking the weight before the spotters can help you.
As I watched the women lift, I thought that the judging was not too strict. Then I went behind the curtain. The warm-up area was not the zoo I thought it would be. Everyone was polite about letting others get a turn, and we all were warmed up far before the flight was called to the platform. I was fifth in the rotation, glad that I wasn't first. I watched most of the others squeeze into their squat suits and was glad I was lifting raw.
My opener was 137.5 kilos (303 pounds) which I thought I could do pretty easily. With Tom behind to spot, I walked to the bar, lifted the weight easily off the racks and nodded to the judge. Down I went and came up smooth. I racked the weight, and turned to see three red lights flash up. "Damn, I didn't go deep enough." I was pretty upset with myself. I planned to go really deep on the first attempt so that the judges wouldn't look at me so hard on future tries, and the opposite happened. Was it the lack of a mirror, the unfamiliar bar and platform, or just my nerves out of control?
I went back and waited for my second attempt. This time I would be sure to go down low enough. Tom asked if I was all right and I said I was. Did I want to practice my depth one more time in the warm-up area, he asked. No, I would be okay, I said. But inside I was wondering what would happen when my name was called again.
It seemed like it was only a few minutes and I was out there again for my second attempt. I wrapped up my knees extra tight, took the bar off the racks, nodded and waited for the command. The head judge said "Squat" and down I went to what I was sure the legal depth. But after the rack command I saw three red lights staring back at me.
Suddenly the entire day was coming to a crisis. If you cannot make a good lift after three tries, you are out of the contest. If you bomb on the first attempt, you can't go back and try a lower weight on your second or third lifts (although you can go higher if you want to!). So I was trapped. Either make 303 on my third attempt, or the day was over.
I was seriously considering that prospect. The stress of the contest would be over. It would almost be a relief to bomb out for a third time and just leave. But my mind--and my soul--rebelled at the thought. I couldn't walk out of there as a failure. One of the 275 lifters gave me a simple pep talk. "Just bury it. You know you can do it. If you don't make it, so what. You've got nothing to lose by going as deep as you can. Bury that mother." He was right. My lifting partner gave me quiet words of encouragement. "Just go deep, you aren't going to hurt yourself," he said. "I know you can make this."
Before I knew it, my third and last attempt was called. The crowd in the room started to cheer me. The head judge even softly whispered a few words of encouragement. I took the bar off the rack, got my feet in position and waited for the command. "Squat," the judge barked. I tightened my abs, sucked in my breath, looked up and let my body take over. I kept going down and down--as deep as I could possibly think I could go and then even deeper. Finally I started back up. There was a hint of hesitation about 1/3 of the way and then I finished smoothly. I made sure that my feet didn't move, locked out my knees and waited for the command to rack. It came quickly--and so did three white lights and applause. "The lift is good," said the announcer.
I wasn't very emotional about finally hitting the lift. I just felt relief that it was all over and that I hadn't bombed out of my first powerlifting meet. Tom admitted later that he was suffering from such an incredible adrenaline rush over my attempts that he was afraid he was going to be totally depleted for his own lifts.
Since I made all my other attempts that day, I have to attribute some of my near failure to nerves. I've done a 335 squat in my gym and 305 for a set of five reps. I should have gotten it easily. But I also feel that I have a problem really going deep. Tom has now moved to Mississippi, and without a good partner and a mirror, I am never sure if I am deep enough.
Meanwhile the other 181 masters were all lifting more than me, although one wasn't that far ahead. I was the only one in my class lifting without a squat suit, so I knew I was going to be behind anyway. Everyone backstage was encouraging and friendly. No one was trying to psyche the other guy out. I had always heard about the powerlifting camaraderie and now I was experiencing it first hand.
Tom's flight came up next. At 198, he was one of the early lifters in his flight, opening with 130 kilos (286 pounds). Despite worrying about me, he had plenty of energy to nail his first attempt with ease. This is rather remarkable since he had back surgery on his spine (L5/S1) a year and a half ago. He came back a lot stronger than he was before the operation and entering this meet was a final sign that everything was healed. He decided on his second attempt--142.5 kilos or 314 pounds--and nailed that one as well. Then he set his sight on a personal best lift--152.5 kilos or 334 pounds. There were other guys that bombed out on their third squat attempt, but Tom made his easily. For both of us, it was going to be a good day.
But it was going to be long day as well. I stuffed myself with bagels, bananas, rice and part of my carbo drink after my squats. I also drank a couple cups of coffee. Yet I still felt sluggish at 2 p.m. as the squatting finally ended. One lifter had bombed on all three of his attempts and I really felt badly for him. Another bombed his first two and then made his third--man, I knew how he felt. There were also a scattering of raw lifters--at least five others besides Tom and me. That made me feel less awkward. Raw lifting seemed to be an acceptable alternative--nobody tried to put us down for it.
Why did everything have to take so long, I asked. The bench portion didn't start until 3 p.m. Mike Trupiano said it wasn't a very well run meet. I could tell that when one guy took half an hour to set up a suede-covered bench for the bench press. We ate, we talked, and we thought about our next lifts. It was a pretty friendly crowd and we got to know several lifters and their friends and families just sitting around in the audience.
Finally the bench press competition began. It was strange to watch both the men and women trying to get into these incredibly tight shirts. Again, I was glad I didn't bother with the gear, even though it would keep my lifts down compared to others in my class.
Most of us are familiar with the bench press, but everyday lifters are not very strict. In a powerlifting meet you cannot bounce the bar off your chest. You get a lift off the rack and then let the bar descend to your chest. After it is motionless on the chest, the judge will tell you to "press" and that is when you can lift the weight. Normally this pause isn't too long--maybe a second--but it is enough to make sure you are not bouncing the bar. It also makes the bench press a lot harder and I usually lose about 20 pounds between my gym lifts and lifts with a pause.
My first attempt was an easy 97.5 kilos (215 pounds). Tom gave me a great lift off, I let the bar come down to my chest and waited for the command. It came quicker than I thought it would and I easily sent the bar back up and locked out my arms. The judge gave the rack command and I put the bar back in its place. Three white lights greeted me when I came up from the bench--what a relief.
Suddenly the meet was getting to be less of an ordeal and more fun. I decided my second attempt should be pretty conservative, just 102.5 kilos or 225 pounds. I had done this in the gym with a pause, despite my biceps injury during the summer. Again, when my time came it was no problem, so for my third attempt, I went for 110 kilos (242 pounds). I had never made this weight with a pause in the gym but it came pretty easy to me on the platform. Damn, this was fun, I decided.
Tom's is strongest in the bench and he quietly made all three of his attempts as well: 127.5-142.5-145 kilos (281-314-319 pounds). This was without any gear, not even wrist wraps.
Then we had to wait and wait and wait. Tom almost drove off to the nearest McDonalds, but instead ate his cottage cheese and crackers. I drank the rest of my carbo drink, noshed on my food and took a No Doz. I was yawning like crazy and took several walks outside to try and stay on the edge.
It was between 5:30 and 6 when the deadlifting finally started. I had made a restaurant reservation for 8:30 to celebrate my wedding anniversary with my wife. I started to worry that I would have to leave the meet early--I certainly wasn't going to break our "date." At least warming up for deads didn't take long. My last warm-up was just 10 pound below my opener and I nailed that easy--so I was pretty confident.
Deadlift has always been my best lift and today would confirm that. I started with 170 kilos (374 pounds) and lifted that puppy easily. My next attempt was 177.5 kilos (390 pounds) and again I lifted it with no problem. When it came to setting my third attempt, Tom wouldn't let me go low. He insisted I shoot for 185 kilos (407 pounds). I had never lifted more than 405 in the gym. But Tom was right. It took a little while to get the bar moving, but I was never in trouble and probably could have lifted ever more.
I lift with a conventional style and have never even tried sumo deadlifting. While I used to scrape my shins, lately they have been pretty clean and at the contest that continued. I didn't end up with bloody shins like some other lifters.
Tom's deadlifts came in at 137.5-152.5-160 kilos (303-336-352 pounds). Tom pushed himself on the last one--but his goal was to hit a 1,000 total by the end of the day, and he made it. We both left as soon as we could--long before the trophies were handed out. We knew we weren't going to win anything, but since I was competing only against myself, I was feeling great. And I made that restaurant reservation with my wife in time to spare!
Other sites on the web often urge lifters to give a competition a try. I was skeptical about ever entering one of these. Now I am glad that I did. The sport really needs to grow. I hope that if you are considering taking the jump, you will do it. If my old bones and weary muscles can lift 952 pounds, you can do it too.
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