Applying Ralph Waldo Emerson to Strongman Training

In our bathroom, we have a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem on a canvas for us to view as we get ready for bed at the end of the day.  The poem reads:

Finish each day and be done with it.

You have done what you could, some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in;

Forget them as soon as you can.

Tomorrow is a new day;

You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

While the poem is a great reminder for our daily lives, as I read it tonight, it seemed equally applicable to lifting and competitions. Finish each lift and be done with it. Yes, there is much to be learned from the lift, and you can be proud of what has been accomplished, but don’t dwell on a single lift to the point where it causes frustration or where it allows a person to become complacent.

Though I am getting better at squats and deadlifts, I still struggle and fight for every rep. Dave coaches me to take time and set-up properly and complete each rep with starting and ending in the same position. When I need to reset, Dave reminds me to step back and breathe, collect my thoughts, regroup, and regrip. While the goal is to be successful with every rep in every set, I am frequently reminded that i need to check my pride and ego in favor or proper form and completing the prescribed sets.

This is where the wisdom of Emerson comes in: At the end of the set or at the end of the session, I can learn from my successes as well as my blunders and absurdities, but to dwell or think on the failures will not benefit on my future training.

This morning, I started our 5 sets of 8 reps with too high a weight. I went with 345 lbs, which was at the top end of the percentages Dave advised use we should consider lifting.  By half-way through the second set, my form was needing to be reset after each lift, so I was told I needed to lower weight. I reduced to 315, and after that set, Dave recommended I drop to 275. When I finished the deadlift portion of the workout, I moved on. Yes, I would have preferred to end on a set of 8 for 345, but I made a blunder, I learned, and I moved on. The next exercise was squats, and each of the 3 sets of 8 were improved upon over the previous. The deadlifts had served their purpose for the day, and I was done with them, mentally and physically.

So, how does this apply in a broader picture? I still need to get over myself and my lifts from my youth. I am more than 20 years older, and I had many years of lack of physical training, so it is almost as though I am starting from scratch, so I must forget about the successes of the past, as that was a different person. Each day, I must strive to be the best I can be in that moment, and when the moment is done, be done with the moments, whether successes or failures.

Retired One of My Two Masters

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other…” Luke 16:13. I am not one to quote scripture, and I realize this wasn’t referring to running vs strongman, but it is applicable to so many conflicts in life.

New Year’s Eve heading into 2003, a friend of mine said he wanted to run a marathon before his 30th birthday. He was turning 29 in April, which meant that in Michigan, he had one marathon season to complete his goal. Determined to help my friend succeed, I told him I would train with him and run the Detroit Marathon with him. That summer, we spent most Saturdays or Sundays running 2 laps around a park with an 8-1/2 mile trail.  Those were good miles and happy memories, though I ended up injuring myself in September, so I could not participate in the October marathon; however, Don achieved his goal.

In April 2004, my wife and I welcomed our daughter, so much of the time I had spent running the previous year was now focused on being a good husband and father. I think the jury is still out on how well I succeeded in that first year of fatherhood, but I did my best; however, my marathon training was less than impressive. When Don asked if I wanted to run the marathon that October, I agreed, as I figured I could whip myself into marathon shape in a couple months. Avoiding injury, I completed my first marathon in October 2004.

Grace fell asleep on my chest while carb loading the night before my first marathon in 2004. We dined at Pegasus in Greektown.
About mile 8-9 of the Detroit Marathon. This was just after the tunnel from Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

I took the next year off of running, as I had decided to try a career change which didn’t pan out, but for my 30th birthday, I completed the Flying Pigs Marathon in Cincinnati, OH. It was a fun race and one I intended to do again, but laziness and depression took over, so I took comfort in food rather than the miles that gave me release and a great time to work through the problems of the world. I didn’t complete any substantial distance for another 8 years when I completed the Detroit Half-Marathon after losing 50 lbs while working out with Fitness Revolution of Wixom. Completing that race was a gift to myself saying I had taken control of my health, wellness, and fitness.

My return to health and wellness with Detroit Half-Marathon in 2014.

I was so excited with my return to running long distances that I signed up for the Las Vegas Half-Marathon for November 15, 2015. It was to be my great traveling half-marathon, and I had intentions of shaving 15-20 minutes off of my time from the Detroit Half-Marathon. I logged miles every day during my lunch hour. I booked travel in April when I saw great deals. In May, I was pleased to learn I could help another friend achieve a goal by creating a relay team for the Detroit Marathon, which would serve as a nice warm-up for the Las Vegas Half. Las Vegas was going to be MY race, and then in July it happened…I met my new love and master of my exercise time and goals: Strongman.

One of the first observations made about my training prior to strongman was I was doing too much, and it was hurting my goals, as I wasn’t giving my body enough time to rest. While it was difficult at first to not run during lunch, I soon found that I enjoyed a relaxing lunch, and I often made healthier choices for lunch as I made time to prepare a salad and grilled meats. The downside was I could feel my cardiovascular endurance starting to reduce after a few weeks, but I could also feel great gains in strength, and my body was becoming more muscular and responding better to the workouts and increased rest.

After the strongman competition at the end of September, I had about 3 weeks to get ready for the Detroit Marathon relay, but my desire to run was no longer there. I was participating in more bootcamp classes again, which helped my cardio, but I was not in a runner’s shape any longer, and it made me start to second guess whether the Las Vegas half would happen or not. In fact, I was concerned whether I would do well on the shorter distance of the relay. Fortunately, Frank, a friend and trainer, suggested switching legs with me on the relay, so I could run just 2.9 miles. In conversations with Frank and Dave in the weeks leading up to the relay, it became clearer that I needed to opt out of the Las Vegas Half-Marathon and pursue my other opportunity to train at a strongman gym while out there.

Sunday, October 18, 2015 at 3:30 AM, I awoke to get ready for my last run with the word “marathon” associated with it. I met Frank at 4:30, and we started our drive to Detroit to arrive before the roads closed. We relaxed and talked for a while before heading to the starting line to meet our teammates, Suzy and Sara, and then we all went to where we needed to be. Suzy took the starting position. Frank went to the start of the 3rd leg at mile 12.8. I rode a bus to the start of the 4th leg around the 19 mile mark. Sara rode the bus to her position as the anchor for the relay on the 5th leg with the final 4 miles.

For the next 3 hours as Suzy and Frank made their way through the course, I thought about running, took a nap, thought more about running, and talked with a few people on the bus. I could feel that I wasn’t as excited about this race as I had been for other races, including some 5k distances, which was about what my leg was to be. I knew this race was going to be my retirement party for my running master.

As Frank approached the exchange chute for me to start my leg, I took his picture to remember the moment. I jogged most of my distance, but I felt the need to walk a few times to relieve pressure I felt in my chest. I stopped to take a picture of the Belle Isle Aquarium, and then I finished my leg of the race and sent Sara on her way to the finish. I was done, and I had finished trying to serve two masters.

When the bus returned me to the relay meet-up, Suzy, Sara, and Frank were waiting. We collected our finisher medals then posed for a picture in front of an oversized course map from the race. Suzy’s goal had been met. Frank helped us achieve our goals, and for me, I definitively knew my long distance running days were over. I felt peace and closure.

Frank, Me, Suzy, and Sara at the end of the race.

Float Like a Butterfly

“Make the weight float” is a phrase I commonly hear, whether we are doing kettlebell swings, push jerks, clean & jerks, or similar powerful movements.  The thought of making heavy weights float seems odd, but I am finally grasping the concept and making it happen, though not consistently. To illustrate what is meant, I am sharing a few of Dave’s videos where he makes the weight float:

The Kettlebell

This has been difficult for me as I want to crush the handle and actively swing the weight, but only recently have I understood where the power is to come from in this exercise, and it is the part that eludes me in many of my other lifts: the hip pop.  As the arms swing forward with the weight, the snap of the hips should propel the weight forward and the arms should simply be holding onto the end of the pendulum.  Just as a grandfather clock does not press the pendulum to the end of the stroke, I should not be muscling the weight through the complete motion.  Realizing this and finally feeling it this past week will help me to focus on developing the hip drive I desperately need.

Overhead Presses

With overhead presses, I struggle with the coordination, but I am starting to get it, but Dave gives an excellent presentation in the above video.  In the first press, the axle, the weight moves quickly and fluidly overhead as he drives with the legs, presses with his arms, and dips underneath, making the axle almost weightless for a second, making it easier to extend the weight overhead. He accomplishes the same with the log and for most reps on the one-armed circus dumbbell. The great thing about the repetitions on the circus dumbbell is that you can more easily see when the leg drive, press, and dip result in the weightless moment on most reps, but on a few, he has to muscle them out.  So far in my development, I muscle out most of the circus dumbbell presses I have attempted. But, I am starting to see and to feel how this is accomplished.

It feels good to be getting to the point where I can feel when I am getting something right and when I have reverted back to improper technique. Last Saturday, I was thrilled when I was able to get 215 lbs for 2 reps on clean and jerks. My previous best was 210 for 1 rep, and I felt like I could have pressed more because I was starting to get the float. This week while using the kettlebells, I felt a few reps start to float, and it was a revelation in what I have been doing wrong.

Small steps will eventually get me to my goal. When enough small steps line up for me, they will result in a sudden jump, then it will be back to small steps for a while, but as long as I am moving forward, I will choose to focus on the positive.

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Training Advice From My Daughter

Today, my daughter put a question with which I have been struggling into very simple terms that made it easier to evaluate my options. I will have to remember her question when facing similar questions of what to choose when faced with two options, but before I reveal her advice, let me give you the backstory.

Last November, I decided to sign-up for the Rock ‘N Roll Las Vegas Half-Marathon, which is run on the Las Vegas Strip in the evening, so the participants get to enjoy the lights of the strip. It looked like a great race, and a friend in the area commented about how fun it was. I had just completed the Detroit Free Press International Half-Marathon, and my training seemed to be pointing in the direction of general fitness, so another half-marathon made sense.

2014 Detroit Half-Marathon Finish Line
2014 Detroit Half-Marathon Finish Line

In May, a friend announced that she would like to put a relay team together for the Detroit Free Press International Marathon, and since I like to help people achieve goals, and it appears I would be running no more than a 10k, I helped put a team together figuring it would be a good warm-up for the Las Vegas half.

In July, I got my first taste of strongman training, and I was hooked. On August 3rd, I started a 7 week program of strength training with Dave of Pankow-Performance, and one thing that Dave identified with my training that needed to change was I was doing too much. In addition to boot camp classes, crewing for hot air balloons, volunteering on an urban farm, and other physical activities, I was doing 4 miles per day during my lunch break. He advised me that the best gains are achieved while resting, as the body needs an opportunity to recover. It was difficult, at first, to relax and be mindful instead of always being busy, but I became accustomed to it, and I even found pleasure in relaxing lunches. Through Dave’s training and diet recommendations, I met the goal of competing at 242 lbs, and I exceeded my expectations in the competition; however, I could tell my running endurance had decreased during those weeks.

After competition, I went back to 2 days of boot camp training and 1 day of strength training (focus on squats and deadlifts), and it became more obvious that my running had taken a toll, but I also realized that my fitness goals had changed. Before strength training with Dave, my goals were to lose weight and stay active in runs. After strength training and having competed, I have more definitive goals:

  1. Learn form and technique for strongman events
  2. Become stronger throughout my entire body
  3. Lose weight to compete at the 220 lb weight class (a definitive goal with a time requirement based on an April competition)

When I learned that one of our relay team members needed to drop out of the race due to a work commitment he had just been assigned, I started to question my running plans. To make up for his absence, I would likely be running/walking 8-10 miles instead of 6-7 miles. With less than a month between the Detroit marathon and the Las Vegas half-marathon, the increased mileage and need to train additional miles for the half made me realize I would likely miss valuable training sessions with boot camp and strength training as I recovered from the runs. Though the next strongman competition is not until April, I am not sure I can afford to miss multiple sessions to focus on running (in addition to days I will need to miss for work commitments).

Concerned about what I had gotten myself into, I decided to look at alternatives, and thanks to, I learned of a gym in Las Vegas with open strongman training on Sundays from 12-4. After contacting Justin Purcell (who runs the training), I began to weigh my options. Because I respect his opinion and training knowledge, I asked Dave what he thought, and he said that if my goal was to run the race, he understood seeing it through to the end, but if I was concerned about being prepared, then I could opt for a relaxing vacation or I could train at Purcell’s facility. I thanked him for his input as it respected my desire to retire my running shoes with a final race, but he also gave me an option I hadn’t considered: rest.

This is where the wisdom of my daughter comes:

I had just finished checking her grades and saw that she currently had an A+ in every class, so I thought I would ask her a problem solving question: Based on the fact that I have not run for distance in more than 8 weeks, should I run the half-marathon (even if I am not ready) or should I go to the open gym strongman training?  Grace’s answer was simple and would make my friends / trainers proud:

What will best serve your fitness goals?

At 11 years old and with no experience in fitness (aside from soccer and dance), my daughter summarized my internal struggle with a simple question that helped me see the answer more clearly. My fitness goal is to be competitive in a strongman competition, so if running the half-marathon jeopardizes that goal by trying to run it if I am unprepared, then I need to choose to let the race go in favor of pursuing my goal for April and, hopefully, years to come.

So, what is my decision? In 11 days, I will complete my relay leg in the Detroit marathon. At the completion of the race, I will evaluate how I feel and how long I think I will need to recover. If I struggle to complete my leg or if I feel my body will require significant recovery, I will bow out of the Las Vegas race.  If I feel spectacular at the end of my leg and I am able to return to a full workout by Tuesday or Wednesday, I will do the race. Right now, I am leaning very heavily towards not running, as my legs were toast walking 3 miles after squats, lunges, deadlifts, and Nordics this morning.

Thanks, Grace, for the clarity.