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Why Last Place Is The Best Place

Article by Julie Shimko 

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My shoe fell off. It came right off. I was already struggling. But the shoe, the shoe did me in. I dropped the 400-pound tractor tire, looked up at my husband and yelled, “MY SHOE JUST CAME OFF!” And then I laughed and high-fived the girl who had just flipped the same tire 4 times before me. It was that moment that I fell head over heels in love with Strongman.

Before my first Strongman competition on January 10, 2015 at Untamed Strength, my experience with competing was limited to strapping on my New Balance shoes and running a marathon or racing in a triathlon with thousands of other (crazy) people.

I never felt like I was an individual, but instead part of a larger team with the same goal–to just get across the finish line without hitting “the wall.” Or just to finish at all. Though I consider anyone who moves their body to be an athlete, I didn’t consider myself to be a stellar one. I never stood on the podium after a race (Okay, maybe once. I took third place out of 4 competitors for a trail marathon), and only finished one half-marathon with a sub 9 minute mile. Lifting heavy weights while everyone watches, whether I succeeded or failed, was never on my radar, and frankly scary as hell to me. So much that I had nightmares about it weeks before the competition. I started doing CrossFit at Grassroots CrossFit about 2 years ago, and learned to love lifting heavy shit. It makes me feel strong, powerful, like I can take on the world (except clearly not tractor tires). Regardless of my ability to show up and do a WOD or do my own routine during open gym, I never once considered competing. I missed competing though…I missed the idea of having a goal, working my ass off for months, and then bringing all I have to the proverbial table. I am a naturally competitive person against myself, and I desired something to feed that part of my soul. However, I never felt I was strong enough, that I could truly take on the world, or that I had what it takes to compete against the toned, strong, muscle-y women that frequent CrossFit boxes. Yeah, I lift weights, yeah, I can push myself through a WOD, but I never once thought I have what it takes to lift heavy shit in front of a bunch of badasses.

But in November 2014, my coach Melissa Coral changed everything. She had competed in her first Strongman competition just a couple months before, and after hearing about the supportive community, how fun and challenging the events are, and the fact that people of all different sizes, abilities and levels compete, my interest was piqued. I wanted in. But not without self-doubt, fear, hesitation, and thinking “Holy fuck, I have to lift what over my head?” With this in mind, I signed up for my first competition in the women’s lightweight division (there were 2 divisions: light weight for women 160 pounds or less, and heavy weight, for women 160.1 pounds or more). But of course not without sending my money and registration to the wrong person and email address. Consequently, my late registration earned me the chance to go second in almost every event. I cried a little inside. I was hoping to be in the middle of the pack so I could study lifting techniques, and honestly to have the chance to run away and hide once I saw my competition.

By the time I signed up, I had just under 2 months to train the implements. That sounds like a decent amount of time to train, right? Well, the holidays happened to fall in the middle of my training, so there were several weeks of being out of town, eating hangovers and R & R. I continued to do WODs during the week, and once a week I did specific Strongman training, working on 2-3 implements in one day. I was realistic with myself and my abilities, however, self-doubt crept in mid-workout, almost every workout. There is no way I was getting an 80 pound keg over my head. I would rather drink it (and it would take me less time). The 125 pound axle? The only axle I have any control over is the one on my car. I only played with atlas stones once, and only tried the yoke once or twice with the prescribed weight of 300 pounds. I considered quitting before trying, not going, not showing up, not doing it. I almost backed out 3 days before I was to compete because the self-doubt began to take over. It was winning. But I was familiar with this feeling…I have had it before several races, and I never once considered backing out of a race. A DNF (did not finish) was never an option for me, let alone a DNES (did not even start–I just made that up). I would be damned it turned into one now. After quite a few discussions with my coach, husband and friends, I decided to swallow my fear and decided the day will be one of fun and doing what I already love to do: throw weight around with cool-ass people. I still secretly wished I could drink from the keg instead of lift it. But we cannot have everything we want.

January 9th was here before I knew it. I have no idea where my nearly 2 months of training went, but here I was, the night before the competition, freaking out about my weight on the scale. I was 160. If I went up one tenth of a pound, I would be in the heavyweight division, attempting to lift weights I dream of lifting. Knowing NOTHING about cutting weight, I simply cut out most carbs the week before, and avoided any vegetables that may cause, aahhhem, you know, issues. I stopped drinking water a few hours before bed, and didn’t touch a drop or a crumb of food until after weigh-ins the next morning. I was the second woman to weigh-in at 7:45 a.m., 2 hours and 15 minutes before the competition was to start. I came in at 155 pounds, and immediately slammed my omelet, a doughnut, and size huge coffee in my mouth. Damn that was good. As the start of the competition grew closer, more and more competitors showed up, along with their friends and family. Melissa and I took some time to warm up and try out a few of the over-head implements before it was time go over the rules and start the competition. The women’s lightweight division was to go first for the day, and I was the second woman on the list.

The first event was the overhead medley: A 50-pound dumbbell (one-armed only), followed by a 75-pound natural stone, 80-pound keg (sadly not filled with beer), and 125-pound axle. All of which had to be pressed overhead with arms locked out, done in any order, in 60 seconds. I easily pushed up the 50-pound dumbbell, and immediately moved to the 75-pound stone. I warmed up with the stone before the competition and was pretty intimidated. It had jagged edges and it was really difficult to find a good grip. Out of fear of dropping it on my head, I didn’t get it overhead during the warm-up. I did, however, get it over my head during the competition. But don’t get too excited. My arms didn’t lock out, and I could not get it any further the other 10 times I tried. The 60 seconds flew by, and I finished with having lifted only one of the objects above my head.

So damn close to a lock out!
So damn close to a lock out!

The second event was the deadlift, last-woman-standing style. Starting at 200 pounds and going up in increments of 20 pounds, we had to deadlift a bar that was 15 inches from the ground. Straps were allowed. When training, I maxed out at 230 pounds, so I wasn’t sure how I would do. I only had used straps not even a handful of times while training, so I opted out of using them for the competition. I surprised myself and made it to 260 pounds, a 30 pound PR. Suffice to say, it’s probably good my chiropractor does not watch me deadlift. Per Melissa’s guidance, she advised me to not go for the 280 pounds to save my strength and energy for the remaining 3 events. It was the best advice I received all day. Well, that and to tape my arms BEFORE putting on tacky. More on that later.

The third event was a 100-foot, 300-pound yoke walk as fast as possible, with a 60 second time cap. I thought the walk was only 50 feet, and that is what I trained for, so the longer trip was a surprise to me . The yoke walk is by far the hardest event for me. Everything about it feels unnatural and uncomfortable. I had a difficult time lifting up the yolk, but once I did, I took off. I walked the first 50 feet without stopping, and I am sure not without making this face. I dropped the yoke, turned around, and tried lifting it up again. And again. It wouldn’t budge. I heard “PUSH YOUR HIPS FORWARD!” from the crowd. So that is what I did, and the yoke went right up. Thank you, spectator! This 50 feet was not so pretty. I dropped it 2-3 times before getting to the finish. But damn it, I finished!

I didn't know smiling was an option with 300 pounds on my shoulders!
I didn’t know smiling was an option with 300 pounds on my shoulders!

The fourth event was to flip a 400-pound tractor tire 50 feet with a 60 second time cap. Prior to the competition, I had only flipped a 300 pound tire a few times, and a 500 pound tire once (which was quite the sight, I might add. There was also lots of cursing.). I had no idea how I would do, but like all of the other events, I gave it all I could, including my shoe. I walked up to the the tire, placed my hands underneath it in what I felt to be a power position, and lifted. Then lifted again. And again. The tire was NOT budging. I realized I was trying to lift the tire instead of back my feet up and using my body weight to push the tire forward and up. I backed up, and tried again. I GOT IT UP! I FUCKING GOT IT UP! But then my left shoe came off. My foot slipped right out of it and I could not keep my grip on the ground to get the tire to move any further. My 60 seconds were up, and I got zero flips. The only flip that happened is the one my middle finger gave my shoe.

The struggle was real.
The struggle was real.

The last event was stone loading to a 45-inch platform. In order, we had to lift a 95-pound natural stone, a 115-pound atlas stone, a 150-pound atlas stone, and finally a 150-pound sand bag. Prior to the competition, I had only tried lifting atlas stones once (4 days before to be exact). I was able to lift the 145-pound stone up on a platform without much struggle, so I was pretty confident in my ability to own this event. By the time I started this event, it was just after 6:00 p.m. We had been competing since 10:00 a.m., and I was nearing exhaustion. No amount of doughnuts or cupcakes were helping. 10 minutes before the start, I loaded up on the tacky. If you are new to Strongman, I compare tacky to hair wax. It’ sticky as hell and definitely rips your hair out. I had the bruises and have the photos to prove it. TACKY WAS EVERYWHERE (I still have some on my pants and it’s February). What I didn’t know is that there is such a thing as being TOO sticky. I was up first for this event since it was the last event and I was in last place. The 95-pound and 115-pound stones went up fast. I even surprised myself with my speed! “Maybe I can actually complete this event,” I thought to myself. I got to the 150 pound atlas stone, lifted it, lapped it, and hugged it to get ready to lift it on to the platform. I realized my grip was too high, so I tried moving my arms off the stone to re-grip, and I was stuck. Like really stuck. So I RIPPED my arms away, re-gripped, and tried again. I got the stone between my chest and the ledge, and that is as far as it got.

Results of my friend tacky.
Results of my friend tacky.

I was finally done for the day, and came in dead last out of 14 women.

What I didn’t share with you is the most important and best part of the day: the people and the Strongman community. Regardless of my struggles, regardless of all of the eyes watching me and what I think of as my weaknesses, regardless of my insecurities and what I thought about myself, every single competitor and spectator cheered their hearts out for me, for my efforts, for my willingness to try. They shouted words of encouragement, high-fived me after my failed tire-flipping attempt, and congratulated me on my deadlift PR. Not once did I ever feel like I was the woman who couldn’t, but the woman who did. It was inspiring to watch each and every person, male and female, give each event their all. To see so many people push themselves outside of their comfort zone, physically and mentally, was one of my favorite aspects of the competition. But there was never failure, there was not one person who walked with his/her head too high, but instead an air of camaraderie, encouragement, and the acknowledgement that every person who competed earned a spot on their own personal podium of accomplishment. Each competitor brought something to the competition; some men and women were better at deadlifting than pressing or vice versa. Others owned the yolk walk, but the tire-flipping was not their forte. That’s the best part about Strongman–it’s truly for everyone. While you may not be great at every event, surely there is at least one event you can call your own. More importantly, you are a Strong(wo)man at the end of the day, regardless, for trying and leaving your heart and soul on the concrete (or with the barbell, atlas stone, your pick).

There was a moment at the end of the competition that made me smile so hard. I know someone snapped a picture of it, so if that is you, please send it my way! It was me, and about 6 or 7 other women in the bathroom together with towels and baby oil (I am still talking about the competition here, so relax), relentlessly trying to “wash” off the tacky from the stone loading event. We were all smiling, laughing, and helping one another clean up, and celebrating the end of a long, but amazing day. Just 10 minute ago we were competing against one another, but here we were, all celebrating and congratulating each other on our feat. We were all different sizes, colors, had different levels of experience and athleticism, but we all had one thing in common: We were strong and officially Strong(wo)man competitors.

Let’s be honest. I did terrible and my score was pretty pitiful compared to the other women in the LW division. But I showed up. In my book, I won. No, I technically did not win and was FAR from the podium, but showing up and finishing earned me the right to recognition, and the same goes for every person at the competition, regardless of his/her score.

I took last place, and now there is only one place to go, and that is up. I have so much more to learn, so much more to strive for, and so many more failed attempts and victories ahead of me. I have a new love for Strongman and its community. I have only just begun my journey. That is why, to me, last place is the best place.

(But, you know, the podium, one day, would be pretty great too.)

You can find more at Julie’s blog Diary of a Mis(s) fit

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5 Comments
  1. Kegan permalink

    What a great read! So glad I got to read this before my very FIRST comp on Sunday! I am looking forward to a great experience as well! Thank you for sharing this read!

  2. Sonya permalink

    You did amazing, but I gotta say, I’m pretty pissed you took my coveted last place! That’s my territory!

  3. 2 weeks until my first competition and this was just what I needed to hear. Thanks and well done!

  4. Jilebe permalink

    Ahhh Julie! I came in last place at this comp in the heavy weight division. I couldn’t agree with you more! Such a great community and last place is better than “did not finish” and certainly better than “did not try.” Everyone did an an excellent job and I think podium or not, we all pr’d in some form. For me, personally, coming in last was the best thing to happen to me. I’ve not done a lot of things for fear that I would come in last, but I realized in this comp that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I tried and most importantly that I had fun. Thanks for sharing your story. I hope to see you at another event soon!

  5. Brad permalink

    Great read. I don’t even know you and feel proud of you!

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