By Cara Brennan
Last year, at my second National showing, I had a bad time. In retrospect, this is unsurprising – I was under enormous stress at the time for personal reasons, and my head was really not in a place to orchestrate a successful performance. I really wanted to do well, but I successfully crushed myself under incredibly daunting expectations. I learned a lot from those failures, and they helped me formulate a new way of experiencing my training growth, goal setting, and expectation management. This year, I would meet my overall goal, Arnold qualifying, because it would be a natural byproduct of letting myself perform well – this Nationals was about letting myself out to play, and to find out who my training made me. If I could do that, the Arnold bid would be mine. Last year I was stuck in my head. This year I would get in my body, and let her run the show.
I knew this year would be different, because I am different. I am in a better place in my life overall, which has done wonders for my confidence and stress levels; factors I don’t think can be overestimated in competition prep. This time, I was focusing on staying present, enjoying myself, and getting out of my own way – to turn off the anxious thoughts the way I practiced in training and in life all year. To listen to my instincts, not my anxiety. To trust myself. Either I had trained hard enough and was strong and capable enough to do well, or I wasn’t, and those factors were decided by training all year, not last minute minutiae. This year I was excited, but that excitement was happy waves flicking off the top of a deep ocean of calm and power that I had been cultivating all year.
Yes, it’s Nationals, yes, it’s a big show. You can’t escape the the fact that it feels bigger, and you have to be ready for that. But you can make a decision – let the energy wreck you and leave you nervous – quibble over every change, worry about every unexpected change, or you can let it boost you. You can say, “this excitement is fun, and it’s here for me. I get to ride this.” Frankly, this attitude is one that you can’t expect to have on game day unless that is how you approach your life and training, too. You can’t change the circumstances, but you can develop discipline in the way you think about your obstacles.
This Nationals had plenty of potential obstacles. For one thing, it was held in a smoke-filled casino, in one of the most hyper stimulating environments imaginable; not exactly a recipe for deep relaxing sleep or a zen mindset. I may have had an edge in that I live in NYC, and am accustomed to tuning out spectacle and offensive smells (did I mention everything reeked of cigarettes? Everything reeked of cigarettes). There was also the time zone change of long distance travel, as well as the extremely dry climate that us East Coasters are somewhat unused to. Then came the actual competition days.
I tip my hat to the great volunteers and judges who helped make Nationals happen. It’s not an easy job. I tend to frown on last minute event changes, because sometimes that to says a lack of preparation on the promoter’s part – but I’ve never had that job and that job is HARD, and with the hectic environment we had, it seemed likely to me going in that some things would change a little. But then a LOT changed.
Dealing with changes
They moved the Yoke/Farmer to Day 2, and moved the deadlift up to the 2nd event instead of 3rd, and made the husafell max distance carry the 3rd event of Day 1, instead of the first event of Day 2. On the morning of Day 2, the Yoke/Farmer medley turned into just a Yoke run.
Every time one of theses changes was announced, you could feel the rustle from the competitors, and I get it. It was pretty frustrating to me to work so hard on something and then not get to showcase that work (I REALLY wanted the Farmers to stay). But in that moment, on contest day, you have to decide immediately that it won’t shake you, that it won’t bother you, and that you will rock that shit anyway. Complaining, worrying, and feeding the anxiety demons won’t help your performance, period. I don’t love it when these things happen, but I can bitch about it later, when I don’t have to perform. When it’s go time, you can only think thoughts and inhabit feelings that will contribute to your overall performance.
Speaking of performance, I had a great time, and PR’d every event.
LOG C&P FOR REPS –
They increased the weight to somewhere north of 160, though hitting 160 for 1 would already have been a PR. I cleaned it twice successfully and got a little air, but no reps. This was a clean PR and I was happy with it. My best log was 145, so a zero on this didn’t bother me and I immediately let it go. Only two 160 MWs got any reps, so this didn’t affect my score much, fortunately. One day I won’t zero log, but it wasn’t that day.
DEADLIFT FRAME FOR REPS 475-480ish.
I never went above 450 in training, and I hit 5 reps on this. I was very pleased with this, and it put me in the middle of the 160s. I had only trained on an elevated hex bar, and wasn’t sure what to expect. The frame was decently wide, but manageable. I think I placed my feet a little too far back, but I got every rep I pulled. I waited a little too long to start my 6th rep, and the whistle blew as I was about to pull – this was probably for the best, because this event took a lot out of me.
Frame deadlift 480 lbs x 5 in a minute. I never went over 450 in training, and wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’m pretty happy with this overall; heavy deads for reps make me nervous still, and while I was going to go for one more, the 5th rep fried me. I ran out of time, and didn’t realize how long I was resting, in the future I’ll ask my judge to give me a “10 seconds left,” call, but honestly It might have been a blessing. It was good enough for middle of the pack in the 160. Just gotta keep getting stronger 💪😎 #seecaralift #trainingjournal #carastrong #powernyc #strongwoman #womenwholiftheavy #womenwhostrongman #strengthculture
HUSAFELL CARRY for MAX DISTANCE – 225 lbs.
This same event (and same weight) broke my soul last year – I had a bad pick, got nervous, and lost my grip at only 147 feet. This was a crushing disappointment, and I was determined to make up for it.
I took off like a rocket, making Dione Wessels, who was my judge, literally run to catch up with me (she did a great job of yelling in my ear “Don’t stop!” Thanks Dione!). My approach this year was to cover as much ground as I could as fast as I could. I trained the husafell last almost every week, under super high fatigue, and was confident that I would be able to at least break 200 ft. I didn’t even care about winning the event, I just had to do better – I had to prove something to myself. My max distance runs in contest are often kind of a semi-black out – I lose sense of distance and time. I vaguely remember clocking my third turn and realizing I had at least beaten my previous distance and husafell redemption was upon me. I heard my dad yelling “go, Cara, go!” I completed six laps and made it one final turn and few extra feet for a total distance of 368 feet and 10 inches. I just kind of toppled backward, and after catching my breath, became awash in the victorious joy of turning an ego-shattering disappointment into a huge PR and a competitive event performance. I got 9th overall in the event out of 41 MWs and 3rd in the 160s. I think after that I was in 5th or 4th place, and we learned the morning of Day 1 that the top 5 in the 160 went to the Arnold. I ended Day 1 on the high note of realizing I was already positioned to make my ambition a reality.
I woke up feeling WRECKED, and this was a case of “fake it till you make it.” My back and butt were incredibly sore, and I felt weak. Max effort DLs always wipe me, and the frame was no exception. I pounded fluid, caffeine, and tried to eat. I played fun music with my roommates and we built each other up – in fact, we did that all weekend. I owe much of my consistent positive attitude to the fact that I made sure the people I was closest to all weekend were positive and happy and confident. This helped me tell myself the lie I needed to, which was “I feel strong and ready to set PRs and win.”
YOKE, 450-460 lbs for 60 ft –
They announced that they axed the farmers walk portion of the medley, now it was just a yoke. I experienced about 30 seconds of dread, and my friend (and 5th place 180 MW and Arnold bound strongwoman) Linden looked me in the eyes, knowing my distaste for yoke, said, “You’ve got this, it doesn’t matter,” and I nodded. I walked over to the field and stared down the yokes. “I”ve got this.” I did my best ever contest run at 10.26 seconds, and a massive PR, never having taken 450 for more than 25 feet in contest, and maybe only once in training (and much, much slower). I took 3rd in the 160s on yoke.
STONE OF STEEL OVER BAR – 180 lbs in 60 seconds to 48 in
I have never felt so much adrenaline rush through me. The LW women’s last two rounds of stones were electrifying, with women hitting 13,14,15 reps. The energy in the room felt palpable. I could barely feel my body. I was pretty sure I could do sub-par and still hold onto the Arnold spot, even if I dropped to 5th, but obviously I wasn’t going to risk that, and I wanted to win the event in my subclass. I came close, with 10 reps, beaten in the 160s only by Erin Walklet’s 11 (that woman is incredible!). I stomped and yelled my way onto the field – if you’ve seen me compete, you know I’m a little bit of a showboater, but it was also practical. I could barely feel my body, I was so high on adrenaline. The stomping and shouting actually helped me focus and stay present in my body. We had great judges all around, and mine was feeding me my stones back fast, after my 3rd rep I crouched down a little too low to receive and it hit me in the gut like a cannonball, and it took me a second to recover. My performance on this felt like it was pure willpower and crowd energy – towards the end of the minute, I started becoming too aware of how beat up I was, how tired my back and legs were – but, as I had told myself before the event, the only word in my head was “GO,” and that’s what I did.
The last 3 reps of my 10 reps on the 180 #stoneofsteel as well as my celebration. I KNEW what I did was good enough to beyond secure my 4th place and thus my long dreamed of Arnold bid. I also was shocked at how many I pulled, because while the adrenaline was coursing, my body HURT especially on those last few reps. I felt like a god of my domain. Completely in the zone, pulling out one of my best comp performances ever. The celebrating/screaming/panting/crying/etc was EVERYTHING. All my work, all my pain, all my faith, all my persistence, all my grit, everything expressed in one moment. I’ll never forget it. Thanks Paddy for the video!! #gopherscream #fuckwitme #warcry #Arnoldbound #cantheArnoldhandlethishype? #staytuned #seecaralift #trainingjournal #carastrong #powernyc #strongwoman #womenwholiftheavy #womenwhostrongman #strengthculture #crossfit #weightlifting #powerlifting #fitness #startingstrongman #strongmantraining #strongmantrainingtips #liftheavy #strongmancorpnationals2017
The events are obviously the highlight of competing – it’s what we are there to do. This is offset by hours of waiting around (especially for the HW men, who go last on everything, poor things). It’s easy to get nervous in all that dead time, or to get stiff and locked up. I walked around a decent bit, I made time to warm up before each event. I went outside, I listened to music, I talked to people I like who make me feel good, and who I can make feel good by joking around and laughing. I do not talk to people who will make me nervous by airing all their frustrations or weaknesses. I have learned that, especially in the competition environment, I am highly sensitive and suggestible, so I am very careful about who and what I expose myself to. I also had small rituals that helped me stay focused. After every event, I would pop a glucose tab and salt packet and pound water. Eat chips. Use the bathroom, walk around the room once or twice, talk to my parents, listen to a song or two, walk outside, text update my coach Chad Canter, come back, check on my teammates, and then start warming up again. While I let myself soak in the excitement, I also practiced routines that kept me grounded.
I won 4th place in the 160 MW Women and am going to the Arnold, finally. It feels like I’ve been waiting a long time, even though I haven’t. I first competed in Strongman in March, 2015. I picked up a barbell about a year and a half before that. It’s been a crazy 2.5 years in this sport, and I have no plans of slowing down. Nationals was my 18th strongman competition, and definitely one of my best performances. I have learned a lot this past year of training and competing, and I still have lots to learn. I hope my experiences can inform and help other competitors, as many experienced competitors have helped me get where I am now.
This Nationals was a gift, in that it was truly representative of the work I have put in over the last 12 months – that’s all I can ask for as an athlete – to let my work show, and to express what I have learned. I went to Vegas looking for redemption for my disappointments last year, and I realized that I had been redeeming myself all year in training. Nationals was just the celebration of what I had accomplished.
I share this confidence and pride in what I’ve done because I believe it’s important to commemorate our victories and enjoy them, especially when they are victories over ourselves, victories over fear and doubt and the things that rob our joy. Strongman is where I rediscover my joy when I am worried, it’s where I find my courage when I am down on myself and fearful. It has made me doubt myself deeply, and through the exploration of that doubt, come to believe in myself on levels I never imagined possible. I hope everyone can experience the high of triumph that I felt after finishing my husafell run, but remember: that triumph and that high would never have happened if I hadn’t become closely acquainted with bitter loss a year prior.
Nationals was great, to the other winners I say, congratulations, enjoy it. To everyone who didn’t meet their goals or feel they failed: I’ve been there, and believe me when I say it’s one of the best things that will ever happen to you, if you use it. Redemption comes after the fall.
Cara Brennan is an independent filmmaker, writer, and personal fitness coach, as well as a competitive middleweight Strongwoman. She is currently working on an original series about an exorcist fighting bad guys and demons in Brooklyn (while lifting weights, obviously). Cara transformed herself from a depressed, sedentary and cigarette addicted anxiety sufferer with a binge drinking problem to happy, healthy, and successful independent artist and coach with a Strongman obsession – she is here to spread strength culture through every medium possible.