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And now, the thrilling conclusion to Mustache Weekend, which started with a trip to Talladega Superspeedway to drive race cars at 170 MPH.
By the time we got into Charlotte--at a safe, responsible eighty-two miles an hour--we needed beer. Fortunately, North Carolina serves eight thousand beers you can't get on tap anywhere else. Someday, when I am governor of Georgia, I will legalize fun and the sale of liquor on Sundays. Until then the Redbird reading group graduating class of 1688 rules the state. (Seriously, liquor laws of Georgia: DIE.)
At nine o'clock the following morning I would watch men in singlets lift obscene amounts of weight for little if any personal gain, but for the moment it was time to take the mustache for a walk into bar filled with a thirty-something hodgepodge of bargoers. Without a high hipster quotient, you don't get kids in skinny jeans attempting to look like they're not having fun. Unfortunately, without same high hipster population, a mustache brands you as:
a.) A gregarious pedophile
b.) A new expat from the Middle East
c.) A misplaced fisherman
d.) Nick Offerman, also known as Ron Swanson on NBC's hit sitcom Parks and Recreation
"D" would have been the best of all possible combinations, but instead it got me a seat for one because the good people of Charlotte are either shy, not big P 'n R fans, or thought I was a misplaced fisherman. A seat for one is a delight if you like to sit at bars and get drunk, but I had to drive and spend 45 minutes listening to the bros next to me ordering Panty Droppers with their girlfriends while I guessed in my head that the guy to my left had an Affliction t-shirt on just from the way he talked.
YEAH it's gonna be sick I can't wait low carb it and did you see him pee in the corner at that party so awesome here let's get another round bros don't gimme that chicken finger he's got some job with the bank making crazy money I know right--
One miserable hour and three rounds of shots later, he got up. Yup. Affliction shirt.
My mustache needed more than a drink. It needed understanding.
9:30 a.m.-ish, and Arin "A.C." Conecchio is talking and eating an Egg McMuffin at the same time. I ask him how much his hair is worth on a lift.
"The hair? Oh, that's ten pounds, easy."
"The beard is five, right?"
"Definitely. And you have to wear the singlet. This one is my dad's. His balls were in this singlet."
He wears a look of pride on his face as he says this.
"Singlets are cool. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
Arin steps up to the squat rack in the Dowd YMCA gym to warm up with a weight of 315 pounds. He will then left 405, and then 455, and then wait around until his flight of competitors is called to begin lifting in his max range. At his current bodyweight of 210 pounds, Arin's max is somewhere around 550 pounds.
"How did that feel?" I dig into the random sack of questions journalistic-ish questions you're supposed to ask someone.
"It felt awesome."
Over twice your substantial bodyweight. Awesome.
Scale. You need some. The mechanics here are simple. Two platforms in a gym. Competitors wait in two circulating lines to make their three attempts each at three lifts: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Competitors do not have to compete in all three; in fact, later, an entire squad of huge black dudes all from the same gym will show up to compete in bench press alone along with an assortment of other swole bros with tight t-shirts.
(This will grind the entire event to a halt, and force those lifting in all three events to retreat to the YMCA cafeteria in the lull. I kill time watching Villanova lose to St. Mary's in the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, figuring I'll get something to eat after the game is over. When I get to the cafeteria, the lifters have ransacked it, leaving exactly three bags of mixed nuts and a red bull left on the shelves. Lesson learned: never eat after powerlifters eat.)
Arin came here with a crew of fellow lifters of Statesboro. Patrick is one of them. He has a beard, but you already should have known that. He is 6' 2" slumping and easily 275 pounds.
"What are you looking to lift today?"
"Well, I'm just getting back into it, so, you know...I'd like to squat 500. I'd be happy with that."
Patrick makes squatting 500 pounds--a truly colossal lift for a normal human--sound like free tall coffee day at Starbucks. Oh, just running along, and wouldn't you know it I squatted 500 pounds? Then I went to the grocery store.
The lifters continue to eat. And lift. And eat. And lift. And then it's competition time, and AC plugs his headphones in, pops the earbuds in, and begins to bob his head fiercely.
The mustache feels at home here. In fact, no one blinks, since half the competitors at a minimum have facial hair. The variety boggles: youth group leader goatees, Slipknot goatees, highway patrolman mustaches, trimmed full beards, a real live Ambrose Burnside mustache connected to the sideburns that crosses a man's face like a fluffy white cartoon seagull, Arin's full California Hot Tub stubble, and one old guy, Jimmie "Fossil" McAnn, whose white beard and height make him look exactly like Gimli the Dwarf from Lord of the Rings.
I point this out to AC. He looks delighted and busts out in his best John Rhys-Davies.
The nickname Fossil isn't necessary for most of these men, most of whom have some variety of facial hair. Having facial hair here is basically an admission that you have a driver's license, have sex, and eat meat, or in other words are a functioning adult male. Their names even have beards: he Excel spreadsheet of names projected on the back wall of the gym is a roll call of hairy-chested, Brock Sampson/Biff Squat-thrust mandom, and these are all actual names of competitors:
It is enough to make you wonder if you are required by law to powerlift if you have a certain name. "Wes McLawhorn? The State Board of Moniker Harmony has determined you are to go into law enforcement, and must adopt either powerlifting or bareknuckle boxing as a hobby. You are also to have no fewer than five children, or live the life of a loner roaming the prairie dispensing justice to those who deserve it. You may also become a dentist, but that's really a less desirable option in the eyes of the board. This is our judgment. You are dismissed.
Otherwise, it's an odds and ends crowd. A few MMA tribe members mill around. They have Affliction shirts, but unlike the guy at the bar last night these guys have shaved heads and could knock teeth out of your face with ease. They have thrown men and women out of bars for money and looked suspiciously at your ID. There are obvious country-strong behemoths. There are wiry Olympic lifter types, including one wearing a shiny singlet patterned with the American flag. Randoms are everywhere: an obvious ex-biker, bored college kids who used to play football, a woman in a Marines shirt who looked like she could hang-clean an Escalade.
Drawing a plumb line through this crowd is impossible. The only universals are knee wraps and a common enemy: gravity.
"Everyone's working against the same thing here: gravity." The odd thing about watching a powerlifting meet is that no one seems to really compete against the other. There is camraderie, sure: Arin talks to some other lifters, and vice versa. It's terse, dude style communication. Nice lift. Good get. Get that next time. Hey. Great job.
The rest is waiting, and usually doing so alone. Most wait silently, or pace, but Arin waits with his headphones on, banging his head like Avenged Sevenfold is thrashing away on his iPod. (It's not: it's something called "Decayed Mushroom" or something like that, which I missed since i was busy gawking at someone warming up with a 400 pound squat, which is acceptable because in no world is that normal but here.)
From the time he's told to lift, he has a minute to get to the bar and unrack it. Then, he will be told to squat, and must break the plane of his knees with his hips for the lift to count. Arin gets the signal. He snorts. He stomps his feet and makes a noise that phonetically reads as "HHHHEEEEEEESH!!!!" He looks like he has tears in his eyes. (Confirmed: he did.) His black hair flops with each step, and in his dad's singlet he squats 506 pounds for his first lift.
His father, the original owner of the singlet is standing next to me.
"Everyone here is working against the same thing here: gravity. You don't see guys trying to psych each other out. There's just you, and the bar, and that's it."
Arin goes on to lift a personal best in the squat at 533.5. He fails on the third attempt, a jump to 570, because in his own words: "Whatever, I was going for a big number." When a lifter fails, a crew of spotters leaps in to grab the weight, and eyes all snap forward to the front of the room. It is a reaction half composed of concern, and half made from the morbid curiosity of those watching a car crash.
Arin makes it out from the weight, but safety's no guarantee. The force of lifting that much weight makes some lifter's noses bleed from the pressure. It puts heavy knee wraps onto the legs of the lifters, and belts around their waists to reinforce the core, which under so much force can split like the casing of a sausage. The bigger lifters in their singlets look like angry kielbasa in the belts, cinched in the middle and blood red in the face under the bar.
On one lift a guy really and truly fails, passing out underneath the strain of the bar on the far side of the gym on platform one. The sound of the weight hitting the floor is a sickening, blunt thud. It snaps the other lifters from their focus. He's fine, but it does remind me that though they're 300 people or more in the gym, a powerlifting competition seems like an incongruously lonely thing. There's the lifter, and the weight, and this dark pit at the bottom. You either push out of it, or it caves in on you.
The bench press happens, and it is boring. Very, very boring. Impressive, sure, but boring, especially when they wear the assisted bench shirts. Holly looks aghast at them.
"Are they Tyrannosaurs?"
"No. I think a T. Rex would have a really crappy bench press number."
"But big hearts."
"Always saving carrion for you after work."
"I'm going to watch the Tennessee game downstairs."
"You do that."
I mean, the bench is the most bro-tastic of all lifts: the shirt-filler, the Jersey Shore Breast Implant, the exercise most associated with cosmetics. Doing just that is very un-70s Big, the website and lifting philosophy esposed by Arin and his friend Justin Lascek, another heavy lifter who lives in Wichita Falls, TX, who features Arin on the website frequently. (Arin also does video for the site, as well.) 70s Big is anti-thin, anti-80s, anti-bodybuilding, and anti-anything that doesn't equal raw strength. Think wearing short shorts, headbands, eating ten pork chops at a sitting, and doing lots and lots of nothing but big, classic lifts in order to look like Doug Young.
This squad of swoleness wearing special shirts clearly displeases Arin, who is competing in all three events.
"So the bench press has, what, twice as many people in it?"
He nods. "Yeah." He shakes his head. "This is going to take forever."
Forever, in lifting terms, is three and a half hours to file through three attempts for each lifter. I salvage a lunch out of the cafeteria and watch a little basketball. Holly says the Kentucky fan dropped a racial slur while watching the game to another fan, and I consider the only possible entertainment of the day: telling this to the large collection of black bench-pressers upstairs, and then watching the fun.
Arin benches 362.5 pounds. Deadlift is next.
The deadlift happens late in the day, when everyone is completely exhausted. Most of the lifters are spent by then, and the warmups and failed lifts when heard from the first floor of the building sound like the intermittent bangs of charges being set off on the second: BOOM, BOOM....BOOM. The deadlift is the most purely paleolithic of lifts. You take a big heavy object, and then try to raise it to the floor. It is the lift you do to attach a cart to a team of oxen, and it is the job humans have assigned to big beefy men since the dawn of time. This is because it is really, really hard at high weights to do this, and leaves the deadlift as a measure of absolute strength without consideration for aesthetics or beauty.
It's a huge, simple, and brutally uncompromising lift.
Arin gives insane effort on his attempts, but he's cached, spent. He sits well towards the top of his weight division at the end, though, so he seems happy enough. A grey-haired guy from South Carolina steps up for his lift following Arin. He is Steve Yeargin, and he kind of looks like the kind of guy who rents you inner tubes on a weekender's river trip: bearded, weathered, and though smallish most definitely country strong in that "fireplug-from-hell" kind of way.
A friend holds out smelling salts at arm's length prior to his last attempt, which will be at 600 pounds. He leans in and takes a deep sniff.
He takes a second sniff.
"WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT!"
He walks to the bar, latches one hand on, then another, and then pulls. In an instant his entire body becomes a crane, and the 600 pounds floats to the top at a full lockout at the top of the movement. Yeargin nods at the top.
"YEAH BABY! YEAH! THAT'S A FIFTY YEAR OLD MAN LIFTING THERE! FIFTY! FIVE-O!"
He may not have said that last part, but I really, really wanted him to. And he might as well have.
As a form of competition, it may have been one of the odder things. Powerlifters don't necessarily have anything to gain monetarily by lifting: it's not an Olympic sport, not a big spectator sport, and definitely not a sport of the sort that makes you more desirable in a swimsuit. I like to imagine that powerlifters avoid the problem entirely by wearing old-school strongman onesies to the beach where they spend their days tanning and pressing ladies over head for the amusement of gathered crowds.
There is a purity to it, though. The only reason to compete is that: to compete, and not even against the next person. Powerlifters really only congregate in dingy gyms and garages to compete against themselves, since scale erases any sort of absolute number to aim for or reach. I watched a 108 pound girl squat 214 pounds, a total far under what the larger ladies put up on the day, but a staggering sum relatively, especially given her size. I watched a 40-year-old guy in his first meet squat the same amount of weight, not because he was trying to impress anyone (it wouldn't have), but because he felt the need to make that kind of bargain with himself in the most frightening manner possible: in public and in front of judges.
It's fearsome to watch, and in some ways would be more terrifying than racing a car at 170 mph, which is one of the reasons you'll never see me do it. (Oh, and the singlet. No one needs to see that.)