7 of 12: Mike Salter, Ceasar Alvarez, Nathan Goltry, Alex Bromley, Derek McCraken, Dale Holthaus, Mike Congdon
This past weekend was the IHGF Stones of Strength. Promoted by Highland Games veteran Francis Brebner, the contest took classic strongman events and gave them a strict stone theme:
Natural Stone Press - 250lbs
Stone Carry Medley – 5 natural and atlas stones, ranging from 180-250lbs for 50' each
Atlas Stone for Reps – 330lbs to 56”
Hussafel Stone – 350lbs natural stone
Stone Put – 22lbs natural stone
Atlas Stone Series – 280-400lbs to 40” barrells
The event was ran in conjunction with the Women's IHGF Strength Games; an event that utilized more classic strongman events.
Circus dumbbell medley, Carry Medley, Car Deadlift, Stone Put, Keg Toss, Stone Series
Emily Elliott (left) and Liefa Ingalls (2nd from right) preparing for the IHGF Women's Strength Games.
This contest caught my attention for several reasons. First, the lack of barbells and standardized implements for the men placed emphasis on agility and conditioning, along with the ability to negotiate awkward implements. It seemed very much like a strongman throwback. And since the learning curve for events is every bit as important to the sport as raw physical ability, it was a unique opportunity to test those capacities against a stacked field.
Second, the contest was not widely promoted. Entry was free and Francis had final say on who was permitted to compete, but the contestants either qualified at a previous show or knew someone who knew someone. Along with no weight classes, only the true gamers came out to pit themselves against the best in the area. This made the field small, but much more formidable than your typical parking lot soiree put on by promoters who themselves are first year participants.
Nyck Romero, Mike Salter, and Liefa Ingalls snapping necks and cashing checks in Hungary earlier this year.
Third, IHGF sent two friends and fellow strongmen Mike Salter and Nyck Romero to Europe earlier this year for three weeks to represent the US in Norway and Hungary. Rumor was that a similar opportunity would exist for the winners of this event. The unique pairing of such an incentive with quiet promotion lead to a lineup that looked more like the top 10 at California's Strongest Man than a backyard Strongman novelty.
3 Strongman gyms represented: San Diego Barbell (Derek McCraken), Inland Empire Barbell (Alex Bromley), and
We showed up early at the fair grounds in San Clemente as the carnies were still rigging the ball toss. I put on my kilt, took down a beer or two, and began to warm up.
The stone press was first. Initially a long, baguette looking rock that was claimed at 200lbs, everyone agreed that 200 was really 150ish and that a clean-and-press-each-rep would really be a strongman version of Crossfit's Isabel. Not surprisingly, the group of 300lb+ human forklifts was not thrilled with the idea of such an event.
We all looked towards the next biggest prospect: a 250lb natural stone that was initially reserved for the carry medley. What started out as a hesitant “should we??” quickly turned into a race to prove the rock press-able. A round-robin of failed presses lead to one successful press, then a strict press, then several from the shoulder. Once everyone was satisfied, we took it to Francis: “We want to press the big one.”
Though more comfortable with the implement, uneven turf and a guitar-pick like shape still made it a formidable implement. A few veteran competitors zeroed and were forced to get reps with the longer stone instead. A small field struggled to squeeze out a few reps in the minute, including a 6'6” 380lb West Virginian, a recent D1 starting lineman, and a former winner of Californias Strongest Man.
Mike Salter (left) and Jacob Finerty (right) securing reps with the 250lb natural stone press. Mike Congdon (center) displaying his patented "standing bench press" technique.
It was my turn and, after fumbling with the clean, found my self in groove, fighting more to keep my feet under me than to physically move the stone over head. All I could hear was Francis' proclaiming “AAAAW YAS!” in his thick Scottish accent. Maybe it was Francis, maybe it was the kilt, maybe it was the 3 coors lights I started the day with, but 6 buttery reps later I was confident I had it and 'mic-dropped' the stone with 30 seconds left.
Then, Minnesotan Michael Congdon was up. A dense middleweight at 235lbs and training partner of former World's Strongest Man contestant Dave Ostlund, he powered through the first few reps sans leg drive. Violating the true nature of sport, I quietly hoped for him to fatigue. But he never did. Reps 5 and 6 featured a slight backward lean, getting upward motion on the stone before shoving himself forward and upright underneath it. Rep 7 grinded. He leaned back further now, essentially bench pressing the rock. As his elbows locked, he scooped himself forward. He had it.
The stone medley was up next, featuring 2 atlas stones (180lbs and 250lbs) and 3 natural rocks ranging from 200-250lbs. Each was to be carried 50' before sprinting 50' to the next implement. A day-of amendment to the meet, this took the field by surprise. Several of the bigger boys looked fast on the first three, but showed what threshold their training stops at by gassing around the :40 mark with only 4 stones. Then a few broke the 5th over the line right before the 1:15 time limit expired.
At 30lbs heavier than normal and with not a single carry in the last few months of training, I was sure by the 4th stone pick that I wasn't going to finish. Somehow, I finished at 1:09, surprising myself more than anything. Several scored right over me getting just over 1:00...... and Michael Congdon once again took first with a big effort at :59.
I usually dislike foot races in strength sports because the several seconds that separate competitors in farmers and yoke races usually belie actual physical ability. This event, however, showed clear separation between those who were prepared and those who weren't. Mike was fast and conditioned, and he took the event for it.
Third and last for day 1 was the stone over bar. Initially advertised at 280 to 46”, the stone moved to 330 and 56”, quite a feat for the shorter guys. Everyone seemed to be close on this one, with all of the scores sitting between 4 and 6 reps. With a partial bicep tendon tear in January that went unrepaired, I had only touched stones once this year. I started hesitantly, making sure I was confident in lapping before picking up steam.
Romero, Congdon, and Goltry cruising with the last stone of the medley. Congdon may have been the only one to break 1:00, but D1 ball player Nathan Goltry was the most comfortable, moving faster on the last stone than any other.
Alex Bromley, Mike Salter, and Dale Holthaus. Mike Congdon to the far right, somehow not dying.
I had 3 in just under :30, got overconfident, and underextended as number 4 slid back off the bar. I quickly repicked to load what would have been number 5, and with 10 seconds left went for a sloppy 6th. My haste caught up with me; I was missing the slightest bit of stability in my historically fragile lower back and a shot of lightening went up my spine. I dumped it, knowing I was out for some period of time between 2 hours and 2 months. Laying on the ground, trying not to look like I was feeling sorry for myself (while feeling sorry for myself), I heard the crowd. Congdon was up again. Francis' thick Scottish twang counting 5, then 6, then a pause as the crowd gasped. 7 reps in a minute and reportedly a near death experience.
I spent the rest of the night drinking. A bottle of vodka went down with plenty of ginger beer behind it in the 3 hours we sat in the hot tub. My girlfriend Laura, Mike Salter and his wife Mandy, along with IE Barbell strongwoman Emilly Elliot, made the night with shop talk ranging from training protocols and contest prep to 'mean-girl' gossip of who we don't like and why. It was glorious.
That night, the vodka wore off and the inflammation set in, smothering whatever nerves were affected by the injury. At 3AM, my body called for the evacuation of 48oz of ginger beer, and at least 12oz of hot-tub water. 10 feet to the bathroom might as well have been a mile. A slow motion somersault out of bed followed by 3 minutes of sad shuffling to the bathroom made me grateful for a booking mistake by the hotel that put is in handi-cap accessible suite. I hung on the rails of the bathroom as I relieved myself, strongly weighing the pros and cons of buying a Life Alert.
The next day I sat on the sidelines, no longer having to hide my alcohol consumption, and watched the rest of the field duke it out. The hussfel analog looked like one edge was made of jagged glass, and the stone put, with my Dachsund like appendages and lack of general athletic ability, would have been a sure last place. As I sipped my Mango-rita, I began to feel better about my situation.
Mike Salter and Jacob Finerty looking majestic af with the 350lb Stone Carry.
Events that test athletes limit at any given threshold are few and far between in the amateur strongman circuit. To keep newer athletes from shying away, moving events and medleys are put together with lighter weights, ensuring almost everyone finishes relatively close to each other. The hussafel was refreshing; at an awkward 350lbs and picked from the ground, it was heavy enough to give everyone trouble on the pick, but light enough to ensure a painful run of 150'+ for almost everyone.
Nyck Romero, a strong carrier, struggled with around 170', giving testament to the difficulty of the implement. Dale Holthaus, a 240lb veteran from the Donnie and Kristin Rhodes' training camp, set the big mark at 250'. Mike Salter eeked out another 15' on Dale's mark, looking good for first place. Then Congdon went, yes, taking first again with a run just under 300'. He claimed he had another 100+ feet in him, and I don't deny that for a second.
The 22lb stone put followed. This was another novelty to most competitors since throws aren't common. The 'what if' scenarios of testing strong, capable athletes in an arena they are untrained in is what started Strongman in the first place, and it peaked the interest of the competitors just as much as the crowd. There were several athletes over the 6'5” mark and long limbed. A few had throwing experience, which is vital to putting up big numbers in the put. And Nathan Goltry, though new to the sport, boasts a 400lb clean and jerk, has a past as a D1 ball player, and all the speed and agility that goes with it.
Jacob Finerty and Nyck Romero getting air time with the 22lb stone put.
A few showed their inexperience and lack of speed-strength with throws right around the 20' mark. The taller/faster guys brute-forced their way into the 25' range. Then Jacob Finerty, 6'6” and former California's Strongest Man winner set the bar at 30'. Francis' thick accent rang over the loudspeaker as the rock hung in the air, “AWWW YAAAAS! That's a BIIIIIG PUT!”.
Most failed to improve on their best distance in the third round of throws. Until Congdon stepped up. Already 4/4 in first places, he was determined to keep the train rolling. Using a run-up approach, he ran towards the limit line, crow hopped, and screamed as he spun into the rock. With the last throw of the day, he set the mark at 31” and change, edging out Finerty for yet another win.
The stone series was left. Before the event, I had left with Laura back home to the Inland Empire where, waiting for me, was a stiff drink, a soft couch, and my dog. The story goes that the stone weights were staggered instead of ascending; instead of going 280, 330, 360, etc, the order jumped from light to heavy to medium to heavy again. The last stone, the only real goal in any atlas stone series, came from a large Slater mold and was used yearly for the heavyweights at California's. Rumored anywhere from 400 to 425, plenty had loaded it in training (myself included), but few could gut it out at the end of a series. Even to low 40” barrells, the big stone sifled everyone in this series. The race came down to the fastest to 4, and this was the only event Congdon did not win outright.
There was less drama in the women's camp. Arnold Strongwoman World Champ Leifa Ingalls of East Coast West Coast in Costa Mesta tends to be light years ahead of her competition, unless she's actively at a 'World's Strongest Woman' type event. She casually took every event, securing her spot at the top. Emilly Elliott displayed grit and preparation as she edged out the other 4 girls for a sound 2nd place.
In the end, Congdon ran roughshod over everyone at a paltry weight of 235lbs, a move that I believe secured him a spot in international competition. He was fast, in shape, and adaptable. Of course the logical discussion now changes to what would happen in this field if everyone was prepared? That same question is what fueled the growth of strongman, adding well over 150lbs to the average contest weight of logs and stones since its inception.
The hope is that the arms race continues, and the rest of the field grows and becomes better for it. I have no doubt that Mike Salter, Nyck Romero, Jacob Finnerty, Nathan Goltry, and others from this crew all have bright futures moving forward. But if the past is any indicator of future performance, watch out for that Congdon guy.