They cram themselves into small hatchbacks, spill over airline seats and travel the world on their own money for acclaim and camaraderie. Chris Stokel-Walker meets those competing to be the world’s strongest man.
Standing 6ft 4in (1.93m) tall, weighing 21 stone (133kg) and with 22-inch biceps rippling out of his red t-shirt, Mark Felix is an immovable man mountain.
Felix was one of 12 men who competed at Gateshead’s International Stadium for the right to attend the final of this month’s World’s Strongest Man competition in China.
The soft-spoken Grenadian, who lives near Accrington, is a seven-time World’s Strongest Man competitor. At 47, he is older than many strongmen.
“With strongman training you need to get everything involved – from power lifting, to Olympic lifting, to general bodybuilding training,” he explains.
A strongman event can see competitors loading a vehicle with heavy items, the yoke, where they carry 1,000lbs (454kg) 30m in 60 seconds, the deadlift, the shield carry, repetition lifting of a log, and the distinctive Atlas stones event.
A tweeted picture from Felix of a tuck box he had prepared for the contest shows a collection of almonds, chocolate, blueberries and oat flapjacks, alongside energy drinks.
“We have nuts and plenty of fruits and veg,” he says. Felix’s daily diet consists of six meals a day, accumulating 7,500 calories in all.
There’s a lot of waiting around, he explains, in airports, hotels and motorway service stations on the way to and from competitions.
Though Felix is one of the best-known names in the UK sport, he sometimes works odd jobs as a plasterer when he takes time away from competitions to let his body recover.
Fellow competitor Lloyd Renals is an NHS physio. With a bald head, large beard and calves as big as many people’s thighs, Renals looks rather like the stereotype of a lumberjack.
When Renals taps out a text on his mobile phone, it looks tiny in his hands.
His strongman career is only three years old, but his rise has been stratospheric. As well as winning England’s Strongest Man competition two years ago, he was second in Britain’s Strongest Man competition last year, losing out to Laurence Shahlaei.
Renals has a soft spot for “lifting really awkward bits of equipment”.
He has to battle a sweet tooth. “I try and keep everything in check, down to how many grams of protein. If I do eat a lot of sweets, I put on the weight really quickly. I love chocolate,” he says.
The hard travel, the strain of the events and the diet of a strongman can be difficult.
“Your biceps are on the verge of aching, then you’ve got to get up and do another event,” he admits. “These are not light weights. It’s all bicep heavy and back heavy. All the events have their dangers at the end of the day.
“Speaking as a physio, this is awful. But as a competitor, this is perfect.”
The strain on the body is compounded by the travelling involved. Domestic competitions invariably involve trips up and down Britain’s motorways.
Cramped conditions in a car are commonplace for Renals – at home he folds himself into a Peugeot 206 hatchback.
“Travel is bloody awkward,” he says – even when you’re not delayed. “And planes are not designed for us. If you’ve got a bum, you’re knackered.”
“Flights are brutal,” agrees Robert Oberst, America’s Strongest Man, “but it sucks worse for the person next to me.”
Oberst is a 28.5 stone (400lb) hulk with a wild beard, wearing a bright pink vest. He’s capable of lifting 400kg in the deadlift. A tattoo, his wife’s handprint, is on his left upper arm.
Flying all the way to Gateshead from Fresno, California, presents a challenge. “The flight attendants were quite good,” he explains. “They let me stand up a lot.”
If he’s lucky, airlines will try and arrange for him to be in a more spacious row, or to sit by himself. He often requires seatbelt extensions.
Oberst played American football for years as a left tackle in the offensive line before working as a bouncer at a bar. A fellow worker encouraged him to take part in strongman events.
“I had my pro card four months later,” he says, patting his barrel chest. “This is my full-time job.”
The volume of food Oberst packs away on a daily basis is enormous: “I eat three-and-a-half pounds of meat a day, six cups of rice, a bunch of pasta, and no cheese or dairy. It’s just all high protein, low fat stuff.
“It’s very strict,” he says. “I get one day off every four weeks where I can eat what I want.”
New to the strange world of strongmen is Luke Stoltman, a 28-year-old piping surveyor who works offshore from Aberdeen on oil rigs most of the year.
Stoltman’s shape is different to his fellow strongmen. While they are often barrel-chested, he is lither at a mere 21 stone (133kg). “I’m quite vain,” he admits. “I want to keep the abs.”
His diet is expansive. He’ll eat anywhere between 5,000-7,000 calories each day, mainly from pasta, chicken and green beans. Stoltman’s one sop to flavour is a slathering of barbecue sauce on his meals.
Breakfast before the Gateshead competition was three fried eggs, two slices of brown toast, bacon, beans and muesli. But Stoltman’s usual breakfast is porridge oats, protein shakes and scrambled eggs.
This is his first year competing seriously. Previously, Stoltman flirted with the bodybuilding scene, before a friend nudged him towards strongman competitions.
His first competition – Scotland’s Strongest Man – he won.
Adrenaline carries him through the strongman events, including the Atlas stones (where successively heavier stones must be hoisted up onto platforms). But those stones can cause some damage, Stoltman admits. “Afterwards, you realise your arms are cut up,” he says. “In the shower, that’s when the pain hits you.”
Few can make a full-time living from being a strongman – the paydays are passable, but few and far between.
Within two days of the competition Renals is back fixing patients’ bodies: “I’ve only got so many days annual leave.” Two days after that Stoltman will be back at work, too. It’s a hard life.