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At Maryland's Strongest Man competition, heavy lifting is a requirement

On a windy and rainy Saturday, with temperatures dipping below 50 degrees in Howard County, Tommy Kimbel of Baltimore wore shorts as he competed in feats of strength.

"It was unlike anything I've ever done before," Kimbel said after his first strongman competition. "But I've weight-trained my whole life, so I kind of knew what I was getting myself involved with."

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In the parking lot of Columbia's Colosseum Gym, near an otherwise fairly quiet road, a crowd shouted encouragement to competitors over blaring rap and rock music at the Maryland's Strongest Man competition.

Participants competed in five events: car deadlift, yoke, overhead press, frame hold and atlas stone. Each competitor took less than a minute with each event, and all but the atlas stone took place simultaneously.

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"It's a higher intensity" than other sports, Kimbel said. "It's short, sweet and to the point."

As state chairman for North American Strongman, Jonathan Ward of Columbia wanted to bring competitions back to Maryland. The last chairman hadn't promoted his own competitions, so Ward's first strongman event last year was the state's first in several years, he said.

"When I moved here, there was not much going on in Colosseum with the strongman thing," Ward said. "You had to travel to Virginia or D.C., but I started bringing in equipment to Colosseum … to attract more competitors."

The top three finishers in each women's weight class and the top scorer in each men's non-novice division Saturday advanced to the North American Strongman national championships. Colosseum will host another strongman competition in January, and there will be other opportunities to qualify in Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

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The winner in each weight class of Saturday's competition was named state champion, even if the title was unofficial.

"If I call it state championships, it has an extra level of prestige," Ward said.

At an event called Maryland's Strongest Man, 13 of about 80 competitors were women. Brooke Pfisterer of Camp Hill, Pa., has been competing for two years.

"I do a lot with women's-empowerment things, so I think it's really great to have women know that they can be strong and feel powerful that way, physically and mentally," Pfisterer said. "I think at first, a lot of women are like, 'I don't want to get big; I don't want to do [strongman competitions],' but … every girl I've ever trained with, once they get into it, they love it. I think it's intimidating at first, but once you get in, it's fun."

Jason Sandoval of Finksburg has been involved with strongman competitions for two years. After his interest was piqued by a friend's participation in the competitions, he asked whether he could join.

"I entered my first competition and got hooked," said Sandoval, 23. "It was different — not your average barbell-dumbbell routine at the gym."

Male competitors could participate in the novice division, one of three lightweight classes, or as a heavyweight or superheavyweight; women had lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight levels.

Last year's heavyweight state champion, Andy Deck of Salisbury, is technically a lightweight, but because he is a professional, he cannot compete with other lightweight competitors of up to 231 pounds at the amateur level. Instead, he competed Saturday at the superheavyweight level, coming in second place against men weighing at least 300 pounds.

Deck trains two or three days per week doing "things most people would do," such as squats and deadlifts, but he trains once a week using strongman equipment in a storage unit in Salisbury he shares with two other men.

"Saturdays or Sundays, I mostly train for the events for the competition, and if not, [I'm] training with the things I want or different stuff to prepare for what comes next," Deck said.

Sandoval said his favorite event is the car deadlift. On Saturday, that required lifting one end of a Nissan Sentra, which rested on a metal frame and could be hoisted with handles, as many times as possible in one minute. The weight of the Sentra itself translated to about 800 pounds, Ward said, but participants added up to 300 pounds in extra weight.

"Who doesn't want to go around saying, 'I picked up a car'? " Sandoval said. "It's just adrenaline. It's just an amazing feeling."

Deck, meanwhile, prefers the atlas stone event, in which participants had to lift stones of varying weights over a bar as many times as they could. For women, the height to clear was 44 inches; for men, it was 52 inches.

"I used to be really, really bad at it when I first started strongman, and took a long time to get better at it," Deck said of the minute-long event. "It's usually the last event, so if there's any close scores, it's the determining factor."

The stones ranged from 160 pounds for women to 350 pounds for the men's heavyweight and superheavyweight levels. Competitors covered their arms in "tacky," a sticky substance made from pine resin, for better grip on the stones, which got progressively heavier in the men's competition.

"It's a messy, dirty, sticky, aggressive event, and I love the challenge of it," said Keeley Moffitt, 25, of Guilford, Conn.

Wiping her arms off with adhesive remover Goo Gone — tacky will not come off with soap and water — Pfisterer said the substance needs heat to work, but the chilly weather Saturday offered little help.

The yoke event used more traditional equipment. Participants squatted under a bar, then used their shoulders to lift as few as 320 pounds or as many as 840 off the ground before running 50 feet as quickly as possible.

During the frame hold, competitors stood in the middle of a rectangular metal frame, with weights on each corner, and asked to lift the 300- to 800-pound apparatus.

"I picked up the frame, which was great because I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it," said Deck, whose frame weighed 800 pounds.

The overhead press was moved indoors to avoid potential injuries in the rain, Ward said. Competitors had to lift a barbell or a keg over their head as many times as they could. Pfisterer succeeded in lifting a keg fully Saturday for the first time.

"All the girls here could easily do 100 [pounds] overhead, but because there's sand or water in it, it's unbalanced, so you have to figure out the balance of it before you lift it," Pfisterer said. "It's really awkward because your hands aren't even."

As participants labored through each event, sometimes with yells or through gritted teeth, opponents looked on, cheering and encouraging their rivals to push themselves further.

"It's universally very friendly and supportive," Deck said. "You're cheering for the people you're competing against and yelling advice if someone's struggling. … There are not a lot of egos, not a lot of talking smack."

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