I was getting my gear together in preparation to head out the door Monday morning, en route to Calgary for the Canadian Powerlifting Union National Championships. I had emptied out my gym bag and was carefully re-packing it so as not to forget anything: squat shoes, check. Deadlift shoes, check. Knee sleeves. Singlet. Deadlift socks. T-shirt. Check, check, check, check. Belt. Check. Elbow sleeves? Don’t need those. Training log – don’t need that anymore; training is done. Put it on the pile with the others.
Wait – training is done? I looked at my pile of training log books – a stack several inches high, and it hit me square in the feelings. I pulled out the stack and stared at it for a minute: months’ worth of workout programs from my trainer/coach and good friend Dean Somerset, hours and hours spent in the gym to get me to this point: the strongest ever version of myself. Not just physically, but mentally too: I wanted this. I wanted it badly enough that I put the work in and forced it to happen. I qualified for national-level competition and now here it was and I was ready. Cue the flood of tears.
I woke up on meet day feeling fresh and ready to go. I’d made weight a couple weeks before (powerlifting is a weight-class sport; heavier people can generally lift more weight), but getting on the scale always stresses me out a little bit – something to do with spending most of my life with my self-worth inextricably tied to the number on the scale. I had double- and triple-checked my weight on the official scale the night before and I knew I had enough wiggle room for a cup of coffee before I left the condo that we had rented for the week. Breakfast could wait until after the weigh-in. I headed over to the event centre.
With the weigh-in and equipment check out of the way, I could relax a little bit, eat breakfast, and focus on lifting. In a big event like this each lifter is required to have a ‘handler’, someone there to manage warm ups, provide an objective opinion as far as attempt selections go, and generally look after the details so that the lifter can focus on lifting. Normally I fly solo for powerlifting meets, trusting that I have enough experience and know-how to regulate and time my warm-ups, plan my lifts, etc., but this time was different. I had enlisted the help of my friend and colleague (and my Olympic weightlifting coach) Nick Pawliuk for the day. It was important to me to have someone along who I knew well, trusted, and would give me the space to be a control freak about some things but who would step in and be the voice of reason if nerves or ego got the better of me. Nick is one of the few people who fit that bill and I was super happy to have him in my corner.
Warming up for squats, the first lift in a powerlifting meet, felt weird and foreign to me – like I hadn’t had a bar on my back in ages. In truth it had been about four days – probably the longest I’ve gone between squat sessions in six months! Still, I felt strong and well-rested and when I went out to the platform to do my opening attempt at 122.5kg (which was my previous personal best in competition), it moved easily and I felt confident in moving to 127.5kg for my second attempt. Opening lifts should be weights that you know with 100% certainty that you can make even if you’re hungover, so everything was going according to plan so far. I had only made 127.5kg once in the gym the previous week, but I was pretty sure it was there…except that when I went to execute it, I had a brain fart and I let an old habit sneak back in: the weight pitched too far forward. I felt it happening but it was stinking heavy and I couldn’t get back into line. So thank you, spotters – you saved my life on that one.
When you miss a lift in a powerlifting meet, it does weird things to your head. It takes some serious mental muscle to get focussed again and no matter how you frame it, there’s a trace of fear going into the next attempt. For that reason, it’s almost never a good idea to increase the weight on the bar if you’ve missed a lift. You can’t go down, but the best plan usually is to take the same weight again. So, I went out and repeated 127.5kg on my third attempt, managed to keep my head in the game, and made the lift.
The break between squats and bench press always seems like purgatory: the adrenaline from the beginning of the meet has worn off and bone-deep fatigue sets in. People who have a good relationship with bench press based on trust and mutual respect may feel differently at this point, but as a card-carrying member of the poverty bench club, I always feel some fear and dread going into this second section of the meet: on a good day my bench press is mediocre and on a bad day it’s downright embarrassing. One day, though…one day I will get a competitive bench press and I will learn to stay fired up for it. Maybe even enjoy it.
I made my opening attempt at 60kg and it felt even easier than an opener should. Sweet! I thought, it’s gonna be a good day.
The biggest thing to remember in the bench press portion of a powerlifting meet is to WAIT for the commands. You have to get the bar in place over your chest with your elbows locked. When the referee says ‘start’ you can lower the bar to your chest, and when the bar is motionless against your chest, the ref will say ‘press’. Only then can you push the bar back to its starting position, and once it’s there, the ref will say ‘rack’ and you can place the bar back on the rack. Anticipate any of those commands and the lift is no good.
So, when the ‘press’ command came on my second attempt at 62.5kg, after what seemed like an eternity with the bar across my chest (I’m sure a rift opens up in the time/space continuum every time I bring that bar down and wait) I couldn’t even move it. My third attempt was a carbon copy of the second. I was just grateful that that first one had made it onto the board so that I could finish the meet, but…
I was deflated. Discouraged. PISSED. I didn’t finish with the squat that I wanted and then bench press was a total shit show. I had sucked in front of everyone. All I wanted to do was hide. And my deadlift – my strongest lift – had been painful and inconsistent in training lately. I didn’t think I could rely on it to make up the ground I had lost in the squat and the bench. That was it, then – the day was shot and I’d have to chalk it up as a disappointment. I had let down everyone who had believed in me.
Here’s the thing though: I talk to some lifters who only put the training in because they like the thrill of competition. It’s what keeps them going. I’m the opposite: I like competing, but I love the daily grind of training. Even on days when I hate training I love it. It keeps me sane and even if I wasn’t going to compete ever again, I would still show up in the gym every day.
Fuck it, I thought. My day doesn’t end here. I’m not letting one poor event tank the whole day. I didn’t come here to give up. I slammed down some C4, got angry, and couldn’t sit still anymore. I started banging out deadlift warm-ups waaaaay too soon. Fortunately Nick was there to put the brakes on that baloney, and for about the thousandth time that day I was grateful for his steady presence. He timed out the warm-up sequence and we got back on track. Deadlifts actually felt pretty good for a change – maybe it was the caffeine boost from the C4, maybe it was the week of de-loading and rest before the competition, or maybe I was so mad about my bench performance that I was unwilling to accept anything less. Probably a combination of all of the above…but it worked.
Dean and I had planned on a pretty conservative opening deadlift (based on how shitty and inconsistent my deadlifts had been recently) at 135kg. Since my warm ups had gone so well I felt a wild compulsion to move it up but again Nick talked sense into me and we decided to take the bigger jump between the first and second attempts if I was still feeling good after the opener. So, the opener at 135 moved easily. The deadlift portion of any powerlifting meet goes by pretty quickly because there’s less equipment to change between each lifter – only the weight on the bar. I was up again for my second attempt within a few minutes. 145kg also moved easily, so we were faced with a decision: move to 150kg? Maybe 155kg even?
(My original deadlift inspiration)
I remember the first time I saw Nia Shanks pick up 150kg. It was well before I started, or had even contemplated powerlifting, but I had been working as a trainer for several years at that point and liked deadlifts – they figured prominently in most of my workout programs – and when I saw Nia do it I thought, “I’m going to get strong enough to do that one day.” I also remember the first time that I actually did it – hell, the ONLY time I actually deadlifted 150kg. It was at the Grit Power Open last year. I was in the 84+kg weight class; one weight class above where I am now, and the stars aligned just right that day or someone bumped the gravity dial at exactly the right moment but it sailed up pretty easily…and I haven’t been able to lift that weight since. Not even close.
After each lift in a powerlifting meet, you have exactly 60 seconds to submit your next attempt, so there was no time to discuss it with the committee. Nick suggested that we go to 152.5kg which sounded good to me – after the day I’d had I could really use to walk away with one new personal record – and it wasn’t such a stretch that I was likely to overthink things and jinx myself.
And then here it was, the last lift of the day. All I could think was “don’t fucking stop no matter what.” I grabbed the bar, took a deep breath, and pulled. The bar bent a little bit. My back bent a little bit. Ever so slowly, the weight came off the floor. It crept up, little by little…for a terrifying moment I thought I wasn’t going to be able to lock it out. From about a hundred miles away I could hear everyone yelling and cheering and Nick’s voice behind me yelling “LOCK IT OUT LOCK IT OUT LOCK IT OUT!!!” and I wanted to yell back “I’m fucking trying to!” but instead, I got my hips under my shoulders and locked it out. I got the ‘down’ command from the ref..I turned around and saw three white lights on the monitor…and it was over. I made it through, got a total (a PR total at that, 12.5kg better than my last meet five months ago), and made that deadlift PR. It was celebration time.
After cupcakes and wine and chilling with my daughters for a while, we all hit the sack early. I was exhausted.
2am found me wide awake, staring at the ceiling, and wondering. “What now? What if I’d had a better day – the day I’d PLANNED on having? Made that second squat? Turned in the bench performance I know I’m capable of? Where did I place in my age/weight class? What do I train for next? What if I don’t feel like training for anything? What will happen to me?
And then I did something you should never do while you’re awake at 2am and wondering if you’re good enough: I looked at the meet results online. I had finished in last place.
My eyes smarted and my throat constricted. I knew that finishing last was a possibility going in; it was my first time at nationals and the competition was stiff. Dean and I had talked about it at length: the game plan was to not worry about what numbers everyone else put up and just focus on improving my own performance. I had done that. Even qualifying to get into that meet was a big deal: I was one of only seven women in the country (in my age/weight class) who had done it….and besides the top three, the results were CLOSE. But...last??
I laid there in bed for a few minutes, my husband sawing logs beside me, considering whether it was worth getting down about how my results stacked up against everyone else’s. I mean, once upon a time that would have destroyed me.
Not worth it. Could I have done better? Absolutely. But I couldn’t be entirely unhappy with how the day went. I decided not to think about it for the moment and distracted myself by reading a book until I felt sleepy again.
Three days later: I’m back home and still trying to not over-analyze or get caught comparing myself to others. I had my best meet to date so I’m happy-ish with that. I learned lots, made some new friends, and had tons of fun. People keep asking me what’s next, and honestly I don’t know – I feel a little lost without a goal to focus on. But that’s okay for now because those feelings won’t last forever. I’m already itching to get back in the gym and get back to work.