It's not a joke, but it sounds like one. A guy walks into a bar. A real put-together guy, not a hair out of place. Smells good, too. He says to the bartender: "Steve, you won't believe it. I won the Miss Gay America beauty pageant. I won $25,000." The bartender—6'2", 300 pounds, hard as marble—heaves a sigh that could raise a few plates on the bench. "Four competitions last year, and I won less than $24,000," he says.
Punch line. Cue the canned laughs. And they have to be canned, since there's nothing funny about that story to our barkeep, 39-year-old Steve MacDonald. Because it's not lifting a 400-pound Atlas stone that tests a strongman. It's not donning a harness to tow a Mack truck. It's life's little indignities, like finding out there's more money in cross-dressing.
Minutes later, a would-be customer, over-refreshed and seeking a nightcap, pinballs his way up to the bar. He looks up and sees MacDonald. "I know you," the drunk says, pointing, squinting. "You're…you're…you're…" "The strongest man in America," MacDonald says. The drunk smiles and nods, then stumbles out of Doubleday's pub in downtown Pittsburgh without even ordering a drink.
A sight gag. Not to be unkind, but that's what he could be. After all, when was the last time the Incredible Hulk served you a beer? MacDonald has been a co-owner of Doubleday's for about a year. Before that he had odd jobs: furniture mover, doorman, any gig to make ends meet. Strength, you see, doesn't pay much. When he won the America's Strongest Man event, in 2006, MacDonald pocketed $6,000, just enough to keep him in groceries for six weeks. "They didn't even print a line in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when I won," he says. Figures, since the 80 or so professional strongmen walking America's streets disguise themselves as something else. Derek Poundstone, America's Strongest Man of 2007, is a Connecticut cop. Jason Kristal, 2008's titleholder, works at a California nutritional-supplement company. "Strongmen in Eastern Europe are national celebrities," MacDonald says. "Here…"
Well, here MacDonald is a humble barkeep, a big man living in a small, cluttered apartment in a not-so-great part of Steel Town. Occasionally, a barfly will ask MacDonald what a strongman is. "We're big, strong guys lifting big, heavy things" is his standard answer. He sees no sense in going into the details of how the sport originated in 1970s made-for-TV specials, giants lifting cars and running with refrigerators on their backs. Or how it went international in the 1980s, with events in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe today drawing tens of thousands of fans. Or how regional contests in the States, held most weekends, attract just a few hundred spectators—mostly friends, family and protein-supplement salesmen.
No sense going into it at Doubleday's, where the idea isn't to bore customers. If he wanted to do that, MacDonald could describe the sport's alphabet soup of organizing bodies. He could tell how he linked up with the International Federation of Strength Athletes in 2005 and reached No.14 in the IFSA's 2007 world rankings. He could explain that the American Strongman Corp. (ASC) runs the America's Strongest Man competition. And he might mention how North American Strongman (NAS) Inc. stages amateur events. Or that Trans World International (TWI), owned by mega-agency IMG, puts on the World's Strongest Man comp that airs on ESPN in December. He could explain all of this, but it's hard for average joes to keep up.
Strength, though—that they get. Who hasn't paused while channel-surfing to watch when a strongman competition pops up? It doesn't matter that most of those 2 a.m. replays date back 20 years or that it's almost always an Icelander named Magnús lugging a beer keg or wrestling an anchor chain. When you see a beefy guy towing a truck with his bare hands, it's tough not to tune in.
So when the TV at Doubleday's happens to be showing a strongman event, MacDonald will gladly field questions about the farmer's walk, in which strongmen carry hundreds of pounds of weights in each hand. He'll happily lead a customer through what it takes to lift Atlas stones—concrete balls with lead cores—onto chest-high platforms. If prodded, MacDonald will even rattle off his personal bests: 565-pound bench, 805-pound dead lift and 522 pounds in the Atlas stone, a 2007 world record.
He'll also tell patrons that he's recorded almost every weight he's ever lifted in his training log and that videos of his workouts are posted on websites like Irongodz.com. The Internet is often the only place outside the gym where strength geeks find their own kind. MacDonald admits that these message boards can have a Dungeons & Dragons feel, with muscleheads arguing the virtues of the clean-and-press. But this is an outsider sport. Not for nothing do strongmen listen to speed metal.
Shaggy-dog story: Strength didn't just happen to Steve MacDonald one day. As far back as he can remember, he was the strongest. On his block. At his school. In the town of Romulus, in upstate New York. "If I wasn't the strongest kid in Romulus, I would've just been Steve the blond kid," he says.
They say that a lot of strongmen have issues with their dads, that pushing big things around is a way of pushing back. But MacDonald worshipped his late father, a welder who built him his first set of weights from scrap metal. And he loves his mom, a retired nurse. There's probably some psychological explanation for why he enjoys mixing cement and pouring it into aluminum molds to make 400-pound Atlas stones. But there's no room for introspection in MacDonald's life, not during a dead lift, when it feels like battery cables are hooked to his sciatic nerve. Or during a seated rope pull, when his vertebrae pop like firecrackers. "When I hear that," he says, "I think, Yup, one day that's gonna be trouble." It's best not to give it more thought than that.
He was a decent athlete growing up, a football player, but—hard to believe—a bit on the small side. "I was 156 pounds in grade 10," he says, "and 183 when I graduated." In his teens he started going to the gym, and by his 20s he was a competitive bodybuilder at the national level. Eventually, though, he realized there wasn't much upside. "I got out after a competition in which the best guy finished seventh," he says. "He wasn't hooked up with the right sponsors." But politics was only part of the reason he hung up his Speedo at age 26. "I had to starve myself for competitions, and there are two things I like: lifting heavy things and eating." MacDonald kept going to the gym, kept lifting.
A few years later he started entering powerlifting competitions. But that didn't last. (Go ahead, name a powerlifter.) In his mid-30s he settled on strongman and began to win small amateur events. Then he moved to Pittsburgh, and his life changed; Pennsylvania and Ohio are to strongman comps what Venice Beach is to bodybuilding. MacDonald began training with Steve Kirit, who was nationally ranked. For 40 hours a week, they lifted heavy things—barbells, Atlas stones, lead cylinders shaped like logs—and pulled cars up hills. With MacDonald training beside him, Kirit racked up back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003. MacDonald turned pro in 2005 and won the 2006 America's Strongest Man, at age 37.
It's in the mail. Sounds like a punch line, but it's more the setup to a cruel joke. In May 2007, MacDonald narrowly lost the defense of his America's Strongest Man title, finishing fourth. Still, he was in the best shape of his life and looked forward to competing against the best from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia at September's IFSA's world championship in South Korea. Nearing 40, he knew it was one of his last big shots.
One morning that June, after a long night at the bar, MacDonald took a day off from training to get his passport renewed. The lady behind the counter told him everything would be done by September. But weeks passed as he waited, beefing up to 310 pounds from his out-of-comp weight of 290. Then a week before he was scheduled to leave for South Korea, a customs official told MacDonald his passport was in the mail. Two, three, four days passed with MacDonald checking his mailbox to find only bills. The final big opportunity of his career was in the hands of the U.S. Postal Service, yet MacDonald could muster little more than a hopeful shrug. He's used to that kind of restraint; being easygoing is his way of compensating for an imposing physique. It's no accident that he greets strangers with big smiles, mellow words and soft handshakes.
Still, as he watched the calendar and waited for his passport to arrive, his anxiety grew and his workouts became more intense. On Sept. 8, the day he should have boarded a plane, the postman arrived empty-handed. MacDonald, missing the contest, could only imagine what he might have accomplished. "All I could think was, Why me?" he says. "My bags were packed, with nowhere to go. So I went to work in the gym and at Doubleday's to forget." His passport showed up a few days later.
You can trace strongman's roots to early-20th-century circuses in the American West and ancient stone-lifters in northern Spain, but the sport officially dates back only to 1977. That's when Bruce Wilhelm won the first World's Strongest Man competition, on The CBS Sports Spectacular. "I was just a strong guy who was a better athlete than the other guys," says Wilhelm, who defended his title a year later.
Wilhelm admits that he and many other strength athletes used steroids in the old days and that things haven't gotten any cleaner. "Guys today are doing 10 times what I did," he says. "If we were doing eight milligrams of Dianabol daily, they're doing 80. The steroid programs these guys are on cost in the neighborhood of $75,000 annually." This does not, by all indications, seem to be the neighborhood in which MacDonald lives. "It doesn't make sense to poison myself to win $3,000 or $4,000 when I can make that in a month, 12 months a year at Doubleday's," he says. The sport's various circuits have drug-testing policies, but strongmen say those rules do little more than buff the sport's image.
"They don't find what they're not looking for," says one competitor who prefers to remain anonymous. "And there's always a story behind a positive test. When Mariusz Pudzianowski [a five-time World's Strongest Man] was suspended a few years ago, it was really over a contract dispute. They hold testing over your head to keep you in line."
Fans of strongman say testing is beside the point. Strength-building drugs are simply part of the culture, and the idea that the sport has a steroids dragnet requires a suspension of disbelief. Ignoring juicers seems more honest than bragging about efforts to keep the sport clean. That sentiment is echoed on Irongodz and strength websites such as Intense Muscle and Chasing Kaz (named for Bill Kazmaier, World's Strongest Man from 1980 to 1982), where strength geeks call steroids cops nazis and claim testing "is screwing up" the sport. Posters wish in the strongest terms for out-in-the- open, whatever-gets-you-through-the-lift events.
But such tough talk ignores the inherent perils of strongman, clean or dirty. Jesse Marunde, who finished second in the 2005 World's Strongest Man competition, died at age 27; some obituaries mentioned that he pleaded guilty to steroids possession as a college football player, but his autopsy showed no trace of the stuff. Three-time World's Strongest Man Jón Páll Sigmarsson didn't make it to his 33rd birthday; reports linked his death to steroids, although he also had a congenital heart condition. Both men died during a workout, Sigmarsson while doing dead lifts, MacDonald's favorite. "The stress a strongman puts his body through—taking it right to the edge—can kill you," he says calmly.
Fact is, though, the sport's followers positively buzz when a strongman reaches a point where danger kicks in. Even MacDonald, not one to boast, got a little giddy in this online entry: 675 pounds for 8 (reps) Last set was pretty cool, shins were bleeding, nose was bleeding, couldn't hear out of my right ear for 30 seconds, acid reflux, fun all the way around!!
"Where has Steve Mac been?" That question was asked on a strongman message board this summer, after MacDonald stopped posting workouts. It was like he had vanished. In reality, the indignities of being a strongman had finally caught up to him, although the passport snafu turned out to be a lucky break. "Things went sideways with IFSA in Korea," he says. "Half the guys got food poisoning and were stuck in a dump for 10 days. And I heard some guy may have made off with $200,000 of prize money."
After missing that trip, MacDonald set his sights on last March's Arnold Sports Festival, named for a certain Governator and the biggest strength event in the U.S. It was there that he set the Atlas stone world record in 2007. But to get an invite, MacDonald needed to win a January qualifier held at an aircraft factory in Kiev. This time he wasn't lucky enough to lose his passport. "It took 26 hours to get to Ukraine, and I was dehydrated," he says. "I had to compete the next morning while drinking and eating as much as I could. I had a bad nosebleed. I was dizzy, jet-lagged. The first three events were the worst I've ever done in competition." MacDonald didn't qualify for the Arnold, so he went to Columbus as a spectator. And watching the event made him realize that it was time to give up jumping through hoops trying to get invites from the sport's various factions. "I have to face reality," he says. "I've accomplished everything I wanted to, and I've had enough of the politics. From now on, I'm only going to do one-off contests. Spain's strongest man invited me to a contest there. Who wouldn't want to go to Spain?"
A strongman might be hard to find in your local sports pages, but the way MacDonald sees the world, it's even harder to find good help. It's early summer, and a key-holding employee has quit Doubleday's without notice for the second time in as many weeks. That means another call to a locksmith, another after-hours installation of a new lock. It's dragging past 2 a.m., and MacDonald has poured the last drink. He turns down the lights and calls the locksmith, who can't guarantee when he'll show. MacDonald's back is stiff. "I'll leave the door open for you," he says. An hour passes, and MacDonald lies flat on his back on top of the bar, feet toward the front door, shoulders spilling over the sides. He folds his hands at his waist and dozes off. Can't help it.
The streets are empty; even the car thieves have gone home. MacDonald doesn't stir when the locksmith walks in. "Anybody here?" the key master asks. MacDonald awakens and sits up straight, like Dr. Frankenstein's monster. Frightened, the locksmith takes a step backward toward the door. "Hey, thanks for coming," MacDonald says. "You're …you're…" the locksmith stutters.
"…stuck here because I'm the owner."