Power And Pain: The Incredible Loneliness Of Being Superhumanly Strong

Published in ShortList Magazine (cover story) on 11 May 2017

What drives a person to gain superhuman strength? Matt Blake follows one man on his journey to become Europe’s Strongest Man competition to find out.

Photography by Greg Funnell (www.gregfunnell.com)

Swindon’s Pro-Strength & Fitness gym works the senses hard. Its smell is a heady blend of sweaty towel and protein-shake farts. Its sound is of heavy metal, blaring from a speaker. And its sight – an eye-watering miscellany of muscle-punishing contraptions – makes it look more like a futuristic torture chamber than a church of strength.

But all that barely registers, because in the corner is a spectacle that commands attention: the hulking 6ft 2in and 25st frame of Laurence Shahlaei, lifting spheres of concrete the size of armchairs to his chest and dropping them over a 4ft metal bar.

Man vs rock: he growls when he heaves; they boom when they fall. The sight is puzzlingly thrilling. There’s a gathering of musclemen around him, whispering and watching enviously. But nobody talks to him; they know better than to distract Europe’s strongest man when he’s training. In two weeks he will defend his European title in front of 13,000 paying ‘strongmaniacs’ in Leeds, and I’ve arrived to see him fine-tune his technique on some key events.

“How ya feeling Big Loz?” someone shouts when he’s finally finished.

“Strong,” he pants, grimacing. “Very strong. But now I need a break. A rest. Six months training, two weeks left. My body… needs… a rest.” He picks up his iPhone, with which he’s videoed the session, and flumps down on his back to review his technique.

This is a story about pain. It’s also a story about getting hurt. They’re not the same thing. While getting hurt is a strongman’s worst enemy, pain can be his best friend. “The most enjoyable thing about this sport is putting your fucking guts out there and being successful,” iconic American strongman Robert Oberst once told me. “When you finish pulling that truck, lifting that car, and your heart’s beating up in your throat and you feel like you’re gonna vomit, and when you can’t breathe because you’re so fucking burned up, it’s euphoria and you’ve earned that.”

That’s how strongmen talk, when they talk about pain. Getting hurt, on the other hand, is what they fear more than anything on earth. Experienced in public and endured almost entirely in private, injuries are often the spark for a far deeper sort of pain. “To put your whole life into something you love – to have that swatted away from you in an instant – is devastating,” says Shahlaei. “It can send you to a very dark place.”

This story was originally published in ShortList Magazine. To Continue reading, click here.