Power And Pain: The 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.”

It’s a place he knows well. “I’ve torn my triceps, lats, both quads, both hamstrings and both biceps,” he says. “But the worst was at World’s Strongest Man in 2015 after I ripped my tricep right off the bone doing the Norse Hammer (a race to flip three 10ft steel ‘hammers’). If I’m honest, I had some personal issues going on and that just tipped me over the edge. I was a wreck, and wanted nothing to do with the sport for a long time.”

He fought back. And a year later he shocked the world of strength to win Europe’s Strongest Man, and its £25k prize. “It was incredible,” he recalls. “Nobody thought I could do it, but I did. People often ask me how I keep coming back, and the honest answer is that I won’t give up until I achieve what I want to achieve.” What’s that? “I want to retain my European title to prove last year wasn’t a one-off, and then it’s World’s Strongest Man this month. That’s the crown jewel.

No one believed in me last year but I believed in myself. Honestly, I believe that I was put on this Earth to be a great athlete. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Shahlaei is a man, perhaps more so than any other type of man, who knows his own strength. He has to. Not just because not knowing would make him a danger – to himself, to others and to every toilet brush, jam jar or lightbulb he cares to handle – but also because it is literally his job.

“There are probably only three guys in the country who can make a living doing this,” he says. “It’s genetics, mostly. And talent. But to get to the very top, it’s about getting up early, eating eight times a day, lifting weights, constantly stretching, seeing a physio, a chiropractor, getting massage treatment, ice-and-heat therapy, not drinking, not going out. That’s how you win the top prizes and attract sponsors. You have to sacrifice your life. Your whole family suffers.”

Gentle Giants

Like other very big men, Shahlaei has a surprisingly sweet nature. His voice is higher than you’d expect, and he talks about his size almost apologetically, as if its inconvenience is more the world’s than his. And he has a heroic dedication to smiling. “When you’re a big kid, you very quickly learn it’s not in your interest to be a dick to people,” he says. “If you’re this size and you act like an arsehole, it scares people away and you end up alone.”

Shahlaei now lives with his fiancée Liz, an auditor for Tesco, and her seven-year-old son. He also has a seven-year-old daughter of whom he shares custody with his ex. After training, we meet Liz for lunch at a nearby Frankie & Benny’s. Naturally, Shahlaei orders the 8oz steak.

“To keep my muscles strong I have to eat eight meals a day to hit 8,000 calories,” he says. “It doesn’t just mess with your life, it becomes your life. I do sometimes wish I could just eat when I want.”

“He can’t even go on rides with the kids,” says Liz. “They always want to go to Legoland but he can’t go on anything with a harness because it never fits round his chest.”

Liz may be just eight-and-a-half stone, but she is his rock. Without her, Shahlaei says he doesn’t know how he’d have survived that depression. Beyond cooking the seven meals of chicken, mince and veg he must eat every day, she shaves his head, does his washing and is happy to watch his favourite film Rocky over and over or sing along with him to his favourite musical, The Lion King, in the car. “He loves a musical,” she tells me cheekily. “And he cries at films.”

“Liz!” Shahlaei looks up from his steak. “That happened one time. The Notebook is a really sad film, OK?” Then he laughs heartily, stuffing a hunk of sirloin into his mouth. “What can I say? I’m a strongman with a soul.”

It’s time to go. Shahlaei wants to go home and play with his kids. It is a Sunday after all.

Tough Talk

Two weeks later, and we’re at the DoubleTree hotel in Leeds, where the athletes are staying. Shahlaei is confident. “I’m an underdog but I’m not afraid to retain the title,” he tells me in the lobby.

“I’m known for being a warrior, for refusing to give up and putting my body on the line every time. If everything goes right, I know I can win this.”

The competition this year is stiff. The three favourites are Shahlaei; four-time Britain’s Strongest Man Eddie ‘The Beast’ Hall; and Hafthor ‘Thor’ Björnsson, better-known to Game Of Thrones fans as skullcrusher Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane. “It’s hard to see how he’ll beat those two,” says Colin Bryce, tonight’s organiser, referee and commentator. “Thor is possibly the most gifted strength athlete the world has ever known. At 6ft 9in and 35st, he could pull your arms off and club you to death if he wanted to. As for Eddie, the man thinks he was put on this Earth to be different. He’s so heavy, he finds it hard to breathe, yet has a superhuman ability to activate his adrenal glands and do things that normal people could only do if saving their mother from a fire.”

At that moment, the lobby visibly shrinks as Hall, 6ft 2in and thirty-stone, looms into view. He’s so heavy that when he walks he looks like he’s wading through shallows. I ask him for an interview. “I don’t want to be a cunt, but could you do this in 10 minutes, then f*ck off?” he growls. “I’ve got to eat.”

Me: Um, thanks Eddie. So, are you going to win?

Eddie: I believe so, yeah.

Me: You seem confident.

Eddie: Arrogance is thinking you’re better than everyone else, confidence is knowing you are.

Me: What makes you think you’re going to win, then?

Eddie: I would say I’m the most driven person in the strongman world. I’m the one most willing to dive to deep waters to be the best. I’m the man who’s willing to drown to be the best. Some people will swim to the surface, I’ll keep going.

That may sound like macho hyperbole, but last year Hall became the first man in history to deadlift half a tonne. Watch the footage on YouTube, and you’ll see him strain until his face looks like an overfilled hot-water bottle and blood trickles from his nose. He collapses immediately after. “I was probably close to dying that day,” he says. “But I made my point.”

What drives a man to dedicate his life to becoming superhumanly strong? To Hall, the answer is simple: “It’s like every top athlete in any sport – there’s a hole in their life that they need to fill. I think that’s what happened to me. I had a tough upbringing and this is my way of channelling that anger.” With that, he grins and winks. “But I don’t want to talk about my hole.”

Can that be it? “Not one of these men is at peace with himself,” says Bryce. “Perhaps Laurence is the most at peace with himself. You can’t be happy and put yourself through that punishment. The only way you can get rid of that neurotic fear of failure is by punishing yourself, by force-feeding yourself pain. Because failure, if that’s your phobia, is crippling. It’s all day, every day. It’s something that can only be overcome by success. And it scares them so much that they will do anything to be successful.”

I want to ask Shahlaei, but he’s nowhere to be seen.

Heavy Night

Leeds’ First Direct Arena is in full swing by 5pm. It’s a popular sport in West Yorkshire, and already the 13,000-seat amphitheatre is pulsating. This is not a corporate crowd on a jolly. These are ordinary people, here to watch their heroes do implausible things. Groups of young men with muscles laugh and cheer, trying not to spill their plastic pints, while pre-teen boys with foam fingers sit by their dads, transfixed by the 50ft mega-screen showing footage of legendary strongmen carrying fridges, pulling planes and straining under weights until their faces turn the colour of raspberry jam. In one video, a former World’s Strongest Man snaps a competitor’s arm in an arm wrestle to whoops of delight.

Backstage, that now familiar smell of protein shake and guts fills the air, as a steady line of strongmen flow in and out of the toilet. In the dressing room, the eleven athletes taking part sit mostly in silence, getting “in the zone”. Shahlaei and Liz are talking quietly, Hall is getting a back massage from one of the half-dozen sports therapists hired to treat the wounded between events. And Björnsson – the only man with an entourage – has a production line of ham, cheese and honey sandwiches on the go. He guzzles two at a time.

The lights dim, and Bryce takes up the mic: “LADIEEEEZ AND GENTLEMEN. ARE. YOU. READYYYY?”

The crowd erupts as dry ice billows from the wings, and Bryce introduces the competitors in order of renown. Last out are Hall, draped in chains and wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask; Björnsson, followed by his entourage, performing the Icelandic ‘Viking thunder clap’; and defending champ Shahlaei, adorned with crown, sceptre and faux-velvet cloak. The success of these events is down, in part, to presentation. Strongman is a serious sport, but with a heavy dose of WWE and a pinch of Victorian music-hall spectacular (minus the leopard-skin leotards).

The events are as follows:

Max Axle (taking turns to lift a weighted barbell overhead); Tyre Flip and Drag (flipping a 500kg tyre and dragging a 400kg chain and anchor); Deadlift (repeatedly lifting a 362.5kg barbell to the thigh); The Car Walk (carrying a modified 450kg VW Beetle along a 20m track) and Atlas Stones (racing to heave five 140-200kg spheres of concrete on to plinths).

Hall wins the first event, breaking a world record (there’s a £5k bonus for that). Björnsson comes second and Shahlaei fourth. Björnsson claims the second, ahead of Hall in third.

But suddenly, something’s wrong with Shahlaei. After finishing sixth on the Tyres, he appears to have collapsed offstage. A medic rushes to feed him oxygen. Liz and Shahlaei’s mother, Christine, arrive from their seats looking worried. “He’s ill,” says Christine. “I can tell by his eyes. I always have since he was a boy. You worry, they put so much strain on their body. It’s such a brutal sport.” Minutes later, another strongman helps him to his feet and walks him gingerly to the dressing room.

“What happened, Loz?” enquires Christine, concerned. “I’m OK, Mum,” he nods, head in his hands. “I’m just not well. I’ve had a tummy bug all week and I thought I was over it. But I think it’s dehydrated me so much, my muscles can’t cope.” He makes a throat-cutting gesture with his hand: “That’s it. I can’t go on.”

It’s a crushing end to Shahlaei’s title defence. He doesn’t want to talk about it. All he’ll say is: “I’m gutted. I felt so strong in the build-up to this. I’m so dehydrated, the doc says it’d be dangerous to go on.”

The show, however, does go on. And right down to the wire, climaxing with a frantic turn at the Atlas Stones between Hall and Björnsson. The Icelander wins by a hair, and the pair perform a dramatic man-hug and rip each other’s T-shirts off. The crowd explodes into fist-pumping rapture.

Shahlaei and Liz are in the dressing room packing his bag. “Injuries, failure, they’re a part of this job,” he says. “It happens, what are you going to do?”

He looks down at Liz, she looks up at him, and he takes her hand in his. “I’ve come back before, I’ll come back again,” he says, smiling. “This will make my next success taste even sweeter.”

(Photography: Greg Funnell)

This story was originally published in ShortList Magazine. To read it there, click here.