The majority of the strongman and powerlifting competitions in WV are held in Morgantown at Viking Performance Training. We do this because Viking is an amazing facility, a place that I am proud to be partnered with, and Morgantown is a great location right off of 2 major interstate highways and just over an hour from Pittsburgh International Airport. A few times a year however, I host meets at fairs and festivals around WV, and these “off-site” events have some special charms that have made them beloved around the country.
Morgantown, WV, as you may know, is the home to WVU, the biggest college in the state by a mile. What you may not know however is that Morgantown is also home to more than one Mylan Pharmaceuticals building, an airport, probably the 2 biggest hospitals in the state, and generally just more businesses per square mile than anywhere else in West Virginia. When you come to Morgantown to visit us at Viking, you are seeing a young, progressive, booming-bustling-growing part of the state. When you come to visit us at The Strongest Man in the Forest in Elkins, WV however, you get to see a whole different side of our wonderful state.
Elkins, WV is in Randolph County, home to coal mines and coal miners, an old time train station down town, an annual ramp festival (ramps are like wild onions yall), Crazy Harry’s Greenhouse, and they just got their first ever crossfit gym this year (whose crew came out to help by the way!). To get to Elkins, those from the East coast often drive through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, passing through national forests, roaming near ski resorts, and sometimes catching glimpses of snowfall a month before the rest of the state sees any. Elkins itself is fairly high in elevation, and the morning fog rising up over the hills is a beautiful sight to behold.
Elkins also happens to be home to the Mountain State Forest Festival, easily one of the most significant festivals in WV. In fact, there are so many events during the Forest Festival, that it actually spans over 2 weekends rather just one like most here. One such event is The Strongest Man/Woman in the Forest, the longest running strength tradition in the state. Beginning in 2007 with 8 guys of all shapes and sizes competing against each other with no weight classes or divisions, this competition has grown by leaps and bounds. The wonderful people of Elkins have seen this event grow up before their very eyes, not unlike the neighbor’s kid who is going off to college but you could swear that just yesterday they were only starting kindergarten. Being its eleventh edition, The Strongest in the Forest isn’t quite ready for college yet, but starting a new decade of tradition was very exciting for those of us involved.
Since we are talking about the Forest Festival, let’s begin recapping the action with an event that purposefully celebrates the theme, the Timber Wagon Deadlift! For this event the infamous Mouser Wheelbarrow is loaded with 8ft logs (yes actual logs) to create a starting weight for each class – the higher the starting weight for a given class, the more logs! For example, for HW ladies the wagon is about half full, but for HW men the logs are stacked up so high that we strap them down to ensure they do not roll off the pile. Anyone brave enough to attempt to deadlift the starting weight immediately receives a lovely little surprise before they can begin the next rep… an extra 30 pounds on a loading pin near the handles! This repeats for each and every rep, making each lift substantially more difficult than the previous. Whoever completes the most reps wins, and likely also promptly schedules an appointment with the local chiropractor.
***This is only a brief recap of the show; I am not detailing each competitor’s performance on each event***
Braxton County’s own pint-sized teenage powerhouse Victoria Utt kicked us off in the Timber Wagon Deadlift, and she set the standard right off the bat. With a starting weight of 200 pounds in hand, Victoria pushed through 6 reps, the final of which was a whopping 350 pounds. Emylee Williams was able to shrug off the nerves for her first event in her first ever contest, and also put up 6 reps. Emylee was in the Novice HWW class, which meant her starting weight was 250 pounds, putting her final rep at 400 pounds in hand!
In the MW Teen Men’s class Evan Day of Maryland got off to a terrific start by racking up 15 huge lifts on the massive wagon. Evan was part of a group of friends and training partners from the famous Muscle Mine gym that came out in force for this contest, and let me tell you, those Muscle Mine boys can deadlift! This was evidenced further in the LW Open class, with James Bell and Carl Sowdon grabbing first and second respectively. In the Masters HW division, Jacob Bobbs proved that being a Masters athlete doesn’t mean being a geezer because he annihilated this event with 13 reps for the division win over stalwarts Jason Carter and Chris Vachio. Bobbs is coming off big wins at the Summer Raid weekend last month in both powerlifting and the Highlander competition, and he kept that momentum rolling in the Timber Wagon Deadlift.
The big boys always come out in droves for this contest, and this year we were able to separate our 265’s from our Super HW’s; 265 was indeed our largest class of the day. Among those 265’s were some seasoned and accomplished champions: Adam Knotts, last year’s 231 champion and current 265 state champion; Phil Gruentzel, owner and shot caller at Muscle Mine gym; Aaron Chapman, a giant from Charleston; Tyler Cosner, a man who now has a PhD and has competing since he was in high school; Cody Davis, the man they call “Strong Elvis”; and Kenny Hacker, a former champion of this contest and former state champion. The starting weight for our 265’s and SHW’s was 625 pounds, with logs stacked high above the walls of the wagon. This was an 18in pick height with parallel handles, and these behemoths were salivating at the chance to get their bear paw-sized hands on it. With 5 of 6 of our 265’s hitting double digits and 3 of 4 of our Supers following suit, it was clear that we had some real monsters on the field. In the Supers, Drew Dorsey took home the gold with 13 reps, representing his crew quite well. At 265 Phil Gruentzel wasn’t about to let his crew down, as he pounded an incredible 16 reps to edge the lead in the event! The weight in hand on that 16th rep was nearly 1100 pounds, and the total weight of the wagon around 2800 pounds!
How appropriate that we will next discuss the Max Giant Log Lift, a mainstay at this contest since 2013. We have only ever used the same two real 80’s Style Logs for this purpose; this is an homage to the days of Geoff Capes, Jon Pall Sigmarsson, and Bill Kazmaier. The log used for the ladies and LW teen male classes is a beauty of log at almost 11 inches in diameter, from a poplar tree, bark still intact after all these years, and rope wrapped on the ends to help extend the life of the old gal. The ladies all knocked this event out of the park, with every female competitor going 3 for 3, and 3 of them setting new state records! Of note was Kaitlyn Tennant topping out at 138lbs, quite a feat for a young lady that is still in high school. The biggest female lift of the day however belonged to Tiffany Drake, who has made tremendous improvement on this event since March where her top lift was maybe 140-150. On this day however, Tiffany fired up a solid lift at 188 pounds, taking the Open HWW’s state record from retired pro strongwoman Valerie Walker.
Elkins own Zach Iseli returned to the contest for the second time, this time moving up to the 175 Teen class. Zach looked in good form powering up 158, so much so that he gambled on his 3rd attempt by skipping 168 and moving all the way up to 178. This lift didn’t pan out for him, but there is no doubt that this lift and more are in Zach’s near future. In the Teen 231 class, Luke Bonnett and Evan Day both made short work of 187 and 207, but only Luke was successful at 227, earning the event win. The “Dream Crusher” log proved too cumbersome for both our MW Novice men, with neither Kevin Bond nor Michael Mottie having any luck with the massive tree trunk. If the smaller log is a beauty, then the gigantic larger log is certainly a beast.
In our extremely competitive LW Open division, the largest in state history, everyone was successful in the 1st round, with all either starting at 167 or 187. Nate Elmond and Cord Metz both dropped out at 187, while Carl Sowdon, Greyson Caplinger, and James Bell all made attempts at 207. Bell and Caplinger were successful, so the enormous log was inflated to 227 pounds. By most accounts, this log is 10-15% more difficult than the garden variety metal “logs” you find at the local gym, so this was getting into very serious territory for sub-175 pound guys. Greyson made a valiant effort with the expansive mass of wood, but was not able to lockout it out overhead. Bell knew if he made the lift, he would not only win his second event in a row, but would also lock up sole possession of the state record. With a heave to the chest and mostly all arm and shoulder power, James “JT” Bell launched the log overhead, and held it steady for the down call. Mr. Bell was now on a roll and it was up to the rest of the class to stop him in the next 3 events.
At MW Open all three men tied at 247 pounds, but there’s a little more to the story than that! Tim Gay knew from previous experience to play conservatively with selecting attempts on the Dream Crusher log, and this allowed him to go 3 for 3. Wesley Jensen also went 3 for 3 and actually set a PR on this most unwieldy of logs, a feat that few men have ever accomplished! Chase Oney, 200 pound state record holder in this event, earned 1st place here by virtue of taking 247 on his second attempt rather than his third. Oney had just returned from an extended hunting excursion in the forests of Montana, and was about 15 pounds under his normal weight, so his record of 281 was not to be challenged on this day. At 265, Knotts and Chapman both struggled with the demonic log of legend, neither making it beyond 247. The other 4 men made 287, with Davis, Hacker, and Cosner doing so on their second attempts and thus all sharing first place. For the 1st time in history, 4 men share a state record now as well (Gruentzel also hit 287 on his 3rd).
At Super HW, the 6’ 4 and 385 pound Ryan Putzulu locked up the win with his opener at 287, as newcomer Jamie Bland had topped out at 267, Drew Dorsey shockingly missed his opener which meant he was out altogether, and John Mouser did not go beyond 247. Ryan, “Pooch” to most of us, had bigger plans than just winning the group however. Since 2013 the Open SHW record has stood at 340 pounds, set by the most decorated amateur strongman in WV history, AJ Freda. For four years big Pooch has had his eye on that record, and each year he has come a little closer to capturing it. After hitting 307 with comical ease, Pooch called for 347 pounds. This would be the biggest log lift ever performed by an amateur athlete on WV soil, and Pooch came trampling to the log like an angry rhino. Being a hometown boy, Pooch had the support of the crowd and his fellow athletes as he pulled the log from the ground like he was pulling Excalibur from the stone. He hauled the load to the lap first, then with a massive breath he thrust it up to the chest. The titanic tree trunk sat on the equally sizable chest of our mighty strongman, heavy enough to crush a normal human, but not heavy enough to stop Pooch from trying to press it. With a dip and a push the log went up, up, up… and stalled. Back to the chest it went, and down to ground. The record may stand for another year, but one thing is clear – its days are numbered.
Our Teen and Novice women hurled a tire for distance in their 3rd event in lieu of lifting atlas stones, as lighter stones were no longer available for use there. Track and field standout Kaitlyn Tennant had the furthest throw of any of our ladies; Kaitlyn was credited with 25’3” on her final throw! At Novice MW Kevin Bond succeeded with the first stone at 175 pounds, but couldn’t get comfortable beyond that. Michael Mottie said to hell with getting comfortable and simply rampaged through the entire course loading all 5 stones in 30.68 seconds! At LW Open, only 2 men finished the course, Caplinger and Bell, with Bell clocking in at 19.04, the fastest time of anyone to load 5 stones regardless of division.
Well known stone czar Tim Gay kept his reputation in tact by winning the Open MW class, with Jensen and Oney in second and third respectively. Our Masters HW stones were the same, ranging from 200-260. Chris Vachio, one of the most beloved men in all of strongman, was enjoying his first competition after a recent shoulder surgery, and opted not to go beyond the second stone. Big Jason Carter of TN was back for the time since 2013 and looked strong after putting 4 stones on the barrles. In the end it was PA’s Jacob Bobbs that loaded all 5 and took the lead in the overall. For our 265’s and Supers the stones went from 230-300, and remember this was contested raw (no sticky substances allowed)! This was also the 4th event for the MW’s and all HW’s (3rd for the ladies and LW’s) meaning they were already tired as well, so it was starting to come down to who wanted it more, and who was willing to push through the pain and fatigue. Chapman and Gruentzel both fought hard for 3 stones with Chapman getting the faster time, while Hacker and Cosner both nailed 4 stones with Hacker victorious. At SHW Drew Dorsey’s unfortunate luck continued as he was unable to get out of the gate at all, while Bland put up a respectable 3 stones. Mouser and Pooch both got 4, but it was Pooch who got it done faster.
In the continuing tradition of trying to bring actual “World’s Strongest Man” style events to the amateur level, the Fingal’s Finger for reps was contested once again at The Strongest Man/Woman in the Forest. Victoria Utt put on a stellar performance here with 6 reps, the most of anyone in the entire contest. After Victoria, the Finger was extended to full length (14 feet!) to torture the rest of our competitors. Emylee Williams experienced the torture first hand as she walked away after one flip saying “no thanks” to crowd requests for another effort. For ladies’ HW and men’s Teen LW /MW a substantial steel counter weight was added to the middle of the 14ft pole, and this increased the difficulty tremendously. Evan Day and Zach Iseli both suffered on this event, unable to secure a single flip. Tiffany Drake proved that her hype was real (hype produced by me not her haha!) as she wrestled the giant metal pole over twice. Luke Bonnett showed terrific overall body power here by hitting a trio of reps, putting him in great position in the overall.
At LW Open, Caplinger capitalized on his chance to start chasing down Bell in the overall by winning with a new state record of 4 reps in 1:00:65 – about one and half seconds faster than his record from last year. For the Mw Open and HW masters, the Finger was loaded with an even heavier steel counter weight in the middle, making the torque on the apparatus frighteningly considerable. Jensen fell victim to the devilish apparatus with no reps, while Oney grabbed up valuable points with 2 reps and Gay took another win with 3 reps. Bobbs took another win in the masters class, with Carter hot on his heels, but Vachio passed due to shoulder concerns; a wise move surely. For our 265’s and SHW’s, the counter weight was moved into the very end of the 14ft Fingal’s Finger, to a setting we call “Full Strength”. At this setting, the finger is so difficult to flip that Cosner zeroed, and the remaining four 265’s (Knotts bowed out with knee issues) all made only a single flip. At 12 seconds however, it was Hacker that took the win with less than half the time it took anyone else to flip the abusive device over. At SHW Pooch set the mark to beat with 4 huge reps, while Bland and Dorsey joined the list of victims whose souls had been tormented by the cold Finger of injustice. John Mouser played strategy here, doing one flip to secure second place, and betting all his marbles on the final event… the Pole Push.
The final event was one that is rarely contested anywhere in the country and is amongst the most controversial in the sport of strongman. The Pole Push is an ancient test of strength, pitting two combatants against each other in a bid to push each other out of a 20ft circle via handles on a 10ft pole. Naysayers lambaste this event as dangerous, however this was the 5th year in row that we contested this event we still have yet to have a single injury. In fact the only injuries in the entire contest occurred on the Log Lift with Knotts and Davis both aggravating existing knee injuries on what is considered one of the top 2 or 3 most common and basic strongman events. I could go on quite the rant here, but I’d rather get back to the action, how about you?
Utt, Tenant, Williams, and Drake all had no one else in their classes, so the former 3 opted to sit out the event rather than do matches for fun since they wouldn’t count for points anyway. Drake however laid out a challenge to all the male competitors that she would take on any challenger after their tournament matches were over! We will come back to this later because what transpired was simply amazing. At Teen MW Luke Bonnett had locked up 1st place overall, but Evan Day wasn’t ready to quit! Evan summoned his strength for one last event and took the win over Bonnett 2-0. Mottie also went 2-0 over Bond in the MW Novice class, and that took us to the stacked LW division. Bell had an insurmountable lead, but Sowdon and Caplinger were both in contention for second. Caplinger was able to capitalize, winning his class undefeated and handily securing the silver medal overall. Greyson liked the event so much he came back later for another round, but before we get to that…
Tim had the MW overall in his pocket regardless of the final event, but he came to play anyway and won this event as well showing that he is a true champion. Oney and Jensen were separated by only half a point, so it all came down to the Pole Push. With the pavement nearly peeling up under the force these men were producing, they attacked head on and pushed with all their might. Spit and sweat flew and the sound of the effort could be likened to gorilla fight at the local zoo, and in the end Oney emerged victorious. With Vachio out at Masters, it was up to Jason Carter to derail the locomotive known as Jacob Bobbs, but the train kept rolling and Bobbs finished a day full of spectacular performances with a convincing 2-0 win in the Pole Push. Bobbs has been one of the strongest guys around for some time now, and to see him in this sort of form means he is only getting stronger.
In the 265’s, with Knotts and Davis out at this point, it was a four man battle. Hacker had a lead, but Gruentzel was within striking distance and could take back first place if he had a good showing here or if Hacker had a poor showing. This event did not pan out well for Hacker last year, and this year he was facing men even bigger because he went up to the 265 class despite walking around at under 240 pounds. Cosner and Chapman has an epic encounter with Chapman taking the nod over the very game Elkins native. Gruentzel’s hopes were dashed here as he was routed by consecutive opponents, and Hacker to the surprise of many went undefeated to win his class! What was the secret? Kenny doesn’t like to lose, so he had been in the woodshed so to speak getting ready for this contest, and his base strength was way up as evidenced in the deadlift event where he doubled the number of reps he had hit last year. Take a guy with some good ol’ farm boy strength and boost his squats and deads, and you’ll have one tough SOB on the Pole Push event!
At SHW Drew Dorsey got to end a rough day on a high note as he came back from a loss to Mouser to best Bland. Putzulu (Pooch) routed Bland, and then went on to face Mouser in the big finale. Here we were, two giants, two old rivals, locking horns one more time as they had so many times before. Both men probably as strong or stronger than they had ever been, were about to go one more time for pride as the overall had already been determined when Pooch beat Bland. Pooch was the biggest man in the contest at nearly 400 pounds, but Mouser is known for that special type of gritty, grinding strength akin to collegiate wrestlers that comes into play on this type of event. Master of Ceremonies Phil Pfister decreed that a match up this epic had to be 2 out of 3, so who was I to argue?
The start command was given for the 1st match and the behemoths charged. Back and forth, side to side, and everywhere in between they went, and just when it looked like one would be pushed out the tables would turn. Then we heard it – “TIME!” The 30sec time limit had expired and they had fought to a draw! This was going to be quite the series. Our lumbering giants were exhausted after such a match, so we interspersed their matches with “battle of the sexes” matches featuring Tiffany Drake against our LW Open class men! Greyson Caplinger set the stage and stepped up 1st, only to be unceremoniously ejected from the circle by Drake! After this we brought our heavies back to ground zero, and unleashed them on the pole again. Another hellacious battle ensued but eventually Mouser was able to get Pooch over the line. Both were long time veterans of this contest, having competed at the very first edition and most of them since, so this was a fitting “main event” to close the show.
Drake returned to the circle, this time with Nate Elmond opposite. Elmond gave a good fight, but in short order he too was hurled from the circle. What were we witnessing here? Something truly special no doubt! Round 3 commenced with Mouser vs Pooch. Big bodies with big muscle burn enormous amounts of energy, and after 4 hours of competing in 5 daunting events, these man-beasts were tired and running soley on determination. That determination showed as Pooch refused to be run over and maneuvered Mouser out of the ring. This meant we were going to a 4th match! We were witnessing the greatest battle in the history of the Pole Push event in Elkins. Drake once took the center of the circle and this time LW champ James Bell accepted the challenge. To give him a little more motivation I announced that he was putting his trademark beard on the line and that if he lost he would shave himself smooth as a baby’s bottom. This did not prove motivation enough however, and now Tiffany was 3-0 against male competitors! Greyson, in a bid to at least get the boys on the board so to speak, asked for one more round. Tiffany accepted and they went back and forth for some 20 plus seconds I would wager before finally Caplinger was able to force Drake over the boundary!
Finally we had come to last match of the day: Mouser and Pooch; the immovable object against the unstoppable force; King Kong vs Godzilla; the clash of the titans. Their bodies were battered, fatigued, and sore, but both men’s pride was intact, so back to the circle they marched. After a little fun with the introductions, we turned them loose. The final melee proved to be just as competitive as the entire series, with many of us likely wondering “what if they fight to a draw again?” As fate would have it, mercifully this question remained unanswered as John “The Viking” Mouser powered Pooch over the line one last time to take the win in the Pole Push, and guarantee second overall.
Final standings were as follows:
1st – Victoria Utt
1st Kaitlyn Tennant
1st Emylee Williams
1st Tiffany Drake
1st Zach Iseli
2nd Evan Day
1st Luke Bonnett
2nd Kevin Bond
1st Michael Mottie
3rd Carl Sowdon
2nd Greyson Caplinger
1st James Bell
3rd Wesley Jensen
2nd Chase Oney
1st Tim Gay
3rd Chris Vachio
2nd Jason Carter
1st Jacob Bobbs
3rd Tyler Cosner
2nd Phil Gruentzel
1st Kenny Hacker
3rd Jamie Bland
2nd John Mouser
1st Ryan Putzulu
Big thanks to our sponsors: WV Sports Promotions, Inc.; 1201 Crossfit for coming out to help; Viking Performance Training; On Point Athletics; the Mountain State Forest Festival; Mouser Strength Dynamics; Warrior Genetics Lab; Innovative Investments; and Strongman Corporation, our sanctioning body!
Thanks to everyone that helped out, you are appreciated more than you know!
For now, we part ways with our old friend Elkins. A last drink, a hearty handshake, and after a little rest, plans begin for next year. Oh, and there’s that pesky business of announcing next year’s events, so here you go (as a reward for reading the whole thing): Steel Bar Bending, Truck Pull, Max Log, Stone/Block Medley, Timber Wagon Deadlift.
Now we set our sights back on the hustle and bustle of Morgantown as we prepare for our annual costumed muscle bonanza, A Viking Halloween! Take a peek at this incredibly fun event on www.vikingperformancetraining.com… If you dare!