1998, Buckhannon, WV. The anticipation every month for the next issues of Flex Magazine, Muscle Mag International, Muscle and Fitness, and Muscular Development built from the moment I finished the current issue. I knew I loved lifting, bodybuilding was what had the spotlight at the time, and the monthly magazines were the collective books of our iron bible. Between myself, my brother John, and our friend Dusty we would get every issue of every “muscle magazine” we could possibly afford. Names like Ronnie Coleman, Flex Wheeler, Lee Priest, Dennis James, Markus Ruhl, Dexter Jackson, Jay Cutler, Chris Cormier, Milos Sarcev, Mike Matarazzo, Kevin Levrone, Nasser El Sonbaty, etc. were the ones we paid attention to, and we faithfully tried every recommendation that was supposedly made by these men in order to get bigger. Something was missing however, and it wasn’t just our gains…
While “King” Ronnie was running roughshod over the world of bodybuilding, the other side of the world rumbled under the feet of modern day Vikings. Giant men with names like “Magnus”, “Jouko”, and “Svend” were training and competing in a fashion which I had never imagined… until I saw the World’s Strongest Man on TV. There they were, the strongmen, bigger than the bodybuilders, and with more complete strength than the powerlifters I had also recently discovered. Heavy anvils, giant tires, enormous anchor chains, and tree trunks with handles attached – none of these objects stood a chance in the path of the strongmen. They were the ultimate combination of everything I liked about lifting and extreme exertion. They had gym strength and real world strength; they were huge but not just for show; they were rugged enough to take on wild challenges; and to top it off, the whole show had an almost pro-wrestling-esque spectacle feel to it.
Over the next few years strongman sport called to me more and more, and I began to drift away from bodybuilding. Being from West Virginia, “beach muscles” were largely considered silly, as the big puffy gym rats often weren’t much good on a job site where real work had to be done. I idolized my dad and grandpa because they were as tough and rugged of men as I had ever known, and these strongman guys seemed like they would be useful in the coal mines or on the farm in addition to being massive, so I wanted to be like them more than the guys with the chiseled abs. It didn’t take long for us to start coming up with ways to do the strongman events. We used gas cans filled with sand for farmers walks, Dusty got ahold of a keg for us to wrestle around with, and we even did a seated tug of war with our feet braced against a curb while pulling on a chain (if this sounds like mas wrestling, well, it pretty much was but we didn’t know it for many years!). The Apollon’s Axle was ordered from Ironmind, random rocks were lifted when we came across them, and we dreamed of how we could make atlas stones, logs, and farmers handles.
During this time, the internet was an inefficient novelty at best. I’d wager that one billionth of one percent of the information/entertainment now available online was available then, search engines didn’t exist, and the speed at which this silly internet thing moved made it nearly insufferable. This is relevant because it may shock some to know that we didn’t find out for quite a few years that competitions existed for strongman outside of the big pro shows. We had no idea people like us could compete! When this revelation came along (show of hands for who remembers “North American Strongman Society” haha), the search was on to find contests… and we came up dry. We were poor young men, just getting out on our own, and couldn’t afford to travel overnight to go the few contests that we learned existed at the time. Years passed and nothing came along our pipeline (I’m sure they existed, but remember, information traveled much differently 20 years ago) until we heard of a show in a part of PA we could make it to in a few hours.
After competing in that first show, I realized that anyone could run a contest; you didn’t have to be rich, you didn’t need millions of dollars of equipment, you didn’t have to be some big shot, anyone who was willing to put in the work could run a show. Being fed up with the lack of strength activity in our area, the idea came up more and more in conversation about running a local show rather than competing in a local show. Finally in 2006, we approached the Forest Festival committee in Elkins, WV (where Dusty and I lived at the time). To my surprise, the festival committee loved the idea, and plans were set in motion to host the first annual Strongest Man/Woman in the Forest in 2007 at Wimer Field.
In 2007, the first edition of the contest took place, with a whopping 8 competitors, no weight classes, no sanctioning, and exhibition lifts by my wife Nicole Mouser because there were no other women that would do it.
The landscape has changed since then. When registration opened (ya know, online, with that fancy internet thing) for the 2019 edition of the Strongest Man/Woman in the Forest, entries started flooding in so quickly that the 50 person roster was sold out 6 months ahead of the show. I increased the cap to 60, and those ten spots sold as fast than the first ten. If I had the space, equipment, and staff to handle more people I could’ve easily had a roster in excess of 100 competitors. I cannot believe how popular our show in little ol’ Elkins has become, and I am sincerely grateful for being blessed enough to be a part of it.
So now that you know why I talk/write/wax poetic about this contest like it’s a long lost lover whose return I yearn for each year, let’s talk about the action from the 2019 Strongest Man/Woman in the Forest shall we?
Chapter 1: The Dream Maker
Max Log has been a staple at this show since 2013 when I introduced the 80’s style logs to Elkins – real wood with the bark still on them! The men’s log in particular became a bit of a legend, as it’s massive diameter and length make it quite unique, and absurdly difficult. This now infamous log gained the name Dream Crusher, and from 2013 on it lived up to that name. Massive men from around the country gathered every year to take the record set by WV great AJ Freda in 2013, at 340 pounds. “Easy!” they say in preparation, as they pushed weights well beyond that mark for rep after rep. Brimming with confidence, they would soon have their reality shattered as the Dream Crusher defied their every effort on game day. Then 2019 came, and with it, came Chris Leasure.
This former baseball player turned massive heavyweight strongman descended upon Wimer Field with a burning desire to be the only man in 6 straight years to best Freda’s super heavyweight log record. He built himself up to shocking levels of strength over the course of the year, pressing over and over and over again. Never satisfied, never stopping. 330, 340, 350 and beyond were training weights, but he knew it wasn’t enough. Those lifts couldn’t just be reps, he had to be so comfortable with those weights that they were speed reps. By the end of September the work was done. Leasure’s shoulders had swelled to comical proportions, his upper back wide as a house, and triceps as big as most men’s legs.
Chris smoked attempts at 285, 305, and 325. The rules allowed a fourth attempt to break the record, and he knew he wanted to wait until the fourth to get as many lifts in on the gigantic Dream Crusher log as possible. Being comfortable with that monstrous tree trunk was key, and he wasn’t concerned about being fatigued by waiting til the fourth attempt. Chris wanted to make sure when the time came to go for that long standing record, that he would leave no room for error, no chance at a mental lapse under its mass, and no opportunity for anything but victory. 345 was loaded on the almost cartoonishly sized log, and the time had come. A fire burned inside as he approached the beast, not of rage, but of dogged determination. Chris clenched his fists around the handles, and started the pull to his lap. Into the lap, hips set, a big breath, and a violent burst of power brought it to the chest. Here he was, a place many men had been before in the prior handful of years, with the most defiant log in the strongman world smashing him down into the ground. The size of the implement forced his head back far more than is desired, and the weight threatened to squeeze the life from his chest.
With a dip and pop the log began its ascent. Up, up, up it moved, and his feet flattened back out, knees re-straightened. The momentum had been created, and now the shoulders and triceps had to seal the deal. With his trunk straining to make the body a solid pillar, and his breath held to maximize the pressure, Chris drove the log further skyward. Elbows extended, feet set, lifter and log motionless – “DOWN!” The command was given, the deed was done, the record that had stood since 2013 now belonged to a new champion. Well done good sir, well done.
Chapter 2: The Long Road Home
In 2007, a local juggernaut named Rob Wolfe began a rampage over the WV strongman scene. Rob would win multiple Strongest Man in the Forest titles, as well as other titles that came along after. He would beat HWs while weighing only 228 pounds regularly, including John Mouser, who was about 250 pounds at that time. John kept training, kept squatting, and kept studying the Iron Game in his efforts to beat Rob and win the title.
And then AJ came along. AJ Freda became the most successful HW in WV history not named Phil Pfister, by winning pretty much every title around and grabbed state records in every event he tried. He could squat 700, bench 500, and bent a 60 penny nail in half the first time he tried. John Mouser was on the outside looking in.
John further armed himself by studying world champions, going to college to learn about the body and human performance, and he was now approaching 280 pounds. Book after book, seminar after seminar, and hundreds of hours after hundreds of hours in the gym, again, and again, and again. Growing up only 40 minutes from the location of the contest every year, John resolved to win the title in Elkins, or tear every muscle in his body in the attempt. Another year came, another year went, and the traditional leaf plaque still eluded him.
AJ retired eventually, but another of the “Original Eight” had become an incredible strongman by that point – Elkins native Ryan Putzulu was up to a whopping 400 pounds bodyweight and was starting to look like a silverback gorilla with a gym membership. Jake King was also coming into his own, having won the state championship once and set a few records already, and these men stood in the way of John Mouser for the next few years, even as he pushed passed 300 pounds bodyweight, and was winning titles and setting records himself. “Strongest in the Forest” was the one title that he still could not claim.
2019 had arrived. John had expanded his repertoire over the years to include arm wrestling, sumo wrestling, grip sport, and mas wrestling, all in which he achieved impressive success, with awards, national and world rankings, etc. Now at 350 pounds, John was headed towards 40, and his body was riddled with battle scars from 13 years of insanity that included strongman, pro wrestling, and the sports mentioned earlier. With bigger, younger, and healthier guys coming in every year, had his time passed to grab the one title that he wanted to add to his collection above all others? Was it time to step back and focus on coaching the next generation without competing alongside them? Not a chance. John knew time was on his side, because he dedicated so much of it to learning how to improve. No injuries, no health conditions, and no outside factors would stop the quest.
The day was hot, and the events unforgiving. For a giant 350 pound man, pushing through 5 grueling events in less than 4 hours in the heat and humidity is brutal. Things started off rough when his second log attempt came crashing down before the down signal when he nearly passed out. He wasn’t able to regain his composure before the time expired and suddenly he was fighting an uphill battle after only one event in the books. John made up points on the Steel Bar Bending event next, but the truck pull was next and didn’t favor him so much. “But wait, isn’t John a legit truck puller?”. Yep, sure is, but he does best on super difficult pulls, and this year the pull was easier than before, meaning speed was a bigger factor. It mattered not, John adapted and scored big points, but stones were next and the men in his class were all capable of huge stone lifts. Competitor after competitor hurled the stones about, and John knew what he needed to do to win – 4 reps to shoulder, and there it was, another event with big points.
Going into the Timber Wagon Carry, the points were tight. Former champion Jake King was in the mix, as was new log record holder Chris Leasure. The Wagon had proved to be the most difficult event of the day for most classes, and the big boys had the heaviest version of it. The apparatus was loaded with logs for a total weigh of over 1500 pounds, with over 600 pounds downward force at the handles. It had to pushed up a grade for the first 10 feet, then another 60 feet to the finish line. Athlete after athlete failed to reach that finish line. They would fight, scratch, and claw for every inch of the course, and shamble away defeated as the time limit expired. 42ft 10in was the mark he had to beat to secure the title, or he would once again be back at the drawing board, waiting another 365 days to try again. The sweat was pouring from the heat, the body was wrecked from a long year of competing, and a hard day through four events. The whistle blew and the wagon came up; a few years ago John may not have even gotten this weight off the ground, as the deadlift was his bogey event for quite some time. Forward he marched up the hill, the steel handles smashing the bones of his fingers under the weight. Slow and steady, teeth grinding, blood vessels on the verge of rupture he continued. Every step wobbled the hulking apparatus and threatened to rip the handles from his fists. 20 feet… 30 feet… 40 feet… time expires. Was it enough? The distance was announced – 53ft 6in and 13 years of work had culminated in the form of an old Elkins tradition; John Mouser finally had a “leaf” of his own.
Chapter 3: The People of the Forest
Humungous trucks, infamous logs, iconic leaf plaques, and state records are all a part of our annual “Strongman Homecoming”, but these things aren’t what makes this day so special every year. The rookies that nervously take their plunge into competition; the veterans who come back year after year to see their friends and enjoy the rural countryside; the appearances by 2006 World’s Strongest Man Phil Pfister (who tirelessly poses for pics, holds babies, signs things, etc.); the local spectators who come to see the action; the people that travel from afar to just to join us for this silly lifting stuff we do; the college and high school kids that come to help; the Forest Festival staff that seemingly never sleep in order to keep the festival running; the folks that bring their families and friends to the show; the people that help me keep score, run stop watches, judge events, etc… that’s what makes the Strongest Man/Woman in the Forest every year. It’s you, it’s the people.
There are many more stories to tell, and I thank you for staying with me this long, but I will save those for another time.
Final results (podiums only):
3rd Shanda Parson
2nd Kristin Dotson
1st Tonya Mahoney
2nd Juliana Lozada
1st Hannah Sandy
1st BreAnne Estell
3rd Heather Moore
2nd Amanda Shaffer
1st Amalie Flowers
3rd Jeremy Pacacha
2nd Brian Watkins
1st Chris Carpenter
3rd Leonardo DiBono
2nd Trevor Wix
1st Devan Futten
1st Ryan Stoehr
3rd Austin king
2nd Logan Postle
1st John Gallimore
1st Chris Vachio
3rd Austin Simmons
2nd John Messer
1st Kevin Wirth
3rd Dylan Warren
2nd John Willi
1st Harry Walker
3rd Isaac Johnson
2nd LJ Workman
1st Adam Knotts
3rd Cody Hannah
2nd Barrett Young
1st Jamie Bland
3rd Chris Leasure
2nd Jake king
1st John Mouser
Happy training, see yall at Nationals, Queen City’s Strongest, A Viking Halloween, and Power for a Purpose… then we start 2020!