Yes, fine, I’ll concede: maybe your own personal family does “go on a walk” on Boxing Day, though the past couple of years your dad has started to groan out of it, what with his knee, so you end up sat on the sofa in silence opposite him while the rest of the family goes out, both woozy from the central heating, watching the last 45 minutes of The Great Escape on terrestrial TV.
But otherwise, post-Christmas pre-New Year enters into a sludgy, liminal, grey misted zone, where time doesn’t exist and days don’t exist and there are no tentpoles of tradition to grab on to, so you just sit there, wearing new pyjamas and half-watching Pixar movies, scrolling through your phone as people you know from a city far away from you text of their boredom. And then a man who looks like he’s banned from half of Britain’s truck stops for “shitting too badly” lifts the equivalent weight of a car over his head, and you realise: World’s Strongest Man semi-finals. It must be the 28th of December.
The World’s Strongest Man competition went ahead this year, which is interesting. A lot of sports – a lot of things – did not go ahead this year, because the first of the apocalyptic horsemen is upon us, but while other sports can feasibly pause – footballers can still do kick-ups in their back garden, runners can still, I don’t know, run – strongmen still, fundamentally, have to stay strong, because maintaining the sheer body mass of a strong person is a more than full-time job in and of itself. When the supermarkets started to panic, when the gyms started to close, the job of being strong – difficult enough outside of a pandemic – became that much more difficult.
“We’re pretty fortunate that we have sponsors,” Luke Stoltman tells me, from possibly history’s most muscular Zoom call, squeezed in a gym back office next to his towering strongman brother, Tom (behind them: a heavy-shelf full of protein powder). “A butcher in Glasgow, this online butcher’s company, they were sending us 20 or 30 kilos of meat. I’m not even exaggerating: it was 20 or 30 kilos of meat. It was ridiculous.” He pauses for a second, presumably to relive flashbacks of him picking up Scottish supermarket shoppers like Atlas stones and flipping them backwards over some shelves. “The only hard thing to get were the carbohydrates. Maybe they were a little bit trickier to purchase.”
Every time a normal human (me) interacts with a super-normal person (strongmen), they focus on their diet: the sheer number of calories it takes to remain strong, build strength through training and not explode or fall apart under the duress of lifting heavy objects for no reason. We delight in the idea of a strongman cheat day – Tom, tapering down from his high of 27 stone following the World’s Strongest competition, normally eats a double burger, double fries before training, and was bemoaning the fact his nutritionist would “only” let him have four doughnuts that morning because it was a rest day – but it’s all jet fuel for the raging fire.
“It’s not easy to be that bodyweight when you’re competing at that high a level,” Luke explains. “Because your body is so used to being fed a certain way, training a certain way – so if worse case came, during lockdown—” by this, he means “being forced to eat a normal amount of food” “—we would be seriously, seriously affected. We could potentially lose 20 kilos in that month.”
When the first lockdown happened, a lot of people who relied on the gym for whatever gym people rely on it for – their daily dose of endorphins, their goal-chasing workout, and more crucially their daily routine – were suddenly forced to go without. It is possible you were one of them. The inability to lift weights while dance mixes play slightly too loudly in the background isn’t the greatest tragedy of the pandemic, but for thousands of people it suddenly extinguished a sense of normality in an increasingly un-normal world, and they all reacted by taking it out on the rest of us, by casually running 5km and tagging Virgin Money about it on Instagram.
Tom and Luke – both seasoned strongman veterans by now, Luke the wise, elder gains-monster at 36, Tom the shiny young prince of lifting things up and putting them down again at 26 – were lucky enough to have access to their own strongman facility, so… just kept working out, not really knowing what they were doing it for.
“We already knew for a while World’s was on, off, on, off,” Luke explains, “so we were coming down to the gym just to train – that helped us through lockdown, that was a good thing.”
Tom tells me he actually preferred it – when the paying customers are in the gym, they have to wait for machines, listen to other people’s music and, as the strongest men in the place, become a natural locus point for other, less strong people to make big beefy smalltalk – so he could hit the machines without interruption. That is, if government lockdown allowed them.
“There was all this Facebook chat going on, saying, ‘You can’t leave your house,’ and, ‘You can only exercise once a day,’ you know?” Luke says. “So I phoned the police and explained our situation – you know, we're professional athletes, we live five minutes away from our gym. They said as long as you're just leaving the house one time – which is what we did – and that you only left the house once for a form of exercise, then we could come down to the gym when it was closed off to the public. I'm thankful we managed to carry on training and can do in our profession – because that's our job. This isn't just something we do as a hobby. We need to be able to train every day, pretty much. So fair play to the government, you know. There were guidelines for professional athletes, which enabled us to train and use the facilities. We're very fortunate in that regard.”
When the World’s Strongest Man event was eventually confirmed – in November, this time, instead of the usual May – it was never in doubt that Tom and Luke would be pulling an extra-large mask over their muscular Scottish faces and flying out to Florida to compete. “I didn’t think it was going to happen, to be honest,” Luke says. “Even when we were on the plane, I was like: what credentials do we have? How do they know we’re not just trying to get into the States?”
To be fair, training for decades to become one of the strongest men to ever live is a forward-thinking way of scamming yourself into America during a pandemic, but once the boys heaved in to the airport they were whisked away to the city of Bradenton, where (negative-tested) competitors and crew were all bubbled together in the same hotels, with social distancing, PPE and sanitising wipes on hand at all times – think the Bake Off bubble, but with really heavy strongmen eating entire cheesecakes for breakfast at a hotel buffet.
So, in a year when a lot of us can’t see our families, can’t go to the pubs with friends and can’t enjoy the season the way we’re used to, one Christmas tradition was saved. It’s curious, the way Strongman has morphed in our lifetimes: in the 1990s, the Christmas Strongman competition had a touch of the carnival about it, a mash-up of The Big Breakfast and a Victorian freak show, huge tanned Swedes pulling lorries down 100-yard dashes before yelling from the inside of a CRT television.
But gym culture has evolved in the last 20 years, and Strongman with it – now, most gyms in the country have at least one incredibly hench lad who works out eight hours a day and can probably throw a log over a rugby goal, and the idea of a strongman is no longer circus-life. Strongman is less a curio, and more the natural endpoint and ambition of lads who get “very into creatine” at a young age and make gym-going their life, and the chalk-covered XXL T-shirts of yore have been replaced by elite sportswear and the logos of sponsors.
But does that change the strange, stuporous satisfaction of watching a 30-stone man carrying a barrel down a relay track while you eat the Toffee Pennies out of the bottom of the Quality St. tin? No, it does not. Merry Christmas. The Strongmen will keep you safe until New Year.
Watch World’s Strongest Man 2020 from Saturday the 26th of December at 6.45PM on Channel 5. The World’s Strongest Man 2020 final will air on Friday the 1st of January at 7.30PM on Channel 5.