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Recap: Norcal Powerlifting American Championships in Concord, CA

Yesterday, I participated in my first-ever weightlifting competition. I didn't do the full powerlifting meet (squat, bench, deadlift), but I did the deadlift-only event, just to get my feet wet. I've observed a powerlifting meet before, but of course, watching is not the same as doing. I decided to sign up for my favorite/best lift and see how things go from there.

How did things go? Gosh, I don't even know where to start.

Maybe we'll back up a little bit: last week, the week before my competition, was a pretty lousy week:
  • The cold/sore throat that had been developing finally decided to hit, and I wasn't able to go to the gym at all for pretty much the whole week. (I finally made it in Saturday morning for some light stretching and knee rehab.)
  • Progress report grades were due. 'Nuff said there.
  • This is totally MY fault, but I didn't even think to look at the Norcal Powerlifting rule book until Gabe, my fellow Anchored member who was also competing, reminded me of it and pointed out that they had specific requirements for gear/equipment and clothing... which sent me into a complete panic that resulted in my crying in the Sport Authority parking lot on Wednesday night because I couldn't find any belts that were legal, and even online, I didn't have enough to shell out for one of the expensive approved brands and the rush shipping it would take to arrive. And you know me, as a runner, I don't like to go into an event with stuff I've never practiced with before. So, to say that I was FLIPPING OUT and losing my s*** over not having a belt and possibly not having an approved sports bra and other stuff would not be overstatement. For a second I even considered scrapping the whole thing, but I knew how many people I would have to make apologies to, and that just sounded like the worst, so I couldn't bring myself to chicken out and disappoint so many people. 
  • I finally found an affordable, regulation-looking belt on Amazon, and since I have a Prime account, I got cheap one-day shipping, so it was supposed to arrive on Friday. IT DID NOT ARRIVE ON FRIDAY. In fact, as of Saturday morning, it was still in Tennessee somewhere. I still haven't received it as of the writing of this blog post. 
At this point... I was too tired, too worn down, to freak out anymore. I finally just accepted the situation for what it was, and would just take things as they came. Tom, president of Norcal Powerlifting, had assured me that lifters borrow belts all the time and that they would have a stash of belts available to use, so... you just gotta do what you gotta do, right? It wasn't ideal, but... nothing ever really is. You just gotta roll with the punches.

The view from my (indoor) window.
Crowne Plaza, YOU FANCY!
So I drove alone to Concord on Saturday, blasting my HELL YES playlist on the way up. After checking in at the hotel (I was staying where the meet was going to be held), I drove over to RAW Center for Performance and Strength to weigh in. Like with other sports, you're divided into weight classes. I weighed in at 204 (and no, I'm not ashamed to share that), which made me too heavy for the 198 class, but on the low end for the 220 class. It turns out that it didn't really matter anyway - I was the only female lifter in my weight class doing the deadlift-only event. In fact, I think I was the only female at all doing deadlift-only -  all the other female participants did the full meet. (There were some men who did single lifts only or the squat-bench combo.)

So as it turns out, I wasn't competing against anyone but myself. But really, isn't that the hardest person to beat anyway - that little voice inside your head that fills you with doubt and anxiety?

I got very little sleep for the couple of days leading up to the meet. Even though I was staying in the actual hotel where the meet was, I was already up at 6am on Sunday morning for the 7:50am rules briefing, because my heart has been pounding like a trip hammer for days, and it wasn't willing to let up.

Too anxious to sit around in my room any longer, I headed down to the meeting at 7:30, and saw the set up - it was smaller and more intimate than the other meet that I observed a few months ago, and I was actually glad for that. I was still nervous as hell, but at least I wasn't in a giant auditorium.

Single platform
Awards - not gonna lie, was hoping I'd get one
So here's how it works: lifters are grouped by gender/sex, and then organized by their projected lift attempts (which we had to provide at weigh in - we wrote down the numbers that we planned to lift for each attempt of each lift, and we can adjust upward as needed). There were five groups - two groups of women, and three groups of men. Each group would cycle through and complete their three attempts for the squat, and then the next group would go, and so on and so forth, and then do the same for the bench press, and then the deadlift would be the last event of the day.

I was the last female lifter, lifting only in the last event, which meant that I had a VERY long day of sitting around and waiting and being nervous. To be honest, that probably wasn't the best thing. I am a full believer in the merits of "Just get it over with," so having an entire day to run through scenarios in my head and just be generally tense and anxious was... not fun.

What made things okay was that we had a crew of people from Anchored who came out to cheer for me and Gabe (who did do all three events). PLUS one of my besties, Lisa, and it was just the BEST. I could not have gotten through this day alone. Some of them, including my coach, Steve, came out really early to watch Gabe do all his events. It was really comforting to have them around the whole day so I wasn't just sitting around by myself feeling like death was imminent. And then a couple of hours before the deadlift, more people showed up, and while I was still nervous, I felt a lot better having friendly faces there.
Family <3
When it was time for me to warm up, I dragged Steve back into the area with me. It's not that I don't know how to warm up, but I was super nervous, and I was in a new environment, using equipment that was not my usual equipment, and we had to time things right so that I was ready, but I wasn't ready too early. I don't know - as I told him, I didn't want to have to do any math or decision-making; I just wanted to lift.

My heart was definitely pounding, and I was breathing hard, and everything was blurry - literally, because I don't lift with my glasses on, and after wearing them all day, I couldn't see too far around me. So as I warmed up, all I could really do was just focus on the ground in front of me and on Steve and Gabe, who was also back in the Lifters-Only area with me.
Usually the heavier lifters go last...

It took me a few minutes to notice, but I was getting some stares as I was warming up. I could see (blurry) people pointing at my bar on the warm-up platform and whispering to people next to them, but you know me, I'm totally in my own head at this point and I feel a little bit like I'm underwater, until a couple of guys (who were doing the pointing and whispering thing) finally asked me, "Hey, what's your opening attempt going to be?"

As I said earlier, you get three tries at each lift. Conventional wisdom states that you want your first attempt to be a little below your current max; your second attempt should be right at (or slightly above) your current max; and then your third attempt should be the GO FOR IT YES YES number. And btw, you have to give them your numbers in kilograms, so I had decided to go with 190kg (418lbs) for #1, 200kg (440lbs) for #2, and 205kg (451lbs) for #3. (I wanted my 2nd attempt to be technically a PR in case I missed the 3rd one - a consolation prize, if you will.)

So I told them my numbers, and they were... SUPER impressed. Which felt nice :) One of them pointed at this HUGE, hulking guy walking by and said to me, "HIS opening attempt is 405. Just telling you, for some perspective." Which was kind of cool. :) And I got a bunch of other nods and encouragement from other lifters, especially guy lifters, while I was waiting for my turn to come up. (If I had known that this was all it would take to get some male attention, I would've started lifting ages ago.) (That was a totally facetious comment, by the way.)

I stepped out onto the main floor and waved to my posse across the room as Steve left to find a spot to record my lifts. And then I was on my own, and it was time.

I want to issue a disclaimer that while everything I say from this point on may sound like not-so-humble-bragging, the truth is that I don't feel cocky about my lifting at all. I get excited and proud of myself for making my goals, but as far as my actual numbers and where I stand in comparison to other people, I try not to get caught up in that. Because you can't control what other people do. I take pride in continually improving - a PR is a PR, no matter where you start - and so, please take everything I'm about to say with the absolute minimum of arrogance.

As nervous as I was about the situation, I wasn't nervous about this number. I've practiced this, exhaustively. I knew I could do it - I just needed to make sure that I followed the commands properly. (You can't put the bar down until the official signals you.) I didn't make it this far to miss a lift on a technicality.

I remember still feeling underwater and blurry as I stepped up to chalk my hands and then walked out onto the platform. (I still hadn't fully adjusted after removing my glasses, which is just as well.) Focusing only on what was right in front of me, I knew I was golden as soon as I wrapped my hands around the bar and found it was the perfect slim circumference for my hands, the grip new and rough under my palms.

All week, Steve has been saying, "GET READY TO TURN SOME HEADS!" and again, I just kinda brush off comments like that (nice as they are!) because worrying about what other people think of me makes me lose focus. I've got to be in this for me, you know? I don't have headspace to factor in other people right now.

That said, that was exactly what happened. My first lift was the highest opening lift of all the female lifters, and it was probably higher than their final lifts as well, and as a result... I definitely got some attention. There was cheering and whooping the second Tom announced the weight in pounds (we are American, after all), and I got tons of high-fives and fist bumps afterwards on my way back to the lifters area, where I got more kudos from the women and especially the men (who were back there warming up, because they were going next).

And so it went.

As I said earlier, I wanted this one to be SOME sort of a PR. I knew I wasn't going to be happy with myself unless I beat 435 somehow, and even though usually I feel like a 5lb PR isn't much to get excited about (unless it's my bench press), I also didn't want to get too ambitious for my second attempt and sabotage myself. A 5lb PR is better than a failed lift. So 440 sounded good to me.

Again, more cheering, more high-fives, more stunned, astounded faces. But it wasn't time to relax yet. I still had one more to go, and this one was the one I WANTED.

I remember back in March when I hit 385lbs as my max, and I was incredulous at the idea of breaking 400lbs, let alone even getting NEAR 450. But when I reached 435lbs a few weeks ago, I realized that it was actually within my grasp - I remember thinking afterward, "I might actually be able to do this. I can hit 450." And I dared to hope that I could do it at this meet - a nice, large, impressive number, "on stage" in front of a big crowd including my gym family... I was thinking that this could be one of the EPIC moments of my life, and I wasn't wrong.

I've been saying this all over my social media posts - this was one of the more surreal moments of my life (second only to childbirth, probably!). I've simply never experienced anything like this, that I can remember. Like, I know this blog post has gotten really long at this point, but in truth, I just have no words that can truly describe how this moment felt for me. :) It was incredible.

I stepped off the platform and immediately hugged Steve and all my other lovely friends, and I was greeted by this onslaught of congratulations from all these people - I got hugged by a woman I didn't know, who was just so excited for me, and one of the officials even came over to shake my hand! Someone stopped me in the bathroom to tell me I was her hero! Tom himself shook my hand and said that he'd never seen a woman lift that much before! As I walked back to the lifter area, it kind of turned into a victory lap with other people offering me more high-fives, handshakes, fist bumps, and congratulations, and IT JUST. FELT. AWESOME. Like I said, it was absolutely surreal, and I was still feeling a little muddy-headed (but in a good way), so the whole world kind of took on a dream-like quality for the minutes following my third attempt.

Oh my god, what a day. What an incredible day. And to top it off, I got a medal! You KNOW how I am about medals!

I mean, okay, the certificate says 1st place, but technically, I won by default because I was the only woman doing deadlift-only. But I'm not dwelling on that too much, because I'm seeing it as recognition for getting out there and meeting my goals. I did exactly what I set out to do, and despite all my anxiety and stress leading up to it, I survived and conquered. And I had a hell of a time doing it.

So what's next? Well, I got several people telling me afterward that they would like to see me come back for a full meet next time, and I'm seriously considering it - I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I have one big race on the horizon next spring, and it might be a struggle to train for two big things simultaneously.

At the same time... I really want to give it a try. As many kudos as I got for my deadlift, I think more credit should go to all those lifters who were doing two or three events in one day - that takes strength and stamina, you guys. That's something I haven't done yet, and it's something I will have to work really hard at (especially with my bench press which is pretty dismal compared to my other two lifts). So all my awe goes to them. I sat around all day and then gave it my all for one event - they had MULTIPLE events where they needed to give their all, so... dude. They get all my admiration. What I did was nothing compared to all those other lifters.

For now, I'm going to bask in my warm and fuzzy feelings for just a little longer. And then it's back to the gym for me. We've got work to do.

Many special thanks go to:
- Tom Pete, Norcal Powerlifting, and all the staff, officials, and volunteers for making this a great first experience
- All the loaders at the meet yesterday - the dudes who are in charge of putting plates on the bar for each lifter and removing them. Especially for my weights! As someone who hates cleaning up all her plates after a heavy lift, I totally understand how exhausting it is. It's like an extra workout.
- My entire Anchored family, especially those who came out to see me (Ngoc, Raymond, Tim, Christian, Carola, and Cat) and Gabe (who also put up some great PRs yesterday at his first powerlifting meet and who has been putting up with my freakouts and incessant questions over FB messenger), and ESPECIALLY ESPECIALLY my coaches Steve and Atsushi, without whom I never would've gotten here.
- My FAMILY family, including bestie Lisa (who recorded the first two videos above - the 3rd one was recorded by Steve), for supporting me, for being patient with me, for holding down the fort while I spend hours at the gym pursuing excellence.



  1. This is all so incredibly awesome. You should be very proud of yourself, Thu!


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