Pulling a 22-ton locomotive

Fairview Park’s Don Pope is among the strongest men in the world. When he’s not pulling a train, lifting an SUV or carrying two refrigerators at the same time, he works as a facility manager for valet and parking at the Cleveland Clinic.
It is 102 degrees, and I can feel every one of them as the sun beats down on me. I’m standing with the other competitors in the World’s Strongest Man competition next to the railroad tracks that connect Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. We’re all awaiting our turn to pull a massive 22-ton train.

I watch with anticipation as Magnus Samuelsson, a former champion, struggles to get his footing down, searching for the proper leverage to get the great beast moving.

Finally it’s rolling, and moments later he’s across the finish line. It’s 32 seconds from start to finish, which seems to me like a good time. He struggled in the beginning, though, so I know this is going to be hard.

Then my big moment arrives as I hear my name called. It feels surreal, like I’m in a dream. I feel my heart starting to pound faster as I approach the starting point.

As I’m being fitted with my harness, I look down at the tracks, hurriedly trying to once more go over the tactics I have in mind for acing this event: Stay low. Get a fast start. Don’t let up. In the background I hear the natives from the local African tribes that have gathered around the event screaming encouragement.

I’m only standing here for a few minutes before they tell me to pull, but it feels like an eternity. My mind wanders just a bit: I think about all the training, the weekends away from my family and the injuries sustained along the way leading up to this very moment. Then I hear the head referee ask me, “Are you ready, Don?”

As I nod, everything goes silent. I no longer hear the roaring of the crowd or my wife screaming. It’s like slow motion.

I realize quickly as I reach down to grab onto the tracks that the unforgiving Zambian sun had made them feel like a hot skillet — a hot skillet I won’t be able to let go of.

I dig in with my legs and pull with my arms. I strain to the point of everything turning red. It feels like my eyes are going to pop out of my head. I hold my breath and struggle as the train starts moving forward slowly.

When pulling something this heavy, getting the object moving is the most crucial thing, because once you get to this point you do not want to stop your momentum. I stay low to the ground and drive forward with all of my 6 feet 4 inches and 320 pounds. I’m the smallest guy in the competition, but I feel good. This is a timed event, and I pick up my speed as quickly as possible. I get it going, chugging all the way through the finish line in a little more than 20 seconds.

It is over. Everything starts to come back into focus.

My time holds up to be the fastest of the day.

This is my first win in the World’s Strongest Man competition. I realize I’m no longer just glad to be here — Ibelonghere. I could hang with and beat the world’s best.

I am interviewed on TV afterward. I can barely speak, still out of breath and overjoyed. My legs feel like Jell-O, but my arms are so pumped and tight. I truly feel like the world’s strongest man.

The African fans are crazy with excitement and touch me to see if I’m real.

This being my first competition, I knew I wasn’t going to win the whole tournament. But the realization that in this one event I am the best in the world is going to be great motivation to go back home and train harder and longer than before.

I view the World’s Strongest Man competition as the modern gladiators battling it out until only one is left standing. The only difference is strongmen live to fight another day.
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