“You ready for this?”
The question, directed at Libby, had come from Pete. We were squeezed into an elevator in the parking garage at the Ohio Expo Center in downtown Columbus, along with a handful of well-muscled and deeply tanned men and women. The elevator felt as though it was moaning in protest at the combined mass of us all.
Libby looked at Pete. It was her first time attending the Arnold, and she had no idea what to expect beyond the random stories she’d heard in the gym. “Am I?”
“Just ignore the circus for now,” said Ricky, who was wedged into one corner of the elevator. He was trying—and failing—to avoid staring at the fitness model occupying a sliver of space in front of him. “Save that for after you lift.”
“Ain’t no way to ignore this,” said Pete.
We’d arrived in Columbus very late the night before. Despite Ricky’s intention of leaving at dawn it was early afternoon before we were finally on the road: Pete and Ricky and Libby and myself, all crammed into my old Volvo and pointing due west for Columbus, Ohio.
Every year, going to the Arnold, it was hard not to feel like you were just one small part of an annual migration out to this mecca of all things fitness-related. Signs of this great pilgrimage were visible all along our route: how else to explain the sudden appearance of so many orange physiques in neon tank tops at gas stations in the middle of Pennsylvania? Or the enormous strongmen seated at a table overflowing with food in a random Denny’s just off the highway?
“Great, ain’t it?” Ricky’d said, smiling as he looked around the Denny’s at the assorted bodybuilders and powerlifters who were very clearly headed the same way we were.
“Tell you what ain’t great,” said Pete, looking at the plate of half-eaten chicken fingers in front of him. “This food.”
We’d driven through the afternoon and into the evening, heading straight into the setting sun as our shadow stretched out to the horizon behind us like some great tether to New Jersey. We’d driven into the night—cursing the fact that we’d left so late—with Ricky alternately snoring and then raving about how excited he was to finally go head to head against Myron again in competition. We’d driven through the interminable endlessness that is western Pennsylvania, a state whose dimensions seemed to expand with each passing mile.
As we drove we listened to the one mix CD that Pete had prepared for the trip more times than any of us could count. It was an eclectic combination featuring the likes of Kylie Minogue’s “Love at First Sight” and O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei” and Eric Prydz’s “Call on Me.” But what had started out the drive as a tongue-in-cheek compilation of feel-good songs designed to lift our spirits soon became the aural equivalent of a screwdriver rooting around in your brain.
“I can’t do the numa numa song again,” Ricky’d said at one point, around hour five or six of the drive.
To which Pete responded by increasing the volume and singing as best he could via a combination of garbled Romanian and random English substitutions. In his view the only way to appropriately cope with eight or nine hours in the car was via eating or singing, and he’d long ago finished his box of Oatmeal Squares…
And now, Saturday morning, after a few hours of rest at our hotel, we were about to enter the madness.
“Get ready,” said Pete.
The elevator came to a creaking halt. I sensed that it heaved a great sigh of relief, as much as was possible for an elevator. The doors dinged once and opened, and like the shuffling of muscled and spandex-clad cattle we plunged into the Expo Center…
The long, carpeted walkway that linked the parking area with the main hall was a frantic conglomeration of strange figures that covered the entire spectrum of the human physical condition. Huge bodybuilders, their enormous arms straining the fabric of their shirts—and indeed straining the fabric of their skin, in some cases—side-by-side with whole herds of pint-sized cheerleaders, no more than toddlers it seemed, with heavily painted faces and glittering eyelashes. Martial arts competitors big and small in their belted uniforms. Fencers in their bleached white suits looking like sword-wielding bakers. Compactly muscled gymnasts deftly weaving through the crowd in their leotards. MMA fighters trying to outdo each other in making tough faces and sporting tougher looking tattoos. Planet-sized powerlifters and strongmen and strongwomen moving through the mix like vast transatlantic ships cutting through the seas. And among all of this, the crowds of locals and attendees from further afield, staring gape-mouthed and wide-eyed at the unfathomable weirdness on display all around.
The air buzzed with the sound of human activity and elevated hormonal levels. There was an energy that was unmissable. Everybody was just excited to be there, it seemed, including us.
On the way down an escalator, as we made our way toward the weightlifting venue, we saw an enormous man wearing a black t-shirt that said, in simple white letters:
IS IT HUGE IN HERE OR IS IT JUST ME?
I pointed this out to Libby, who was looking around in fascination. She saw this and smiled—a response that I was happy to be the cause of.
“Both,” she said, still grinning.