by Sarah McCaffrey
I met Hannah back in 2015 when we competed together in Strongman Bolton and have been following her ever since. I interviewed Hannah a few weeks back because I wanted to know more about her training, mindset and what happened at the Midlands Qualifiers. Some of you may know already that Hannah at the last minute went up a weight class from the under 82’s to the Opens category and this is something which I had to know more about. She talks about her first competition experience, how she is prepping for England’s Strongest Woman and how she is embedding herself in the Strongwoman community to bring the world of female strength and power more recognition in the academic world.
When and why did you start weightlifting in particular Strongman?
I've been asked this question a few times and I can never really remember the exact moment that I decided to enter a Strongman competition. I know that when I started off I was just in the gym looking to lose weight, that typical thing of doing loads of cardio getting quite bored with it and then I started weight training with my gym partner at the time. We just kind of experimented in the weight section really just trying to pick up what to do with them [weights] and then started really enjoying it. I think I just started following loads of stuff about weight training and weightlifting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I just sort of stumbled across this competition at PTS (Progressive Training Systems) in Northampton in the novice category and just thought that sounds fun I'll give it a go. That was June 2014, so I rocked up and I’d never used any of the equipment before because I'd just been training in a commercial gym. It was good fun, obviously I came dead last, I’d never touched a yoke, farmer's or log before but I just turned up and thought I'd give it a go. I look back on it now and I don't really know how I did it considering how nervous I get about competitions now and how unprepared I feel even when I've been using the equipment for months in the build up, I don't really know how it happened but it was good fun.
So what happened at Midland's Qualifiers?
Yeah so that was an interesting day, basically I went to watch last year's qualifiers and set myself a target that I'd be ready to compete by this year (2017). I've always generally sat at about 86kg and obviously the weight categories are under 82kg’s and then Opens, so I set myself a target that in a year's time that I would compete at the qualifiers in the under 82’s. One, because I was generally looking to lose a bit of weight anyway and two, the weights for the Opens are so massive that there was no way that I’d be able to do it by this year. I was kind of on track for that, I was sitting at 80kg for quite a while but then obviously Christmas happened and then I was away for nearly a month in February in South Africa so I came back from South Africa in February weighing about 88 kilos I think it was, so I had about four weeks to get back to under 82 kilos. I got pretty close and then I think on the Friday morning the day before I was 84, so I stopped eating and drinking at about 4 o'clock, went and sat in the sauna for an hour and had hot baths trying to sweat out as much water weight as I could. I woke up on the Saturday morning and had another hot bath to try and sweat out a bit more before I was brave enough to test it on the scales. I was dead on on my scales at home, I was 82kgs, and they gave allowances up to 82.5. I got there and ran straight into the changing rooms to check what the scales in the changing room said, they said I was 81.6 so I thought oh great I can relax a little bit now. I literally walked out of that changing room, went into the one next door where the official scales were, got on them and it said 84.4 so yeah it had me 3 kilos difference to the scales next door and something different from the scales at home. I was like s*** what am I supposed to do now, so I went out and got on the bike and I was peddling for about 20 minutes to half an hour but I was dehydrated, I hadn't eaten, I felt absolutely awful, I thought there's no way I'm going to be able to compete today, I felt like I was going to faint. So the competition was at 11, my initial weigh in was at 9, so this was between 9 and 10 so I didn't have a lot of time to recover. My coach from my gym was meant to be coming down and he was on his way so I rang him and I said this is what's going on right now, at what point do I give up on this and just say I’ll give the opens a go and how much do I keep pushing it. He said to me if you're not there by 10 o ‘clock you just need to go with the opens and just refuel and do what you can. So at 9:50 I got back on the scales and it still said 83.5 so I still had a kilo to go but I had nothing left to give, I was gone. So I just said yeah I’ll give the opens a go instead. I mean, the weights in the under 82’s were a pretty big challenge for me anyway so to go with the opens was just going to be a case of walking up and not lifting anything all day which is pretty much how it worked out. The log was 62 kilos and I've never done more than 50 before so that was a zero rep, the deadlift was 150 and I’d never done more than 130 before, that I was happy with though because I didn't think that was going to even leave the floor and I actually got it over my knees. I think I got one of the kegs up in the keg loading but it was weird because any other kind of situation I would have been absolutely devastated with that. To turn up and zero rep absolutely everything I thought would have been a negative experience but actually I came away feeling really good after that and considering the condition I was in on the morning as well - I wasn't in a fit state to lift anything. I was really happy with it by the end of the day, I was glad I gave it a go because initially I didn't think there was any point in sticking around for it, I was ready to turn around and go home.
What was the reaction like from the other competitors at the competition?
Everybody was absolutely amazing, there were only 3 other competitors in the opens so people were saying to me just turn up and give it a go and you’ve qualified for August (England’s Strongest Woman) and I said ‘I don't really feel like I deserve to qualify for August just by turning up and giving it a go’. Lisa Yeats and the other two in the opens, Melissa Coates and Sophie Ollin, were really really supportive. I think there was a moment where the yoke was 200 kilos, it was head to head and I was up against Lisa Yeats. She lifted it, ran to the other end and got back to the start line and I was still standing there trying to get it off the floor. She was absolutely awesome, she stood there shouting at me for the rest of the minute encouraging me to get it off the ground. By the end of the minute I’d lifted it up so I was happy with that but by that point the emotion had just got to me and I just burst into tears. Lisa was amazing, she gave me a big hug and told me not to get disheartened and how amazing it was to have stepped up and given it a go.
What are you training for now?
Because the top 5 qualified and there were only 4 of us we all qualified for England's Strongest Woman in August. I qualified as an open so will be competing as an open, so that's going to be a huge challenge. I’ve targeted a couple of events that I think I've got a realistic chance of getting to the weights for and if I can do that then I'll be happy.
Has how you stepped up in qualifiers affected your training and has it done anything for your confidence?
Yeah, I think it's made me realise what I'm capable of if I'm forced to give it a go. I never ever thought I would be anywhere close to getting a 150 kilo deadlift off the ground so I just never would have pushed the numbers that high in training. So knowing firstly that if I really push myself I can lift a bit more than I think I can and secondly knowing that I'm going to have to start lifting heavier to reach the weights for August, it's definitely had a huge impact on my training.
So what does your training regime look like at the moment?
At the moment I have been doing a 4 day split, a squat day, a deadlift day and two overhead days because that's generally always been my weakest, but I’m looking to switch that around at the moment because the overhead for England's is huge - they want 85 kilos overhead. I think I've got a better chance of targeting the deadlift which is a max deadlift and is opening at 160, so if I can get the opening 160 I'll be happy. I think I’m going to switch my training regime up to have two deadlift days and target that and acknowledge the fact that the overhead is going to be a little too far out of my reach. So I think I'm better off targeting the deadlift, the farmers walk and the duck walk.
How's your Farmers Walk training going then?
Farmers is ok I think that by August I should be able to move them a bit, but I don't know if I'll be able to move them far enough or quick enough to then get onto the duck walk on the way back because it's farmers into duck. I’m targeting that and the deadlift as the two that I can move, because I think if I got the 150 over my knees at the end of March then by August I should be able to hit the opener of 160.
Are you working at the moment with a trainer?
Yeah, there's not really any strongman or strongwoman specific stuff going on in Loughborough, it's big on all the Olympic sports I guess but it's not really strongman based, so Grindhouse is my closest place which is in Burton. I've been working with Tim there for about a year now. It's frustrating because although I live in Loughborough I'm always back in London for work and stuff so I'm moving around a lot, so the amount of times I get to go and see him for training are quite few and far between. I am working with him and he helps me with all my programming stuff but I don't get to work with a trainer as often as I'd like so a lot of it is just training in different places, whether it's the gym in Loughborough or coming home and finding gyms local to home in London that I can go to or I’ve got some stuff in my garage so I train out there sometimes.
So you don't have a training partner or anything like that you just train on your own?
Yeah most of the time I just train on my own but I try and meet up with other people at different gyms when I can and the group of women at Grindhouse as well but there's no where really on my doorstep to train with other people regularly. During the week definitely it’s always just training on my own, just getting the sessions in and then whenever I can meet up with other people and whenever I can go to a strongman gym that's got all the equipment, then I'll do that as much as I can.
If you could train with one person alive or dead who would it be and why?
I'd love to train up with Jenny Todd, she came and did a seminar at Grindhouse last year and she was just absolutely awesome. Obviously I was targeting the under 82’s and she is the World Champion in the under 82’s so I've looked up to her for quite a while as I want to be like that. She coaches Donna Moore as well doesn't she, so to be able to train with her on a regular basis would be ideal. Maybe I should just move up to the northeast and go and train there [laughs]. She's absolutely incredible, both her and Donna are absolutely insane.
What is your ultimate goal within Strongwoman?
Up until recently my goal had always been to one day qualify for England's Strongest Woman and that happened a lot quicker than I thought it would. I just thought I'll go to the qualifiers, it will be a challenge, and I'll be happy just to lift the weights. I didn't expect to qualify in the under 82’s at all, so to be given this opportunity and to get through to England’s is amazing. So at the moment I'm just thinking about August. I'm thinking about making sure I go there and give it the best shot that I can because who knows if I'll ever qualify for it again. I’m going to take the opportunity to get the most from the experience that I can and see what happens and then refocus for the qualifiers next year I guess. So each year I just want to see how far I can push myself, I'm just interested to see how far I can get if I just dedicate time and energy into it because in 2014/2015 I did the odd competition here and there but it wasn't really a huge focus for me, I was still doing other things. I did a half marathon, climbed Kilimanjaro and was playing a lot of cricket. My training wasn't all focused on Strongwoman as such so I think the last year has been the year I have properly devoted a lot of time to it. Just take it year by year, competition by competition, I’m just interested to see how far I can push myself if I dedicate the time to it.
You seem to be moving up pretty quickly, I suppose you never expected it?
I never ever expected to qualify, I was fortunate there weren't many people in the Opens. There's still part of my brain that's saying ‘you don't deserve to be there you only qualified because there was no one else there’ and the other half of me is like ‘just take the opportunity to get the experience, just train as hard as you can for it and see what happens’. Donna Moore qualified in the Northern Qualifiers so I’ll be up against her. There's not very many opportunities you're going to get to compete against the World's Strongest Woman. From what I can tell she made a bit of a last minute decision to do the qualifiers so I think in the Northern category they had a bit of a shock being up against her. There's not many times you’re going to get the opportunity to compete with someone like that so watch, admire and let her do her thing and you do your thing and see what happens. I think in competitions you can really learn a lot from other people, whether it’s the people that compete at the same level as you or the people who compete at World’s Strongest Woman, I think you can learn from everybody.
You're currently doing your PhD what's it about?
My PhD is in Sports Sociology and it's looking at Strongwoman. Initially it was looking at women in strength and muscular based sports but it's gone quite specifically into Strongwoman now, so it's generally about people's perceptions of women in strength sports, attitudes towards female strength and power and breaking what would traditionally be seen as gender norms, and the attitudes and experiences surrounding that. My PhD is three years and I'm just over a year in, the first year was all about background reading, working out exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to do it, and now it's on to starting to collect data. It's quite interesting, initially I was going to do an ethnography which is where you embed yourself in a particular community or culture for a while, but now my focus is on Strongwoman, it’s kind of become an ethnography and an auto-ethnography, it's going to be a mix of my experiences in the sport along with other peoples and what the culture of the sport is like generally, so it's going to be a combination of my experiences and other peoples and talking to other Strongwoman competitors.
What would be the number one piece of advice you would give someone either just starting out or a more seasoned athlete?
For me it's always been a case of I do it because I enjoy it. I know there's times when I start to put pressure on myself because I've missed a session one week or everything hasn't been as perfect as it could have been whether it's training or nutrition, but from talking to other people I think we all kind of get into this because we enjoy it and that's why we do it. I always try and remember I do this because I enjoy it and if one week or one day doesn't go as well as it could have done then not to beat myself up about it. If you get to the point where you're not enjoying training then something has been lost somewhere. So just try and remember you do it because you enjoy it and if you’re starting not to enjoy it then something needs to change, you need to go back to basics and go back to what you enjoy. With competition I come across a lot of people now who are just starting out that seem to be really nervous about taking that first step into competition and I guess it is quite a big thing but all I'd say is that I can 99% guarantee that you'll enjoy it because everyone is so so supportive. I don't think I've ever been to a competition where people haven't been supportive, more than you would expect. It’s not something I’ve really seen in any other sport where the people that you're up against are so supportive. You could have someone next to you cheering you on to complete a rep even if they know that if you get that rep you’re going to go above them in the standings. But still they’re standing there cheering you on, it's just such a supportive atmosphere I've never really come across it in any other sports. I've dabbled in a lot of different sports over the years and it's something I've never really encountered anywhere else, it's lovely.