The crowd begins filing in about 5:30pm, resembling the genetic cream-of-the-crop of what you might find at an uptown bar -- unnaturally tan, tight t-shirts, lots of hair gel, long nails and monumental pumps.
At about 6pm Roger Morrison, the event's promoter, calls the 85 competitors gathered backstage to attention and runs down the instructions, including when and where to proceed on and off stage. As they ready themselves for showtime, many strip down to tiny swimsuits and head for the "pump-up" room -- a makeshift backstage gym where they get in a few last-minute reps to gorge their muscles with blood. From there it's over to the designated oiling and tanning area, where they're turned into shiny brown mannequins. There is much preening and posing going on in front of the double full-length mirrors as the contestants run through their routines and make sure all the right parts are strategically covered and/or exposed.
Wandering around this surreal scene -- feeling every bit the proverbial 98-pound weakling -- I'm struck by the cartoonish nature of it all. Nearly everyone present is a walking exaggeration of our culture's sexual and physical characteristics. But that's just what people have paid their $20 to see.
The Mountaineer Championships competition is a national qualifier, meaning that the top two finalists in each weight class will automatically qualify for a national competition, where first place winners are awarded their pro card. Turning pro means bigger and better sponsors, national recognition, and the chance -- albeit a small one -- to earn a living as a professional bodybuilder. It's a goal that's attainable only to the most genetically gifted, and even then it takes tremendous dedication and commitment, as well as -- according to many of those in the sport's upper ranks -- a boost from steroids and other supplements.
"The sport of bodybuilding has gotten far more competitive and demanding," said Morrison, who was a competitive bodybuilder himself for over 10 years, and won Mr. NC in '94. He now owns a World Gym in Concord, and runs Morrison Productions, which sponsors bodybuilding events like the Mountaineer all across the region. "Like any sport, there are sacrifices and dangers involved. It's a good sport for someone who is single, doesn't have kids or another demanding job."
Indeed, many of the competitors here tonight already base their entire schedules around the hours they spend training in the gym and working on their routine. While friends and family members are happily munching on pizza and beer, they stick to an extremely regimented and bland diet observed more for its protein, calorie and carbohydrate percentages than taste and variety. It's a lifestyle defined by intensity and sacrifice, and not many people could maintain it -- nor would they want to.
Walking the Walk
Tony Harris is in the gym most mornings by 6am. As opposed to the casual fitness enthusiast who might spend about an hour working out his or her entire body, Tony will spend at least an hour, sometimes two, working one body part. That's followed by about an hour on the treadmill or stationary bicycle. He usually eats six small meals a day, and his diet is as simple as it is bland -- oatmeal, applesauce, chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, rice cakes and water. Of course, no sugar or butter. Weighing in at a deceptive 150 pounds, Tony is no hulking monster, but all that training and dieting has paid off, as every muscle in his body is pumped and superbly well-defined.
The month of September was crunch-time for Tony and he stepped up his already demanding training regiment in preparation for two bodybuilding competitions -- one in Virginia, and the Mountaineer at ASU. The strenuous pace has taken its toll.
"I might fall asleep around midnight, but I'll be up by 3am because my mind is always running," he said. "I'm constantly thinking about my routine, my music, my training, and making time for my kids and girlfriend. It's very hectic. I don't have any time for myself."