Shouldering his way into the Games with a fourth-place finish at the 2012 Central East Regional, Marcus Hendren stood to the side of the podium.
Some shoved the new competitor into the Ice, Ice Baby category. A one hit wonder, they thought.
Yet, when he was side by side with the multi-year competitors at the CrossFit Games, Hendren showed that he could not only keep up, he could pass them. On the Clean Ladder on Saturday afternoon, Hendren kept standing up with the weight.
Eventually, he reached the mid-300s. Cleaning 355 lbs., he fell behind only two men — Neal Maddox and Jason Khalipa.
The next day, he did even better.
The surprise odd object event, the Double Banger, demanded strength and skill with the neon orange sledgehammer. The fourth generation dairy farmer pounded the bright green block, and knocked out the double-unders on his way to a second-place finish behind Kyle Kasperbauer.
By the end of the weekend, Hendren held seventh in the world and people started to think of him as the real deal.
Then, the 2013 Central East Regional struck.
“I knew it was going to be tough, and it was,” he says. “All I could think was just make it out alive.”
Three events in, Hendren needed a new strategy. Jackie, the Overhead Squat Complex and 30-burpee muscle-ups left him in 11th overall at the close of the first day. At most, there would be five qualifying spots to the CrossFit Games, so he had a ways to climb over the next two days and none of the other men would let him climb easily.
“Trying to throw yourself into that mix when you are going up against the best of the best will never be easy,” he explains.
The next morning, he faced the 100s. With 50 dumbbell snatches to go, Hendren watched Rich Froning walk to the finish mat.
“I was standing there with 50 more reps to pull and thinking, ‘Wow, he is good,’” Hendren says. “But just because he is good doesn’t mean I am going to stop fighting and trying.”
Five minutes and five seconds after the champ, Hendren reached the finish mat for ninth in the event.
“I was not happy with how I performed,” he says.
With that finish, he moved to ninth overall.
A couple hours later, the equipment crews brought out the 30-inch boxes and loaded the barbells to 315 lbs.
Three minutes and 35 seconds into the fifth event, Hendren stepped onto the finish mat — 20 seconds ahead of Froning.
“Did I think I was going to win? No, not at all,” he says.
He won an event that didn’t play to his strengths.
“I knew if I wanted any chance of going back to the Games I had to win,” he says. I told myself ‘You can’t put the barbell down,’ so I didn’t.”
On Sunday morning, he approached Event 6 without fear. Before he left his family’s dairy farm, he used to practice handstand push-ups against his tractor during harvest. He kept pace because he’s strong at overhead movements and stubborn while lunging.
Froning and Dan Bailey went at superhuman speed for first and second, leaving Nick Fory, Graham Holmberg and Hendren in a tight pack a couple minutes later to round out the top five in the event.
Entering the final event, he didn’t need anyone telling him stats or times. He had already done the math.
“I knew I had to win,” he says.
His practice time of 5:32 stood out in his mind as he waited for the 3-2-1 … Go!
Usually, the field is tight on the final event. But after the first round of rope climbs and 225-lb. cleans, Hendren peeled away from the pack.
“I didn’t have that much pressure on me, maybe because it was two movements that I was good at,” he says. “I just felt like if I moved the way I knew I could, I could win.”
Three minutes and 53 seconds after the final event began, Hendren crossed his platform. He beat Games athlete Scott Panchik by four seconds, and the champ by 14 seconds. Hendren also set the event record previously held by Spencer Hendel at 4:11.
“It got really loud in there,” he says with a smile. “It was pretty awesome.”
Programming his training to target his weaknesses is Hendren’s first priority in the weeks leading to the Games.
“I have got to be more conscientious of pushing harder when I feel like I am starting to tire and slow down,” he says.
To accomplish that, he’s swimming more.
“Getting my entire body ready for not having the option of stopping is the goal.”
He’s also sneaking in what he calls “stupid human tricks” after each day of training. Back tucks, triple-unders and ring handstand push-ups are now part of the Hendren routine.
High-rep gymnastic movements, like pull-ups and muscle-ups, have always been a failing of the seasoned strongman in the past. He makes it a point to continue working these issues even though he admits they’ve improved, they’re just not where they could be
“I’d like to say if you’re always ready then you don’t have to get ready,” he says. “Here we are weeks out from the Games ... do what you can to prepare and get better until then.”
However, Hendren isn’t making excuses or focusing on the efforts of others. His gaze is on the podium, beyond the dangerous CrossFit Games food chain above him. He’s controlling his efforts, and no one else’s.
“I need to make people worry about where I am at instead of worrying where other people are at and having to do math in my head if I can make it,” he says. “I do better when I focus on just me and stop looking around to see where everyone else is at.”
It’s that time, days away from the Games, when athletes like Hendren can reflect and even relax. All that’s left is expressing the strength a year has built.
“Seeing which one of us doesn’t stop fighting is what its all about, right?” he says. “That’s the fun part.”