He swigs a vile-smelling brown serum, liquid glucosamine chondroitin for large farm animals (ingredients include shark cartilage and cat's claw powder), and he swallows 30 liver pills plus 23 others: amino acids, calcium, multivitamins, selenium, vitamin C, chromium picolinate, vitamin E, antioxidants, acidophilus to aid digestion, Naproxen because he dropped a rock on his knee and three capsules of androstene. He inhales 10 squirts of anabolic activator, slips a Human Growth Complex pellet under his tongue, drinks flax oil straight from the bottle, takes a Cyanotic Vaga extract, lecithin and a dropper full of Yohimbe root syrup, which is said to increase sexual prowess, "though that's not why I take it."
Jesse wants to be the World's Strongest Man. At 23, he's already a top contender in the made-for-television competition where monster-size guys lift monster trucks, drag anvils and upend 660-pound faux logs called "Fingal's Fingers." You may have surfed across the replays on late-night cable sports channels. Television didn't merely popularize this sport. It created it two years before Jesse was born.
He weighed 8 pounds then. Now he is 300 pounds (a lean 14.5 percent body fat), 6 feet 5 inches tall, and sports 19-inch biceps, unpumped. A 6-foot tape measure is too short to circumnavigate his chest and arms. Tethered in a rope harness, he can pull a 24,000-pound school bus across the parking lot of Sequim High; squat-lift an 1,100-pound platform topped by squealing mini-skirted "Bud Girls"; hoist a 385-pound stone sphere onto a chest-high platform.
To get a better grip on the gigantic stones, Strongmen slather a sticky sap called Tacky on their bodies. Jesse shaves his arms (he buys 60-packs of pink Bic razors) so the Tacky won't rip out his body hair. "I'm a pansy, and it hurts!"
He's joking, of course, because Strongmen have an intimate relationship with physical pain. Pain and gain. Pain and power. Pain and focus. In competition, "Even when the pain is intense, when the whistle blows, everything goes away," Jesse says. "There's not a worry in the world. At that moment, it's just me and a rock and nothing else exists and I gotta lift that stone and it's the only thing that matters."
Between lifts, that's where life gets complicated, especially in an era when the definition of what's strong and what's manly gets tangled up with divorce, steroids and multiple pressures to become a muscle-sculpted athlete, a sensitive dad, a software millionaire before 30 or at least hold a job with health insurance.
"My image of what a real man is has changed a lot," says Jesse, who divorced in 2001 and has joint custody of his 4-year-old son. "The most important thing is how you treat people and how you interact with your family. A real man is tender. The Bible says, better a patient man than a warrior. Before, I don't know what I thought. I was a kid. It wasn't important to me. I think the most important thing for a man is staying power, being able to stay in one spot and face adversity. Taking care of your people and being a positive part of their life."
At the moment, Mighty Marunde is taking care of his little boy, Dawson, and the two are locked in a power struggle. Over breakfast.
"We talked about this before," Jesse warns, knitting his brow in a reverse-psychology scowl. "If you eat any more, you might grow muscle and get BIGGER! And I want you to stay small and cute, just like you are!"
Dawson flexes his small biceps. He grins and digs into his oatmeal. He tells his dad, "I want some milk."
GROWING UP in Alaska, Spokane and Las Vegas, Jesse's male role models worked hard. His grandpa and uncles were commercial fishermen, trappers, pilots, farmers, grocers. His father labored on the Alaska pipeline and fought forest fires before practicing law.
When it came to work, it was "manual, strenuous, stressful, and they always smiled," Jesse says. "I've always worked at manual jobs. I respect the ability to do work with your own hands. Strongman is primeval. I like that. Something that takes you back hundreds of years to do things that were commonplace. Back in those days, if you had a stone in the middle of your field and you needed it moved, you moved it."
Early on, Jesse was determined. When he was 2, his mother Gigi recalls, he wanted cookies but she had none, so when she wasn't looking, he left the house, crossed the main drag, marched into a neighbor's house half a block away, climbed up on the counter and helped himself to Oreos. "Whatever he wanted, he figured out how to get it," his mother says. "He always had big plans. He was going to win the Olympics. Be a decathlete. He wanted the fastest car in Sequim, a Dodge Super Bee, even though the speed limit everywhere is 25. Back then, I didn't understand his vision. Now I see he's a pioneering person. . . He's a lot like my dad."
At 9, Jesse spent all summer in Alaska on Grandpa George Farren's commercial-fishing boat, sorting sockeye salmon at 10 cents a fish, pulling gill nets a quarter-mile long. "That's when his hands started developing," his grandfather says. "First day after work, you can't even open up your fingers."
At 12, after the family moved to Las Vegas, Jesse watched a video of Mike Tyson training. It inspired him to do push-ups and sit-ups daily. He bought weights at a garage sale and began lifting. He was a tall, skinny seventh-grader in a school troubled by gangs. "I used to get picked on all the time. It was a classic case of retaliation: I'm going to get big and strong and show all of you."
By the time his family moved to Sequim when he was in eighth grade, Jesse was serious about getting strong. He started a rigorous training schedule and log that he maintains to this day and claims he hasn't missed a workout in eight years. As a teenager, he showed up at a local gym and caught the eye of J.V. Askem, a champion Olympic lifter and coach, who became his mentor.
"I've coached a lot of guys in Sequim who showed promise, but Jesse is the one who sticks with it," Askem said before he died this spring. "A friend of his could snatch (lift) his body weight earlier than Jesse, but he was interested in being a millionaire and quit." As it turns out, the friend did become a computer titan.
"Yeah, but I'm stronger," Jesse says. He dreams of making it big, but not in computers. He imagines professional wrestling (for which he has both the charisma and physique) or pro football or acting or teaching children or launching a business or doing a "Got Milk?" commercial in which he carries a cow on his back. For now, he's thrilled when strength-supplement companies comp him products, airfare and a few hundred bucks or when an orthopedist agrees to treat his blown-out knees for free. Last year, he earned about $8,000 in prize money and endorsements from Strongman contests, supplementing his income by chopping wood, valet-parking cars, moving couches and refrigerators, and doing other odd jobs.
Yet some medical researchers say the hulking men of today are far bigger than their historic counterparts because of steroids, a claim many strength athletes dispute.
In "The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat, and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys," physicians and researchers from Harvard and Brown medical schools write, "The most muscular Greek and Roman statues, the most masculine heroes portrayed in centuries of art around the world, none approached the proportions of a modern competition body builder. Titian's Adonis couldn't even win a two-bit body-building contest today. There's a good reason for this: Prior to the steroid era, no artist had ever seen a man with the muscle size and definition of a modern steroid user."
The Germans are believed to have discovered chemical analogs of testosterone in the 1930s, and by the 1950s, doping for musculature had caught on with Russian athletes, according to the researchers. By the 1970s, steroid use was not uncommon among professional athletes, and by the '80s, it hit Hollywood.
No wonder a 1997 survey found 45 percent of American men were dissatisfied with their muscle tone almost double the percentage of the same survey in 1972. The dissatisfaction has created what the researchers call the "Adonis Complex," a male version of anorexia nervosa in which guys compulsively exercise, diet and take anabolic steroids that can potentially damage their hearts and cause dangerous levels of aggression "all because they think they don't look good enough."
In surveys of thousands of high-school boys in 1988 and '93, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, respectively, more than 6.5 percent said they were using or had used anabolic steroids.
For high-school boys, Jesse explains, claiming to use steroids is macho. Lots say they do, just as they exaggerate their exploits with girls, but really, they're taking vitamin supplements costumed in he-man packaging.
"Girls have an intense amount of pressure to be thin, and boys, I think, to be muscular," Jesse says. "When I think about Dawson and the cultural influence on him to be muscular, I don't think it's unfair. It's reality. Being muscular and looking good, I equate with success. Throughout history, that's just the way it's always been . . . You turn on any cartoon and the macho man who got the girl is big. I collected GI Joe. I watched He-Man, and those were your childhood icons. I don't know how much of that affected me, but it's certainly out there . . . People know me because of my physical prowess, not because I'm a nice guy."
The Strongman adamantly claims he's never used steroids, that he's sick of strength athletes being steroid stereotyped, and the mere question sullies his sport. Jesse has a sweet smile, wide-open face and earnest demeanor when he declares, "The few athletes I've known who have admitted using they were definitely sub-par, and maybe that's why they were doing it in the first place. There is no substitute for hard work and a good diet. The best athletes I've known are lifetime drug free. You can't just pop a pill and become an athlete."
Gallatin County Court records say he used the Internet and a Western Union money order to purchase 100 pink pentagonal tablets of Methandrostenolone, another anabolic steroid, from Thailand and had them sent to the address of a friend who planned to buy them from him. U.S. Customs, postal and drug-enforcement officials tracked the package, searched the friend's apartment, and found a shoe box with anabolic steroids Jesse said belonged to him.
Jesse's version: The steroids weren't his; he was just helping friends buy the stuff. He told detectives the drugs were for personal use so he'd be charged with a misdemeanor rather than be prosecuted for selling. He figured the lesser charge would get him back on the football field sooner. Jesse says the NCAA routinely tested for steroids and he was always clean. (The NCAA does not release test results to the public.) Eventually, Jesse left the team and Montana State after what he calls "personal issues" with coaches, and returned to Sequim with his then wife and baby son.
Soon, his marriage fell apart. Katie Engh describes her former husband as "angry and aggressive" as well as "very, very, very smart," charismatic and a good dad. "He's always had this obsession about being big and strong and didn't let anything get him away from that. Having a wife took second place," she says. "A lot of times, Dawson and I weren't important. Most important was being huge . . . He put on 100 pounds from the time we met until the time we got out of school. People can draw their own conclusions as to how that happens."
Clallam County Court records show his ex-wife petitioned for a protection order, describing shoves, kicks and an incident in which he pushed her against a wall and covered her mouth and nose so she couldn't breathe.
Jesse says he never physically hurt her, but some assumed he did because of his size. "There was zero evidence, her word against mine, and the judge looked at her and looked at me, and said, 'Guilty.'
"When you're fighting with someone you love, I think you feel guilty. Our marriage was failing. I was insensitive and failing as a husband because I was angry with her a lot. At that time, I wasn't anywhere near the ability I have now to be calm and reasonable. I was young."
His training log from that period, a spiral notebook titled "JESSE aka the Machine," shows him working through a cold, lonely winter in an unheated barn gym, moving 50 couches a day at work, sore wrists, log curl 50 x 3 x 10; farmer's walk 305 x 2 x 100 ft, free feed at casino, weight gain coming, still recovering from weekend, poor choices . . . I'm sleepy, angry and don't even want to lift.
He did, anyway. He rented a room in his mother's house, and she remembers only one morning when he seemed too depressed to get out of bed to train. "I shook him and said, 'C'mon, get up. You gotta get huge. This is who you are. Go for it."
Jesse Marunde comes from a big family. His father, Chuck, is a modest 5 feet 9, 180 pounds compared to his mother's father, who stands 6 feet 1 and weighs 270 pounds, and his 64-year-old grandmother, Pat, who is 6-1 and can dead-lift 135 pounds five times in a row. Grandma would surely win contests if she cared to compete, Jesse boasts.
Meanwhile, Jesse's own training began to pay off. He dead-lifted 730 pounds (stood up, lifting barbell from ground); squat-lifted (Olympic style) 420 pounds, 20 times; clean-and-jerked 440 pounds (lifted barbell from ground to over head).
In 2001, he placed first in the Washington Strongman Championships, and in 2002 tied for third in the Northeast and Ohio Valley Strongman challenges, second in the Midwest and first in the Strongest Man in the West contest. A fifth-place showing at U.S. Nationals sent him, all-expenses paid, to Malaysia last summer to compete at Worlds.
ON SWELTERING Petronas Plaza in Kuala Lumpur, the World's Strongest Men were a spectacle sweaty, hairy brutes dragging iron anvils across concrete while slender Malaysians looked on, shading themselves with black umbrellas.
Jesse, the youngest of the manly men, made a respectable showing, though he didn't place in the top 10. He vows to return and do better. This February, at regionals in Boston, he set a personal best, hoisting a 385-pound stone in the signature event, but he blew out his knees and placed low overall. In April, at the southern regionals, he separated his left shoulder. Also, his beloved mentor, coach Askem, died of brain cancer. So life goes. Wins. Losses. Injuries.
Always, there's the workout. And Dawson.
"The gym is my sanctuary," Jesse says, chugging a pink high-carb drink while rubbing green biofreeze gel on his knees. Metallica and Slayer pour out of speakers in the unfinished shed, which he heats in winter with a woodstove. "I've cried in here, I've laughed in here. You'll see, when I'm broken down and wrecked and 90 years old, I'm still going to be in the gym."
And he'll still be Dawson's dad.
Jesse calls the gym his son's Iron Playground. The tyke climbs the monster truck tires, flips radials, slides down incline boards, lifts mini-barbells Jesse made for him from bicycle tires and bars. (Dawson started dead-lifting his own weight when he was 35 pounds, Jesse brags.) The pre-schooler is a remarkably strong, coordinated and cheerful little boy, able to play and tumble all day without a nap or meltdown.
Much of this has to do with Jesse, who knows exactly when to cuddle, when to ignore whining, when to discover a "potato" in Dawson's ear, when to hold Dawson upside-down by the ankles. The kid rides his dad's shoulders when Jesse does reverse sit-ups on an incline board. Jesse has arranged his life, and his work schedule, so he can play with Dawson almost all the time they're together.
"It's important to me, because I was a teenage dad, that I live a lifestyle that he could be with me and I could be devoted to him. I just observed that most of the dads in my peer group sucked. They weren't around for the kids, they didn't care for their kids. It takes a dad to teach a boy how to be a man. Being macho may impress the media, but it doesn't impress my son. He's impressed when I hold him when he's crying, when I tell him I love him. Being a man isn't about your physical stature. Y'know, you can be disabled and possess no physical prowess and still be a man and just as competent at fathering. If I gain the 20 pounds that I want to, or I don't, I'm still the same man, the same father."
Dawson lobs an eight-pound medicine ball. He climbs a series of plywood platforms that hold the Sisyphean stones, then scrambles up the biggest sphere. The little boy is above his father's head but not out of his dad's long reach before realizing he's stuck. He slips. Small fingers grab at the rough concrete ball. "Da-deeeee!" he wails. He catches himself. Trembles. "I'm scared," he tells his father. "I'm scared to stay up here!"
Jesse holds out his arms. "Are you really ready to come down? Jump!"
"No. I'm scared."
"Go ahead, jump. I'll hold you. You don't have to be scared when your dad's here."
Dawson flings himself into space. Jesse catches his son. The little boy laughs and squirms away. "Daddy! I'm going to climb up there again!"
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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