The 27th annual Alaska State Bodybuilding, Fitness and Figure Championships in Anchorage on March 27 showed how much bodybuilding is building on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Josh Braud, 29, of Soldotna became the first bodybuilder from the Kenai Peninsula to win Mr. Alaska. The Fitness Place, with seven team members including Braud, beat out the big Anchorage gyms to claim the team title.
Also from The Fitness Place, Soldotna's Lissa Cristiano was second in Women's Figure 5-foot-4 and Over, Soldotna's Sarge Truesdell was second in Novice Men, Soldotna's Nick Christensen was fourth in Novice Men, Soldotna's Justin Gray was fifth in Novice Men, Soldotna's Darin Hagen was second in Light Weight Men 176 Pounds and Under, and Soldotna's Scott Griebel was fourth in Heavy Weight Men 176 Pounds and Over.
Brittany McCrum, another competitor from Soldotna, took first in the Women's Figure 5-4 and Under. McCrum, 24, was the only competitor in the competition representing the Peninsula Athletic Club.
"It was a big weekend for Soldotna," said Bernie Pendergast, a bodybuilding judge and a longtime enthusiast in the area. "People who don't follow bodybuilding wouldn't understand just how big it is."
Pendergast said there are three major competitions in Alaska each year. The Alaska state championships have traditionally been the big event.
Pendergast said one event is starting to rival the Alaska state championships, though. The Kenai Peninsula Natural Bodybuilding, Fitness and Figure Championships will be held May 8 at Soldotna High School. The event is just in its second year.
"Last year, it attracted better than either of the shows in Anchorage," Pendergast said.
Reaching the top
The competitors from The Fitness Place were a mixture of veterans and newcomers to the sport. Gray, Christensen, Truesdell and Cristiano all did their first show in Anchorage.
Braud has been in bodybuilding for 4 1/2 years, while Hagen's first competition was last March and Griebel started doing competitions four years ago.
Kenai Peninsula athletes had been knocking on the door of picking up a first Mr. Alaska for sometime. The third major show of the year crowns a Mr. Anchorage. Central peninsula residents have won that title three of the past four years, with Geoff Bonin winning in 2006, Braud winning in 2008 and Hagen winning in 2009.
Braud, who graduated from Kenai Central High School in 1999, decided after last year's Kenai Peninsula competition to make attaining Mr. Alaska his goal.
"One year ago at the competition in Kenai, I didn't train very hard," Braud said. "I did 12 weeks of dieting going in, and came in in OK shape.
"I told myself that for Mr. Alaska I was going to do at least 23 weeks of dieting with my eye on the prize. I wanted the win, and I got exactly what I trained for."
In natural bodybuilding, competitors say dieting is as important as the actual training. Most will also say dieting is harder than the training.
"The hardest part is sticking with your diet," Christensen said. "There's food all around you. Working out is pretty easy compared to the eating part."
Griebel said this isn't the bodybuilding of Arnold Schwarzenegger, where massiveness earns plaudits.
"Those guys were massive, but by today's standards their muscles were smooth," Griebel said. "Today, they want every fiber showing. A smaller guy can beat a guy 50 pounds heavier than him.
"Some people get disillusioned because they're not the most muscular, but it's the guy who diets the best."
For that reason, Braud, a full-time student, did not have to lock himself in the gym to get Mr. Alaska. He said he spent less than two hours per day in the gym.
"I've spent a lot of time doing different diets and finding out what works best for me," he said. "When I'm in the gym, I'm on a strict schedule, but I don't train as much as one may think."
Starting in 2006, Braud said he began to learn everything about natural bodybuilding that he could. That research culminated in the strict routine that won him Mr. Alaska.
"Dieting is definitely the most important, just dieting strict, and you have to know what you're doing," he said. "I'd eat every 2 1/2 hours and get the proper ratio of protein, carbs and fat. I eat different carbs different times of the day.
"It's important to monitor what you are doing week by week in order to hold muscles while losing body fat."
At the competition, Braud said The Fitness Place competitors got a big assist in getting ready for the show from Candice Braud and Angie Brennan.
Braud earned his pro card in 2008 by winning Mr. Anchorage, but said he held off on competing as a pro until he won Mr. Alaska.
Braud, who helped train Skyview graduate and Anchorage resident Ian Leach to his victory in the Novice Men, said he will be a guest poser at the upcoming local show.
Growing the sport
Hagen and Griebel came up short of winning Mr. Alaska titles, but had a lot to do with the team victory of The Fitness Place. Not only did they earn points by competing, but they also helped recruit members of the team.
Griebel, a 41-year-old who graduated from Kenai Central, got Truesdell into bodybuilding by taking him on as a workout partner. Hagen, who is 36 and graduated from Soldotna High School, got Cristiano into bodybuilding.
Hagen is a personal trainer who works out of The Fitness Place.
"It started with wanting to be healthier and wanting to get stronger," Hagen said of his year-old bodybuilding career. "After that, I just decided to take it to the next level."
Hagen said Bonin's 2006 victory in Mr. Anchorage was a starting point for the area. That drew Braud into the sport, and Hagen said watching Braud win Mr. Anchorage inspired him to the title in 2009.
"It sure does help watching somebody else go through it," Hagen said. "If anyone has a question, they can come and ask. Any of the young guys have gotten information from Josh, myself and Scott Griebel."
Hagen got Cristiano, a 26-year-old graduate of Soldotna High School, hooked on bodybuilding when she came to him for help in healing a knee that got sore when she was running.
"He asked me if I ever thought about doing something like that, and it had never crossed my mind," Cristiano said. "When I decided I was going to do it, Darin trained me the whole time."
Truesdell and Griebel are friends, and Truesdell knew Griebel needed a workout partner. In February 2009, Truesdell offered to be that partner.
"I hadn't thought about getting on-stage, but I trained really hard for eight months, and came along really well, mostly due to the guidance of Scott," Truesdell said. "When someone said, 'Man, you should jump in a show,' at first, I thought, 'No way.'"
Griebel said he stays involved with the sport because it gives him a goal and it gives him a constant chance for improvement.
"The way I look at it, it's me versus me most of the time," he said. "There's that little bit of competition right at the end, it's me that has to get to the gym. It keeps me motivated and working hard."
Both Truesdell and Griebel agreed that a big part of their success is the support of their families. Both said they could not hold down a job, hit the gym frequently and diet efficiently without the support of their families.
First time is a charm
Truesdell, Cristiano, Gray and Christensen all said they are hooked on bodybuilding after their first show and plan on competing in the upcoming local show and beyond.
"I think it's infectious because you get in the gym and people are talking about it and practicing their posing," Truesdell said. "People like Bernie, Josh Braud and Darin Hagen promote it and have looked great doing it for years.
"And last year, the (Peninsula Athletic Club) won the team title at the (Kenai Peninsula) show. It gets a lot of people involved."
Truesdell, Gray and Christensen are all employed at Soldotna Middle School. Besides stuffing the teacher-lounge refrigerator with hard-boiled eggs, the trio hopes they are stamping their effect on the school by promoting healthy lifestyles.
"All three of us are teachers and we all coach at the high school," Truesdell said. "We hope to pass healthy living stuff on to the kids."
Gray, 23, moved to the area less than a year ago from Chicago. He was always a fitness nut, but when he met up with Christensen, a 2001 graduate of Soldotna High School, he took it up a notch.
"Initially, we started working out earlier in the year just to work out," Gray said. "We both talked ourselves into doing a competition as a motivation to get into better shape."
Christensen said there are a lot of things about bodybuilding that remind him of high school sports. There's working together with others to reach a goal, and competing at the big event.
"It's kind of like a little high," he said of the competitions. "You work so hard just for that one night. It's fun. It's a blast."
While Truesdell, Gray and Christensen were working out twice a day, Cristiano said she worked out from 45 minutes to an hour and a half each day.
"I was doing a figure competition, and that's a little different than bodybuilding," she said. "It's more about being lean and not quite as big."
She said she likes that the competitions are during the winter.
"For me, it worked really great as a fitness goal in the winter," she said. "A lot of people don't get outside as much in the winter, but this is a fitness goal to keep them going through the winter months."
McCrum said she was inspired to do bodybuilding when she went to the local show last March. She said she wanted to start training for this year's local show the following Monday, but she had to wait two weeks so her trainer could figure out the appropriate program.
"It gives me a goal, and for me it's really important to have something that I can focus on," she said.
She her training takes the cooperation of family, a trainer, a dietician and a nice employer.
The area competitors are looking forward to keeping the momentum going at May's local competition.
"People in our community are pretty cool about supporting things like this," Cristiano said. "Even in Anchorage, there was a big crowd from the Kenai-Soldotna area that came up to support the thing."
Griebel said he is not as concerned with winning Mr. Kenai Peninsula as he is with giving the crowd a good show.
He said he is proud that the Kenai Peninsula is fast gaining a reputation as a fit community amongst bodybuilders.
"One guy at our last contest asked me, 'Does everyone in Kenai belong to a gym?'" Griebel said.
Part of the show could be a healthy rivalry between the Peninsula Athletic Club and The Fitness Place. While The Fitness Place flexed its strength at the recent Anchorage show, McCrum said about five people from the Peninsula Athletic Club will be competing in the local show and looking for a second team title.
"It'd be nice to win a second one," she said.
Hagen said he hopes the show helps the community become more healthy.
"I know there's been a lot of new interest due to watching other people live a healthy lifestyle," he said. "Hopefully, it will inspire other people into getting fit."
Finally, even with as much fun as this bodybuilding season has been, there's a final reason the competitors are looking forward to the show.
"I'm counting down the days to the show, and counting down the days until I can eat some good food," Gray said.
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