Soldotna resident Darin Hagen became good friends with Josh Braun as he trained for a bodybuilding competition in Anchorage in 2008.
Sitting in the audience as Braun took the stage, Hagen was impressed with what he saw.
"On stage, the guy looked like he was 225 pounds, but because he is a natural athlete, most of that is because he is very lean," Hagen said. "It turns out he was competing at about 165 pounds -- that's an attainable goal for most. It's not a matter of having to be a genetics freak."
In bodybuilding, Hagen found a level of competition and dedication he suddenly wanted to be a part of.
"Watching that and seeing what he was able to achieve, I just thought that would be a great goal for me to put is just to be able to compete and be on the same stage as those guys," he said.
That year, Braun took the title of Mr. Anchorage. But a year later in 2009, after winning the novice category in his first show at the Alaska State Championships, Hagen took the Mr. Anchorage title from Braun.
"You go through a lot of emotions," Hagen said. "At first, it is just nerve-wracking. You're going out there with next to no clothing on and you have at least three or four layers of body color on you."
On Saturday, Hagen will take to the stage for the sixth time since his bodybuilding debut at the 2011 ABFF Natural Bodybuilding Fitness and Figure Championships at at Kenai Central High School. The show will start at 7 p.m.; admission is $25. Pre-judging starts at noon with admission of $10.
Hagen, who grew up on the Peninsula, said it is a mixture of pleasure and pressure to take the stage in front of a hometown audience. But, Hagen has the confidence of a year of preparation behind him as he heads into the competition.
"This will be the least nervous I'll probably be because this will be the most prepared I've ever been," he said.
Hagen, a 37-year-old personal trainer at The Fitness Place in Soldotna, has been somewhat of a fitness enthusiast his whole life. He grew up playing sports and was on football, basketball and track teams throughout high school.
After getting out of high school and hitting the books at Colorado State University, however, Hagen's exercise acumen wasn't where he once kept it.
"I gained my freshman 15, gained my sophomore 15 and I really got out of shape even though I was studying for exercise science," he said.
As a result, Hagen's health took a dive and he wasn't able to do the things he wanted to do, he said.
"I was starting to get sick more and more and I had an illness where they couldn't figure out what was wrong with me," he said. "They thought I had Crohn's disease and some other gastric issues and couldn't really place or pin point anything.
"It wasn't until I started changing my diet and I started to exercise again that I started to feel better."
Now, bodybuilding affords Hagen the opportunity to look at his health and body critically and improve the weaknesses he sees.
"It can get to be an almost obsessive situation when it comes to bodybuilding because you are looking to perfect your body or make improvements to it," he said. "So, you really have to be critical of yourself as well.
"Some people, pure narcissism drives them. Some people, it's a matter of it being a huge challenge because a lot of people can come in and do exercise in the gym, but not everybody in the gym looks like a bodybuilder because you have to coordinate the diet."
But, there are also major pitfalls in the sport of bodybuilding. The biggest, Hagen said, comes from losing the balance of social, family and professional responsibilities.
"You can't just be a bodybuilder," he said. "There isn't enough money in it unless you are Jay Cutler, Ronnie Coleman or Arnold Schwarzenegger."
Hagen also tries to keep a balance on his athletic endeavors, as well. He said he likes to be strong and in-shape for activities outside the gym, including snowboarding and hiking.
Saturday, however, is all about the muscles, he said.
"I took the last year off from competing because I was kind of going up there and showing the same physique," he said. "That only takes you so far. Even for me I just didn't feel like I was giving it as much as I could so I took that last year to focus on some weak points."
Heading into Saturday's competition, Hagen said he feels good about where he is, even among a decidedly fierce field of competition.
"The chips just fall where they do," he said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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