Sept. 27, 2010 -- Dartmouth medical student Mike Piccioli had a ton of fun last weekend. Actually 23 tons, when he pulled a fire truck singlehandedly across a parking lot.
Piccioli competed at New Hampshire's Strongest Man & Woman contest. He is among a surprising number of brawniacs, hyper-educated enthusiasts who are devoted to strength sports usually associated with steroid freaks. Many hold masters, doctorates or post doctorate degrees, and these magna cum laude contenders make up 43 percent of the 6,000 people registered with Strongman Corporation, the leading group in a somewhat loosely organized sport.
"The stereotype is not fair. It's not just hard core meatheads," said Piccioli, the doctor in training who pulled the 47,700 pound fire engine 75 feet in 29 seconds.
Piccioli and his friend, Seth Carbonneau, a cancer researcher at Harvard University's Dana Farber Cancer Institute, travelled to the event in Lebanon, N.H., intent on hoisting and hauling numbers far higher than their combined SAT scores. Carbonneau, typically found in his laboratory studying endoplasmic reticulum stress, eagerly awaited his chance to deadlift a Jeep Wrangler.
His strength training partner, Gina Melnik, who earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Tufts University, said the physical challenge of lifting outrageously heavy stuff is an intellectual turn-on.
"There are a lot of us out there, athletes who find it mentally stimulating to use the sport to push the envelope," said Melnik, 33, who so far this year has pulled a Monster Truck 2.7 feet and a 500-pound Harley chopper even further.
At least once a week, when Carbonneau takes a break from his microscope and Melnik from conducting highly sensitive federal investigations into safer modes of transportation, they hold a meeting of the minds. The two super geeks get together in Cambridge, Mass. -- Ground Zero for American intellectuals – to strategize, not about statistics or equations but about hoisting a metal bar with beer kegs chained to both ends.
"It's exciting to create new processes and methods and take the research that's out there and try to push it to advance the sport," said Melnik, who describes her researcher husband as her biggest fan. "We're not an academic group, but there's definitely that aspect to it."
Strength sports coach Christian Matyi (B.A., Carnegie Mellon, double major creative writing and cultural theory) says the sport is less about awesome abs and more about expression, and that's the hook for the intelligentsia.
"People need to be expressive. Calm and confident men don't always want to sit down at the piano or write a novel," said Matyi, founder of Physiqademy, which he describes as "an academic approach to fitness and athletics."
Explains Matyi, "Most of our definition of success in America is neck up. The body is disconnected. We're intellectuals and for us it's all about plugging the head back into body, trying to reconnect the body to the brain."
Still, fellow doctors in training are dumbfounded when they learn that Dartmouth Medical School's Piccioli spends his leisure time not golfing or enjoying theater but muscling steel girders and hoisting boulders.
"They have no idea what I'm talking about. All of a sudden their eyes get really wide and they say, 'You mean like those huge guys on ESPN?' And then the jaw drops," said Piccioli, a former Dartmouth varsity rower who broke the Ivy League mold when he embraced strength sports.
Piccioli dove into Strongman with typical academic zeal. "I got into reading a lot of research about the training. I've amassed a pretty large body of knowledge about the subject," Piccioli said.
Brawny Professors Merge Brute Strength and Brain Power
It is precisely that erudite appeal that transforms esteemed Finance Professor Lauren Cohen of Harvard Business School from egghead to muscle man several times each week.
"I'm an empiricist and I like these very measurable things," said Cohen, 31, winner of a prestigious National Science Foundation grant, who has flipped an 800-pound tire end over end for 100 feet and raised a 280-pound steel log over his head for several repetitions.
"Facts are facts. The data doesn't change. That's true whether you're looking at asset financing or squatting pounds," Cohen said.
Cohen pulled the firetruck and picked up the Jeep after a busy week guest lecturing at Columbia University and preparing to testify before Congress this Wednesday about a possible second stimulus bill. His stellar performance in New Hampshire qualified him for the national Strongman championship in Reno in November.
While the thinking man and woman are taking strength sports to new intellectual heights, sometimes too much brainpower can actually dumb down a competitive score.
"I like to strategize before I perform," said Carbonneau, 28, referring to Strongman events like dragging a Hummer or lifting a fire hydrant. "Sometimes I over-analyze it and think about it too much and I fail. Other people just use brute strength and do it without thinking. There might be an advantage to that."