Now that we're less than 5 months away from the Oktoberfest in Central Park and Steuben Day Parade, we wanted to check in with Julie Gilbert, the 2017 Hofbräu National Masskrugstemmen Women's Champion and current US record holder (with an awesome time of 4 minutes, 20 seconds). Julie shared her Steinholding story and what she's been up to since winning the championship. You can also check out video of Julie's win and also her pre-competition interview from the day of the championship.
USSA: How did you first get into Masskrugstemmen/Steinholding?
Julie: It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving at the German Christmas Market in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, it was a last minute decision to go, but we went with some friends and family. We really like going to German Fest in Milwaukee at the end of July. In Milwaukee we have a big festival season at a local fairgrounds with a ton of different festivals, Irish, German, African, etc.. There's also Summer Fest which is a huge music festival right on the lakefront. We're sad at the end of festival season that there's no more German festivals, so the German Market was exciting. We went to the beer tent when we got there and had some beers and then they announced the competition, so my girlfriend told me we have to sign up, so we did and signed our husbands up too. I had never heard of steinholding before, I didn't really know this was a thing. I'm not really that competitive normally, but once we were up there and saw that people started dropping out, I decided I was going to stay in it as long as possible and not give up. When there were only a couple other girls left in the competition, eventually they looked at each other and dropped out which was good because I maybe had about 5 seconds left in me. So I ended up winning and didn't think much of it, but it was fun and I went home and that was that. They had said something about qualifying for the national championship. Then in July I got an email from Old German Beer Hall, the local Hofbrau Haus that organizes the German Christmas Market and it's talking about going to the national championship. I'm reading it thinking it's a joke and I'm like, "so is this really about going on a trip for steinholding?" There are release forms, information about the parade, and hotel information and stuff like that. And I'm thinking I don't think I can go because my husband works weekends and I'd have to figure out what to do with my kids, so it probably isn't going to work, but when I told them all about it my husband and kids were all like "You HAVE TO go! You have to do this!"
USSA: So you found out in July that you were competing in September. Only having a couple of months to prepare must have been tough, but given the fact that you're now a national champion, you obviously had a pretty good training plan. Would you share some of your training tips, exercises and/or techniques?
Julie: Yeah once I realized I was going to be going to be able to go to nationals, I started training pretty hard. We have a friend that's a power lifter and I explained what I needed to do and he helped me put together a training plan in two week blocks that had really specific exercise and nutrition components. Mostly for building muscle. I could definitely see a difference since I've always worked out, but I've never tried to build strength like this. We talked pretty often during the summer and made some adjustments here and there. I was working out 3-4 days a week doing heavy weights, not really any cardio. I've always been pretty strong and I put on muscle quickly, but I've never trained to be strong; I was always doing gymnastics or distance events so this was new.
When I decided to train this way, the biggest key for me was food. I've never eaten like that and probably never will again! I put in more time in the kitchen than in the gym to prepare food to eat before my workout and after my workout, making sure I was getting the timing down to support the workouts. It was time-consuming but I only had 8 weeks to train and getting the nutrition right helped me recover way faster than I normally would have so I could get more workouts in and I was never sore. Then we were going to go on a couple of vacations that we had planned and fortunately they were driving vacations, so I packed some dumbbells and we made that work.
I've always been an athlete and I don't ever want to show up for any competition without training and preparing. So I said to myself, this is my chance to be a national champion of something, I'm going to go for it. Steinholding is a fun activity and it's great to get into the spirit of things and enjoy the moment and the competition, but at the end of the day, the prize is a trip to Germany and that's a pretty big deal too. As I was training, I also looked at ussteinholding.com to get the official rules to make sure I was training with the right guidelines and my trainer looked at it as well to make sure we were doing things correctly.
USSA: I'm glad the website was helpful. We're trying to make sure the information is out there for people who are just curious and want just check out the sport and also for people like you who are really trying to take it seriously and compete at a high level. Different competition venues can implement the rules inconsistently or ignore some of them altogether, but it's important for people who are in training for the national championship to know how they're going to be judged in the end. There's nothing worse than busting your butt in training only to find out you've been doing it wrong.
Julie: Yeah, for people who are serious about it, there needs to be one place that's official and says "this is how it's supposed to be done" and has the final say on the rules.
USSA: Well, watching you compete at the national championship in Central Park, it was pretty clear that you were serious about it. Winning the national title and setting the new US record was probably a big one, but what were some of the other highlights of your trip to the finals in NYC?
Julie: We didn't think my husband would be able to come along initially, so I had asked my dad because he's always supported me and been to every athletic event I've ever been in, ever. He video-taped my entire senior year of gymnastics meets and came to the triathlons I did in college and a marathon I ran a couple years after college. He's been at everything so I thought he'd want to come and he did and my mom agreed to stay with the kids. Then we later realized my husband was able to come too, so all three of us went. This was my first trip to New York, so I really enjoyed the experience.
With all of the excitement of the competition and parade, I think this trip was too good and probably ruined New York for me. We got in early Friday from Milwaukee and went to the 9/11 Memorial. We checked out Times Square. We were out and about all day Friday. We took the Staten Island Ferry and saw the Statue of Liberty. My father is Irish, so we stopped at like three Irish bars and then went to the welcome party at Hofbrau Bierhaus NYC that night. The parade was really fun. Who gets to say that they were in a parade on Fifth Avenue in New York?
USSA: Yeah it's a surreal experience for sure. I remember being on the Hofbrau parade float with the other Masskrugstemmen competitors and looking around and saying, "How did I get here?" Speaking of trips, have you claimed your prize and taken your victory trip to Munich yet?
Julie: Yeah we did. Coincidentally, we had actually already planned a trip to Germany about 10 months before the competition that included two nights in Munich. We had made plans to take the trip with some of our friends and we had already booked everything. Irene [of S&H Premium Brands] was great and we worked it out that they ended up reimbursing us for the Munich leg of the trip and the flights, which was great. We had a great time in Munich. We climbed up the clock tower. I really like beer, so we tried a lot of beers. My husband is a home-brewer and he brews a lot of huge, flavorful beers, but German beers are so much easier to drink, so we really enjoyed having more session-style beers. We went to the Chinese Tower beer garden and obviously we went to the original Hofbrauhaus. We were travelling with the friend that goaded me into competing at the Christmas Market in the first place, so it was cool to be able to share the experience with her too. We had a blast. We went to Neuschwanstein Castle and also spent several days in Austria and went to a number of towns there. In Salzburg we went to the Austria-Augustiner beer hall. The weather was perfect for the whole trip.
USSA: What has your community done to recognize and appreciate your victory?
Julie: It's been fun. All of my friends have heard about it. I don't love the spotlight, but it's been a really good conversation starter and it's a really good story. At a fund-raising event for the Boy Scouts, we were at a committee meeting and one of the women there hadn't heard about me doing this and everyone was like "How do you not know? Have you been living under a rock? Everybody knows!" I was in the local paper, they heard about it and called me and interviewed me. I thought my 15 minutes of fame was over and then I got a phone call from the local CBS affiliate to put me on the news. So I made the news one night too.
USSA: That's awesome! Not everyone can handle the attention, but it seems like you're coping well. Have you been using your celebrity status for recruiting or training a protege to be the next national champ?
Julie: I have friends who are super interested. I've especially been talking to predominantly women. The women's competition is new and it's not going to be easy, but it's new enough that moms I know have the potential to be successful at it. You just have to put the time in. I've talked to people who were interested, but it's tough to get people to really get into it and commit to it. Once people try training for it, you find It's really a mental game too. You have to be able to deal with the pain. Whatever your tactic is for dealing with it, you have to find a place to go in your head to find a way to stop yourself from being overwhelmed by that.
USSA: It's very draining. It's one thing to do it once for a competition, especially the first time you try it, but doing it on a regular basis to train is a whole other story. Physical strength alone isn't enough.
Julie: Yeah it really isn't. Seeing all of those guys standing up there competing, I wouldn't have guessed that Mike Ayling was going to blow everyone away by so much and go over 21 minutes.
USSA: I've been referring to Mike as the Clark Kent of Steinholding. He's an unassuming guy. He's really athletic but he just looks like a normal guy and then he goes and demolishes the national record. He's extremely tough, physically and mentally. He told me that his secret is fistball, which he plays competitively. We are hoping to interview him in the next couple of weeks and get some of his training techniques to add to our Steinholding Training Guide. What about competing some more yourself? If you were allowed to compete again in a national level competition, would you do it and why?
Julie: I had my time and I'm glad I won, but I don't think I'd compete any more. I don't think there should be career champions. I think everybody should get a chance at it. It was fun and exciting and I'm glad I did it once. I hope someone else has as much fun as I did and has a great experience. Hopefully more people get attracted to the competition.
USSA: What are some tips or advice that you would give to people who want to take a shot at a serious competition?
Julie: First, you have to take it seriously. People laugh when you tell them about training to hold a stein, but if you want to win you have to take it seriously just like any other sporting event. Second, you need to have a good plan and follow it. You can't just say "ok, I'm going to do a bunch of push-ups today." You need to have a specific plan for your lifting and eating. Everybody sort of giggles when you talk about training to see how long you can hold a beer so people don't take it seriously. But then you think about the fact that you can win a free trip to New York and a free trip to Munich and then it's easier to take it seriously.
USSA: Do you think you'll see someone break your record this year? What do you think the upper limit of human ability is for holding a stein?
Julie: Well, I'll be back in New York to see the competition this year and, yeah I hope somebody beats my record. It would be pretty darn exciting to see and it's definitely possible. After the competition, going four and a half minutes, I tried to clap and I couldn't even lift my hand to clap. I was completely spent. Seeing how long Deryk [Deryk Lindsay, 2016 men's champion] and Mike went, it's almost beyond my comprehension. It's hard to say what's possible though. Every time someone sets a record, it gives everyone else something to aim for. When I was training, I looked at the previous year's record and said, ok, I need to at least be able to go past 4 minutes to be able to win this. Now that people know the new record is 21 minutes for the guys, somebody will be training to go 25 minutes. Who knows. For a long time nobody thought a 4-minute mile was possible and then somebody did that. It's still a fairly new competition, so anything's possible. The other thing I think about with this is that you don't see cross-fit champions and really elite level athletes hanging out at the beer tent finding out about the competition. So eventually a cross-fit champion that's 4'10" or somebody like that is going to show up and hold it and win and set a new record and then just put the beer down and walk away without even drinking it.
USSA: That would be a terrible waste, but I'll make sure I'm there to help with the "clean up." Thanks for talking with us Julie!