by Erin Fergus
I said in my Plantbuilt application video that I made all my beginner’s mistakes during my first competition season of summer 2013. The night before the first competition, I posted on Facebook all the other times that I made beginner’s mistakes (during running races and triathlons) and how I was going to make more of them the next day. I wanted it to be that way, because I have always lived my life doing things my way and making my own mistakes. The best way to learn and grow is figuring it out for yourself.
Last summer I learned that training for any level of bodybuilding demands more from the competitor than other forms of competition. I spent several years competing in running and triathlon, so I knew I already had the competitive mindset and drive that I needed. The huge difference in that type of training, though, is that you spend time on the road or in the water, but that’s when the training stops. You get to eat plenty of “fun” food just so you have energy to burn, and you don’t spend all that much time strength training. I quickly found that every single thing I did as an aspiring figure competitor was important – every weight training session, every cardio session, every meal, every stretching session and every sleep mattered and needed to be just right.
I was met with endless unsolicited advice, and I always tried to politely tell the person that I would figure out everything I needed to do along the way. The truth was that I had no clue what I was doing. I looked up some things online, but the only competitors I followed weren’t vegan (although I was) and seemed to do things the traditional way that everyone had always done (although I wasn’t sure I believed it was necessary to do it that way.)
With 12 weeks to go, I made a kitchen ban on peanut butter (because I couldn’t trust myself to not eat the whole jar) and fruit (because it had “way too much sugar,” right?) I also started doing two-a-days…every day…because that’s what it would take, so I thought. Strength training in the morning, bookended by protein shakes, and cardio in the afternoon. That was “the way” that I would get the low body fat percentage I desired. I thought a traditional peak week was stupid, so I wasn’t going to dehydrate like the other competitors. Instead, I put my trust in that I could use Xpel in the last week and magically look exactly the way I wanted. It got high ratings on bodybuilding.com, and I was told I could lose 7-10 lbs of water weight, so why not?!
My parents drove up the night before the show so we could have dinner and my mom could help me with my tan (I had cancelled my spray tan appointment to spend more time with them.) I was already freaking out because I realized I had razor burn sprinkled all over my bikini line and hamstrings, and I kept my fingers crossed that I could get dark enough to disguise it. I had read all the instructions about skin prepping and hair removal well in advance, but I blew it off. Hadn’t I been shaving since I was in junior high? A whole month of routine exfoliating and body buttering seemed like too much work, and I didn’t have time to squeeze all that mess in anyway.
We went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant where I could get veggie fajitas without cheese or sour cream. I didn’t focus on what or how much I was eating, because I was thinking about the only bikini competitor I knew in real life. She had posted pictures of steak, French fries and a brownie for her “night before” meal, so I ate the fajitas, the tortilla chips and the guacamole without thinking twice. At this point I already knew the Xpel wasn’t working magic on me, and I wasn’t going to dehydrate, so I figured “it is what it is.”
We swept the tanning sponge over me once, and Mom stepped back and said, “Looks good.” I said, “Yeah, for the FIRST layer,” and her bulging eyes made me realize I hadn’t fully explained just how dark I needed to be. I was peppered with had-been-red, now-chocolate-colored razor burn and was so frustrated that I wanted to forfeit the 16 weeks of training and skip the whole thing. I knew I’d be above the judges, and I wanted them staring at my lats, not my crotch. We kept slathering on tanner, and then it got globby. We finally gave up, and I laid on an old sheet. If nothing else went right, at least I was going to get a full night’s sleep.
I woke up looking bloated and not at all as lean as I hoped. I also knew I might not be dark enough, but it wasn’t until I saw the other girls that I knew I’d be “that girl” on stage who stood out for the wrong reason. Although most of the people who promised they’d be there ended up cancelling (isn’t that how it always goes?), I had my parents, a couple friends, and all the girls I was competing against. We had bonded over a few months of posing clinics, and we all considered ourselves winners because we were brave enough to follow through on our first show. They even consoled me when I flashed them the finger splint I proudly blinged out with the green glitter “vegan.” Who breaks a pinky four days before a show?
I was proud of what I did on stage. Despite having my legs shake more uncontrollably than I imagined they could (I read about this, too, but figured it didn’t apply to me because I grew up doing dance recitals on stage), I posed and smiled just the way I practiced. There were six girls in my class, and the awards were given for top five. I went off stage thinking there was no way possible I’d be the girl whose name didn’t get called to return.
While we waited behind the curtain, I reminded myself to be humble if I placed well. As the other names were called, I was thinking I must have placed higher than I thought I would. Once I heard the last name, I was paralyzed. I WAS the girl that we all said we didn’t want to be because it would hurt and be embarrassing. I put my hand to my mouth in shock, and tears that had been building up over all those weeks of training came pouring out. I usually cry with lots of tears without a lot of other physical signs, but this one was an ugly cry. I was whimpering, hiccupping, practically hyperventilating, and I could tell from the looks on the other competitors’ faces that they felt bad for me…but not bad enough to let my sadness mar their joy. My parents didn’t know how to handle it, either, and I couldn’t realize until later when they explained that watching their baby girl’s defeat was more painful for them. The vegan calzone that I had been dreaming of for weeks was still delicious, and I had fun having Mom snap flexing pictures of me at almost 2 a.m. when we finally got home. The whole thing wasn’t a wash.
Underneath it all, I felt like a failure, but only for that one night. I had already paid to compete the next weekend in FL and see friends that I hadn’t seen in seven months. My parents also made sure I wasn’t going to quit. I had the cleanest week of eating I’ve ever been able to stick to, followed a standard dehydration protocol, got the dark tan I needed, and looked and felt like a completely different person. My favorite compliment from the judges was that they thought I had great stage presence. I couldn’t believe I felt that natural up there after only doing it once before – the week before!
I ate vegan Mexican food and carrot cake with my friends that night, and I went to my parents’ house the next day. My body couldn’t get enough of the sugar and starchy carbs that I was allowing it to finally have, and I went overboard. I gained seven pounds in seven days, which put me at the weight that was more than before I started the 16 weeks. Even worse, I thought I didn’t even look fit anymore. In my mind, I had thrown away all my hard work. My broken finger also bummed me beyond belief.
I didn’t sulk for long, and I decided to make a fitness model show six weeks later my goal. I focused more on leaning than building, which worked well because my finger limited my heavy upper body lifting anyway. I vowed to enjoy the process, enjoy my time on stage because I was traveling to a place I didn’t know anyone anyway, have fun backstage, and not care about my placement. I was third out of six, and I was honestly surprised I placed that high because of solid competition. The most important thing was that I had planned EXACTLY what I would eat that night and the next day, and by the next afternoon I was back to a fairly clean off season diet. That day I also allowed myself to go into true off season.
The whole process was far more educational than I imagined it would be. Now that time has passed, I’m embarrassed that I allowed myself to cry so hard at the first show and have such a crappy attitude. I was saddened to realize that summer came and went, and I didn’t even swim in one lake or slide down one waterfall. I was spending my first summer in a place that allowed me plenty of water access, but I chose to spend several hours in the gym on weekends instead of getting out and exploring. I got bitter and frustrated far too often that I didn’t have anyone around to help me with meal prep or the endless packing and unpacking of my gym bag and serious loads of laundry.
This time around, it will be different. I vow to be natural this time. I don’t want to use fat burners – I just want to train hard, eat clean, and be able to take credit for ALL of my transformation. I want to find balance in my life. I want to do as much exploring and make as many memories as I did before competing and during off season. I want to be more poised. No matter who gets which trophy, I will be thrilled for myself and all of my teammates. I want to be remembered more for my presence and attitude than my placement. Most important, I want to be able to share my mistakes with others if it will help them. If they’d rather forge their own way, I will completely understand.