Barbells, death metal, diapers, kilts: Anchorage strongman does it all

Mark Eppihimer is a record-setting powerlifter, a death-metal bass player, a post office worker, a first-time father and, for at least one day a year, a skirt-wearing strongman.

Eppihimer will be among those tossing the caber, throwing the hammer and wearing a kilt at Saturday's Scottish Highland Games at the Alaska State Fairgrounds.

The owner of the Alaska superweight deadlift record with a lift of 716.25 pounds, he is a marvel when it comes to lifting and throwing heavy objects. Jody Potosky, the owner of Alaska Kettlebell and a defending champion in the Highland Games, calls Eppihimer "freakishly strong."

Eppihimer is himself a heavy object – 350 pounds, with forearms that dwarfed 18-day-old Hilda Grace when he cuddled his 10-pound daughter between lifts at last month's state powerlifting championships.

Despite the clanging barbells, cheering fans and frequent announcements via loudspeaker, Hilda Grace managed to nap through part of the competition. "She just ate," Eppihimer said by way of explanation. "Same thing her dad does."

Eppihimer, a 34-year-old Anchorage man, invites descriptions that include words like "gentle giant" and "teddy bear." He is warm and witty, and his habit of referring to the woman he married in 2007 as "the wife" is not the least bit off-putting, because he says it with obvious affection.

He's got size and personality to spare, and so maybe it's no surprise that two personas emerge when Eppihimer competes at a powerlifting meet. Before he lifts, he shares jokes, waves to friends, makes goofy faces at Hilda Grace and provides advice or encouragement to other competitors.

When Eppihimer is called to the on-deck area, it's like a switch goes off. The smile is replaced by a scowl and suddenly he looks like a menacing, single-minded hulk. He strides to the platform, where he squats, presses or deadlifts an enormous amount of weight. When the barbell is back on the ground, the smile returns, whether the lift is successful or not.

"He is one of the nicest, most genuine, most sincere guys you'll ever meet," Potosky said. "Last year in the Strongman contest we came out to watch him. He volunteers as a coach for Special Olympics and he brought a guy there and took him under his wing. I've got goosebumps right now just talking about it – it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my life, seeing how much love he's got for this guy – mind you, while he's competing.

"It's perfectly acceptable for somebody to be selfish while they compete. But he was able to bounce between coaching the Special Olympian and winning the Strongman. … When you get a guy who does that, it just puts things into perspective."

Eppihimer and his wife, Sarah, moved to Alaska from Pennsylvania in 2008, a year after their Viking wedding -- a wolf skin for her, a bear hide for him -- outside Glennallen, where Sarah's dad lives.

"Me and the wife eloped up here," Eppihimer said. "The family back home was getting a little crazy (about the upcoming wedding) so we said, let's just do it our way."

When the couple returned to Pennsylvania, Eppihimer, who works for the U.S. Postal Service, asked for a transfer to Alaska. He got it in 2008, "and we traded in the sedan for a pickup truck," he said.

Eppihimer joined Planet Fitness once he and Sarah settled into their new home. He had spent years working in construction before he was hired by the post office, and he lifted weights – using the Internet as his coach -- to preserve the strength he had acquired as a laborer.

Potosky remembers meeting Eppihimer at the Highland Games a few years ago.

"What he lacked in technique he made up for with freakish strength. Watching him throw the hammer, it was scary," Potosky said. "He was training at a non-strength-oriented gym and it just didn't make sense, so I talked him into trying out Southside Strength and Fitness."

Once at a gym populated by serious lifters, Eppihimer blossomed.

"I caught what they call the iron bug," he said. "My first six years of lifting I was just doing the basics from stuff I read on the Internet. Jody took the time and met with me on a couple of Sundays. He got me reading the right books, and the lifts started going up."

Eppihimer set a personal record in the squat last month with a lift of 661 pounds. His PR in the bench press is 400 pounds and his PR in the deadlift is the state-record 716.25 pounds.

But he doesn't restrict himself to barbells. Eppihimer is also a veteran of Strongman competitions, which challenge him with all sorts of odd events, he said: "Sandbag carries, the farmer's walk, tire flips, keg tosses, car deadlifts."

At last year's Strongman competition at the Alaska State Fair, he lifted the back end of a car 14 times to break the previous state fair record of 11 reps. Eppihimer said a YouTube video of the car-hoisting feat prompted a phone call from America's Got Talent, which was interested in featuring him in a keg toss, but the show was being filmed the same week as Sarah's due date.

To keep up his strength, Eppihimer trains two hours at a time four times a week.

"At times you have to force yourself," he said. "I don't wake up every day and say 'I'm going to move something insanely heavy today.' It's a mental fight sometimes, but a lot of the time I love it. It's my favorite part of the day other than coming home to the wife and child."

When he's not working, weight-lifting, volunteering for Special Olympics or with his family, Eppihimer plays bass guitar for a death-metal band called Seracs, which occasionally performs at Chilkoot Charlie's.

"We generally jam once or twice a week for a couple hours," he sad. "I didn't think I'd still be doing it at my age, but I love it. It's the other side of me. There's the strength stuff and all that, and there's the creative and musical side that I think is equally important to grow and develop."

All of which begs an obvious question, especially now that a baby has joined the Eppihimer family: How can he possibly find the time to pursue all of his hobbies, and work, and be a husband and dad?

Eppihimer's long-version answer is something you might see cross-stitched on a sampler:

"Don't waste time with idle thoughts or idle living. Find your desire and pursue it with every ounce of your being. Be passionate in all that you do and of course, stay strong."

Then he offers a shorter version:

"I don't watch TV."