The three-block trudge up Harrison Street to the Maritime Hall is a surreal test of a couch potato's mettle. The Tribestan Pro Invitational -- the first professional bodybuilding contest held in San Francisco -- has been under way since 2 p.m., but now, at dusk, the sidewalks are still swelling with thick-necked men in tight T-shirts and uncomfortable trousers. Though I try not to stare, the sheer size of them is hypnotizing. Even the smallest seems too large for the typical car door, much less a pair of dress slacks; legs are the size of cabers, and shoulders dwarf a passing mail truck. They are walking, talking tanks of flesh.
Inside the Maritime exhibition hall, the smell of cologne and hair products mingles with the scent of cooking chicken. (Proteins are important to bodybuilding, I am told.) Gym enthusiasts peruse workout clothes and fitness magazines, or drink down sample shots of creatine monohydrate, dehydroepiandrosterone, and androstenendione. Diet tips and workout routines are shared. A group of gymmates marvel over their friend's "superflat tum."
"You'd never know she's six months pregnant, would you?"
And despite her form-fitting clothes and slight frame, you never would.
A clutch of four 22-year-old bodybuilding groupies in pastel micro-miniskirts and glittery platform shoes swarm around Aaron Maddron, an up-and-coming heavyweight competitor who won several first-place titles in 1995.
"He's so inspiring," says Rene Samdahl, gazing at him through her sky-blue eyelashes. "And he has great hair."
Upstairs, in the sold-out hall, I am seated between two bodybuilding insiders: photographer Zach Taylor and Rosemary Hallum, a journalist whose articles can be found in nearly every fitness publication in the country. Hallum -- who has perfectly coiffed red hair and elegant gold-rimmed glasses and looks, therefore, like a motherly romance novelist -- is something of a superstar on this circuit. Passing bodybuilders and trainers wave at her affectionately. Of course, she already knows who's going to win tonight's competition. She knows a lot of things -- who fools around with whom, who just got out of jail, who dyes his hair.
"Tonight, you will see 34 of the best bodies in the world!" MC Steve Davis shouts. "How many of you love to train?"
The crowd erupts with shouts and whoops.
The first competitor is announced much as any beauty contestant might be: He is Kevin Levrone, who holds more professional bodybuilding titles than anyone currently competing. Levrone's diet consists of fish, rice, and vegetables; his outside interests include music and interior design. When his theme song comes on -- a seductive soul number -- Levrone enters the stage, his bulk all but obliterating a twinkling cityscape behind him. He stops center stage and poses, holding his breath as every vein and muscle swells beneath his paper-thin skin.
Hours of Saturday morning ESPN and endless photographs cannot prepare the uninitiated for this firsthand sight. He is a road map of brawn, the Visible Man from biology class taken to superhuman proportions. He is a cyborg made of flesh and "supplements," an implausible creature that has no relation to anything remotely human. He turns away from the crowd and flexes. His back expands, and keeps expanding. It spreads out from his waist like a monstrous fan. I think he's going to sprout wings.
He turns and gives the crowd a boyish smile as if to say, "This is nothing." His legs become entities of their own -- huge, foreboding, intricate. His skin glistens with the strain of flexing, but he smiles and sings "to have just one night with you." His pecs bounce in time. I can't even look at his arms.
"Very few people get to see a pro show of this quality their first time out," says Hallum chuckling. I realize my mouth is hanging open. "Every other show will pale in comparison."
Milos Sarcev dedicates his routine, performed to the song "Lady," to his wife and newborn baby girl. His wavy black hair and ice-blue eyes contrast with the reddish hue of his body -- a color created by a fine layer of muscle-defining Pro Tan that is sprayed on and blown dry right before competition. I am told that he has been in better shape -- harder, sharper -- but the ladies in the audience go crazy for him.
Ronnie Coleman, a sassy bodybuilder whose routine includes a medley of show tunes, is a "natural," meaning he's steroid-free. Coleman holds his own. Still, someone in the crowd wonders, "Imagine if he were on juice."
Another contestant, Ronald Coleman, a policeman from Arlington, Texas, is truly terrifying to behold. He looks like a train in bikini shorts. Coleman is followed by dozens more -- the former exotic dancer Don Long, who gets the ladies giggling with his randy gyrations; a moonwalking Darrem Charles, who is known as one of the best posers in the business; Claude Groulx, who takes the cyborg comparison to the extreme with a cinematic sci-fi score; Dennis Newman, who has won a battle with leukemia; and Israel's Max Schmaya, the first "pro Jewish bodybuilder."
By the end of the competition, the awe is beginning to fade. All perspective is lost. Until the pose-off.