Jesse Marunde: A Strongman Gone Far Too Early

I have been involved in strength sports since 1984, so I have been able to meet some very impressive specimens who played football, powerlifted, bodybuilt, fought in combat sports, or competed in strongman competitions- the strongest of the strong. I got to meet Jesse Marunde at the 2002 Northeast Strongman Showdown in Burlington, Massachusetts. I competed in the amateur class, and Jesse competed in the Professional class. My good friend and Professional Strongman Charlie Kaptur introduced me to Jesse. Although my training partner Charlie was 6’9” 360 lbs, Jesse was more impressive physically, due to the fact he exuded athleticism. It is hard to believe that less than five years after meeting Jesse he would be dead.

ESPN writer Gare Joyce wrote an amazing story about the untimely demise of Jesse, writing the harrowing details of the workout that ended his life on July 25, 2007. Jesse died doing what he loved, training to make his body stronger in an effort to improve upon his second place performance at the 2005 World Strongest Man Contest. Jesse’s main training partner of 7 years, John “Sarge” Allen, described to Joyce that up to and including the workout on July 25th, Jesse was in the best shape of his life.

I trained for, promoted, and competed in competitive Strongman contests in the early 2000s. One of the most popular events were “death medleys”, multiple events in which grueling combinations of events were done consecutively, without rest. These medleys were designed to tax an athlete’s strength, endurance and will power. Yoke walks of 100 feet followed by dragging a sled 100 feet with loads of 700 to 800 lbs were very common, as were incredibly demanding monster tire flipping for 100 feet.

The Seattle Times, in a piece entitled Heavy Hearts: The Death of a strongman by Greg Bishop, as well as Joyce’s ESPN piece, documented Jesse’s fatal workout as well as the aftermath of it, in harrowing detail. On Marunde Muscle, the leading US Strongman website, it’s founder/creator, Jesse had posted that he was apprehensive about the impending training session on July 25th and asked others to “wish him luck.” Any serious strength athlete knows that feeling well of the mental anguish and mounting anxiety a heavy pre-contest workout session can cause.

The Workout that killed Jesse

July 25, 2007, was a Wednesday-which meant in Jesse’s world it was a squat day- as every Wednesday for a decade had been. The pre-planned training session called for a drop set style of squatting, during which Jesse would squat 550lbs for 8 reps, partners would immediately remove a 45 lb plate each side so then Jesse could squat 460 for 8 reps, then a 45 lb plate would be removed from each side again so that Jesse could squat 370 for 8 reps. This drop set would continue until there was only 1 forty five pound plate on each side, which Jesse would squat for 8 reps and then proceed to flip a 600lb tire and finally lift a 265 lb Atlas Stone to a platform. Jesse tackled this challenge and succeeded with everything, only faltering in his first attempt to load the stone.

Jesse’s last words were: “I got this!”

Jesse successfully loaded the stone to the cheers of his training partners, as he fist bumped and high fived his way to lay down. Jesse’s heart stopped soon after his monumental effort and he went into cardiac arrest and passed away despite efforts from his teammates and then medical professionals who responded to a distress call.

What killed Jesse Marunde

Jesse had a genetic defect in the structure of his heart, called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This disease is the leading cause of sudden death in young, seemingly healthy athletes. A portion of the heart thickens without an obvious cause, resulting in the heart being less able to pump blood efficiently. Where Jesse lived, the County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office had Deborah Kelly, County Coroner conduct an autopsy of Jesse to determine his official cause of death. The official cause of death was listed as an enlarged heart.

Seattle Times and Pacific Northwest Magazine document steroid involvement by Jesse

According to the Seattle Times, Jesse had plead guilty in Montana in 2000 to criminal possession of anabolic steroids. In 2003, when interviewed about the steroid charges, Jesse was quoted by Pacific Northwest Magazine as saying he had purchased the drugs for a friend, but told detectives at that time that they were for personal use so he would only be charged with a misdemeanor offense. The magazine story contends that Jesse claimed to have never used steroids. I do not care to speculate as to whether drugs played a role in Jesse’s untimely demise – but I can emphatically say that when I met him, he was the healthiest looking World class strongman I ever met.

The aftermath of Jesse’s death

Jesse’s memorial service drew a capacity crowd to the Sequim Church, as the over flow crowd was able to listen to a celebration of life ceremony over speakers which broadcast the service outside the building. Strongmen traveled from all over the United States to honor their fallen brother. My friend Kevin Nee pulled an 860 lb deadlift at the after ceremony workout that was conducted in Jesse’s gym. What a fitting tribute to their comrade and peer. This workout is detailed in both the ESPN and Seattle Times pieces. YouTube has a clip Kevin’s big pull. Following Jesse’s death, there was a long running Strongman contest run in his honor in Sequim, and there are too many YouTube postings to mention of workouts involving ball buster workouts of twenty reps that are completed each year on the anniversary of a Jesse’s passing.

Jesse’s widow, Callie went on to later marry Professional Strongman Nick Best, and they have continued to compete and promote Strongman in the US with contests as well as the website Marunde Muscle.

Jesse left behind a two children when he died, daughter J.J. who was 6 weeks old when he died, and a 9 year old son named Dawson from a previous marriage. He also left behind a legacy of burning the boats in a workout, pushing the envelope and raging at the dying of the light when he was only 27 years old. As strength athletes, we are all better off knowing of Jesse’s life story and also realize he blazed a trail in the sport of Strongman for taller, more athletic men who less than ten years after Jesse left us have dominated the sport.

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