When she stood on stage at the Chicago Pro Bodybuilding Show, Nancy Clark was nervous for the first time in a long time.
"I thought I was having a heart attack," she said, laughing at the memory. "I had to remind myself to breathe."
Thankfully, she was only on the stage for a few moments during the preliminary show but when she got off stage she was really struggling.
"A seasoned pro came over and told me I was having an adrenaline attack and to keep breathing," she said, adding she hadn't felt anxious at a show in a long time.
The difference is that Clark was competing at the professional level against some of the top bodybuilders in the world. She has been competing at the amateur level for years -- and that was comfortable -- but the competition at the pro show, held July 6, was tight.
"It was nice to know I was big enough to hold my own," she said.
And she did hold her own. Clark placed fifth, out of 15 women that competed in the show. This qualifies her for the Olympia, the biggest bodybuilding competition in the world, although she expects to get bumped down.
"There is another qualifying show coming up," she explained. "All the winners from there will probably go to the Olympia."
It doesn't matter to Clark, she's thrilled to have gotten as far as she did. Even if she was invited to the Olympia she wouldn't go. She doesn't feel she would have a chance against the top bodybuilders in the world but she would like to try again next year.
"It's my goal to go to Olympia next year," she said, adding she knows what she needs to work on. "I got a lot of good critiques. They said I had really good conditioning but that sacrificed some of the fullness in my muscles."
Next year she would focus on that by making her muscles harder and denser and not going on as strict a "cutting" diet during the weeks before the competition.
It's not an easy thing, to get as far as Clark did. In order to compete with the top female bodybuilders in the world, she needs to pay attention to the details.
When she's on stage, the judges critique her quickly in a matter of seconds. For female bodybuilders, they look for balance and symmetry. Everything from the way muscles are balanced on the body to the muscle striations are weighed. They look for an "X" shape with bigger arms and legs and a smaller waist. Women who are born with a shorter, thicker waist will have a harder time being competitive in bodybuilding.
Even the thickness of the skin matters. Before the show, competitors go on a "cutting" diet where carbohydrates are pretty much eliminated. This gets rid of any excess water and makes the thin skin. In men's shows, the skin is considered "grainy" when judges can see everything from the muscle tissue to bumps in the veins.
"They are like a walking skeleton," said Clark.
In the women's competition, graininess isn't ideal and judges look for smoother skin that shows veins but isn't considered grainy.
Women also get down to about three or four per cent body fat.
The judges look the women over in a matter of seconds. At the Chicago Pro Show, the entire process took 10 minutes for all 15 competitors to be judged.
After that, they had a smorgasbord for the women, all of who were in a depleted state.
"It was great," said Clark. "Of course they had pizza, because we were in Chicago, and chocolate brownies. Once you were finished the competition we just went and filled our faces."
After her depletion diet, Clark indulged for a couple days before going back on her diet. Over the years, she's learned how to take care of herself after a competition.
"I have to keep it in my head to be kind to my body," she said. "It's not used to eating carbs. Carbs make you retain tons of water. It's not unusual for someone to gain 30 lbs of water in two weeks after a competition."
To avoid that, Clark does what she calls reverse dieting. She gradually adds carbohydrates back into her diet over a few weeks to get her body used to processing them again. She also doesn't drop all of her workouts but she doesn't stress her body either. Instead she does light cardio and weightlifting to help stretch her muscles and work out any tension in her back and neck.
Despite her efforts to reacclimatize her body, she is still expecting a crash.
"After training for so long, when you stop you have a let-down or a crash," she explained. "I think your subconscious doesn't let it's guard down (during training). Now, I don't have to get up at 5 am. to do cardio. Now, I can relax and catch up on sleep. My joints and ligaments can heal. I still haven't relaxed yet."
Clark is expecting the crash to happen this weekend now that she is starting to get back into a normal schedule. The crash usually lasts a day or two, which she spends resting on the couch.
She doesn't plan on competing in the near future. Her next show will be in the spring of 2014, in Toronto.
Clark and her husband, Al, are going to focus their energy on opening a new gym in Grand Forks, before she starts training again.